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Letter from Prison: Dressing Up to Put Killers Down

A couple millennia ago, an execution sparked a religious revolution.

As our state continues the unfair, unjust, and wasteful practice of killing prisoners, let’s hear from a lifer in our Penitentiary who sees bad guys marched to their death by South Dakota Corrections officials:

Samuel Lint, inmate #16334, South Dakota Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 2019.
Samuel Lint, inmate #16334, South Dakota Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 2019.


  1. TAG 2019-04-19

    While I won’t comment on Mr. Lint’s specific situation, if we are talking about the debate over capital punishment, I do have a couple of thoughts:

    To me there are a lot of parallels between capital punishment and corporal punishment. Both use violence as a deterrent. According to many long-term studies, corporal punishment of children leads directly to violent tendencies and behavior in them as adults. This relationship is fairly clear.

    What is less clear is where we draw the line between “acceptable” levels of corporate punishment for children. If children are never given hard boundaries of what is acceptable behavior, they will never learn those boundaries. There is some debate over this, but what I have come to understand is that you can give those boundaries without spanking, hitting, yelling or humiliating. It just requires more time, involvement and consistency. Consistency is the key to changing any behavior. In other words, corporal punishment is at its basic level ignorant, lazy, and counter-productive.

    Relate that back to capital punishment. We could be using our prison system for rehabilitation (like many other countries do) rather than simply a long, drawn-out, expensive punishment. But that would require a vision, commitment, and consistency.

    So our prison system is “set in its ways” like an old grandpa who doesn’t understand why his son doesn’t spank his kids.

    side note: my children are tweens now, and I have used spanking, screaming, and what some might consider verbal abuse on them in the past. I’m not perfect. My view on this has evolved, and I have always loved my kids. I have learned that regardless of the method, teaching a kid how to behave takes a whole lot of time, effort, work and consistency. It works without the nastiness, as long as you care enough to make it work. JMHO

  2. Robin Friday 2019-04-19

    Capital punishment is such a dilemma for me. I believe it is based on a need for revenge, which never does anyone any good. I can’t understand what else it could be good for. It gets them off the streets, to be sure, but so does life in prison. And don’t talk to me about the money it costs to keep them.

    On the other hand, I can find no empathy for a man who rapes and murders a nine-year-old. Or for two inmates who beat a guard to death with an iron pipe, within my soul for the life of me. Nor can I agree with a state or a Supreme Court which denies a person about to be executed a cleric or a supporter to be with him simply on the basis of his minority beliefs. I wish our state would do away with it. But that it not to be anytime soon, either.

  3. bearcreekbat 2019-04-19

    Robin, I suspect that most death penalty opponents share your inability to find empathy or sympathy for people who commit heinous crimes. Instead, the reasons for such opposition often falls into different areas. Here are ten reasons for opposing the death penalty, none of which suggest empathy for the condemned:

    1. There is no way to remedy the occasional mistake. . . .

    2. There is racial and economic discrimination in application of the death penalty. . . .

    3. Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary and capricious; for similar crimes, some are sentenced to death while others are not. . . . .

    4. The death penalty gives some of the worst offenders publicity that they do not deserve. . . .

    5. The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. . . .

    6. Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. . . .

    7. The death penalty cannot be limited to the worst cases. . . .

    8. The death penalty is an expression of the absolute power of the state; abolition of that penalty is a much- needed limit on government power. . . .

    9. There are strong religious reasons for many to oppose the death penalty. . . .

    10. Even the guilty have a right to life. . . . the question of whether or not murderers deserve to die is the wrong one. The real question is whether other humans have a right to kill them.”

    Yet another reason is that imposition of a death penalty carries substantial costs from available trials, appeals, writs, etc, while resulting in unreasonable delay in finality and closure for the victim’s families.

  4. Eve Fisher 2019-04-19

    I attended the annual South Dakotans Against the Death Penalty vigil at the Pen (every year on Good Friday) today. It was pretty well attended. It’s going to be a long time before the death penalty will be abolished in this state, and we all know it. And while I totally understand that some crimes are so heinous that no one knows what else to do about them (although we might check into what Norway did with their 2011 mass murderer), there is also the fact that some people on some death rows have been innocent. (See the following link for 8 people who were executed and later found innocent: )

  5. mike from iowa 2019-04-19

    I do not think that Drumpf, his gang of admirers and his lifetime court appointees are all that concerned with rehabbing prisoners. There seems to be a rush from the activist Scotus to rush death penalty cases so as not to miss deadlines, no pun intended.

    This court is a stickler for keeping appointments with death, just from the few cases they have had this session.

  6. Debbo 2019-04-19

    I think that’s an outstanding piece Mr. Lint has written and the last lines stopped me. As a fan of old film noir movies, especially Bogart’s, Mr. Lint’s imagery is very clear and apt.

    I’ve copied my entire comment from the other prison post. The article I reference is really excellent, somewhat long, and worth every minute of reading time.

    One other thing first. When I worked as a case manager in a SD prison for soon to be released inmates, I regularly read the national professional corrections journal. There was an article the wardens group regarding what they’d recommend for prison reform. Their answer stunned me.

    “Drop all rehab programs and put every cent of that $ into programs for youth so that they never show up here in the first place.”

    That was about 1992 and the wardens were from all across the US. Keep that in mind while you read my comment and the linked article.

    This woman, Ruth Wison Gilmore, is a prison abolitionist. She’s probably done more deep research and investigation of prison systems in the USA and worldwide than anyone.

    I read this unpaywalled piece about her thoughts on changing our system of criminal retribution and was more impressed than by anything else on prisons.

    I learned that much of what we think we know about US prisons is untrue, and in the early 1990s I worked in a minimum security prison as a case manager for inmates soon to be released.

    Ms. Gilmore’s thinking is not extremely rare. She is not the only prison abolitionist. In fact, in the early ’90s the professional corrections journal included a consensus among wardens for much of what she recommends!

    I’m very interested in thoughtful and experienced opinions.

  7. Roger Cornelius 2019-04-19

    Earlier this week South Dakota death row inmate Charles Rhines lost his most recent SCOTUS appeal moving him closer to the death chamber.
    I did wonder if this is the case that Mr. Lint was referring to.

  8. Cathy B 2019-04-19

    Besides the message, that’s a darn good piece of writing.
    I hope we can let him know that. Thanks to him and Cory for sharing it.

  9. RJ 2019-04-19

    Robin, Debbo and BCB..really good points. I do agree with Samuel in that teaching people to not kill people by killing people is
    a horrible practice. What James McVay did is unforgivable in the eyes of humans. If there is a higher power, something wiser and smarter the us..then that should be where judgment lies. I don’t necessarily but into that, but leaving the lives of a human being( regardless of how immoral and terrible they are) in the hands of other humans isn’t the answer. To sentence someone to death is lowering our society to an bottom feeder rung. Life in prison is an adequate sentence.

  10. Robin Friday 2019-04-19

    Thank you, bcb, great article. I will never be a cheerleader for the death penalty, but it’s mostly because I don’t think it accomplishes anything for society, and secondly, it brings all of us down to the murderous level, whether we want to go that way or not. But I see no hope when looking at today’s Supreme Court.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-20

    I’m glad Robin mentions empathy. That is the value most lacking in Trumpistani politics.

    Like Robin, I struggle to empathize with killers (like inmate Lint). I don’t feel obliged to say, “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from” when the person is coming from stupidity or evil. If empathy is about feeling what other people feel, it may actually be unhealthy for us to empathize with stupid and evil people. (Like cops tracking sex criminals, we must be careful that we don’t let thinking like the bad guys turn us into bad guys.)

    Luckily, as Bear points out, there are numerous reasons independent of empathy on which we can reject capital punishment as bad policy.

    Robin also mentions the need for revenge. That’s a human impulse. I can understand that impulse. If someone were harming my family or friends, I would likely act in that moment on that impulse. Government, fortunately, is not about indulging impulses (hmmm… impulse-control is another quality sorely lacking in the current Executive Branch of our nation). Government is about the rule of law, meting out justice by reason rather than rage. The only reason to kill a human being is imminent danger that cannot be contained by any other practical means.

  12. Eve Fisher 2019-04-20

    Part of what we’re up against with regard to some people’s views on the death penalty is the legacy of Antonin Scalia, who in Herrera v. Collins wrote the following: “There is no basis, tradition, or even in contemporary practice for finding that in the Constitution the right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after a conviction.” He concluded, “With any luck, we shall avoid ever having to face this embarrassing question again.”

    In other words, innocence is not enough to get you taken off of death row, once convicted by “proper judicial process.”

    Things were made worse in the Troy Anthony Davis case – who maintained his innocence through his trial and sentencing. When new evidence surfaced in 1996 – “Of the nine crucial prosecution witnesses, seven recanted some or all of their testimony, stating that they had felt pressure to identify Davis as the shooter when he was not. Three witnesses signed sworn statements that Redd Coles had confessed that he was MacPhail’s killer” – Davis went back to the courts, but they all said it was too late, and, while SCOTUS granted a new hearing (which failed) Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas dissented, Scalia writing: it has “never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually innocent.’ ” It was pointless to find Davis innocent because innocence, by itself, was not a legal basis to overturn the conviction.

    Let us all pray that we are never, ever arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for something we did not do, because innocence is not enough.

  13. bearcreekbat 2019-04-20

    Another execution of an innocent individual that has always nauseated me is the government killing of Ethel Rosenberg. She was prosecuted during the height of McCarthyism. One of the chief prosecutors was Trump’s idol and dream lawyer, Roy Cohn. Only after killing her did the truth come out, including how proseuctors like Cohn would manipulate the system by falsifying evidence. witholding exculpatory evidence, and, in effect, suborning perjury to obtain a conviction.

    One government prosecutor at the time said that the case against Ethel for conspiracy to commit espionage contained “insufficient evidence” to convict her, but that she could be used “as a lever against her husband.”[xii] In sworn testimony, David Greeenglass told the grand jury that he never discussed espionage with Ethel.[xiii] Then he was pressured by federal prosecutors and changed his story.[xiv] At the trial Greenglass testified that Ethel had typed up notes about the atomic bomb, thus providing the key evidence against his sister.[xv] Many years later David Greenglass said that he had lied at the trial and that the notes were probably typed by his wife, Ruth.[xvi] In 1986, Roy Cohn, assistant prosecutor at the Rosenberg’s trial, admitted that the government had “manufactured” evidence against the Rosenbergs.[xvii]

    —Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on June 19th, 1953. They were the only U.S. citizens ever executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.[xviii] . . .

    As President Obama said in June of 2016, referring to anti-Muslim hate speech, “We’ve gone through moments in our history when we acted out of fear—and we came to regret it. We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens. And it has been a shameful part of our history.”[xxi] The fear of the McCarthy era led to the unfair conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg.. . . .

  14. Debbo 2019-04-20

    Its absolutely heinous for anyone, but especially members of SCOTUS, to write that essentially proving one’s innocence is not enough to be exonerated and freed. It’s also completely bizarre, defying simple common sense.

    I’m with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and the wardens. Let’s focus on meeting the needs of young people and families, which will cost less and less over generations, and all but eliminate any prisons. It’s not a crazy idea that can never happen. It’s real. It’s effective. It’s how other nations manage to have much, much smaller prison populations and less crime.

    Think about this: the prison in Pierre has one wing for women, one for men. That’s it, total. The other buildings are sold off. How many $millions more could SD invest in it’s people? Sweeeeet.

    If you didn’t read the article I linked to earlier, you should. Lots of info pertaining to our discussion here.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-21

    Eve brings me back to empathy: if we place ourselves in the shoes of the innocent person who is arrested and wrongly convicted, we must vote to abolish capital punishment.

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