The Chair: The Q&A

The following conversation occurred after our April 27, 2016 screening of The Chair (1962) and The Last Request (2016) as part of the third annual (In)Justice for All Film Festival. The panelists were Geraldine Smith and Charles “Chick” Hoffman.

Geraldine Smith is a former death row inmate who wrote two books and mentored young women while incarcerated. After her release in 2008, she founded the nonprofit organization Life Builders United, which helps incarcerated women and their children deal with incarceration and prepare for life after release.

After Charles “Chick” Hoffman graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1974, he joined the Peoples Law Office in Chicago, specializing in civil rights and criminal defense work. In 1986, he moved to the Illinois State Appellate Defender’s Office, where he represented more than 30 men and women in death penalty appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court. He also taught a seminar on capital punishment at DePaul Law School. Since the mid-1980s, Chick has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and was active in the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign in the late 1990s. He also coordinated the legal efforts that led to former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuting the death sentences of all 167 prisoners on Illinois’ Death Row in January 2003.

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Charles “Chick” Hoffman (CH): This was really kind of a unique perspective on the death penalty. It’s so unusual to see something from 55 years ago, where it’s so involved with one person, their life, clemency. So much has transpired with the death penalty since then. If I could just do a brief chronology of the death penalty since then. That was in 1962, in July. In August of 1962, James Dukes was executed at the Cook County Jail in that electric chair. But after that, from 1962 until 1990, we had no executions in Illinois.

In the 1960s the DP was really disfavored. It didn’t really come back until Nixon’s law and order regime. The United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1972, it was brought back in 1976, and Illinois had its new DP statute in 1977. Under the new DP statute, from 1977 until 2011 when it was abolished, we sent 300 men and women to death row, including this beautiful lady here, Geraldine Smith, who was the first woman sentenced to death under our new statute. Of those 300 people, we executed twelve of them, all in the 1990s, by lethal injection. We sent twenty of them home from death row because they were actually innocent. 167 of them were given blanket clemency in 2003 by Governor Ryan when he determined that our death penalty system was just completely broken, and the rest got either new trials or new sentencing hearings.

I heard Peter mention at the beginning that this whole festival was kind of along the lines of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and in the context of that idea, I think the DP can best be characterized as “white lives matter.” Because it’s the starkest example of how society values the lives of white people over the lives of people of color. The DP is kind of a legacy of slavery, and most DPs and 80% of executions have occurred in the fifteen former slave states. But it’s really across the country, prosecutors are much more likely to seek the DP and jurors are much more likely to give it, if the defendant is black and the victim is white. And they’re least likely to ask for it, or jurors to give it, when the defendant is white and the victim is black. So race plays a major role in the death penalty.

A couple of interesting things, historically. The cast of characters in this film—to me it’s interesting, growing up in Chicago, I’ve been here my whole life—Donald Page Moore, the lawyer for Paul Crump, in 1972, which was ten years after this film, ran for state’s attorney against Edward Hanrahan, who was the state’s attorney who was responsible for the raid that ended up with the assassination of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Jim Thompson, the prosecutor of Crump, later on he was the federal prosecutor who prosecuted Otto Koerner, who, after having been governor, was a federal judge, and Jim Thompson sent him to federal prison for mail fraud and the typical reasons that Illinois governors go to jail.

So, that’s all I have to say. Geraldine Smith, I had the honor of representing her in the Illinois Supreme Court, which threw out her death sentence. She was released, thank God, and is now a really valued and important member of our community. So if Geraldine has anything to say, I’m going to turn it over to her.

Geraldine Smith (GS): I think it’s important that we understand the switch, and that switch is, we put a new suit of clothing on someone and we forget whether it’s good or evil. We go back to slavery and we look at the color of your skin, they put us in slavery because of it. Not because of anything we did, but because of the color of our skin. The supremacy of the whites still reigns today, because even in the courtroom, if it’s not so much the color of the skin, but who has the most money. I had an attorney that was so crooked, William “Bill” Swano. When he went down [Swano was convicted in 1991 of extortion and racketeering], the federal government was searching for all the crooked judges, he was my attorney. But he never represented me one day. But he also represented the El Rukn gang, and the money they could give him exceeded what I could give him. When the federal government came after all the crooked judges, my judge decided to use me as a human shield. “I will send a woman to death.” Twelve judges went to prison connected to my attorney. He had to have a new face, could never practice law again.

So it had so many twists to it. I was not really represented. And then my voice didn’t count. I had never been to jail, had never had any crimes or anything on my record, and yet they sentenced me to die for what somebody else said. They knew I wasn’t at the scene of the crime, they knew I hadn’t killed anybody, but it was what somebody else said to appease the beast, the hunger of that beast. So that’s how they sentenced this woman to death.

But more importantly, I was thinking about the beginning of The Last Request, the first short movie you showed tonight. And I was looking at that, this beautiful young girl dancing, and then you have this frail old woman in the cell. But the rooms are nowhere near that size. So the inhumane treatment, even though you don’t get executed, it’s the constant knowing what they can do to you. I often called it my cement coffin. I lived in that cement coffin for years. I was on death row for seven years.

And when you were talking to me earlier [referring to a pre-screening conversation with Peter Kuttner] when I first came in, you were talking about the idea that, what was the phrase?

Peter Kuttner (filmmaker, activist, South Side Projections board member) (PK): When I became involved with this project I heard a term I’d never heard before. They were talking about people coming back into society from prison, and calling them “returning citizens.”

GS: And he asked me how I felt about it, and I told him it was a two-way street. People in prison can return to society and they are now returning citizens. But for people like me, and like Mr. Crump from the film, they couldn’t make me into the thing that they labeled me. They labeled me as a dead woman walking, they called me a condemned woman, they wrote “condemned”—all those years, every tray of food they gave me had “condemned” written on it. But I refused to be that condemned woman. I refused to be something that this state was trying to make me, to make me act out, to make me become that animal in the cage. I refused to do that. I refused to take on the prison language. I refused to take on the prison action. I refused to let the state make me into somebody I was not. So in essence, when you call me a condemned woman, or you look at me as a murderer—and I know I haven’t murdered anybody, and haven’t told anybody to murder anybody—then guess what? My fight is with the state.

Because now, to prove your point, I have to stay in line. I have to stay in line with the person my parents raised me to be in the face of hardship or any atrocity that comes upon me. I had to stay that person because even now, I’ve served way over 10,000 women coming out of prison. I’ve served in one day 4100 children, and then the next year I served 3600 children. I’m doing all these things that most people out here aren’t doing. What if they had executed me? Who would be doing the work that I’m doing? I serve children coming out of the juvenile system. I just sent a portfolio like that to Chief Judge Timothy Evans, and he’s like, I did not know that this woman is over here in this broken community called Englewood doing this work. But I’m the same woman that you locked away in a cage like an animal.

And one of the most important things to me. When I first got there they didn’t have a place for a woman on death row, so they put me in this old burned-out box, and I called it my cement coffin and tried to bring life to it, to light it up, because I was determined to prove that the state was a liar. So now I’m out serving all these children and doing all these things for people, and yet I’m the first woman to get a death sentence [under the post-1977 law]. I don’t know where that other lawyer is, but I thank God that Chick Hoffman stepped up and he stayed with me all these years, for nineteen years.

Believe it or not, Mr. Crump in the movie, his word didn’t mean nothing to nobody. I was on death row, and they subpoenaed me off of death row to testify at a judge’s trial. How could my word not mean nothing in reference to me, but it meant so much at a judge’s trial? I testified at Thomas Maloney’s trial [Maloney served 12 years in prison for accepting bribes] under subpoena from death row, and I went through the torture of being in the Dirksen Building [federal courthouse] in shackles. But my word evidently meant something for his case. He got sixteen years in prison; I had got the death sentence. How do you measure good on this hand when you’re helping a white man or white woman, but it means nothing when you try to help yourself.

So the only thing that matters is that I stay the course even now. Even after spending all those years in that cement coffin, I stayed the course and I went where God needed me to be, and that’s to serve and help people.

PK: I’d like to share a little something and then I’d like to see if anyone has any questions. I mentioned early on that I’m a filmmaker, and have made my living that way for most of my life. Early in my career, when I started in documentary, I found myself in San Quentin walking across the yard with a film crew. And the first thing that happened was something that I will never forget. A prisoner from death row was in the yard at the same time we were, and everything stops. Guards, everyone shows such respect for that prisoner, for that condemned man. We lowered our heads. And it’s so ironic that people with the death penalty are being shown by the state the ultimate disrespect. What could be less respectful than ordering that you take someone’s life? And I’ll never forget that. I was honored to have that experience.

CH: The death penalty is a deliberate dehumanization, the ultimate dehumanization of people by the state.

PK: Which explains why the numbers are so different. Because of the white consciousness of people of color somehow being less—

Audience member: Animals. They described him [Paul Crump] a lot like that.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. (South Side Projections director) (MP): Yeah, they kept talking about him, and the adjective of choice was “savage.” Even his supporters, even his lawyers, were talking about how back then he was a savage and an animal.

CH: In the 1980s the Cook County state’s attorney’s office—and this is not from me, this is from a former state’s attorney, and this was published in I think John Conroy’s articles about the Burge scandal—there was a contest in the 1980s at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office called “nigger by the pound.” There was a contest to see who could get the most convictions by weight of African American defendants. That’s only 25, 30 years ago.

MP: Geraldine, I was thinking about what you were saying about how your voice didn’t matter in your case. Maybe you or Chick can answer this. It seemed really strange to me that Crump had absolutely nothing to do with his clemency hearing. He wasn’t there. He didn’t make a statement for the hearing—the lawyer reads something that he wrote separately. Was that normal?

CH: That’s very typical. We had 167 clemency hearings in 2002 when there was the movement for the blanket clemency, and none of the death row prisoners appeared at any of them. They’re not going to take them off death row to come to a hearing room. There may be instances where prisoners are brought, but it’s pretty rare. Clemency is even pretty rare these days. It’s almost unheard of outside the blanket clemencies we had here, which was really a highly unusual situation.

Audience member: I had a question. I wanted to know how is the parole board made up?

CH: They’re all appointed by the governor. I think the governor gets names, some are submitted by Democrats and some by Republicans, but I’m pretty sure the governor appoints them all.

Audience member: Because in the movie I recognized a man that I think is the father of one of my girlfriends. His name was Theodore Jones, and he was a CPA but I think he was also part of the Treasury Department of the state of Illinois. [Some info about Jones]

CH: That’s so interesting. We still have a parole board, although people don’t get parole in Illinois. They switched from indeterminate sentences, like 50-150 years, now they’re determinate sentences, where you get a certain number of years. Then you have to serve one or two or three years after you get out which is like parole, it’s called mandatory supervised release. Paul Crump was actually paroled in 1993, and unfortunately by that time he was suffering from some mental illness. He moved in with his sister, and then I believe in 2001 he was placed in a mental hospital and he died in 2002 of lung cancer.

PK: Was his novel ever published?

CH: I believe it was published. [Crump’s novel Burn, Killer, Burn! was published in 1962.] Another interesting thing when I was preparing for this—apparently there was another documentary made about Paul Crump, called The People vs. Paul Crump, directed by William Friedkin, who made The French Connection and The Exorcist. Apparently it was never shown because it was too controversial.

MP: We chose not to show that because the filmmaker later said that he thought Crump should have been executed. But it was released on DVD by Facets Multimedia.

Audience member: How many US states still have the death penalty?

CH: 31 states, the federal government, and the military have the death penalty. Nineteen states have abolished it. There’s three or four states where it still exists but the governor has declared a moratorium.

PK: Of the 160-plus that Ryan commuted, were any women?

CH: No. Governor Jim Edgar gave Guin Garcia clemency, but I don’t think there were any women when Ryan granted the blanket clemencies. After Ryan granted them, we still had the death penalty up until 2011, and fifteen more men were sentenced to death. When Governor Quinn signed the abolition bill in 2011, he just commuted the last fifteen.

PK: One more personal thing to share, and I don’t treasure this memory. Again because of my role as a filmmaker, I was in Stateville where there was an electric chair.

CH: What year was this?

PK: In the 1980s.

CH: We switched over to lethal injection in 1982, but we didn’t have any executions until 1990. There probably was still an electric chair at Stateville, but it wasn’t being used.

PK: We were in a part of the prison where there wasn’t anybody, but the room was there and the chair was there. It’s unforgettable, but not a cherished memory. I cannot imagine why we would do that. Where the death penalty came from historically.

CH: It’s always been around. The Bible, an eye for an eye.

PK: And the brothers, Cain and Abel.

CH: Although God marked Cain so that nobody would kill him. I mean, the first lesson of the Bible is anti-death penalty. I had one client executed, and that’s something that I don’t ever want to go through again. That was in 1997, a man named Walter Stewart, who I had represented for about 18 or 19 years. It’s a very surreal experience. We were in the death house pretty much all day. Walter was in a cell, we were sitting outside the cell. When it got to be around dinnertime we were all kicked out of the death house. I gave Walter one last hug through the bars, and I literally could not let go. The muscles in my arms would not let me let go for a long time. Then we went out to dinner, then we were let back in the prison but not into the death house. We were on the phone with Walter from around 10 o’clock, then midnight came. He was supposed to be executed at midnight but we were still on the phone with him at 12:15 am. It was like talking to a ghost, and then the line just went dead and he was executed.

MP: I want to ask one more question. Ms. Smith, you were talking about all the community service you’ve done since you got out, but that didn’t start then. It started when you were still incarcerated. I was thinking about that when all the affidavits about Crump were being read—breaking up fights and counseling other prisoners. And you did that, you lived that. You wrote a book. Can you talk a little about that?

GS: It was easy, but it was hard because most of my contact with the other women was through a little hole in the wall, because I didn’t have any physical contact with other human beings at that time. So I’d talk to them through that little microphone-like hole that goes through so the officers can use it. I would talk to them through that. I never did come out of my cell, so I had to get kind of creative with my movement. I have no cartilage between two of the discs in my back, so they brought me out with the shackles and everything to the doctor. I asked the doctor “what is it that you can do for my back?” And he said that the only thing was to strengthen the muscles around the spine. And I asked what he was going to give me, and he said the best thing was to walk. Well I’m in this cement coffin! I can’t walk around. So I asked him, I don’t have a place to walk, and he wrote me a prescription for a treadmill. And I forced the Department of Corrections to give me a treadmill.

So little things like that, that I was fighting for, caused the women to pay attention. How is she doing that? So I met Donald Crawford of Crawford Broadcasting, and then the very next visit we had, which was a month later, he wanted me to to excerpts over the radio. This was how the radio station played a part in it, I would do these excerpts four or five times a day. And the prisoners would be like, I’m hearing this woman on the radio—how is she doing that? That went on for five years.

I’m an account executive for Power 92 and WYCA radio. When I came out, Crawford gave me a talk show—which at this time, I can offer you guys time to talk about what you’re doing. I can give you free time to put this out there over the radio because of what I started when I was in that cement coffin. I’m dealing with juveniles. I’m dealing with mothers who are in prison. I came out of prison, and two weeks later I was going back into prison through the front door, so I’m doing a lot of things to prove what a mistake they would have made if they had executed me.

PK: Who can we really not say that about? In my mind, in my heart, every execution has been a mistake.

GS: To me, it came out to me when they executed John Wayne Gacy. I was inside when they executed him. I believe wholeheartedly that the executions started speeding up once they executed him. It caused them to execute more black men after they executed him because they thought well, we executed one of ours. And then they executed Gervies Davis, even though he says they threatened to shoot him if he didn’t sign a confession, but he couldn’t even read. And they executed this man. They have a way of tricking the mind of the public, and after that the doors opened up and a whole flood of executions came out.

PK: I want to thank you and Chick for your activism. All along, as you’re doing your work as a lawyer, you’re also working in the community to help end this. And you, Ms. Smith, you’re locked up, but you’re still acting to help people. You mentioned Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who taught us that you lead by example. The Black Panther Party always talked about leading by example. And Ms. Smith, that’s what you did inside. The other women saw you and said, well if she can do it, I can do it.

GS: And sometimes it’s hard. What they have me do when I go into a prison now is to give them the date that I’m coming, and the prison goes into an uproar. There’s pushing and shoving to get their name on the list, and they steal the list sometimes and start a new list. And I remember the day I was leaving. It was in the morning, and I think the prison did this to see what was going to happen. And they released me and I had to walk up to the gatehouse. When the women saw me, some of them started running. And they’re not supposed to run. And one lady who’s still there, she’s a lifer, she beat everybody to me. But by that time the patrol car saw her running toward me, and they gave the impression that she was going to hurt me. So she ran up to me and locked her arms around me, and her momentum staggered me a little bit. Just then the patrol car reached me and the guys jumped out and grabbed her, she had fallen all the way down to the ground and was screaming and yelling “what are we gonna do without you, because you kept them off us.”

CH: Geraldine didn’t just affect the people inside. While she was locked up in her cement coffin, she recruited over 300 churches to get active in the anti-death penalty movement, and when I argued her case before the Illinois Supreme Court, there were busloads of people who came down. Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that judges aren’t influenced by packed courtrooms.

PK: You just told me that included Reverend Moss from Trinity United, who was the one who invited Michelle Alexander.

GS: It started with the senior pastor Jeremiah Wright.

PK: That’s why I feel comfortable there. I don’t believe in any of it, but I believe in what they believe about change, about social change and how we need to help each other and make this a better place. Even if there is another better place.

CH: I want to thank you for inviting me here. I always enjoy coming out. I don’t get much opportunity to talk about the death penalty anymore.

GS: And I don’t want you to forget the invitation that I gave to all of you. Sometimes the message that we bring is more welcome among the people that it has affected. You know what I mean? And I think that Englewood is among the most known neighborhoods for what the police are doing, people coming home from prison, and the pipeline that goes into it. And I think they would appreciate knowing that even a small group like this have so much interest.

PK: We were talking about this earlier. We struggled to find places on the west side. It was easier on the south side because that’s where the church is. But they don’t have much connection to the west side. I live in Oak Park, but the church was asking me to find places on the west side.

GS: I have space that you can use.

PK: I’ll definitely share that with the church. Well, thank you Chick and Geraldine, and thank you all for coming.