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Shining a light into the darkness of Death Row

Patrick Chappatte in his Geneva studio

With a new exhibition, Windows on Death Row, Swiss journalist Anne-Frédérique Widmann and press cartoonist Patrick Chappatte aim to shine a light on the dark – and still taboo – subject of the death penalty in the United States. 

This content was published on April 11, 2016 - 11:00
Frédéric Burnand, Geneva,

Over the course of a year spent in California in 2014, the pair visited four penitentiaries and met some 30 death row inmates who contributed artworks to the project, depicting their situations. The exhibition also includes artworks from well-known American press cartoonists. 

From Geneva’s cosmopolitan Pâquis quarter, Chappatte explains the motivation behind the project as he hones a comic strip rendition of life on death row that will be published by the New York Times later this month. 

“Death Row itself is not very well known in the United States. Even though capital punishment is a part of the mythology of the American justice system, the reality that we are trying to show is still a taboo subject. These high-security facilities where the condemned are isolated while awaiting execution are the United States’ dungeons,” Chappatte says. 

“We used a newsletter to reach out to some 3,000 prisoners currently on Death Row in America and tell them about our project. About 30 contacted us. They were the ones still standing. The overwhelming majority of those condemned to death are vegetables. They have become half mad, psychotropic. Most are completely destroyed.” 

“Those whom we were able to meet demonstrated an exceptional capacity for resilience, thanks to art. They all learnt to draw and paint in prison. Art has helped them to stay sane, like the hope that their case might be reviewed. As one prisoner told me: you say that as long as there is life there is hope. For me, as long as there is hope, there is life.”    

This is the reality that Windows on Death Row reveals. A journalistic rather than activist endeavour, the project has received significant support from the Swiss foreign ministry. 

“In the collective imagination, those condemned to death are inhumane monsters and criminals,” says Chappatte. “We lock them up and execute them. Most are criminals, but they are still part of humanity. Also, many were convicted in error. The conditions of their incarceration remain little known, and the isolation in which they are held 23 hours out of 24 can carry on for decades.” 

That said, the certainties of the merits of the death penalty are weakening, says Chappatte. 

“A majority of Americans continue to support capital punishment. But public opinion has been shaken by two things. The advent of DNA testing has exonerated a number of people. Currently, one person every three months is being found innocent and released from prison. And then, in 2013-14, there were botched executions following the European Union’s boycott on the sale of lethal products to the US.” 

The exhibition mounted by the two Swiss is currently on show in Morges and Geneva as part of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights. It reveals the death penalty as a metaphor for American society as a whole. 

“[This exhibition exposes] the history of the United States which is very violent, religion and the way it imagines punishment, and the social inequalities which particularly affect African Americans,” Chappatte says. 

“Moreover, there is an expanded form of the death penalty in the US, which are the executions without trial. These people – often black – are shot by police in more or less questionable circumstances. You could call them extrajudicial executions.”

Swiss diplomacy against the death penalty 

The Swiss foreign ministry, which has provided financial support for the Windows on Death Row project, says in a statement: “The universal abolition of the death penalty is a priority for Swiss diplomatic actions in favour of human rights. This exhibition, which is designed to contribute to the American and global debates about the death penalty, is above all an invitation to increase dialogue.” 

That “Switzerland wants to contribute to the universal abolition of the death penalty by 2025, or at least to the introduction of a universal moratorium on executions” has been defined as a formal objective in a strategy to push for the abolition of the death penalty around the world. 

In 2015, for the first time, a majority of countries around the world (102) had completely abolished the death penalty. In total, 140 countries have abolished it in law or in practice, according to Amnesty International. 

However, 2015 also saw a 50% increase over the previous year in the number executions carried out: 1,634. It was the highest number of executions recorded by Amnesty International since 1989. 

In the United States, Pennsylvania has imposed a moratorium on executions, bringing to 18 the number of American states that have abolished the death penalty.

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