Amid the Lingering Trauma of Trump's Executions, a New Project Brings Families to Federal Death RowLiliana Segura The Intercept
Amid the Lingering Trauma of Trump’s Executions, a New Project Brings Families to Federal Death Row
Growing up, Newson did not know the details of his father’s case. Ra’id was simply the dad with a playful sense of humor who loved Prince and kung fu movies and teaching his son to weightlift. Although his parents separated when Newson was young, he’d seen Ra’id frequently; the year before his father’s arrest, Newson traveled from his home in Atlanta to spend the summer in Michigan City, Indiana, where Ra’id ran a car wash and spent nights working security at the zoo. “We would look at all the animals and basically get like a backstage pass,” Newson recalled.
In 2002, Ra’id was arrested alongside several other suspects following a botched bank robbery that left two people dead and another paralyzed. His co-defendants pointed to him as the mastermind, which Ra’id adamantly denied. “I did not take part in that atrocity,” he told the court following his trial. “I did not shoot and kill anyone.”
Newson attended his father’s sentencing hearing, along with his mother, Jeannie Gipson-Newson. A death sentence would be “devastating to my child,” she remembered testifying. But it felt futile. The jurors seemed to have made up their minds. In 2004, Ra’id was sentenced to die.
Like many parents, Ra’id didn’t show his children he was struggling. “He never really liked to be a burden to anyone,” Newson recalled. After his first several years on death row, Ra’id stopped reaching out to Newson. When he later learned about his grandchildren, he was reluctant to form a relationship with them. “Even if they meet me, it will be behind glass,” Newson remembered him saying. “I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t hug them.”
In the spring of 2020, however, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began allotting hundreds of free phone minutes to people in federal custody under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Ra’id began calling his son. Soon, they were talking multiple times a week. Ra’id’s grandchildren eventually “won him over,” Newson said. Before long, Ra’id was sending portraits of the kids drawn in his death row cell.
Later that year, the Trump administration began carrying out the first federal executions in 17 years. One by one, Ra’id saw longtime neighbors taken to die. “It definitely was nerve-wracking for him,” Newson said. “He’s like, ‘People that I’ve been in here with for the last 10, 15 years … you see them get called and never come back.’” Like all his neighbors, Ra’id feared getting an execution date himself. In the end, he survived.
In 2022, Ra’id’s legal team told Newson about a new program to help families visit loved ones on federal death row. The initiative was started by anti-death penalty activists who raised money to provide financial support for travel, lodging, and meals. Ra’id, who had always been firm that Newson should not spend money on him that could be spent on his kids, seemed enthusiastic. A self-described procrastinator, Newson did not fill out the paperwork right away. But last May, he flew from Atlanta to Indianapolis, where he was picked up by volunteers, then driven straight to the penitentiary.
Things did not go according to plan. At security, Newson was told he was in violation of the dress code and would not be allowed inside. He called his ride and went to a nearby Walmart. By the time he returned in new clothes, there was only an hour left of visitation.
Newson’s agitation dissipated when he spotted his dad. “It was a flood of emotions coming over me,” he said. The last time they’d seen one another, Ra’id was in the best shape of his life. Now Newson stared at his gray beard, overwhelmed by the years they had lost. He wanted badly to reach out but was stopped by the thick plexiglass. He struggled to understand the rationale. “I’m his son. What is he going to do to me?”
The hour went quickly. By the end of Newson’s second visit that weekend, they had talked about virtually everything. Ra’id was eager to share what he was reading; he had recently finished “King Leopold’s Ghost,” about Belgium’s violent exploitation of Congo. He urged his son to pay attention to the state of politics in the U.S. “There are some things out there that should terrify you,” he said. “And you just gotta be ready for whatever’s coming.”
Saying goodbye was “gut-wrenching,” Newson said. He resolved to apply for another visit, this time with his wife and kids.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Ra’id turned 59 years old. When Newson wished him a happy birthday, he replied, “Ain’t nothing happy about this,” then changed the subject to his grandson, who was about to turn 10. He kept his son company on the phone the next day as Newson rushed to get his kids ready for school.
On Thursday, Ra’id called early in the morning. Newson was in the middle of a serious conversation with his wife, so Ra’id said he would call back. He never did. The next day, during a break at work, Newson retrieved his cellphone from his locker and saw a flurry of messages from family members. Ra’id had been found unresponsive at the prison that morning. He was declared dead shortly afterward. The cause, Newson later learned, was suicide.
“We Have to Do Something”
The Death Row Visitation Project was an attempt to make something good out of something horrific.
Even for veteran abolitionists, the execution spree that began in Terre Haute in 2020 was an unprecedented nightmare: twelve men and one woman killed in the federal death chamber over the course of six months. The killings were carried out amid a deadly pandemic, and the virus spread among those who traveled to Terre Haute. By the last executions in January 2021, prison staff, death penalty lawyers, reporters, and the condemned men themselves had gotten sick with Covid-19, while the Supreme Court did nothing to intervene.
Among those scarred by the executions was Bill Breeden, a longtime pacifist and Universalist minister who served as spiritual adviser to Corey Johnson, the 12th person put to death. Inside the execution chamber, officials refused to let Breeden deliver the statement he’d written with Johnson, words filled with love for Johnson’s family and remorse for his crimes. Breeden was especially haunted by the fact that Johnson had spent 29 years in solitary confinement without a visit from relatives. In the run-up to the execution, Breeden raised money from his congregation to bring Johnson’s family to Terre Haute. But Johnson’s legal team offered to cover the costs, leaving Breeden with unexpected funds.
It’s not unusual for people on death row to become estranged from their families. The stigma of a death sentence compounds the practical challenges of staying in touch. Phone calls, stamps, and emails get expensive quickly — and visits are often prohibitive. While studies have consistently shownOpens in a new tab the importance of maintaining close ties to loved ones while in prison, they tend to be framed around reducing recidivism, which does not apply to people the government intends to kill. And though the BOP boastsOpens in a new tab a “policy to place individuals within 500 miles of their release residence, as available and appropriate,” the policy is irrelevant to people on federal death row.
“No matter where that person’s from, they are housed here in Terre Haute,” said Barbara Battista, an activist and Catholic sister with the local Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, which has a longstanding relationship with the penitentiary. “That’s a real burden for persons with minimal resources, not just financial but emotional, psychological.”
Like Breeden, Battista served as a spiritual adviser during the federal executions, accompanying two men, including Keith Nelson, who was among the first to die. “Keith was the one who said to me, ‘I want you to tell the world what goes on in here,’” she recalled. To her, this meant not only the chillingly sanitized ritual of lethal injection, but also the brutal isolation that generated so much suffering for the condemned and their loved ones. In conversations with Breeden, “we were like, ‘We have to do something about this,’” Battista said.
Helping families visit death row seemed like an ideal use of the leftover funds. Breeden and Battista teamed up with veteran death penalty lawyer Margaret O’Donnell, who had joined the execution vigils in Terre Haute and was well acquainted with the BOP’s myriad rules, some of which she had never been able to comprehend. Men on federal death row, for example, are prohibited from receiving visits from anyone who did not know them prior to their convictions, a policy that stifles new relationships. “So many local people would visit if they could,” O’Donnell said. “The system is set up to fail human beings.”
The group formed a committee to review applications and approve spending decisions. In June 2022, they sent a letter to everyone on federal death row announcing the Terre Haute Death Row Visitation Project. Battista’s name and email address were on the bottom of the form. She was soon inundated with responses.
Today, the burgeoning program has funded at least 18 visits for a quarter of the 40 men on federal death row. Applications are processed four times a year, with a small network of volunteers providing everything from airport rides to gift cards at local restaurants. With a shoestring budget sustained by small donations, the programOpens in a new tab has limited capacity. “Each guy can have one funded visit a year,” O’Donnell explained. Eventually, they hope to provide more.
To O’Donnell, the project is about “inserting a little bit of humanity into an inhumane system.” While it cannot undo the psychic toll of living under a death sentence, the visitation program provides a critical lifeline. In the wake of the execution spree, Ra’id’s suicide underscored the unseen trauma among those who survived. For families who lived through the executions, the visits are a chance to reunite with relatives whose future remains uncertain. With Donald Trump vying to return to office, many fear that their loved ones may not survive a new administration.
Yet the looming specter of executions is only one reason the visits feel so urgent. Families I spoke to expressed deep concern over the day-to-day conditions on federal death row, especially the impact of long-term solitary confinement on their loved ones’ mental health. After his father’s death, Newson has returned to this again and again. “We can’t even begin to imagine what the last 20 years for him has been like,” he said.
I went to Terre Haute a few weeks before Ra’id’s suicide, in November 2023. It was the first time I’d been back since the execution spree. Outside the Dollar General across from the penitentiary, anti-death penalty signs had been left by activists passing through town, one of which read, “Execution is not the solution.”
The presence of protesters was often the only hint of the killings being carried out at the sprawling prison complex. News coverage was relatively sparse, eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic, national upheaval over the killing of George Floyd, and the chaos of the 2020 presidential race.
Through it all, the Dollar General became a gathering spot for demonstrators, reporters, and occasionally family members of the condemned, who were otherwise rendered invisible. Unlike victims’ loved ones, who received a range of support from the BOP and had a chance to address the press after executions, relatives of the condemned were not allowed in the media room at all.
This erasure was part of a larger experience known as disenfranchised griefOpens in a new tab, in which pain and loss are not socially validated. For many death row families, a loved one’s sentence is something they do not share with their employers, classmates, or neighbors. Executions become something to process in private. As the sister of Dustin Higgs, the last man put to death by the Trump administration, told me, “It’s hard to explain how you feel to people because this is not a normal grief.”
Many activists and family members felt a glimmer of hope after the executions ended. Although Trump’s killing spree had been mostly ignored during the presidential race, Joe Biden vowed to “pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level” and encourage states to do the same. In a letterOpens in a new tab written on behalf of 45 members of Congress, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., urged then-Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland to stop seeking new death sentences and “direct the Bureau of Prisons to dismantle the federal death chamber.”
That didn’t happen. The execution chamber remains intact. And while the Biden Justice Department took the death penalty off the table in a number of cases inherited from the Trump administration, it has continued to seek new death sentences. Last year, a federal jury voted in favor of the death penalty for Robert Bowers, the man who killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. Last month, the Biden administration announcedOpens in a new tab it would seek the death penalty against the 18-year-old mass shooter who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in 2022.
Today, many death row families feel forgotten by Biden. Despite a new BOP director who promised reform of the notoriously dysfunctional federal prison system, conditions have not improved for the men in Terre Haute. In October, the population of the Special Confinement Unit had to be moved to a different part of the prison due to an electrical malfunction that was impacting the opening and closing of cell doors. Staff shortages often have prison guards working mandated overtime — 16-hour shifts that lead to burnout and frustration too easily taken out on the men in their custody.
I met Mark Issac Snarr’s family in a quiet corner of the Drury Inn and Suites on Route 41. Snarr’s younger brother, Zach, had just left the prison with his wife, Kelsey. The brothers’ father had died in August, just one month after being diagnosed with cancer, and the pain of the loss was written on Zach’s face. With blue eyes and a long, shaggy beard, he bore a strong resemblance to his brother and dad alike.
The Snarrs had spent the past three days visiting Mark. The days were long; they arrived around 8 a.m., went through security, and waited to be escorted to the top floor of the building, where visitation lasted until 3 p.m. Yet the time went fast — “too fast,” Zach said. He looked forward to buying his brother snacks and microwaveable sandwiches from the vending machine. “I got him a chicken cordon bleu today,” Zach said with a slight smile. “He liked it.”
Snarr was already incarcerated when he was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a man at a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. He arrived in Terre Haute in 2010. Even by the standards of the Special Confinement Unit, Snarr has almost no freedom of movement, spending 23 hours a day in his cell. Zach calculates that he has spent almost 25 years in segregated housing, which is unheard of in the rest of the world.
Snarr’s survival is almost certainly rooted in strong ties to his family. He and his brother talk once a week, and he calls his mother every day. “She kind of reports back to the family,” Kelsey said. Through his relatives, Snarr receives reminders that he has not been entirely forgotten. “People from when he was a kid, 10 years old, you know, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, please tell him I love him. I’m thinking about him,’” Kelsey said.
Kelsey was one of the first people to apply for the visitation program. After the family’s first application was declined for lack of funds, they were approved to visit in 2023 but canceled due to Zach’s father’s illness. As Kelsey recalled, the woman she spoke to reassured her that they would hold their spot. “She’s like, ‘Just contact us whenever the time is right.’ And that was very kind of them.”
Willingness to adapt to families’ changing circumstances is important for those who don’t have much flexibility in their lives. Although Zach and Kelsey would likely have found a way to visit Snarr on their own, many people are not in a position to do the same. “Most of these families are indigent,” Zach said. “Or health-wise, they’re not good.” The journey to Terre Haute is especially daunting for families who live as far away as they do. From their home in northern Utah, the drive takes some 22 hours, or about three days on a Greyhound bus. “Then you go visit four or five days,” Zach said. “It’s really exhausting.”
Zach was thankful that the program had allowed his father to come to Terre Haute before he died. Although he and Snarr’s mother split up when he was young, the two remained close; they visited their son together, staying at a lakeside cabin on the lush, leafy grounds of St. Mary-of-the-Woods. The cabins are secluded and designed for quiet contemplation, a welcome oasis after a day spent inside a prison. There was even an equestrian center nearby, which delighted his father, who raised horses. “It was paradise for him, honestly,” Zach said. “Couldn’t have asked for a better place for him to be for his last visit.”
From death row, Snarr sent the Catholic sisters a gift: a framed oil painting of two birds against a brilliant orange sunset. “I want to thank you all for making it possible to see my family,” he wrote. “I am forever grateful.”
A few days later, I met Mariette Mendez, the sister of Daniel Troya, who has been on death row since 2009. She had managed to make the trip to Terre Haute only one other time since his conviction. She drove with her parents and brother from South Florida, where she lived at the time. It took nearly 18 hours.
Troya and a co-defendant were sent to death row for killing a family of four in a drug-related shooting on a Florida highway. His sentencing judge lamented that despite growing up in a “wonderful family,” Troya had no regard for human life. But this didn’t capture the brother Mendez knew. And it was certainly not true of the man he’d become. Now 40, he had matured, she said, describing him as “an old soul in a young body.”
Mendez was being hosted by volunteers with the program. The basement guest area was spacious, with a large bed and sofa bed covered with quilts. There was a kitchenette with Zebra Cakes on the counter, along with microwavable macaroni and cheese. Mendez wore a weary smile, her long black hair pulled back in a bun. On her forearm, she had a tattoo that read “resilient.”
Mendez was drained after a long day at the prison. She had flown from Houston the night before with her two teenage sons and her 2-year-old, Jasai, then got up early to be at the prison. It was a lot for Jasai — “my little monster” — but Mendez was determined to make the most of the trip. “When I got that email, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening,’” she said. “If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know when I’d be able to come and see him.”
Like other families who lived through the execution spree, Mendez had been gripped by the fear that her brother could be next. “I was terrified.” Any time Troya called, she would brace herself for the possibility that his time was up. It was on her mind “all day, every day,” she said. “I’m still not settled, you know?”
Mendez became emotional describing the moment she saw her brother. “It was pure, like, ‘Oh my God!’” she said. “You just want to reach out and touch, but you can’t.” His whole face lit up when he saw her youngest son, whom he’d never met. “It took my breath away to see his smile.”
For Troya, the opportunity to have a relationship with his nephews gave him a sense of purpose and pride. He recalled how his sister used to tell her boys to turn off the TV when he called. “I thought to myself, ‘These kids might think I’m important. I’m sure there’s not much of that from anyone else.’” The realization motivated him to improve himself, to learn how to “handle the responsibilities of being a loving and caring uncle.” He has tried to be a good influence, warning them to stay out of trouble and cautioning them about interactions with police. “I can’t claim to be an angel, but I know one thing. I am a great fucking uncle. … And the visiting project allows me to do that in person.”
“One Long Death”
A few weeks after my visit to Indiana, I got a press release from the Bureau of Prisons. It was titled “Death at USP Terre Haute.” At 9:25 a.m. on December 1, it read, “Odell Corley was found unresponsive” and pronounced dead. Ra’id’s biography was distilled into 78 words, listing his age, the crimes for which he was convicted, and the date he arrived on death row.
O’Donnell, the death penalty lawyer, heard about Ra’id’s death from his legal team, who asked if the visitation fund might be able to help Newson and his family attend the funeral in Michigan City. The committee approved it unanimously. Although O’Donnell was saddened by Ra’id’s death — there had not been another suicide on federal death row in her nearly 40 years of practice — it didn’t entirely surprise her. “Our clients live difficult, difficult lives,” she said. She was heartened that Newson had been able to see his father before losing him. “To have spent time with him even as limited as it was. … That’s why I wanted this program to exist.”
Ra’id’s death came as a gut punch to Breeden, the minister, who had spent time with Newson in Terre Haute. Breeden got the news from a close friend on death row, who himself had attempted suicide three times. “I think the general population can’t understand what solitary confinement is like,” Breeden said. “People need to understand that death row is really just one long death. You’re not living when you’re in solitary confinement. You’re dying.” For his friend, the temporary unit where they have spent the past few months has a silver lining. Unlike the regular Special Confinement Unit, which only affords a partial view of the cell across the way, “they can see each other.”
Two weeks after Christmas, I met Rose Holomn at her home in Atlanta. Her chihuahua, Goldie, was curled up on the couch while Holomn showed me photos of her son, Julius Robinson. Once a year for the past several years, Goldie has made the trip to Terre Haute alongside Holomn, usually in August — Robinson’s birthday month. In a set of recent pictures, he wore khaki pants, a brown jacket, and white sneakers. On the back of one photo, he’d written his age: 47. On another: “Lookin good and feeling good!”
Holomn had not heard much about the suicide in Terre Haute. Although she was in frequent contact with her son, he tried to shield her from things like that. She knew Robinson had been affected by the killing spree. “I could hear it in his voice. As a mother, you know when your child is hurting.” The executions had been traumatic enough watching from the outside. “Every month … it was like, God, Jesus,” she said. “That’s somebody’s child.”
Robinson was disturbed by the killing of Corey Johnson, who was intellectually disabled. “He didn’t even know why he was getting executed,” Holomn remembered her son telling her. And he was especially wounded by the execution of Christopher Vialva, who was an integral part of Robinson’s faith community and admired for his talent at crochet — a popular pastime on death row. For Holomn’s birthday last year, Robinson sent a large blue blanket displaying their family tree, the names of his relatives neatly crocheted with bright orange yarn.
Robinson was sentenced to die in 2002 for a series of murders tied to a drug ring in North Texas. He was 25 years old. For most of his first decade on death row, Holomn was living in Dayton, Ohio, which meant Terre Haute was relatively close. She tried to visit every weekend, sometimes driving out and back in a day. The no-contact visits were painful at first, but she got used to it. “I can’t touch my son, but at least I can go and see him,” she said. She kept going even when others could not keep up, like Robinson’s older brother. “When he did go, he would take it so hard. He just stopped going for a while.”
After nine years in Ohio, however, Holomn moved back to her hometown in rural Arkansas, just over the Mississippi border. Her visits dwindled to once a year. As she got older and moved to Atlanta, health and financial challenges made the trips even harder. But she stays in touch with Robinson via email and phone calls. When I visited, she was teasing him over her beloved Dallas Cowboys’ thumping of the Washington Commanders.
Holomn lit up talking about her son. She felt optimistic about his ongoing appeals, which she discussed with Robinson’s legal team the last time she was in Terre Haute. But there was sadness just beneath the surface. She felt betrayed by Biden. “He didn’t keep his promise,” she said. “As a mother, having a son on death row, it’s a hard, aching experience.”
Holomn was filled with gratitude for the visitation program. The drive from Atlanta takes about eight hours, and she could usually only stay for a weekend. Now she can stay a whole week. The program has also helped other family members visit, most recently Robinson’s 70-year-old father, Jimmie, who had not seen his son in four years. Holomn went with him; she laughed recalling a fevered argument father and son had over religion. “I could’ve stayed at home,” she said. “They had a marvelous time.”
Jimmie died of a heart attack a few weeks later. It was painful to break the news to Robinson, who was stunned. But Holomn was certain he would get through the loss the way he has survived everything else. “My baby has been so strong,” she said. “And if he hasn’t, he’s doing a good job of hiding it.”
A few days after visiting Holomn, I met Newson at his home south of Atlanta. “Welcome to our comfortable happy sometimes loud usually messy full of love home,” a wall decoration read.
To my surprise, Newson had only recently learned about the circumstances of his father’s death. No one from the prison had ever reached out to him, he said. He read the details in a news story, which pained and confused him. The articleOpens in a new tab said his father had discussed his plans with loved ones beforehand, but he’d never said anything to Newson. He was still grappling with what to believe. “Parents put on masks for their kids no matter what’s going on,” Newson reasoned. “But I genuinely can’t remember a time that I saw him sad.”
There are signs in Ra’id’s case files that he struggled with his mental health. In a petition challenging his death sentence in 2010, Ra’id’s attorneys highlighted bouts of depression and jail records that suggested he’d attempted suicide once before. The petition also described a childhood marked by trauma, abuse, and racism, including at the hands of a grade school art teacher who told him he’d never amount to anything.
In fact, Ra’id’s artistic talent remains a point of pride for Newson, whose home is filled with lovingly rendered portraits of his family, including the grandchildren Ra’id never got to meet but reproduced from photographs. When Ra’id heard that his grandson had been accepted into a local elementary school for the arts, “he was ecstatic,” Newson recalled. He wished he could be there to nurture his grandson’s talent. Instead, he sent his pencils, erasers, and sketchbooks from death row.
In one of their last phone calls, Ra’id admitted that he wasn’t in the best headspace. “He didn’t call it a depression,” Newson said. “He said, ‘I’m kind of in this funk that I can’t seem to shake.’” He thought he might snap out of it if he tackled a new drawing he’d been planning. “But I don’t think he ever got around to it.” Ra’id’s final portrait, of his granddaughter and her cousin, came in the mail a few days after he died.
“I don’t want to say the word ‘closure,’” Newson said about seeing his father one last time. But he treasured the time they got together. He wanted people to understand that men on death row have families who love them. “And this is impacting them too.” Newson’s wife came home as our visit was wrapping up. For years, she had watched as Ra’id’s relationship with his son had blossomed. “His presence was felt,” she said. “I’m so happy that I got to witness it. It was a beautiful thing.”