Former Death Row Prisoners Speak Out At Rally
by Douglas Lee
The Saturday evening indoor rally was one of the highlights of the Campaign’s first national convention. Nearly 200 people attended the rally, which marked the successes in our movement against the death penalty and challenged people to keep building on the momentum.
The barbaric nature of the death penalty came through loud and clear as former death row inmates and family members shared their stories of injustice. All of the speakers emphasized the importance of struggle–a running theme throughout the Campaign’s convention.
Exonerated Texas death row inmate Kerry Max Cook said that his 22 years on death row taught him that there were two kinds of justice–one for the rich and one for the poor, “the K-Mart brand of justice vs. the Nieman Marcus brand.”
Sitting on Texas death row, Cook witnessed the real consequences of the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act signed by former president Bill Clinton as countless numbers of fellow prisoners were executed by the Texas machinery of death. For Cook, this bill, which expanded the number of crimes punishable by death and limited the appeals process for death row inmates, was nothing more than a “death pill to the innocent…When it comes to the death penalty,” said Cook, “the scales of justice are never balanced.”
The stories told by the other exonerated inmates demonstrated the truth of Cook’s remarks. As they shared their stories, the devastating consequences of the death penalty became overwhelmingly clear. A fiery Darby Tillis, the first death row inmate exonerated in Illinois since 1976, reminded the audience that though he was released from death row, he was “not free from the death penalty.” For Tillis and the other exonerated inmates, death row continues to haunt their lives every day.
Commenting on the tragic events of September 11, Tillis asked the audience to remember another group of victims of terrorism: the men and women on death row. Tillis called for building the ongoing fight against the corruption of “killers living off tax dollars” and those “sanctioned to kill.”
The stories told by the exonerated were at once personal and chillingly similar. Tillis was tried five times before finally winning his freedom. Exonerated California death row inmate Shujaa Graham, who was framed for the murder of a prison guard because he was a prison-rights activist, was tried four times before winning his freedom. With the understanding that his experience was not isolated, Graham told the audience that any individual could become a target of injustice, racism, and police brutality. “The state does not have the right to kill in our name,” said Graham. “Freedom for all in the face of death.”
Other former death row inmates included Lawrence Hayes from New York, Lawyer Johnson from Massachusetts, and Anthony Porter from Illinois–each of whom expressed their commitment to those they had left behind.
Other panelists included exonerated prisoner David Bates, who was tortured into confessing to a crime that he did not commit by the notorious former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Bates spent more than 11 years behind bars before he was exonerated. As he spoke, Bates held up a plastic typewriter bag and asked the audience to imagine being suffocated with this instrument of torture as he had been. Bates describes this brutal experience as his first encounter with white people. Ever since, he said, he has had a hard time trusting whites. But during the rally, Bates thanked members of the Campaign for showing him that white people could be trusted and that Blacks and whites could fight together for justice.
Other speakers included Evangelist Bates and John Gilliam Price, family members of death row inmates; Pastor Larry Turpin of the United Methodist Church of Hyde Park, which hosted the event; Jane Bohman of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty; Jennifer Bishop of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation; and Marlene Martin and Mike Stark of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Stark, the Washington, D.C., organizer of the Campaign, spoke about the legacy of struggle that abolitionists carry with them today and encouraged activists to keep building on the pillars of strength represented by the exonerated inmates and family members who spoke on the panel that evening.
Greta Holmes, a member of the Chicago-Hyde Park chapter and moderator for the rally, ended the evening by simply proclaiming, “We are marching forward, and the death penalty will die.”