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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Hearing "Voices" in Austin

Jonathan M. Hunter, a member of CEDP Austin, wrote the following piece for the Voices blog.

The past week has been filled with a flurry of anti-death penalty activity in Austin. Hundreds of people from all over the US and abroad descended on Texas to call for abolition. The CEDP played an integral role in just about everything that took place. Before I discuss the "Voices" tour itself, it is important to highlight just exactly what has been happening here. It's been quite amazing!

For the past couple of weeks, members of "Jouney of Hope...From Violence to Healing" have been travelling around Texas, speaking in both small towns and big cities, telling their stories of their experiences with capital punishment, and urging the citizens of Texas to get active in the struggle. The Journey counts muder victim's family members, family members of death row defendants, and exonerated inmates among its ranks. On Wednesday, October 26th, the CEDP played host to this group, escorting them to speak in several classrooms on the University of Texas campus.

Later that evening, we held the Voices tour on the university campus.

On Thursday, October 27th, the Journey folks came back to the university to speak in another classroom. Later that evening, Amnesty International hosted some of these speakers in an open forum, which also featured long-time abolitionist attorney Walter Long. Walter Long (attorney for both Karla Faye Tucker and Napoleon Beazley), besides being a fantastic individual, has also played an enormous role in overturning capital punishment for youth offenders.

Meanwhile, just south of the university, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was convening its annual conference. The NCADP's conference featured all sorts of workshops on various aspects of the movement, and was attended by people from all over the country.

On Saturday, the 29th, we all flocked downtown to Austin City Hall to participate in the 6th annual March to Stop Executions. This march has been coordinated every year by the CEDP and the Texas Moratorium Network. The march was kicked off with a rally at city hall, where our own Shujaa Graham, Jeannine Scott, and Lily Hughes helped work the crowd into the proper mood. We then left city hall and marched up Congress Avenue, the city's most important street, overtaking the entire northbound side of the road as we marched. As we marched we chanted, and a number of people touring downtown Austin clapped and cheered as we headed toward the capitol and the governor's mansion. We arrived at the governor's mansion, had another rally, and then proceeded to surround the governor's mansion, both with our bodies and with yellow crime-scene tape! We then stood in front of the gates, chanting as loudly as possible in hopes that our message might reach the ears of Governor Perry. The whole event was truly spectacular and intial estimates hold that there were in between 450-500 people marching! (For the record, I thought there were a 1,000; but I've been wrong before.)

Later that evening, the NCADP held its awards banquet, which featured Bryan Stevenson (who will also be speaking to the CEDP in a couple of weeks in Chicago). At this event, the CEDP was recognized for its hard work over the years, which is significant, since we are often viewed as a fringe-radical group by the mainstream movement (of course we are, we want abolition now!).

The significance of all the happenings of this week is enormous. Texas, woefully, is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the death penalty. In less than 2 months, Texas has executed 2 of its citizens with strong cases of (actual) innocence: Frances Newton (September 14th) and Luis Ramirez (October 20th). Moreover, according to the Department of Criminal Justice's website, there are 6--6!--executions scheduled before the year's end. The state of Texas has no right to put these people to death, regardless of guilt or innocence; and this week has been testimony to that belief.

The reason for discussing all of this was to show that the "Voices" tour was the forerunner of, and in fact, I think, helped set the stage for the other events that were to follow (at least in terms of its effect on the CEDP members. "Voices" really energized us for the events that followed). At 7pm on Wednesday the 26th, "Voices From Death Row" officially began. Jennine Scott, whose husband Mike Scott is serving a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit, served as the chair of the speaking panel and introduced Shujaa Graham to the crowd as our first speaker. Shujaa, a long-time member of the CEDP, talked about his experience in prison and the racism aimed at him as he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a prison guard. Shujaa spoke on the urgent need for abolition, citing that as long as there is racism and bias against the poor, there can be no justice. And, moreover, there is no such thing as a just death penalty.

The next person to speak was Mary Felps. Mary became the "mother" of David Martinez, who was executed on July 28th of this year. Mary had been a social worker when she first met David over twenty years ago. She had been assigned his case because there had been some reports that David's mother had been neglecting her children. Shortly thereafter, however, his mother moved the family to Iowa, and Mary lost contact with David. She regained contact with David after she saw on the local Austin news that David had been charged with a murder in 1998, and had been visiting him as regularly as she could during the time he sat on death row. Mary spoke to the crowd about how sweet and gentle David was, and that he was not the monster that he was made out to be during his initial trial. She also spoke about the abuse, both physical and sexual, that David endured as a child, and how it is important that we not be too quick to label defendants as murderers without taking into account their backgrounds.

The next to speak was Sandra Reed. Sandra's son, Rodney Reed, is also on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Rodney is an African-American man who was convicted of murdering a white woman by an all white jury (a scenario which unfortunately happens all to often). There is also a great deal of evidence of both prosecutorial and state police misconduct in his case. Sandra spoke about the racism in the criminal justice system, and in Texas in general, and that this was reason enough to abolish the death penalty. At the rally during the march on Saturday, we heard the good news that Rodney's case is set to go back before the original trial judge. Hopefully very soon, Rodney will be receiving a new trial.

The last speaker was Marlene Martin, national direcor of the CEDP, who drew conections with the racism of the death penalty and the racism we have seen with the response to Hurrican Katrina. Racism is not something we in the abolition movement simply imagine. It is real, and it is a systemic problem in this country. Bryan Stevenson also made this clear in a recent interview for The New Abolitionist, as he discussed how the states where the death penalty is most active are in the south. It is no mere coincidence that these are also former slave states. Marlene encouraged people to join in the movement for abolition, asking those in attendance not to go home with just a profound experience. Rather, she asked that this profound experience motivate us toward the continuing struggle.

Overall, the event went very well. There were well over 100 people in attendance and there were at least 30 people standing outside the room that were not allowed to come in because of fire code restrictions. Moreover, there were a also a few membership cards turned in!