The Ghost of the Condemned: What the Death Penalty Leaves Behind, Captured in a Snapshot

Image of Cleve “Sarge” Foster, a man who had been executed by the State of Texas just hours prior. Photograph courtesy of Gloria Rubac and used with her permission.
Photograph courtesy of Gloria Rubac and used with her permission.
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Photograph courtesy of Gloria Rubac and used with her permission.
Photograph courtesy of Gloria Rubac and used with her permission.

This blog was inspired by Jeff Ferrell’s talk at the most recent International Crime, Media & Popular Culture Studies Conference (affectionately known by many as “Frankfest” after its founder and fearless leader Frank Wilson). He spoke of liquidity and drift and the meaning of the spaces between the more traditionally concrete loci of academic attention. More importantly, he spoke of the importance of examining the spaces left by people, in their absence as opposed to their presence. He referred to what he begrudgingly termed “interstitial spaces” or those liminal moments between the events and circumstances that more overtly define social life. He pointed out the importance of exploring the residues of people and events, the effects of people no longer being there, what we are left with. And, what we are left with are “ghosts” or “specters” that often tell us as much, if not more, about people, society, culture, crime and social control as any observations of past or otherwise static actions or circumstances.

I began to think of this notion in relation to the death penalty (which is a topic on which I spend quite a bit of my scholarly attention), for which such a locus of analysis seems almost too obvious. Specifically, I thought of a photograph that has haunted me for some time. In the picture, we see people gathered for a memorial service for Cleve “Sarge” Foster, a man who had been executed by the State of Texas just hours prior. These memorials typically take place in a room/chapel in the prison not far from the death chamber. In the front of the picture is Sarge, peacefully at rest, wrapped in simple linens and surrounded by his family and friends. In some ways, this doesn’t look much different than any other memorial service one might attend. There are mourners and sadness throughout the room. The young man with his hand on Sarge’s shoulder is his son, and in the background is his own child—Sarge’s grandchild. The son’s sadness is palpably expressed on his face. There is a box of tissues readily available, and there are church-style pews in which mourners may sit. But there are some unique elements too. There is no coffin, just a table on which the deceased rests. There is a TDCJ official standing quietly in the back of the room. And perhaps most strikingly to the observer, the mourners are all wearing matching shirts. The most poignant fact is this: This is the first time Sarge’s son has ever touched his father, the permanent impact of Texas “justice” appropriately symbolized by a tattoo on his extended arm.

I have written elsewhere about the ripple effect of the death penalty and the human casualties left behind in its wake, but this photograph embodies that better than I can ever express in words. We see generations of family members (a son, a grandchild, siblings) who are left behind and undoubtedly irreversibly impacted by this act of killing. We see a community[1] likely developed around the tragic circumstances that brought them to this moment and who will experience a rupture brought about by this act of killing (The fact that they all are wearing the same “Team Sarge” shirts is an indication of just how much solidarity has been developed). Cleve Foster is gone, but his ghost remains as do so many others that linger long after the State has exacted “justice” in the form of death.

[1] For a really interesting discussion of the notion of a “death row community” see Arrigo & Fowler (2001) The “death row community”: A community psychology perspective. Deviant Behavior, 22, pp. 43-71.

Scott Vollum, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Minnesota Duluth

1 Comment

  1. I have been a ardant anti-death penalty activist for almost fifteen years. I have come to realize that capital punishment is purely state-sanctioned violence – a legalized ‘hate’ crime – it’s just that simple. How do governments expect society to behave in a decent civilized manner when they (governments) are the perpetrators of the most brutal pre-meditated cold-blooded acts? It really is a sick, sick, sick, world!

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