On March 9th, Illinois became the fourth US state in the past five years to abandon the death penalty, a significant shift in the country’s growing rejection of capital punishment. After weeks of deliberation, Governor Pat Quinn not only signed a bill into law that kills the death penalty in the state, he also commuted the sentences of all 15 men on death row—men who would have still faced execution even with the new law in place. In 2003, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, famously emptied death row, citing grave concerns about innocent people facing execution as well as “the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole.” Last week, Quinn echoed his predecessor.
For Nathson Fields, one of countless men who were wrongfully convicted after being tortured under corrupt Chicago police commander Jon Burge, the victory was especially sweet. “I spent eleven-and-a-half years on death row for a crime I did not commit. Illinois tossing out the death penalty will affect other states. This will send the message that it can be done. It should be done.”
What can we do to build on the success in Illinois? We can get involved by joining abolitionist groups, signing petitions and contacting our elected officials. But, as Gov. Quinn did, we must also listen to those who have grappled with this system firsthand: former prisoners, death row lawyers, prisoners’ family members, activists and victims of violent crime. Margaret Summers of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Liliana Segura of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty asked ten such experts to share their thoughts, on cases that stand out, on strategies that work and on what Americans should know about the death penalty today.
1 Anthony Graves, exonerated from Texas’s death row in 2010.
I know how easy it was for them to take my freedom and set out to kill me. I feel that if it was that easy, I’m sure there have been many mistakes in the past, that many men and women on death row are innocent. It’s not an infallible system. Anyone can be sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit. That alone is a reason that the death penalty should be abolished. Read Graves’s story here and go to Witness to Innocence.
2 Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative.
Nearly 135 years after Congress enacted the 1875 Civil Rights Act to eliminate racially discriminatory jury selection, the practice continues, especially in death penalty cases where hundreds of death row prisoners have been convicted or condemned by juries where people of color were illegally excluded. This racial bias has undermined the credibility of capital punishment and contributed to the marginalization of African Americans and other racial minorities from full representation when the most critical issues in our communities are decided. Read about Racial Discrimination in jury selection.
3 Martina Correia, activist, sister of Troy Davis, who is currently on Georgia’s death row.
We must target the doctors who assist in state sanctioned killings and ban the sale or availability of drugs used in executions. We should launch a campaign of death row family members and members of groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation to challenge the US at the United Nations, calling executions a human rights violation, a morally corrupt and selective process of exterminating people without resources. Go to Physicians for Human Rights.
4 David Dow, Texas death penalty lawyer, author of Autobiography of an Execution.
Learn about the Michael Richard case. He was mentally disabled. On the morning of his execution, in 2007, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the constitutionality of lethal injection. Lawyers in my office scrambled to file a petition for Richard raising the issue, but he was executed because we did not finish by the time the court closed at 5. The court would not stay open late for us. I think if we had been able to get the petition filed, he would still be alive today.
5 Natalie Skinner, daughter of Hank Skinner, who is currently on Texas’s death row.
If people would take the time to learn about the people on death row, they would be surprised to find out that many are parents with children who love them very much. Their relationships with their families don’t just stop when they are sentenced to die. At the end of the day, the death penalty hurts more people than it helps by continuing the very cycle of violence it was put in place to break.
6 Marlene Martin, Executive Director, Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
One way the death penalty survives is that prisoners on death row are dehumanized. At our “Live from Death Row” events, a prisoner calls in and talks to a live audience by teleconference. People get to hear the person behind this death sentence. They hear their voice, their sufferings, their hopes. They sense the dignity that can exist even in the most wretched circumstances. Showing the human side of those incarcerated is important in developing a culture that is intolerant of the use of the death penalty. Read accounts here and here.
7 Barbara Becnel, friend of executed death row prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams.
Stanley Tookie Williams believed one way to decrease support for capital punishment was to show mainstream America that death row prisoners are human beings, not monsters that deserve to die. His memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, profoundly demonstrated this. Donate literature written by death row prisoners to libraries, churches and classrooms to transform death penalty supporters into believers in the humanity of all people and of the need to end capital punishment. Learn how to donate books to the library and go to Books Through Bars.
8 Richard Dieter, Director, the Death Penalty Information Center.
Talk about the death penalty in a serious way around the water cooler. Many of us are a lot like politicians. We’re afraid to be viewed as naive, weak-kneed, or insensitive to victims. But the more our everyday conversations reflect the true picture of the deeply flawed death penalty system, the sooner it will slip into our regretted past. Make DP a topic of conversation at your next group gathering at your house of worship or civil group gathering. Learn about the death penalty in your state here.
9 Bob Curley, lost son to murder, member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.
When something like this (the murder of a loved one) happens, you feel violated, and your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong gets thrown out the window for a time. It’s not something that you get over, and there’s no closure. I have channeled my anger in a positive way by working to prevent child sexual abuse, and the death penalty convictions of innocent people. Read The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption, by Brian MacQuarrie. Go to Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights for more information.
10 Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, and author of the book Dead Man Walking.
“For thirty years, we’ve been putting the death penalty into practice, and the first thing we’ve learned is that it deters nothing,” she says. “It doesn’t deter violence. The death penalty states have roughly double the homicide rates. Jurors (in capital cases), who must be informed about the alternative sentence of life without parole are overwhelmingly choosing life. People of faith are becoming real players in the public debate around the death penalty. They are visibly engaged in ending it. Use the resources at Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.
Other Things: Find your your NCADP State Affiliate. Four other states have death penalty repeal bills pending: For Connecticut, read this story at the Innocence Project Blog; For Kansas, read more about the effort here; For Maryland, support the campaign to end the death penalty here; For Montana, read up on the fight here.
Conceived by Walter Mosley, with research by Rae Gomes
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