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By MICHAEL LOPEZ Staff writer
First published: Thursday, May 18, 2000
Sing Sing execution artifacts once again timely

Here is a gallery of shattered lives destroyed by violence -- sometimes committed in the throws of drunkenness or sexual aggression, sometimes surfacing as unexplained evil -- and the people on view are sure to rouse conflicting emotions of sympathy, anger and disgust.

Assembled by the dozen in stark black-and-white mug shots are inmates of the notorious Sing Sing prison, most of them executed from the 1940s through 1963, when Eddie Lee Mays became the last prisoner sent to the electric chair in New York state.

The photographs, last meals, clemency pleas and farewell letters, compiled by author Scott Christianson in a new book and accompanying traveling exhibit, may have been interesting artifacts when he first sought them in the early 1970s. But now that New York has reinstated the death penalty, Christianson says the records are relevant fodder for an examination of capital punishment.

"Simply by compiling a picture of what these records contained and what they depict would be very educational to the public, and would offer, I thought, some very compelling evidence about the realities of the death penalty,'' he said of the book, "Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House'' (2000, New York University Press). The month-long companion exhibit, which debuted at John Jay College in New York, will open Saturday at Time & Space Limited, a Hudson arts organization.

View of realities: "The purpose is not to polemicize. It is to use these excerpts from the state's own files ... and let people see the realities and make up their own minds about this institution, which is now back.''

Shrouded in secrecy and rigidly efficient, the Sing Sing Death House between 1891 and 1963 carried out 614 executions, a record that stands among American prisons.

A former newspaper reporter and state criminal justice official, Christianson summarizes Sing Sing history, from its beginnings in 1825 as a hard-labor penitentiary to its infamous death house, an impenetrable fort where even the FBI required top approval to enter.

Sing Sing, in Westchester County, was the birthplace of modern American capital punishment. "New York was instrumental in developing a system of prison-based execution, a system of capital punishment in which we recognize the modern system,'' Christianson said.

He had originally sought various prison documentation as a university researcher in the early 1970s. In 1977, a segment of those, the Sing Sing death row files, were deposited at the New York State Archives.

After a lengthy career in state criminal justice -- ended in 1995 when Christianson resigned in large part because of Gov. George Pataki's intent to restore capital punishment -- Christianson the author unearthed the files. New York reinstated the death penalty on Sept. 1, 1995, but has not yet carried it out.

Spare of text, the cases he found picture the convict, summarize the crime and the defendant's admission or profession of innocence, and -- usually -- the execution date.

A who's who: Among them are the famous and anonymous. Heading the list of the notorious are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 after being convicted of conspiring to commit espionage. Their mug shots were stolen, but their last words to their children survive. "Be composed then, that we were serene and understood with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life.''

Helen Ray Fowler, a mother of five convicted of beating her husband to death in 1944, is in agony, in facial expression and word. In her last appeal to the lieutenant governor, Fowler claimed she was innocent. "Please spare my life. I've not been no nuisance to society.''

Protestations of innocence were not as common as citizens perceive: Just 40 percent of the death-row inmates continued to assert their innocence, Christianson found.

The majority freely admitted guilt.

Martha Jule Beck, an accomplice of the "Lonely Hearts Killers,'' who preyed on lonely women in the 1940s, stated that the spree was "something I got into I had no control.''

Edward Kelly, who looked like the average businessmen, was executed in 1952 for shooting a stranger. His claim: "Lost control.''

Christianson believes innocent people did die at Sing Sing. He cites in particular the case of two Asian men, convicted in 1943 of strangling a woman during a hotel robbery. At the 11th hour, Yun Tieh Li feverishly proclaimed the innocence of his accomplice, Lew York Hing. Both were executed the following year.

Others were exonerated, and increasingly successful appeals in later years did stall executions.

Christianson is unabashedly opposed to the death penalty, but believes the unvarnished records speak for themselves. "Look, I'm not a neutral person, there's no question about that. But I leave it up to the readers to make their judgment about the issue and about my book. The proof is in the pudding.''

Linking art and life: Linda Mussmann, who with Claudia Bruce runs Time & Space Limited in the former Grossman Bakery in Hudson, said that this exhibit is in keeping with their philosophy of linking art to politics and community life. The pair are known particularly for their multi-media productions, the latest on fast food: Enlisting local young people for live performance and video, TSL commented on fast food's literal salty allure, as well as its powerful corporate domination.

Mussmann said the spareness of the death-row mug shots and text is appealing -- and effective.

"I don't think I'm interested in changing their minds about (the death penalty). My personal goal is that we think about it seriously. Whether we're for or against it, we need to rethink this issue of the state having a role in taking a person's life.''

The free documentary exhibit and book talk on "Condemned'' is planned from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Time & Space Limited, 434 Columbia St., Hudson. The exhibit will remain through June.


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Scott Christianson