Monday, October 8, 2007

Why I believe we still need the death penalty

The Wynne Unit is one of the oldest in the Texas prison system and it was established way back in 1883. Along with two other prisons, which share about 1,500 acres with the Wynne Unit, it is located approximately 80 miles north of Houston, in Huntsville. It straddles the main north/south highway between Houston and Dallas. The Wynne Unit is home to approximately 2,600 inmates of various custody levels. Monday morning; September 24, 2007, a sad and senseless thing happened there. But, it shouldn’t have.

Corrections Officer Susan Louise Canfield, a 59-year old grandmother, and a seven year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), was murdered by two inmates who were attempting to escape. These two inmates, along with more than 70 other prisoners, were working outside the prison’s fence at the Wynne Unit. They were assigned to what is sometimes called the “hoe” squad, which is when a group of inmates literally use hoes to clear farm lands of weeds and other unwanted brush and vegetation.

A group of six corrections officers, which included Susan Canfield, plus a supervisor, watched over this large group of inmates. All of these corrections officers were armed and on horseback. I’ve read several different accounts about what happened, and although basically they all tell the same tragic story, I’m not really sure what happened, and when. But, I’m sure in time, after the investigation and reviews are fully finalized, we will know exactly what transpired, but right now some things are just a little unclear.

The two white male inmates, Jerry Duane Martin, 37, and John Ray Falk Jr., 40, approached one of the male corrections officers on horseback. They used the pretext that one of them had a watch and he wanted the officer to hold it for him. Martin handed the watch to the 29-year old officer and that’s when he pulled him down off of his horse. He struggled with the officer for his weapons and then when he got possession of them, he tossed the officer’s rifle to Falk.

One version I read said that when Falk got the rifle almost immediately he began to fire at Canfield. She reportedly returned fire. Three other corrections officers also apparently returned fire. Although a number of shots were exchanged between Martin and Falk, and the officers, no one was hit during this brief but intense gunfight. Later, after everything was finally over, it was learned that Corrections Officer Canfield’s horse had indeed been hit, apparently by the suspect’s fire.

After the initial struggle with the first male corrections officer, when they got his rifle, Martin and Falk went over a fence that separated the field they’d been in from the nearby City of Huntsville Service Center. Martin and Falk stole a City of Huntsville flatbed truck that was parked there. The truck was parked behind the fence, on city property, right next to the 1,400-acre vegetable field being tilled by Martin, Falk and the other inmates. Two street sign workers were apparently picking up street sign materials at a municipal building which was adjacent to the prison and, contrary to policy, they left the keys in the truck’s ignition. I’m almost certain that when all the reviews are finally concluded, these two city workers will more than likely be disciplined for their failure to follow policy. Unfortunately, this “wake up call” for them will come to late to help Corrections Officer Susan Canfield.

As the other corrections officers fired at them and their now stolen vehicle, Martin and Falk drove the stolen truck into Canfield’s horse as she tried to stop them. She, and I assume the horse, fell to the ground. She reportedly died instantly. The two inmates then grabbed her rifle and handgun and fled the area. I believe this is the way things happened, but I’m not 100% sure. Did Martin and Falk have a previous struggle with Corrections Officer Canfield, to get her weapons, as one account I read seemed to indicate, or was she already dead when they took them from her? I’m sure the investigators in this case already know exactly what happened, and in time we will know too. And, of course, none of this will change the brutal fact that these two vicious thugs murdered Susan Canfield!

After their violent escape Martin and Falk quickly abandoned their stolen truck, about a mile away from where they had murdered Susan Canfield. They then confronted a woman at a bank drive-through lane in Huntsville, and took her car by force. I believe the woman in question was also taken along with the vehicle, because one account I read said they had taken a hostage. Huntsville P.D. officers, who were already apparently looking for the two escapees, quickly took off in pursuit of the carjacked vehicle. They shot out one of the vehicle’s tires and Martin and Falk jumped out of the car and again tried to flee on foot.

In addition to officers from many different agencies, the massive manhunt to find the two killers included at least one police helicopter, lawmen on horseback and eager and hungry bloodhounds. The TDCJ reported that Falk was captured within an hour. They found Martin hiding in a tree about 3½ hours later. He was in a wooded area just west of the I-45 Interstate, and south of state highway 30. And, when they did find Martin he was reportedly shirtless and wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. He did this in an attempt to throw off the search dogs that he knew would be trying to locate his scent.

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a major violation of policy that allowed Martin and Falk to put their escape plan into motion. According to reports, TDCJ policy says that mounted corrections officers working with “field squads” are required to stay a minimum of 30 feet away from the inmates they are guarding. No inmate on foot should ever be allowed to approach an officer on horseback. The officers on horseback form a kind of perimeter around the field workers, and they act very similar to the officers manning the guard towers at the prison itself. No inmate is ever allowed to get near an armed officer, and for good reason. Again, I’m sure the corrections officer who violated this policy, and allowed Martin and Falk to gain control of him and his weapons, will eventually be disciplined. But once again, this will be too late to help Susan Canfield.

Initially, the horse Susan Canfield was riding was thought to only have cuts and bruises. Later, they noted a wound that they thought was a cut that resulted from the horse skidding along the gravel driveway. Eventually, after the horse exhibited symptoms of a more serious injury they examined the horse again and found a bullet hole under its girth strap. Sadly, the horse had to be euthanized. Pecos may have been the name of Corrections Officer Canfield’s horse, but I’m not really certain of this. In none of the accounts I read did they name her horse, but I did find a picture of Susan Canfield happily sitting on a pretty horse named Pecos and I assume this may have been the same horse she rode that fatal day.

Susan Canfield’s husband is a training officer with the Houston Police Department. She also had two daughters and a son, plus two grandchildren.

So, getting back to the title of this narrative, why do I think we need to keep the death penalty? First of all, I do realize that not all fifty states have the death penalty, but in Florida, where I live, we do.

Most police officers probably favor the death penalty. I know I do. But, I do agree it should only be used for the worst of the worse and it should only be imposed if there is absolutely no doubt at all about the person’s guilt. That means (in my opinion) that for most homicides, which are mostly “heat of the moment” passion-type crimes, the death penalty would not be appropriate.

I do believe that when an individual murders a law enforcement officer, the death penalty is definitely appropriate. But, sadly, even cop killers do not always get the ultimate penalty. A perfect example involved the guy who murdered Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Bryant Peney in 1996. I use this specific example because I was a Ft. Lauderdale officer myself, and I knew Bryant Peney. He was an outstanding young man and an excellent officer. He should not have died at such a young age. His killer was convicted and the jury did not recommend the death penalty. In Florida, the judge has the final say, and the judge in this case felt that the death penalty was indeed appropriate, so he disregarded the jury’s recommendation and he gave this bad guy the death penalty. Well, in Florida, if a judge disregards a jury’s recommendation for leniency in a homicide case, the Florida Supreme Court will almost always overrule that judge. That’s what happened to the killer of Officer Bryant Peney. He was sentenced to life, without parole.

I know that many good and intelligent people don’t like the death penalty for a variety of reasons, and they want it abolished completely. This is an emotional issue and I do understand some of their arguments. But, if we do away with the death penalty completely, don’t we make it a lot easier for the violent thugs in our prisons (like Martin and Falk) to kill our corrections officers? If a guy is already in jail for murder, doing “life without parole” (as Merle Haggard says in one of his song), then what is there to prevent these low-lifes from killing a prison guard, or two, or three? What are they going to do to him, give him another “life without parole” sentence? I have absolutely no statistics to back up my beliefs, but just good old-fashioned common sense tells me that if we do away with the death penalty completely, then attacks and murders of corrections officers around the country WILL go up.

Let’s get back to Martin and Falk who killed Texas Corrections Officer Susan Canfield. Martin had been convicted of attempted capital murder and he had served just 10 years of a 50-year sentence. He had been charged in Collin County with two counts of attempted murder after a domestic dispute he was involved in turned potentially deadly. Somewhere along the line Martin apparently indicated that he intended to shoot himself and he eventually ran from the cops who tried to stop him. One account I read of the Collin County incident said that Martin fired on police negotiators that had tried to stop him from shooting himself during a four-hour standoff. In all, he reportedly fired seven rounds from a .38 caliber revolver at the police negotiators and Collin County Sheriff’s deputies. In 1997, Martin was convicted of two attempted murder charges, along with a charge of aggravated assault. And, documents from TDCJ’s web site indicated that in addition to the 50-year sentence, Martin was also facing another 60 years for some other additional charges. I don't know if these other charges are connected with the Collin County incident, or are from some other violent event.

Falk? Well, our boy Falk was already a grand prize winner! He had been convicted of murdering a lawyer in Matagorda county and he had served 21 years of a life sentence. Falk reportedly confessed to striking the man over the head with a piece of lumber and then cutting his throat with a knife. He and an accomplice then stuffed the victim’s body into the back of a car and drove it into the Colorado River. Falk was up for parole in 2006. It was denied.

So, why were these two walking time bombs of violence allowed to work outside the prison’s confines? Because, according to the TDCJ, based on their good disciplinary records while in prison, they were only classified as “minimum” security inmates and they could do field work outside the prison while under the supervision of officers. Okay, sounds good to me. But, I wonder what Susan Canfield’s husband, her children, and her grandchildren, think about this cockeyed explanation. As with everything else, I’m sure the TDCJ screening procedures will be reviewed, and maybe even revamped, but this won’t help Susan Canfield.

I know many individuals are still not convinced that the death penalty should be used, under any circumstances. Okay, I respect their right to have that opinion, even though I don’t agree with it. But, I would ask just one more question: What about the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh? Didn’t he deserve to die for what he had done? He coldly and brutally killed 168 men, women and children. Children! Nineteen of the victims were children, fifteen of which were in the building’s day care center when the bomb went off. Three pregnant women and their unborn babies also died. Later, when McVeigh once spoke about the bombing, he coldly called these deaths “collateral damage” - as if he could care less.

Whenever I might start to wonder if the death penalty should be imposed, especially for the worst of the worse, I take a quick look at the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken by Charles Porter. It is the picture of firefighter Chris Fields holding a dying infant in his arms. The baby's bloodied and battered body speaks volumes about McVeigh's cruelty and inhumanity. Timothy McVeigh was a monster and no one will ever make me believe that executing him, and other animals like him, isn't the right and the just thing to do!

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