On February 11, I testified before members of the New York State Assembly at a public forum on the death penalty. The hearing was the final in a series of public sessions called by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last fall to examine New York’s death penalty statute. The law was struck down in June by the State Court of Appeals, making New York the latest in a growing number of states that are rethinking their commitment to state-sanctioned executions. With a de facto moratorium currently in place, the hearings’ purpose was to determine whether the law should be fixed or killed once and for all.
I applied to testify at the hearing as a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a national grassroots organization with which I have been active since college. Because “grassroots” can sometimes feel synonymous with a lack of resources or mainstream political clout, I hadn’t expected to be among the witnesses called, and was unsurprised when I didn’t make the initial cut. I’m a fairly young activist, after all, and those chosen to testify were largely academics and legal experts, as well as prominent members of New York law enforcement and religious communities. In other words, people with credentials.
What we lack in official titles, however, the CEDP makes up for in relationships with people who have been affected by the death penalty. Our members include exonerated death row inmates and their families–people whose voices are critical to–yet often absent from–any real debate about the death penalty’s societal effects.
At the first round of hearings last December 15th at the New York City Bar Association, the CEDP was represented by two men who I have grown to admire: Madison Hobley, one of the four former Illinois death row inmates whose documented innocence led to a pardon by Gov. George Ryan in 2003, and Shujaa Graham, a former Black Panther who was imprisoned in California in 1969 and falsely accused of killing a prison guard in 1973. After a morning spent listening to studies that cited “racial bias” in the distribution of the death penalty, the statistics took human form during Madison’s description of the Chicago police officer who tortured and framed him almost twenty years ago for a crime he didn’t commit. Shujaa didn’t mince words. “I’m here to say that this is racism.”
That day I learned that “expert testimony” does not mean having a badge or a degree. It means knowing what you are talking about.
A month and a half later, I got a call from the Assembly office. Further hearings had been scheduled to accommodate the large number of people who wanted to speak out against the death penalty, and I had a spot on the last day. I quickly wrote a draft presenting what I felt were compelling, objective reasons for why the death penalty is wrong–its cost, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, etc. But after reading my prepared remarks for the umpteenth time, I finally scrapped it and started over. The result was a far more personal account of why I feel the death penalty should be abolished.
“I want to introduce the group with whom I work. We’re called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Some of our members have been on death row. Most have not. But all of us know people who have been sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. As by now you probably realize, it can change you.”
Trying to hide my nerves as I spoke into a microphone before a row of poker-faced legislators, I talked about the first exonerated death row inmate I’d ever met, Darby Tillis, a wrongfully accused black man who spent 14 years on Illinois’s death row. I first saw him speak at Columbia University in 2001. Unlike many former prisoners I’ve met since–and there are more than I ever wanted to believe existed–Darby’s anger at the years he spent behind bars felt palpable. He had been released in 1987. Yet, he said, “I was released from death row. But I am not free from death row.” For Darby, the mental imprisonment is lasting.
I went on to talk about race and the criminal justice system as I remember experiencing it upon arriving in New York City in the late 90s, when the city was enjoying a reputation as a safe, cleaned-up town, thanks to Rudolph Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” policies–policies that had coincided with a disturbing upsurge in reports of police brutality. People didn’t talk about it much after September 11 made Giuliani an instant hero.
“But in the winter of 2000, the memory of Amadou Diallo was all too fresh. Five officers acquitted of killing a black man in the entrance of his own home. Forty-one bullets unaccounted for. This was only months after the trial of the four police officers involved in the 1997 Abner Louima case…Most New Yorkers don’t need to be reminded of the sickening details of the way Louima was tortured by Brooklyn police officers who sodomized him with a toilet plunger.”
I went on to list the names of unarmed young men of color who had been killed by members of the NYPD in recent years. Some of the cases were familiar to me; others I’d merely read about. But I hoped to communicate the sense of injustice that lies at the core of my activism: the outrage at the fact that, while I grew up feeling that the criminal justice system was designed to protect me, there were people who the system betrayed again and again. In a system that regularly pardons its law officers for the killing of black men on the street, how could we expect the death penalty–so widely known to be riddled with racial bias, to be applied equally in the courts? Police brutality and the death penalty, I argued, “are both carried out by and large against a segment of the population that is disproportionately poor and non-white.”
It was hard to gauge the response of the Assembly members as I finished my testimony, but the applause I heard behind me was all I needed to feel that I had connected with New Yorkers who recognized the things of which I spoke.