Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Holton's execution date is considered very real and TCASK is very concerned about it. Holton's date actually makes 5, that's right 5, very serious execution dates set for the next 4 months, a frightening prospect, but a continually present one, for a state that has had only 2 executions in the past 47 years but also has the ninth largest death row in the country.
With impending executions, the clear brokenness of our capital punishment system and the need for a moratorium have never been clearer, and, at the same time as we face the possibility of our state beginning to kill people at a rate rivaled only by execution behemoths like TX, VA, and OK, we also face our best chances ever to pass legislation to halt the operation of this seriously flawed system. Our legislative partnerships have never been stronger and we've established functional TCASK groups all across the state. But we need everyone to take part, participate in a write-a-thon in your area, come to Justice Day on the Hill (March 27th) and get involved in your local TCASK chapter - or start one.
In the coming months, we can sit by as Tennessee becomes the next Texas, casually disregarding life and any semblance on justice and fairness, or we can stand up and make Tennessee follow in the footsteps of New Jersey and Illinois, calling a halt to executions and using this Lenten season to take a serious look at our death penalty system. The choice is yours.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
She was right when she said it and she's still right today. I think we forget this sometimes, but, last night, I had the pleasure of being reminded by the first official organizing meeting of the newly founded Jackson Chapter of TCASK! We even got coverage in the Jackson Sun.
We've been working in Jackson for about a year now, and we've developed a strong group of contacts, done several presentations, and held a successful write-a-thon, but always by the dedicated efforts of a few people functioning as individuals. Now we've finally set up a chapter, to take the load off individuals and actually organize a group.
Last night, after a number of phone calls on my part, we had our first organizing meeting with a core group of people. We had representatives of the NAACP, Union University, Lambuth University, and the Catholic Church present and it was a wonderful and connected group. In just over an hour (I was on a tight time line, because folks are busy) we planned:
- Coordinated opposition to the execution of E. J. Harbison
- A write-a-thon to bring Jackson folks together for fun and activism
- A lobby training as the first official group chapter meeting to prepare for
- Lobby day in Nashville.
All of this will sync nicely with several presentations that I have already scheduled in the city, and, through the church outreach involved, will lead to more such presentations to continue to expand our lists in Jackson.
Now here's the important part - everyone left with a job to do! I'll be preparing materials, typing notes, and following up on several comments. One member will be securing locations for our write-a-thon and prayer service, another will contact several churches and set up a venue for lobby training, a third will be the point person for the write-a-thon, a fourth is going to represent the Jackson Chapter on the TCASK board.
Why is this important? Two reasons. The first is buy-in. Each of the attendees left with something to do, bringing them into the work. Second, I'm not doing it! I mean, I'm only one person, our staff is only two. We cannot do all the work around the state to end the death penalty, so we need to empower activists all across the state to take action for themselves.
That's exactly what the new Jackson Chapter is ready to do!
Monday, January 29, 2007
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
“Our Church has stated in no uncertain terms that the death penalty violates our belief in the dignity of human life,” said Father Val Handwerker, the pastor of the Cathedral. “Today our parish affirmed that we, as Catholics, cannot stand idly by as our state continues to kill in our name.”
The bishops’ statement against capital punishment also raised concerns about the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, especially the racial and economic biases, which persist in the capital punishment system.
“As a society we should be taking special care of the poor and disenfranchised, but it seems that, when we talk about the death penalty, we’re executing those people instead,” said Handwerker. In Tennessee, there are 102 people on death row, and not a single one of them could afford their own attorney at trial. Meanwhile, African-Americans make up 40% of Tennessee’s death row compared with only 17% of the general population.
Immaculate Conception is only the latest of over 100 churches and organizations in Tennessee to pass such a moratorium resolution, according to Alex Wiesendanger, a Jesuit Volunteer and Associate Director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), who spoke to the congregation and parish council last year.
“Across the state churches, businesses, and city councils are calling for a moratorium on executions and a thorough study of how the death penalty system is administered,” Wiesendanger said. “With more than 120 people exonerated after being sentenced to death, people are recognizing that the death penalty runs the unacceptable risk of killing an innocent person.”
A moratorium is simply a time-out on executions. It is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the death penalty.
“A moratorium allows us to examine the flaws in the system of capital punishment outside of the emotional context of a pending execution,” said Handwerker when asked about the call for a moratorium. “Even people who support capital punishment agree that the system should be applied fairly and that we don’t sentence the innocent to death. Those of us who oppose the death penalty have to initiate a conversation around this common ground in order to move forward.”
I am currently in the midst of preparations for a presentation which I will be making this evening at a local church. Besides the Biblical and theological information that I will explore, I am also reviewing lots of data, particularly numbers, concerning the death penalty. Numbers are not my thing, so I have to be sure I am sharp and ready to field questions! And as always, as I look at the numbers, I feel like I am being slapped in the face by the sheer force of them.
I always approach these presentations with a sense of expectancy, believing that both God and the numbers are with me. As the crowd gathers this evening for their Wednesday night supper of fried chicken and casseroles, I expect many will have never heard such numbers before, and jaws will drop when they are revealed. Not so long ago, a congressman whose name I can remember, was quoted as saying to a colleague speaking about the war in Iraq, "You are entitled to your own opinions, my friend, but not your own facts."
Same goes for the death penalty. When people begin to hear the numbers, you can visibly see the discomfort:
- 123 people exonerated since 1973
- for every 9 executions, 1 exoneration
- 102 people on Tennessee's death row none of whom could afford their own attorney at the time of their original trial
- Approximately $2-7 million dollars per execution versus $700,000 for life in prison
- 3 times more likely to be executed if the victim is white
- 1 out of 10 executions is of a diagnosed mentally ill person (nevermind how many are undiagnosed)
The numbers are frightening. But, there they are. I will always share with people the reasons why the death penalty is wrong--Biblically and morally--because as a person of faith, I must. But, even considering my usual dislike of numbers, I must admit, that the numbers do starkly reveal the failure of the death penalty as a policy, so I will keep working on my numbers.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Now think, for a moment, of E. J. Harbison, an African-American man sentenced to death by an all white jury for the murder of a white woman. Harbison had no criminal record, brought no weapon to burglarize the house, and went in when no one was home. In other words, short of the commission of a felony, there is really no aggravating factor here. Harbison would not be on death row if he wasn't poor and African-American. To me, that sounds like an issue that Legislative Black Caucus should hear about.
On Friday, they did. Revered Joe Ingle, with an introduction from Representative Larry Turner, addressed the caucus about Harbison's case and asked them to form a delegation to the Governor requesting clemency. And that's where we start working. Because the caucus has heard the facts, now they need to hear that there constituents want this to happen. Yesterday, our members that reside in the caucus members' districts got emails from TCASK updating them on the situation and urging them to contact their representatives regarding Harbison's case. If you live in one of those districts and didn't get an email, CALL YOUR REP! But also contact TCASK because we apparently either don't have your email address or we don't have you listed in the correct legislative district and we want to know that.
How could we do that, cull individuals by district out of a database of over 4000 supporters? The answer is Joe Irrera. Joe is a TCASK volunteer who has designed a database for us from scratch that allows us to sort our membership by legislative district (House or Senate) and then contact them by email, mail merge, or telephone. It's pretty awesome. And Joe has worked like a mad man to help us get things running, coming into the office until 9 or 10 at night to set things up and help us with glitches. In fact, Joe will be in in a few hours over his lunch break to help us de-bug a few problems that we've been having with the database due to bellsouth. We've never had this sort of capability before and we plan to put it to good use over the course of the legislative session. And when we do halt executions in our state, Joe Irrera will have played an important part in making that happen.
Monday, January 22, 2007
What you may not have known, is that the Governor's inaugural committee mailed an unsolicited invitation to the inauguration and both balls to Joyce House, mother of Tennessee death row inmate Paul House. Interesting. All of this at the same time as the Governor has so far resisted the requests made to meet face to face regarding House's case. And Joyce, though she bought a new dress and traveled to Nashville for the occasion, was unable to meet the Governor on Saturday either.
Why did the Governor's committee invite Joyce to attend the inauguration of the man who supports the system that is aiming to kill her innocent and sick son? I don't know. I only wish that the plans for the inauguration had included a receiving line of some sort. Of course, I don't suppose that you would want to meet the woman whose son your state is trying to kill. It might make it harder to support the system.
Friday, January 19, 2007
For those who worry about killing an innocent person, please know that we lose the lives of innocent people regularly. Ask test pilots, policeman, fireman, and soldiers, all of whose lives are far, far more valuable than those of murderers.
This statement is so problematic that responding gives me pause. Certainly, innocent people die tragically all the time, including when they are wrongfully executed. The difference is that they are killed, not in the line of duty for which they valiantly volunteered, but instead by their own government and our tax dollars. Such a situation is appalling, and I am disturbed that anyone could attempt to justify it. If the innocent person was a family member of Mr. Russell's, strapped down to a gurney, would his feelings be the same?
Furthermore, Mr. Russell's statement that the lives of pilots, policeman, fireman, and soldiers are far more valuable than those of murderers undermines his entire argument. We are not talking about murderers but innocent people. Also, human beings should be wary of getting into the business of deciding whose life is valuable, regardless of what someone has done. Such is God's job, not ours.
I dare say that Joyce House would disagree with Mr. Russell's sentiment. Joyce is the mother of Paul House, a man who continues to sit on Tennessee's death row for a crime of which the U.S. Supreme Court has said no reasonable juror would have ever convicted him given the new evidence in the case, including DNA evidence.
TCASK had hoped that the Governor would pardon Paul House and send him home for Christmas. Though Paul is still in prison, we continue to believe that Governor Bredesen will ultimately do the right and just thing, not only for Paul but for the citizens of Tennessee, and pardon Paul House. The Governor is preparing for his inauguration this weekend after being elected by an overwhelming majority of the state. Tennesseans believe the Governor to be fair and committed to the best interests of the people of Tennessee. No one's interests are served with Paul House on death row. The Governor has a terrific opportunity to demonstrate the leadership of which he is surely capable by righting this egregious wrong and pardoning Paul House because it is the just thing to do. Innocent people should not be sacrificed to protect a broken system--never.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
In any case, on Monday, TCASK took part in the annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet of our time, whose message of nonviolence has been the foundation of many of our social movements. In Nashville, members of TCASK took part in the annual march to TSU, and then staffed a table and distributed literature to the hundreds of people present. TCASK also sported the coolest banners of the march, 7-foot tall banners bearing King's message against capital punishment, thanks to the inspiration and hard work of James Staub and David Wright LaGrone! Shout out!
In Clarksville, I was privileged to attend the Clarksville NAACP Branch's ceremony celebrating the life of Dr. King, and looking ahead to making his dream a reality in our own time. I was inspired to heard children read their essays on this subject, and to be recognized for the work that TCASK does amid that august assembly. TCASK has already been invited to speak at several community churches after my visit.
Dr. King's life was a testament to the power of love over hate, and violence over non-violence. King was inspired by Ghandi's old saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. As we gather, each year, to honor King, a man who died because of hate, we should reflect on our state's own official policy of sanctifying violence and vengeance.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
- Juries preferring life without parole to capital punishment
- The frighteningly high number of innocent people sentenced to death
- Tennessee's odd position - a large death row but few executions.
Congrats to Kelley, a credit to her work and to all of us here in Tennessee. Check out the whole story here.
Friday, January 12, 2007
As one whose husband and mother-in-law have both died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder.
TCASK will again participate in the Nashville MLK Day celebration and march on Monday, January 15th. A program will be held at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church beginning at 8:30 a.m. If you are in the Nashville area, we encourage you to be present for this powerful gathering. If you are unable to attend the program but would like to march with us, gather at the church at 10:00 a.m., and we will join the march as a group.
I hope many of you will join us as we celebrate the prophetic voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Even if my mother's killer thought his life was more valuable than her life, we never once believed that her life was more valuable than his life. Nor did we allow his view of life to become our view of life, despite what society might have wanted. So we did not seek the death penalty.
The whole piece is terrific and well worth the read, on the restored link.
Check it out.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Check it out here.
What does this mean for our efforts in the coming legislative session? Frankly, I don't know. What's unclear now (and was unclear before yesterday's election) is who will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will field any bills dealing with the death penalty. Committee chairs have an enormous amount of power, so who chairs the Judiciary Committee is vitally important to our efforts. We always knew that, with a 17-16 Republican lead in the Senate, our efforts will have to be bi-partisan, but since when has justice been a partisan issue? I haven't noticed that either party has a monopoly on equality or fairness. Those are values that all Americans share, and I was inspired to hear Senator Ramsey speak, a few months ago, to the National Conference of State Legislators and talk about the importance of DNA evidence to prove innocence as well as guilt.
But the real change in the wind that I was talking about when I titled this post didn't happen in the packed Senate chamber yesterday afternoon. It happened at the Nashville Peace and Justice Center yesterday evening, when 20 people showed up for TCASK Lobby Training! 20 PEOPLE!!! In under two hours, these folks, some TCASK regulars, some coming for the first time, learned how the Tennessee legislative process works, the techniques and universal rules of lobbying, and the fine points of making a visit to your legislator.
To me, last night signaled that TCASK is getting more sophisticated and skilled in its work every day. Last year, for the first time, TCASK began seriously working the legislative (or inside) end of the inside-outside strategy that we'll use to end the death penalty hear in Tennessee. This year, we've worked hard to build partnerships with strong lobby partner organizations, and now we have over 20 people, just in Nashville, ready to become successful citizen lobbyists against the death penalty. I don't care who is in office, that is a powerful wind blowing toward abolition.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
The death penalty has been getting some press the last few days. Perhaps the New Jersey Commission's report to recommend the abolition of the death penalty in that state has inspired the coverage. On Friday, the Tennessean ran a story showing a decline in the use of the death penalty in 2006 to its lowest level since 1976. The possibility of making a mistake is listed as the number one reason for the decline, followed by the institution of life without parole, a drop in violent crime, and the cost of prosecuting a capital case as other possible reasons.
In that same paper on the opinion page, Attorney Brad Maclean discusses lethal injection and the major problems with the method as highlighted by the recent decisions in California and Florida to halt the procedure pending full review. Brad Maclean skillfully walks readers through the process of executing someone by lethal injection and highlights all the ways that the procedure can go terribly wrong from the ineffectiveness of the chemicals to the lack of training of those administering the drugs.
Then, in yesterday's paper, a story entitled, Judge vocal against the death penalty, discusses the views of 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and former Chief Judge Boyce Martin, who has become increasingly outspoken concerning his views on the death penalty and its application in this country. In a 2005 dissent in which Judge Martin notes his long service as an appeals court judge, service of more than 25 years, he says, "only one conclusion is possible...The death penalty in this country is arbitrary, biased and so fundamentally flawed at its very core that it is beyond repair."
Today marks the opening day of the legislative session here in Tennessee. I hope that our legislators have been reading their papers lately! I believe that the wind is shifting in this country on the issue of capital punishment. The problems are too real to deny and to deep to undo. My hope is that the press will continue to keep this issue in the forefront of our minds, raising the hard questions, as our state prepares to execute EJ Harbison in February.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate online polls, forwarded tree emails, etc. I don't have a facebook or my space profile and before being pushed into the blogosphere due to my work here at TCASK, I certainly would never have had any interest in blogging. But today I'm going to refer you to an online poll.
As you probably know if you've been reading, last week, the New Jersey commission tasked with studying the death penalty recommended abolition! But that is still a scary step for a lot of legislators to take, so they need out help to buck them up for it. Thus the online poll. The Asbury Park Press has been running an online poll asking of the death penalty should be replaced with LWOP and the polling is very close. 50.6% to 49.4% last time I checked. So your votes can really count. So click here to vote and make your voice heard.
Friday, January 05, 2007
As organizers, we want to leverage as many different voices, messages, and messengers as we can to sway the hearts and minds of our policy-makers. And we shouldn't underestimate the usefulness of artistic expression in that work. Whether it's death row art shows, film screenings, or plays like The Exonerated, we want to use every opportunity to open people's minds to new concepts.
We're really lucky to be working with Playhouse on the Square in a cooperative relationship in this case. We're helping them out by publicizing their production as much as we can, and in turn they are allowing the Memphis chapter to table at each show, so that people leaving the theatre, and having been moved by the production, are given an opportunity to take concrete action and get involved right then and there. In addition, the Playhouse is letting yours truly come and do a talk-back after the show tomorrow night, so when the lights come up after the final curtain, I get to walk out on stage.
What makes this even better is that, through our partnership with the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, we'll have a number of representatives from the Shelby County Commission in attendance, so we can use this as a chance to begin the dialogue with them around the need for a moratorium and how individual municipalities can help in that effort. All in all, I'm proud of the work that we've been able to do around this production and I think that it should yield great results.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Cohen points out that death penalty cases are built on certainty, but that the only true certainty we can have is that sometimes we will be wrong. In the case of the death penalty, that wrongness is quite literally deadly.
Read the whole piece, here.
My heart ached a bit when I sat back down at my desk as I pondered the horrible things that human beings do to each other and the level of pain we continue to inflict. I was at my parents' home when the special report interrupted the TV show I was watching to say that Saddam Hussein had been executed. I was chilled to the bone by the news, but my reaction had little to do with Saddam himself. Clearly, Hussein had no regard for human life and perpetrated countless atrocities during his reign of terror in Iraq. He flaunted his unchecked power and eliminated anyone who dared cross him. Bottom line, he was not a nice guy.
And yet, as I saw him in the film footage, escorted by men in black hoods to the gallows, I could only shake my head as I knew that his death would accomplish nothing more than another addition to the body count in the continued escalation of violence in Iraq; one more death in the human struggle to establish justice through vengeance; one more body to bury, changing nothing of the past and further dehumanizing those who participate in such killing.
The next day, I gathered at the little country church of my childhood for worship. My 96 year old great-uncle spoke about the execution of Hussein. I have learned to listen closely when a man who has lived for 96 years speaks! In his West Tennessee drawl he said, "I didn't care much for that Hussein one way or t'other, but I don't see what good killin' him done. Today, folks are still gettin' killed over there, and not one thing is solved."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
That's right, a group that included a police chief, two prosecutors, the Attorney General, a former state Supreme Court Justice and representatives of victims organizations, religious leaders and legal experts has recommended that New Jersey repeal its death penalty statute. The 133 page report of the committee found that there was no benefit to the death penalty that could outweigh the risks (which cannot be avoided) of irreversible error. The commission urged legislative action to end the death penalty.
What does this mean? Well it means what we knew all along, if anyone takes a fair, complete, and balanced look at the death penalty, there is only one possible conclusion: it doesn't work. We hope to bring that message to Tennessee as soon as possible, but for right now, congratulations New Jersey!
And you can take action now by clicking here and voting to endorse the commission's recommendations in this online poll!