professional project: the beginnings

April 12, 2010

Over the next months, I will be working on my professional project, the capstone of my photojournalism course at the University of Missouri. The plan is to take an in-depth look at capital punishment and the emotional impact it has on the three most immediately affected groups of people: The families of murder victims, the families of death-sentenced prisoners, and the prisoners themselves. Over the last weeks I have started researching support groups for victim families who could help me find people who might be willing to work with me. I’ve used the casenet database to find addresses of defense lawyers of death sentenced prisoners who can forward personal letters to the prisoners’ families for me. And I’ve also talked to Jeff Stack, a Columbia-based anti-death penalty activist who has great in-depth knowledge about the issue and knows a wide variety of people involved in it.

Jeff has put me in touch with Valerie Brown, a Columbia woman whose daughter Angela was murdered 10 years ago on November 7, 2000. She was shot by her boyfriend Deandra Buchanan after he killed his aunt and stepfather while being under the influence of crack. Angela had two baby girls with Deandra who were both in her arms when he shot her. The police found Angela still alive on the sidewalk, holding her two girls. She was brought to the hospital where she died four days later.

Deandra was initially sentenced to death, but the verdict was handed down by the judge as the jury in the penalty phase of the trial was deadlocked 11-1. In 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his sentence following a retroactive U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ring vs. Arizona in June 2002 that a death sentence must be handed down by a jury, not by a judge.

Valerie was left behind with her daughter’s two girls Dreisha and Drejanay, who were 2 years and 6 months old at the time of the shooting. She never supported the death penalty for Buchanan. “He’s got a lot to answer for, you know. … He is the only surviving … parent of the kids. And I know that when they grow up, they’d have [questions],” she said. Over the last ten years, Valerie has made her peace with Buchanan. Faith and family played a major role for her during that time. Finally, earlier this year, she went to see him in prison – to tell him that she had forgiven him for what he did.

I met Valerie the first time in February and interviewed her for almost an hour. Because of POYi, I wasn’t able to see her again until Mid-March. When I met her the second time, I asked her if she would let me photograph her and the two girls, and she was immediately ok with it. I started working with them on the Easter weekend when they had an egg hunt in their backyard. Besides raising her two grand daughters, Valerie took in a number of foster children and started running a day care and consequently, her house is always full of children and people who drop off or pick up their kids. Currently, two foster children who are up for adoption are living with Valerie and her granddaughters.

Photographing the past is always difficult, if not impossible to do, especially when the events in question happened such a long time ago. I will not be able to tell much about Angela in pictures except for a detail or two of her pictures in the house. In order to tell Valerie’s story, I will have to focus on the impacts that the loss of her daughter had on her life. The relationship with her grandchildren, her devotion to the foster and day care kids, her faith, but also the pain that still lives inside her and comes through every once in a while.

Below are a few selects from my first days with Valerie. They are not great, and they are definitely not yet where they should be in terms of showing all these things. I consider them visual notes. But spending that time with Valerie and her family was very important for getting to know and trust each other and to gradually develop the level of access that I will need to get these pictures.

Dreisha smiles at Valerie as she is speaking on the phone while they are preparing an Easter Egg hunt, Good Friday, April 2, 2010.

Several rings, bracelets and artificial finger nails adorn Valerie’s hands.

Valerie and her friend Paul hide the Easter Eggs in her back yard, Good Friday, April 2, 2010.

The kids, who split up in teams of two, look for the Easter Eggs in Valerie’s back yard.

Valerie and Paul help the kids count the eggs they found to decide who won the hunt.

Valerie comforts Seth (name changed on request of legal custodian), one of the foster kids who live with her.

Drejanay takes a picture of her grandmother together with Mija Hoffman, left, and Mija’s younger sister Toni Rush, the daughters of Deandra Buchanan’s aunt Juanita Hoffman, one of his three victims. Toni and Mija were driving by in their car when they saw Valerie and the girls outside. After the murder trial, they did not have much contact with Valerie and the two girls until recently. They thought that since they are blood relatives to Buchanan, Valerie might be uncomfortable with them being around.

Valerie and the kids eat at Pizza Hut, Friday, April 2, 2010.

Valerie explains to Nautica, one of the day care children, why she shouldn’t run in a restaurant, Firday, April 10, 2010.

Valerie frowns at Jayman, one of the the day care kids, as he gets to close to her beloved flower beds.

Valeire on her front porch, Friday, April 2, 2010.

From left, foster child Veronica (name changed on request of legal custodian), day care child Nautica, Dreisha, Drejanay, Valerie, Paul, foster child Seth and day care child Jayman hang out together on Valerie’s front porch during a rainy stretch on Good Friday, April 2, 2010.

Valerie tickles her dachshund Tinky. A few months back, she was offered $3,000 for the dog as he is a pure bred, but she declined. “The girls would kill me if I came home without their dog,” she said.

Valerie wipes Jayman’s nose. Jayman and his sister Nautica are at Valerie’s day care almost daily.

A photograph of Angela hangs next to recent pictures of Dreisha and Drejanay in Valerie’s living room.

Valerie, Drejanay and Dreisha are getting ready for church on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010.

Valerie untangles a dog chain around Drejanay’s legs, Sunday, April 11, 2010. The dog had been running in circles around the girls legs while she was taking a picture with her grandmother’s new camera.

Valerie, her niece, her sisters [names to come] and Ernie [last name to come], the grandfather of the two foster children Seth and Veronica, chat in the kitchen of Valerie’s house during a family barbecue on Sunday, April 11, 2010.

Valerie fools around with her niece [name to come] during a family barbecue at her house, Sunday, April 11, 2010.

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