Highlights Of The Struggle

Reports From Campaign Chapters Around The Country

Baltimore, Maryland/Washington, D.C.
By Mike Stark

The local abolitionist movement has been united in an effort to support abolition legislation in Maryland. The legislation was narrowly defeated after weeks of intensive activism and lobbying in the State’s capital by area abolitionists.

Despite this setback, a moratorium on executions imposed by the Maryland Court of Appeals remains firmly in place. Plus, issues surrounding the constitutionality of lethal injections, declining public support for executions, and a governor in the Statehouse who supports death penalty repeal remain in the public eye.

Highlights over the past month included a press conference organized by Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MD CASE) featuring a half-dozen wrongfully convicted death row prisoners from “Witness to Innocence,” including Maryland DNA exonoree Kirk Bloodsworth. Also, newly elected governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, testified in support of abolition before both the House and Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the bills.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Baltimore Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have been working overtime alongside family members and Maryland death row prisoners to help in the drive towards abolition.

These efforts included a rally outside the governor’s inauguration, three well-attended Live from Death Row events, and participation in a MD CASE-sponsored citizen-lobbying night. Plus, CEDP members testified at the House and Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

Following the legislation’s narrow defeat, the CEDP held a rally outside Maryland’s death row that included former New York death row prisoner Lawrence Hayes at the end of March to continue to build support for abolition in Maryland.

More recently, a scandal involving the perjured testimony of a police ballistics expert seems likely to further erode public confidence in the State’s death penalty.

According to the Innocence Project’s web site, Joseph Kopera, the former head of the Maryland State Police firearms division, suddenly retired and committed suicide in March.

An investigation showed that he had repeatedly lied on the witness stand about his credentials over the course of his 37 years as a forensic expert. This revelation could lead to new trials for dozens of prisoners that Kopera helped to convict.

In a state that is already questioning the use of a death penalty system which has been shown to be racially biased, arbitrary and cruel, this could be the “final straw” in breaking the back of capital punishment.

New York City
By Liliana Segura

The CEDP was all over New York this winter, with a series of exciting events.

On February 1, we hosted a CD release party for the Welfare Poets’ new death penalty themed compilation Cruel and Unusual Punishment, a collaborative album featuring tracks by multiple artists committed to social justice.

The celebration took place at the Remy Lounge in downtown Manhattan, with a parade of performers and activists taking the stage and speaking out against racism and the death penalty—including a rousing speech by Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who traveled from Philly for the occasion. The celebration went late into the night, with loads of no-holds-barred political hip-hop keeping the crowd fueled and on their feet.

The event, like the album, was dedicated to Hasan Shakur, who was executed by the state of Texas last August, and whose voice appears on the record. The Welfare Poets fought hard for his life. We were saddened at the loss—but proud to continue in the struggle together.

Then, a few days later, on February 6, at the National Black Theater in Harlem, the CEDP along with New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty presented “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: Wrongful Convictions in New York.”

With a slew of exonerations in New York over the past year, it was a timely and powerful program that drew students, community members and media.

The speakers were Alan Newton, who was exonerated after 22 years, Jeffrey Deskovic, exonerated after 16 years, as well as CEDP members Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted in the Central Park Jogger case, and Lawrence Hayes, former New York death row prisoner and Black Panther.

We hope to repeat the success at other venues in the city, like Hunter College and City College.

The two events came in the wake of a major blow to the abolitionist community in New York: the first federal death sentence in 50 years in New York, in the case of Ronnell Wilson of Staten Island.

Arrested in 2003 for the murder of two undercover cops, the local D.A. handed the case over to the feds only after New York state suspended its state death penalty statute in 2004—a blatantly political, penalty-driven move.

In this climate, CEDP members have tried to step up our work, tabling about Mumia, and spreading the word about the case of Rohammed Menzies, who is serving a life sentence in Virginia.

Austin, Texas
By Bryan McCann

In Austin, we are focusing our efforts on the case of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed and building solidarity with DRIVE, a group of death row prisoners who are protesting the inhumane conditions on Texas’ death row.

On March 7, we held an informational table about death row conditions and DRIVE on the Speedway Mall in front of the Gregory gym.

We displayed pictures and comments from the DRIVE Web site, used tape to outline the dimensions of a death row cell, and even baked a “food loaf,” the disgusting baked assemblage of leftover food death row prisoners are forced to eat when they are being “disciplined.”

The chapter is also working with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups as well as supporters of DRIVE across the globe to improve the conditions on Texas’ death row. For example, the ACLU is interested in laying the foundation for a media campaign and litigation against the state for the human-rights violations that persist on death row.

We also participated in the annual Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break, organized by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty. We held an information table on Innocence Day at the Capitol and had heavy traffic.

One of our members, Lily Hughes, gave an excellent speech at the Capitol along with other fighters in the abolitionist movement including Renny Cushing, the director of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, and Shujaa Graham, exonerated California death-row prisoner.

Several CEDP members also testified at Senate Committee Hearings against Jessica’s Law, which, if passed, will extend the death penalty to repeat child sex offenders.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, no one has been sentenced to death for a crime that did not result in death, and experts have said that the bill is unconstitutional. Moreover, it’s been shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime and, similarly, Jessica’s Law is unlikely to deter sex offenses against children.

We are working hard to keep exposing the injustices of the death penalty, even as the state continues its race to execution.

We are hosting the CEDP’s national tour, “Witness to an Execution,” in mid-April. Plus, our work on the Rodney Reed case continues to be an ongoing process both locally and as part of our national initiative.

We are planning to host more screenings of State v. Reed to raise community awareness about the case. We will keep up the fight here in Texas, the “belly of the beast.”

California
By Crystal Bybee, Devin O’Leary, Gina Spitz

The Bay Area CEDP chapters kicked off 2007 by mobilizing for Kevin Cooper’s January 9 hearing at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

With a crowd of about 75 people, we easily packed the courtroom and overflowed into the cafeteria as planned. Kevin’s attorneys brought up many different issues, including new evidence that has come about since his stay of execution, multiple constitutional violations that persist in his case, and the botched evidence tests performed during the latest round of appeals.

Moreover, the state admitted that the evidence tests proved absolutely nothing, even though they previously claimed that the tests proved Kevin’s guilt. Now we have to see what the judges will do, but we will work to keep the pressure on!

At the University of California-Berkeley, the chapter united around the theme “Misconceptions of the Death Penalty” for Death Penalty Awareness Week.

We held an information table on campus every day of the week, addressing a different misconception each day, like “Everyone on death row is guilty” and “California is too liberal to execute people or sentence them to death.” We also had a very well-attended screening of State v. Reed.

More recently, we had an event with Veronica Luna who talked about the hardships family members faced with their loved ones on death row as well as the injustices in her uncle’s case.

During Death Penalty Awareness Week at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, the chapter hosted a program called “Experiencing the Death Penalty: Personal Stories and Reflections” with Ron Ahnen, a professor of Politics and member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. The week’s theme at St. Mary’s was “The Death Penalty: No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing.”

We hosted an evening with Ty Alper, Associate Director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law, who explained why the current court cases pertaining to lethal injection are important and how lasting their decisions will be. By the end of the evening, students were more invigorated than ever before to help stop the death penalty and become more active in the on-campus chapter.

The San Francisco and Oakland chapters co-sponsored screenings of two great documentaries, State v. Reed and Race to Execution. Both events were great opportunities to work with other groups, bring new people around, and do outreach with the New Abolitionist and petitions.