COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — “OK if I take my lunch break now?” a masked executioner says to a colleague trying to insert a syringe into the arm of a death row inmate strapped to a gurney.
The scene is depicted in a Sept. 20, 2009, panel by political cartoonist Jeff Danziger and is one of several political cartoons about capital punishment in an exhibit at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.
Danziger’s cartoon ran a few days after the botched execution of Ohio death row inmate Romell Broom, which was stopped after executioners failed to find a usable vein after two hours of trying. Broom remains on death row.
“Windows On Death Row,” organized by a TV journalist and documentary maker and her political cartoonist husband, offers a look at artistic commentary about capital punishment over the past 50 years.
The exhibit also features several drawings and paintings by death row inmates in Arkansas, California, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, some still behind bars, some who have since been executed.
The decision to create the exhibit came in 2014 after new debate over capital punishment arose following troublesome executions in Arizona and Ohio, said Patrick Chappatte, editorial cartoonist for The International New York Times.
The project is not about crimes that led to death sentences but what comes afterward, Chappatte said.
“We just hope to encourage a discussion through art. It’s not a militant act,” he said. “We think that sometimes, in places where words divide, and fail to help us connect, images can do the job.”
The exhibit doesn’t take an overt position on the death penalty. But the cartoons are overwhelmingly critical of the practice. The curators are candid about this, saying no one submitted a pro-death penalty viewpoint. To find that, officials dug into their files at the cartoon museum, the world’s largest, and found two.
“Nobody gave me any second chance,” says the ghost of a crime victim rising from a grave in one of the pro-death penalty cartoons, a 1972 illustration by the late Karl Hubenthal, an editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. The cartoon responded to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that year declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.
The inmate art, commissioned from prisoners for this exhibit, ranges from cartoon-like sketches to deeply nuanced paintings.
Obtaining the work was a complicated process involving contacting inmates, getting them the materials and then getting the paintings out of prisons, said Chappatte’s wife, Anne-Frederique Widmann, an investigative reporter, producer and documentary filmmaker for Swiss TV Broadcasting.
The black and white “Self Portrait,” by Texas death row inmate Arnold Prieto, depicts Prieto with his head bowed in despair in a pit of rising water, manacled to a skull with a Salvador Dali-like clock dripping away the hours. Prieto was executed in January 2015 for stabbing three people to death with two accomplices during a 1993 robbery. He was the only one who received a death sentence.
The painting “depicts how it’s like to be inside,” the inmate wrote for the exhibit. “I suffered from depression. It shows what I lived for the past 20 years.”
A five-part series of cartoons by Chappatte recreates his last phone conversation with Prieto before his execution.
“OK, go in peace,” Chappatte says in one panel.
“Thank you, sir. Have a good day,” Prieto says as he hangs up.
“Thank God I didn’t say, ‘You too,'” Chappatte says in the cartoon.
The exhibit opened in Los Angeles in 2015 and has been seen in Oslo, Norway, and Geneva, Switzerland. It heads to Texas this spring and New York in the fall.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins
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