Jackie Bowers, sister of Ohio death row inmate George Skatzes, lives a day-to-day struggle fighting for the release of her brother, whom she believes is innocent. Bowers, along with Staughton Lynd, a renowned labor historian and prison activist, visited Oberlin to talk about her brother's case.
Skatzes was a key negotiator during the 11-day inmate insurrection that undulated the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in April 1993, the longest prison rebellion in U.S. history. Triggered by the administration of a tuberculin test that contained alcohol, which violates the religious practices of Muslims, over 400 prisoners joined in protest to demand an end to insufficient medical care, overcrowding, indiscriminate mixing of prisoners with and without AIDS, TB, mental illness and forced racial integration in the Lucasville prison. By the end of the riots, nine prisoners and one guard lay dead. Skatzes and four other men sit on death row for these murders and are referred to as the 'Lucasville 5'.
According to Bowers and Lynd, there are many troublesome aspects of the case of Skatzes. No physical evidence links him to the three cases of aggravated murder he was tried for. He was also a prominent figure for strong black and white unity during an occupation which shook the confidence of the prison authorities. They alleged that as a result, visible leaders like him were targeted for retribution by the prison authorities, evident in the plea bargains that were cut by the prosecution. One prisoner received his freedom for fingering Skatzes as the killer. In his speech, Lynd spoke of this overwhelming evidence that pointed towards Skatzes' innocence.
In a dinner reception that became the seat of further inquiry to the nature of Ohio's death penalty and its judicial processes, Bowers spoke about the trial that sent her brother to death row. "Our judge, Judge Mitchell, wore dark glasses so he could sleep during the trial. This was a daily thing. We found out because there was an objection raised in court and Mitchell was silent. His glasses fell half way off and they made it into the joke of the day," said Bowers. Another aspect was the court appointed lawyer for Skatzes, who did not call key witnesses to testify. During the cross-examination he ignored requests from Skatzes to ask certain questions that Bowers says could have benefited the defense.
Bowers also described the conditions of the super-maximum Youngstown prison, where the Lucasville 5 awaits execution. "Unlike Lucasville, you can't send a food or clothing box to Youngstown. There they lock you down 23 hours a day in a 7 by 10-foot cell, and sometimes George doesn't come out at all 'cause you have to be handcuffed and shackled. The recreation room is a wired-in cage where they only allow one person in at a time, so he can never talk to other people," said Bowers.
When asked about her feelings on the movement in Chicago for a moratorium, sparked by the release of Anthony Porter, who once came within 48 hours of being executed and marks the 77th innocent person released from death row in the nation, Bowers said: "You look at what's going on in Chicago, and isn't that a wake up call? If it isn't it should be."
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 24, May 14, 1999
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