Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Sweet Home Alabama

So earlier this week I and some of my NCADP colleagues had the good fortune to attend the annual awards luncheon hosted by the Death Penalty Information Center. DPIC uses this event to hand out its Thurgood Marshall Journalism Awards, and it was the third year in a row for me to attend.

The keynote speech was given by this hero in the anti-death penalty movement. His name is Bryan Stevenson. He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, and he has spent his career representing people on death row in their post-conviction appeals. Alabama is an important place to be doing this kind of work; the state is the worst in the U.S. for not supplying lawyers for people on death row. (Currently, 40 people on Alabama’s death row have no lawyers. Some of them could get execution dates soon. According to our legal system, there is no constitutional right to an attorney after you have been convicted.

As DPIC Executive Director Richard Dieter said of Bryan, “Many people talk about the times that are changing. Bryan Stevenson is the one who is helping them change.”

In his speech, Bryan talked a lot about race and the death penalty. He knows a lot about racial discrimination – his grandmother, born in Virginia in the 1880s, was the child of slaves. And certainly racial discrimination plays a role in Alabama: 60 percent of that state’s murder victims are black, yet 85 percent of death sentences handed down in Alabama are given for the murder of a white victim. We’ve seen this same pattern play out in other states as well.

The DPIC awards luncheon was quite moving. One of the other award winners was Sound Portraits Productions, a company that produces special features for, among others, National Public Radio. This company did a piece called “Parents at an Execution.” It focused on the impending execution of Delma Banks Jr. of Texas, who came within 10 minutes of execution last year before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. One of the producers recalled Delma’s call to his mother when he found out he had received an execution date. “Momma, I hate to tell you this,” Delma said, “But they want to know who’s gonna attend my execution, they want to know who’s gonna claim my body, they want to know what clothes I’m going to die in and what I want for my last meal.”

Fortunately, Delma – who has a strong innocence case – lives to fight another day.


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