World Day Against the Death Penalty 2022: “For my deceased friend Timmy Weber”
A road paved with TORTURE
On 10.10.2022 the 20th World Day against the Death Penalty is dedicated to the focus on TORTURE,
… because confessions are sometimes forced through physical or psychological torture,
… Prison conditions on death row are often tantamount to psychological torture,
… Members of the perpetrators suffer trauma through executions or even last-minute postponements,
… the stress of killing a person by execution sometimes leads to occupational disability,
… Victim relatives repeatedly relive the trauma of the act – in some cases, execution occurs against their expressed will …
For my deceased friend Timmy Weber
Torture, does it even still exist in the globalized world of the 21st century? Is it not rather a subject to be settled in the Middle Ages or at most still in underdeveloped states of the Third World or the distant Arabian catchment area? I dare say that torture is still ubiquitous, but it has taken other forms. Until five years ago, I went through the world uninterested in such issues; after all, I live in a modern country where the rule of law and moderate justice have been practiced for many decades. The death penalty was first abolished in 1787 under Emperor Joseph II and ultimately finally in 1950 in Austria.
About four years ago, I happened to become aware of a documentary by BBC journalist Sir Trevor McDonald, in which he showed the daily lives of three prisoners sentenced to death in U.S. prisons in a rather unembellished way, and in which both those affected and their relatives and prison staff had their say. What followed was my own intensive examination of the subject and a pen friendship that has lasted over the years with Timmy Weber, who died in Las Vegas on May 18 of this year. It is about him and what he wrote to me in the last weeks and months that I want to report here. The conditions he described, which were also confirmed to me independently by other inmates, can certainly be described as a modern interpretation of torture.
A friendship develops
Right away, Timmy Weber was not one of the “good guys”, he was on death row at Ely State Prison in Nevada because he had committed terrible crimes that made punishment inevitable. But only those who dare to offer contact and friendship to an inmate without prejudice will discover in time that a person can never be measured exclusively by his deeds. There is always a before and an after.
Over time, Timmy Weber opened up to the extent that this willingness also came from me. Today I can justifiably say that I, too, was able to take a personal benefit from this pen friendship. Timmy died not from a state execution in prison, but from the effects of sepsis that had become acute at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas. The inadequate, not to say non-existent, medical care in the prison in the six months prior can definitely be described as modern torture in my view.
First health problems
It began in December of the previous year, when my pen pal wrote to me in every letter about extremely strong but indefinable pains, once he felt these pains in the joints, then again in the muscles, very often at the same time and for days, sometimes even for weeks. He sought a doctor’s appointment with the usual forms, however, he was not taken seriously until the third attempt. It would, he explained to me, basically be refused twice. Medical requests are regularly ignored by the staff of Ely State Prison, this was also confirmed to me several times by others.
Since Timmy, apart from the fact that a slight coagulation disorder of the blood was evident in him, basically never had any other medical problems, he suspected at the beginning that he could have infected me with Corona, and that his joint pains were possibly the result of this, i.e. the well-known Long Covid phenomenon. An initial documented examination, done by a nurse at the Ely State Prison infirmary, revealed a mild to moderate form of joint wear. He was prescribed aspirin and, if he could not tolerate it, Thomapyrin, commercially available painkillers that are prescribed without hesitation in prison for all ailments, warranted or not.
Inadequate medical care
Weeks passed, but the pain did not. In the letters he would tell me how desperate he was, for his pain had already increased to the point where he could neither stand nor sit from pain, let alone hold a pen to write me a few lines. Again and again he would ask to be examined by a doctor. We were sure by now that he was suffering from a much more serious underlying disease than the poorly trained local nurses could detect.
One of his last photos showed that he had rapidly lost weight in a very short time. Always a reliable indicator of an underlying serious illness. But instead of taking his complaints seriously, they cut his medication (which was hardly useful anyway) on the grounds that they did not want to provoke a dependency on it. A few weeks later, in February 2022, after the intervention of his lawyer, an appointment was made for Timmy in the district hospital in Ely for a detailed diagnosis.
In the case of an inmate on death row, however, this does not mean that one might take a short time and drive with the patient to the hospital under the supervision of one or two officials and then return again after the examination has been completed. There are enormous logistics involved in a case like this because, understandably, every step has to be taken under extremely tightened security.
Timmy was bound hand and foot and taken to the hospital by ambulance under the supervision of several armed officers. For security reasons, all of his examinations were conducted in strict seclusion from other patients. For this purpose, he had to spend several days in his own hospital room, which had been converted into a high-security cell. The doctors ordered several blood tests and laboratory examinations, X-rays and computer tomographic examinations were made and evaluated. As a result of these examinations, he was diagnosed with rheumatic polymyalgia and prescribed antibiotics for treatment. To what extent this was helpful, I can not judge, I lack the medical knowledge.
Glimmer of hope
In the first letter Timmy wrote to me after his hospital stay, he spoke of how happy he was now to finally know a name for his illness, and how well he had been treated in the hospital, in contrast to the prison infirmary. He had not seen daylight in his converted sickroom, but it had been heated and this had done his joints and muscles a lot of good. Now, however, he was back in his cold cell, and the pain began again.
This was followed by a series of letters in which he kept talking about small successes; it seemed as if the prescribed medication was slowly, yet sustainably, leading to an improvement. Four weeks before his death I received in quick succession several alarming, almost panic-stricken letters from my pen pal. He wrote to me that he was first allotted smaller and smaller doses of his medicine and finally nothing at all. The pain returned, intense as hardly ever before. Now, at the latest, it was clear to me that it was not only a matter of an inadequate diagnosis, but also of deliberate mistreatment, above all by the supervisory staff, primarily the staff of the infirmary.
The dramatic end
The beginning of the end began on May 13 of this year, Timmy must have been in very severe pain, became apathetic and was unresponsive, as his only friend on site later wrote to me. At the same time that I was invited by ORF to give an interview on morning television on the subject of “pen pals to death row”, several thousand kilometers to the west a death struggle was actually beginning.
It wasn’t until after the weekend, when experience shows there are fewer guards available, that it was discovered that inmate number 76884 was lying unresponsive in his cell. Timmy was brought to the infirmary in a wheelchair, and it was only here that the precarious situation was fully recognized. He was immediately flown by helicopter to the Sunshine Estate Clinic in Las Vegas, but it was too late. The doctors there could no longer help him.
Days of agonizing uncertainty
Only after a week did I receive a brief message from his lawyer that her client had died. Even his lawyer was not informed in time about the dramatic deterioration of his health and ultimately his death. The scheduled autopsy identified three determining factors as causative for the death: an undiagnosed and thus untreated form of aggressive bone cancer, above-average levels of inflammation caused by open wounds on the legs, and resulting sepsis ultimately leading to death. I learned the results of this autopsy about a month after Timmy’s death; a small local U.S. TV station ran a brief report on it.
Torture, in the broadest sense of the word, also exists for friends or relatives through disinformation.
German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty