Friday, March 28, 2008

Voices of Hope tour PA, press the flesh, build the movement

I'm the Central Pennsylvania Abolitionist, and I approve this message.

Ok, ok, maybe I'm a little delirious after 15 death penalty events in a six-day period, covering 1087 miles and a whole lot of coffee. Maybe I'm still trying to take it all in after a week that has included hanging with a guy who spent nearly 17 years on PA's death row only to be cleared at retrial, two fathers who lost children to homicide, a Penn State professor who is on the cutting edge of messaging research in the anti-death penalty movement, a progressive Christian community in Philadelphia, and one of the stars of M*A*S*H.

Nevertheless, the movement is on the move here in PA. Nine days ago Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the ACLU of PA, the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, and Witness to Innocence kicked off a two-week, 11-town, 22-event tour across the Commonwealth to tell two very important stories about capital punishment- the stories of innocent people sentenced to die and of murder victims' families who oppose capital punishment.

Harold Wilson was a resident of PA's death row for more than 16 years. Twice, Governor Tom Ridge signed his death warrant. But when it was discovered that the Philadelphia District Attorney's office had been using racial profiling in jury selection for years, including in Harold's case, he won a new trial.

At that new trial in 2005, DNA evidence indicated the presence of unknown person at the scene of the crime. In addition, testimony revealed that a bloody jacket that had been used at the original trial to implicate Harold didn't even belong to him. The jury found Harold not guilty, and he became the 122nd person nationwide and the 6th person in PA to be exonerated after spending time on death row.

Lorry Post and Rev. Walter Everett had to plan a funeral that no one should have to plan- a funeral for a child. Walt's son Scott was killed by a man who was high on drugs in 1987. Lorry's daughter Lisa was killed by her husband in 1988. As Walt says, they didn't lose their children to murder. Scott was taken from Walt. Lisa was taken from Lorry. (A great video about Walt's story is available here.)

Both men went through the extreme emotional suffering one might expect, but they came out the other end with the recognition that capital punishment does not serve victims' families.

All three men have been a part of this odyssey through the small towns, backwoods, cities, and universities of PA over the last week. Next week exonerees Juan Melendez and Ray Krone will join the fray.

The most important outcome from this adventure has been the way Harold, Walt, and Lorry have moved audiences. We've talked with groups as big as 180 and as small as 16. Whatever the size of the audience, at each stop we have had people step up and say, "I want to do more." That is how a movement is built. And that's how an unjust policy is toppled.

Although this is a concentrated effort in these two weeks, this conversation with the people of PA didn't start with this tour. Last year PADP took part in more than 60 public education events, with assistance from various groups. And it won't end with this tour. What this tour has reminded us, though, is that these stories matter. The way this dastardly policy affects and hurts people's lives matters.

These first tour stops have included Philadelphia, Harrisburg, State College, Erie, Edinboro, Meadville, and Pittsburgh. Next week we're back at it on Monday with stops in Wilkes Barre and Scranton, and then we're off to Bethlehem, Reading, and Lancaster.

Last night we wrapped up this first leg of the tour at the annual meeting of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU of PA. Harold told his story to the more than 150 civil libertarians in the room, and he was followed by keynote speaker Mike Farrell, actor and activist. Mike gave us our charge:
We have work to do, ladies and gentlemen. And we will do it. It is good work. It is necessary work. Some say it is holy work. I believe it is all of those things.

For in-depth coverage of the tour, check out Speaking Freely, the blog of the ACLU of PA.

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