Wednesday, June 30, 2004

'This Guy is My Hero,' Part One

Another entry, this one in two parts, from NCADP intern Kristen Bell, who is covering the 11th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty. One thing Kristen could not have known when she interviewed this individual is that I met him before, briefly. Mike sat in on a workshop I led last January at the annual conference of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Mike Kennedy took off his skewed cowboy hat to scratch his head, revealing a mop of thinning gray hair. He looked at me through big glasses and started to explain why he had come to fast for four days. It was clear that speech did not come easily to this man; he spoke slowly, making an effort to form each word. People usually don’t understand him when he says his last name, so he always has to say “Kennedy, like the president.” I had to listen closely to understand his story.

“I come to show abolitionists and other people that not everyone in Texas supports the death penalty,” Mike said. “We’re a minority, but a significant minority.”

He is the only Texan who is fasting this year. Texas, by far the leader in state executions, is about a four-hour flight from DC. But Mike didn’t have the money to take an airplane. He rode a bus for 36 hours to this his ninth fast and vigil. Organizations like Amnesty International, Pax Christi, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Journey of Hope gave him donations to cover the bus fare. Some years the ride is shorter, but this year Mike made the mistake of getting on the regular, rather than the express, bus. So he sat on the Greyhound for an extra 11 hours. And when he finally arrived, he waited seven hours at the bus depot before someone could come pick him up.

But he has no complaints. “I’m here now,” he said matter-of-factly.

He has no complaints about hunger pains either. Not having to buy food for four days works out well for Mike who comes with only $15 or $20 in his pocket. “It’s my abolitionist diet,” he joked, rubbing his round belly.

Half way through my conversation with Mike, I remembered Bill Pelke’s words when he introduced us. “This guy is my hero,” Bill said.

I’m beginning to see why.

See below for the second half of Mike's story!

'This Guy is My Hero,' Part Two

Second part of the series, again from NCADP intern Kristen Bell. Please check back on Thursday for more updates on the 11th Annual Fast & Vigil!

After my talk with Mike Kennedy, one of his friends and fellow abolitionists told me that the nerves in Mike’s brain are chronically deteriorating.

Mike’s passion for the abolitionist cause, however, shows no signs of
waning. He sports a t-shirt with two mug shots of George W. Bush that
reads, “Wanted for Murder: Stop all executions.” A sizable hole on the
left-hand side of the shirt makes one wonder if it was made before or after Bush became president. Nevertheless, Mike still wears it with pride.

His speech, usually slow and wavering, became strong and confident when I asked him why he opposes the death penalty.

“The death penalty is a violation of Christian belief and faith…it violates the sanctity of life....Jesus reminded us that he who hasn’t sinned will cast the first stone…When Jesus taught love, he taught mercy,” Mike argued, pausing only to catch his breath. “You can’t delegate God’s power to give and take life to the state. Human beings are imperfect; it is impossible to make a perfect justice system with fallible human reason....One innocent death is too much.”

Mike walks his talk, consistently taking a stand in walks, rallies, and
vigils against capital punishment. In 1990, he joined the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and participated in a march from the death row chamber in Florida to the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Georgia.

“That was when I was a bit more of a healthy, young whippersnapper,” he
laughed, leaning on his wooden cane. That march was also when he met and befriended Bill Pelke and other fellow abolitionists.

“The best part of this [Fast and Vigil] is just the people,” Mike said.
“Bill is my buddy, he looks out for me.”

“We’re sort of like family to him,” said Bill, who likes to joke about
meeting Mike on the march from Florida to Georgia. “Mike would always start up front but then he’d end up at the back after a few hours. Sometimes a car would circle back and give him a ride. Sure enough, he’d always come back up to the front.”

Almost 15 years later, Mike Kennedy still comes back to join his
friends, even if it does take 36 hours on a bus.

Pelke stops in for a visit

This week, we've seen participants in the 11th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty stopping by our office to use the phone, check email and so forth. It's a relatively easy trip for them because NCADP's office is on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a 15-minute walk or so from the U.S. Supreme Court, where the event is taking place.

Right now, Bill Pelke is downstairs in our conference room, telling the story of how he got involved in fighting the death penalty. In addition to being founder of Journey of Hope and a member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, Bill is also vice chairperson of NCADP's Board of Directors.

Back in the 1980s, BIll's grandmother was murdered. One of the assailants, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, was sentenced to death. Bill initially favored the sentence then came to oppose it -- and he worked tirelessly and successfully to see that Cooper's sentence was commuted. Of course, both Indiana and the U.S. Supreme Court later decided that 15-year-olds should not eligible for execution. (Duh...)

Anyway, it's good to see old friends. If you'd like to read more about Bill or his organization, go here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

'You are the people who keep me going'

Here's another update on the ongoing Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty by NCADP intern Kristen Bell. Check back tomorrow for more updates!

With passionate speeches, cheers, and banners, the rally on the first day of the fast and vigil called for an end to the death penalty - not tomorrow or next year, but now. Speakers like Bill Pelke of Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing and Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation urged rally participants to make their voices heard in the offices of the Supreme Court directly behind him. I joined in the closing song, raising my voice to sing:

"We shall not, we shall not be moved,
We shall not, we shall not be moved,
Just like a tree that's standing by the water,
We shall not be moved."

But when I was singing, I did not think that O'Connor and Scalia and the rest of the court were listening. Even if a note or two made it up to their lofty offices, I was pessimistic that they would actually pay attention.

And yet I still sang.

I sang not to be heard by the Supreme Court, but to be heard by the people around me. I sang to encourage them in their work and let them know that they do not stand alone. I sang for people like Christina Wesson, Mike Kennedy, Mikhaela Payden-Travers, John Wilkins, and Dane VonBreichenruchardt. These are not the names you might recognize at the forefront of the abolition movement; they are the names of ordinary people who simply came out to take a stand. I will share their stories over the next few days.

"You are the people who keep me going," said Juan Melendez, an exonerated death row inmate, in his speech to rally participants. In a fight that requires near infinite patience and persistence, that encouragement is essential. And that is what we got today.

The Last Supper

The first update of the 11th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty, penned by NCADP intern and Stanford University senior Kristen Bell:

“It’s good to see a whole table of abolitionists,” said Abe Bonowitz in his toast to kick off the last supper before the four-day Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty.

As I looked down that long table I saw blondes, brunettes, people with balding gray hair, and a young woman with electric blue hair. Some were eating vegetarian meals, others were chowing down on lamb, chicken, and salmon. Atheists, Catholics, spiritual eclectics, and members of the Church of the Brethren broke bread together. A realtor sat across from a volunteer activist, a student next to a nurse. People had traveled from as far as Alaska to as close as ten blocks down the street. Texas, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, DC, New York, Oregon, Florida, Canada and Puerto Rico were all represented. And there was even a man who says he is from “a big red truck” (hopefully more on that to come in the next few days!). Each came with his or her own talents and commitments, stories and personality.

Illana Naylor is a nurse from Manassas, Virginia who has been working on the abolitionist cause for about 15 years now. She and two of her friends from Manassas have been participating in the fast and vigil since it began 11 years ago. She will be stopping by the steps of the Supreme Court whenever she has a spare moment between her nursing and her graduate school paper on global warming and health. Balancing activism and the other parts of her life has always been a challenge, but over the years her contributions have added up to quite a resume—planting and maintaining a peace pole near her community, helping organize the Journey of Hope when it came to Virginia, participating in the fast and vigil for over a decade, and her most recent accomplishment, inspiring me, the twenty-year-old student sitting next to her at the last supper.

Check back later today for reports from today's noon rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court!

Monday, June 28, 2004

Fast and Vigil begins tonight!

The 11th Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty begins at midnight tonight at the U.S. Supreme Court. This blog will be filing daily or twice daily reports, depending on the pace of events. Please check back by about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday for the first report.

Right now, interns are canvassing throughout Washington, D.C., handing out flyers about the event. For more information, go here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Fighting the death penalty in Texas

I have a soft spot for abolitionists' efforts in Texas. After all, it is my home state! So I was heartened to see that the Texas Democratic Party, for what I think is the first time, has called for a moratorium on the death penalty in its party platform.

The introductory paragraph reads:

When capital punishment is used, the people must be assured that it is fairly administered. The Texas death penalty system has been severely criticized by major Texas newspapers, religious leaders, and the appellate courts. On May 18, 2004, Governor Perry even refused a 5-1 recommendation made by his Republican appointees to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who asked him to commute the death sentence of a person with mental illness to life in prison. Texas Democrats extend our deepest sympathies to all victims of crime and especially to the family members of murder victims, and we strongly support their rights. We believe reforms will improve the administration of justice in Texas to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice.

I understand that Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network helped make this happen, and was helped by a lot of other folks. If you want to read the whole thing, go here. But be warned: you have to scroll way, way down and through a page or two.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Six days until the Fast and Vigil!

Each summer, from June 29 to July 2, individuals opposing the death penalty gather on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to engage in a fast and vigil. This year's guests will include Florida death row survivor Juan Melendez, who was the 99th person released from death row due to actual innocence, and musician Steve Earle.

The dates June 29 and July 2 represent the anniversaries of the U.S. Supreme Court's Furman and Gregg decisions. Furman struck down state death penalty statutes in 1972; Gregg allowed them to be reinstated in 1976.

Last year, one of my colleagues, Sapna Mirchandani, participated in the fast and vigil. Here is her account:

At the 10th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty, a peculiar abolitionist came to stay at my house. His voice was gruff; his build, short and stocky. He routinely paraded around naked and left his belongings spread out all over the floor. I can't fault him for wearing no clothes and refusing to pick up after himself though; those are tall orders for a 95-pound Rhodesian ridgeback-pit bull mix. He was named Governor, and he was the constant companion of Abe Bonowitz, head of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and long-time organizer of the Fast & Vigil. Governor was so named, Abe said, because he wanted to be sure that at least one governor would listen to what abolitionists had to say.

To read the entire article, printed in the fall 2003 issue of Lifelines, NCADP's quarterly newsletter, go here.

For more information about the event and how to participate, go here.

Friday, June 18, 2004

The execution of Steven Oken

Last night the state of Maryland carried out its first execution since 1998. NCADP intern Kristen Bell, a senior at Stanford University, attended the vigil outside the prison where the execution took place. Here is her account:

On my way to a vigil last night for Steven Oken’s execution in Baltimore, I drove past a group of passionate supporters for the execution. “Fry Oken” and “Goodbye Oken” were among the twenty signs that people were carrying. I had prepared myself for the chilling silence at 9:15, but I had not prepared myself to drive by those supporters. I knew the execution was wrong without doubt (the sign I carried said, “End it, don't mend it: Abolish the death penalty"), but I kept asking myself, “How is it that I can be so adamantly opposed while these others are so supportive?”
The question became more pressing when people drove by and yelled “Choke an Oken” or “He killed three people, he’s gotta go.” Others drove by and honked in support of us or made a peace sign as they drove by. The question burned when a victim’s family member walked by and said, “You’re entitled to your opinion but I really don’t like you guys. He killed my sister-in-law, he has to die.” None of us really knew how we ought to respond.
A reporter interviewed me and asked me a version of my own question. He described the supporters down the street, the grief of victims’ families and their desire for capital punishment. Then he asked me how an opponent of the death penalty can treat them fairly. I responded that after heinous crimes people grieve deeply and are often and quite understandably driven by the passion that comes with that grief. It is simply a fact of our human nature—it is a part of all of us. The law’s job, however, is not to embrace and act on passion. The law’s job is to temper our gut feelings with reason. And reason, I hold, dictates the abolition of the death penalty.
Ultimately, I think Oken’s execution disturbed me so much because I felt responsible for a law that embraces not human reason, but the passion for revenge that lurks deep in every human heart. It is a law that codifies, rather than tames, Conrad’s heart of darkness. Accordingly, “Shame on Maryland” was my favorite sign at the vigil.
I have not yet decided if my response to the reporter was the best or most appropriate. I do agree, however, with the advice of a woman who spoke at an open microphone after the execution—Most of us are so adamantly opposed to the death penalty that we can’t even begin to understand where other people are coming from, she said. The only thing we see right now is their signs, but we need to really understand their point of view in order to make change.

Right now, people are debating whether Oken's execution was right or wrong on the web site of the Baltimore Sun. Go here to view the debate. One thing is for sure, though; a seemingly insurmountable gulf exists between supporters and opponents of the death penalty. One wonders how we are going to transcend it.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Getting a new start on life

There are several "known" categories of people who have been sent to death row. For example, there are the more than 900 people who have been executed in the United States since 1976. And there are 113 people who have been released from both death row and from prison due to actual, factual innocence. There is a lesser-known category of thousands of people formerly on death row whose convictions were overturned because of legal error. These folks often plea baragin or are retried and end up with life sentences.

Then there is one additional category that is rare indeed. The person who is sent to death row, who is obviously and definitely guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, but becomes a model inmate and, miraculous as it may seem, wins his parole.

Such is the story of Charlie Young:

"When I walked out of Baldwin State Prison, it was the hardest thing I had
to do," Young said. "I hated to leave those men behind. If it was up to
me, I would have brought them all with me ... there are a lot of good men
in prison. They just made some really bad choices."

To read the whole story go here and scroll down to Georgia.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Ten million bloggers and counting!

The 1970s was a story of quiet but determined growth among Christian conservatives. First there was Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. Then along came the Christian Coalition and a marriage between Pat Robertson and political guru Ralph Reed, one of this nation's smartest organizers.

The often quiet, behind-the-scenes conservative activism of the 1970s has rewritten American history as we know it. It has given us 16 years of Republicans in the White House. It has given us a judiciary whose ideological orientation is rarely liberal but very often staunchly to the right. For ten years, it has given us Republican control of the U.S. House.

But the political pendulum always swings in America and now it is swinging back. Columnist Jim Hightower writes of the power that new media, local media, noncorporate media is beginning to play in this transition:

Thousands of hardy, grassroots people have been working steadily and creatively over the years in every area of media, and the result of their combined efforts is that a new media force is now flowering coast to coast ­ a force of hundreds of media outlets that is unabashedly progressive, fiercely independent, diverse, dispersed, and democratic. Some of these outlets are nationally known, others only locally known; some are brand new, others have been plugging away for decades. But the significant thing is that, collectively, they are a force to be reckoned with, celebrated, strategically deployed and deliberately expanded.

To read the whole article -- and this is a must read for anyone who engages in media advocacy -- go here.

Influential Jane

You know that times are a-changin' when an abolitionist gets named to a "who's who" list! Well, I'm happy to report that NCADP's own Jane Bohman has been selected as one of the "100 most influential women" by Chicago Business magazine.

The magazine writes of Jane's efforts to convince then-Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of people on Illinois' death row before leaving office in January 2003:

The activist was instrumental in shaping Mr. Ryan's thinking on the death penalty. Not that he hadn't heard all the arguments, pro and con, before. What Ms. Bohman did better than anyone else was to humanize the issue. She pulled together families of inmates, murder victims and those who had been wrongly convicted, and arranged for them to speak with the governor. Once Mr. Ryan granted her access, Ms. Bohman, a lawyer by training, didn't let up — cajoling, advising, pleading, persuading.

To read the whole story, go here.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Can he spell A-B-O-L-I-T-I-O-N?

Via Abe Bonowitz, I stumbled across some interesting death penalty-related trivia today. Remember last week's national spelling bee? Turns out the winner is the son of an Indiana abolitionist who is a supporter of NCADP's affiliate there, the Indiana Information Center on the Abolition of Capital Punishment. Her name is Jan Pilarski. To read about her son't impressive victory, go here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

'You're the toughest wife beater I ever met'

I haven't written anything about the abuse at Abu Ghraib because, hey, this blog is about the death penalty. But here we have a link. The guy whose name figures most prominently into the unfolding scandal, Charles Graner, was a guard on death row in Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation's largest death row populations.

One of the people who encountered Graner was Nick Yarris, who spent two decades on death row for a crime he did not commit before finally gaining his release. Here's what Yarris has to say:

Another inmate, Nick Yarris, who was recently released from Greene after DNA tests cleared him of rape and murder charges for which he had spent 22 years on death row, says that the kind of abuse Nimley described in his lawsuit was common at Greene, and that Graner was involved.

Yarris says that in May 1998, he was assigned to pick up lunch trays left outside the cellblocks when a prisoner deliberately flooded his toilet. He says he saw Graner and four other guards pull the inmate out of his cell. He says the guards dragged the inmate by his feet and that Graner was holding a canister of pepper spray over the prisoner and saying, "We're going to go get some." He says that the inmate was dragged into another room out of his sight, and that the next time he saw him the inmate had been beaten and was being taken away on a gurney.

In addition to that one incident, Yarris says, Graner bragged about taunting anti-death-penalty protesters who would gather outside the prison, used racial epithets and once told a Muslim inmate he had rubbed pork all over his tray of food.

Another memory of Graner: Other guards, Yarris says, didn't seem to like him. He remembers what one guard said to Graner as Graner's marriage was collapsing under allegations of abuse.

"Yo, Charles, I heard you got a good left," the guard said mockingly. "You're the toughest wife beater I ever met."

To read the whole story, go here.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Regarding Ray Krone

Ray Krone was the 100th person in modern history released due to actual innocence. By "actual innocence," I mean that he was not released due to what some might call a legal "technicality."

In fact, he was innocent. In this case, even DNA proved it.

I have met Ray once or twice since his release about two years and two months ago. Last January, I got to spend some quality time with him at the annual conference of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

He is a great, classy, stand-up type of guy.

A feature story that ran in this week's Arizona Republic brought him back to memory. Go here.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

State senator to students: Drop dead! (Oh, and get out of my office!)

Yesterday several of my colleagues, Cara, Kathleen and Sapna, were at the Delaware state capitol to help out with lobbying efforts. We're trying to pass a bill there that would ban the death penalty as an option for people who are younger than 18 years of age when the crime is committed. (For more information on this effort, go here.)

Although we have the votes in the Delaware State Legislature to pass the bill, we've been thwarted by State Sen. James T. Vaughn, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who won't let the bill out of his committee so that it can come up for a vote.

A group of high school students who were on hand to lobby in favor of the bill visited Sen. Vaughn's office, seeking a meeting. As soon as he found out why they were there, he promptly kicked them out of his office. Unfortunately for the good senator, a newspaper reporter was not far away and promptly went and interviewed the students about this abrupt display of senatorial sanctimony.

I'll let you read the rest. This is fun. Go here.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Was this guy insane, or what?

On May 18 the State of Texas executed Kelsey Patterson.

In a rare vote, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had voted 5-1 to recommend that Patterson's death sentence be commuted, or at the very least delayed. The board voted this way because of the very obvious fact that Patterson was so severely mentally ill he was not aware his execution was going to be carried out.

To get a glimpse of some of the letters Patterson wrote (published as a graphic by the Austin Chronice) go here.

To read more about this case, go here.

Save the dates!

Want to get involved in the abolition movement but not sure where to begin? Here are some upcoming activities to consider:

June 29 through July 2nd: The 11th Annual Fast & Vigil convenes on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. This Fast and Vigil marks the anniversaries of both the Supreme Court's 1972 Furman decision, which struck down existing death penalty statutes as arbitrary and capricious; and the 1976 Gregg decision, which approved newly rewritten state denalty statutes and allowed executions to resume. For more information, go here.

Oct. 14-17: "NCADP 2004," the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. This year's conference will be held at Galludet University in Washington, D.C. For more information, go here.

Oct. 22-24: Amnesty International kicks off the 2004 National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty. For more information and to register your support, go here.

'I am at peace'

On Tuesday, May 25, the State of Florida executed John Blackwelder. Strangely, the execution took place on the 25th anniversary of the resumption of nonconsensual executions, both in Florida and in the United States (“nnconsensual” meaning that the inmate did not drop his appeals, unlike Gary Gilmore of Utah).

Days after Blackwelder’s execution, veteran abolitionist Hannah Floyd received the following letter from Blackwelder in her mail box:

to Members of FDRAG and others .....

It is the night before my execution. I have a busy day tomorrow, I thougth I would write to thank those who showed concern, that prayed for me.

As you might have heard on the news my views on the death penalty. I pray it gets abolished very soon. It is my hope and prayers I will be the last to be executed in Florida. the state has killed enough.

I am at peace. I have no fears. My family will be visiting tomorrow. Brother Ben Clance will be there with me till execution. at execution my attorney and Bro. Ben will be there.

I also want to thank all of those people that sent letters from all over the world.
I thank all those people that will be praying for me.

I am glad that it is over for me and again, my prayers are that no one else will have to be executed.


Johnn Blackwelder.