Photographer Toshi Kazama’s first picture of a young person on death row was of Michael, a boy convicted of raping, strangling and burning an elderly woman and killing an elderly man in his small hometown in Arkansas.
Since then, Kazama has gone on to photograph many young people on death row but it was his meeting with Michael that opened his eyes to the human side of the “monsters” he had imagined.
“When he appeared in front of me, I was stunned. He was so young, so normal,” Kazama said .
Kazama, a professional photographer who started his project nine years ago and displayed it at the Michigan League yesterday, has taken 20 pictures of juveniles sentenced to death, three of which have since been executed. Thirteen juvenile offenders have been executed in the United States since 1998, eight of which took place in Texas, according to Amnesty International, an organization which works to end capital punishment.
While his simple photos display a disturbing reality, Kazama said his pictures allow him to work as an activist fighting to end the death penalty, a punishment applied to juveniles in only five countries, including the United States, according to Amnesty International.
Just last Tuesday, the organization as well as opponents of capital punishment like Kazama were afforded a small victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it was illegal to execute criminals under the age of 18.
The 5-4 decision, which overturns a 1989 high court ruling, throws out the death sentences of 72 murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles and bars states from seeking to execute others. Nineteen states had allowed death sentences for killers who committed their crimes when they were under 18.
While Kazama’s work with minors will now end in light of the Supreme Court decision, the photographer would still like to see the death penalty abolished because of the inhumanity in the way he thinks the punishment is executed.
His photography collection that profiles the young men and women on death row also portrays the methods that are used to execute inmates.
Among these photos are shots of “Yellow Mama,” the nickname for the electric chair where the executions of teenagers like Michael took place. The plain photo shows thick, black straps tied to the wooded frame and a permanent brown stain where tailbones have burned into the seat.
Kazama told of the stench of burning electrical wire that filled the room. A photograph of an electrical chair at a different prison shows the special bottom of the chair, which collects the bodily fluids that stream out of the body during electrocution.
While Kazama hopes ultimately for the end of capital punishment, he, along with like-minded Americans, faces an uphill battle as the death penalty is supported by President Bush and exists in 38 states.
Proponents of the death penalty say capital punishment works to deter other crimes, and a paper by three Emory University economists states they have found proof in their research to support this claim. According to their research, each time an execution takes place, there are 18 fewer murders.
LSA senior Eric Weiler said he advocates the death penalty in order to punish offenses and discourage other crimes — even for those under 18. He also said he thinks each state should have the right to decide if they want capital punishment or not.
“It’s an issue of federalism,” said Weiler.
Although Weiler said he supports the death penalty for crimes committed by teenagers as young as 15, and in some cases 14, he said he thinks cases should be based on high levels of evidence, such as DNA, when deciding who should be punished by death.
“I think the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous types of murder,” he said.
Unlike Weiler, LSA freshman Monica Mendoza said she is against the death penalty.
Mendoza said she attended Kazama’s presentation because of an interest that was sparked from a criminal psychology class she took last semester that gave her new information and opinions regarding the current criminal system in America.
“I always like looking below the surface,” she said.
Mendoza said she wants the prison system to focus more on rehabilitation rather than harsh punishments — especially in terms of juveniles.
“Kids are the least likely to have better influences and the most likely to be able to change in the future,” she said. “Cutting their future short is really unfortunate.”