Campaign to End the Death Penalty National Convention 2006
More than 100 people gathered in Chicago on November 11-12 to attend the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s national convention, “Thirty Years is Enough: End the Death Penalty.” The two-day conference provided an important perspective on the situation of the death penalty today, and inspiration for the struggle ahead. Unfortunately the New Abolitionist only has room to publish excerps from a small number of the many excellent speeches heard at the convention.
Barbara Becnel: The most horrific experience of my life
Longtime friend, advocate and coauthor of Stanley Tookie Williams, who was put to death by the state of California on December 13, 2005. Elected to CEDP board at this convention.
There are a few core lies that politicians and others use to provide a rationale to the public for justifying the death penalty.
Lie number one is that people on death row have had a fair trial. This is the first lie that people believe.
And I’ll have to say that when I met Stan, almost 14 years ago, I did have the good sense not to believe in the death penalty. But I actually believed in the criminal justice system. I was one of the people who believed the lie—that he got on death row fair and square, even though I didn’t believe in death row.
That is one of the lies, and we have to know that the media does everything to support that lie and the politicians use it. Stan symbolizes what’s wrong and what goes wrong with the death penalty.
It is certainly not a workable and fair criminal justice system where, last year on October 24, Stan’s death warrant was signed in the downtown Los Angeles criminal courts building. I remember thinking that day about how ironic it was that the death warrant is being signed in the downtown LA criminal courts building, but Stan couldn’t get a trial in that building.
The white racist prosecutor who prosecuted him had a pattern of only prosecuting poor and Black or Latino men, and he would move them from the courtroom where they should have been tried based on where they lived and where the crime took place to a suburban court about 30 to 40 miles away, in an area that was blue collar and all-white. They would then end up with a jury that was primarily all white.
In Stan’s case, there were only three Black jurors in a pool of nearly 100 jurors. And the prosecutor kicked all three of them off. He had two death penalty cases reversed for this practice. Even the very conservative California State Supreme Court talked about him in a very disparaging way for his racism.
But none of that mattered. People said he had a fair trial. But he did not have a fair trial, and that’s just the beginning of what went wrong .
The other lie is that people on death row have ample time and opportunity through the appellate process to prove their innocence. That is a huge lie, and let’s get to the core of that lie. It turns out that the way our criminal justice system is set up is that once a person is found guilty, innocence is irrelevant. Innocence is irrelevant in the way our system works.
In Stan’s case, it took years to find the evidence that had been suppressed by the prosecution, and when it was finally found, one of his lawyers had missed a deadline. So when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, they never actually looked at the innocence issue.
What happens then is the prosecutors have an incentive to suppress evidence—because when they suppress it and it takes forever before it’s found, the courts then say you should have brought this up a long time ago. Well, excuse me! If it hadn’t been suppressed, it would have been brought up a long time ago.
The other lie is that when it is time for death row prisoners, they are going to be executed in a humane and peaceful way that is far better than what they subjected their victims to.
This is a lie most people believe, and part of that is because they don’t allow cameras in the execution chamber. We have learned some things about what actually happens in recent months because of a federal district court judge in California named Jeremy Fogel. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, and the curtains have been pulled back on the death chamber in a prison that has been around since 1852.
We finally had officers of the court go in and interview the execution team. That’s what San Quentin calls the staff that it assigned to kill people—the “Execution Team.” They got interviewed under oath, and they actually told the truth, and the truth was very ugly.
During these hearings examining the constitutionality of the lethal injection system, what Judge Fogel was examining was whether the lethal injection protocol produced excruciating pain. What he said was that some pain was perfectly fine and acceptable, but excruciating pain was not—that, he felt, could rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.
They had a world-renowned veterinarian, and his testimony was some of the most potent. Number one, he said that of the three drugs—the one drug that knocks you out, then the drug that paralyzes you, then the drug that creates a heart attack, there is no reason for the paralysis drug. Animals when they are euthanized don’t get a paralysis drug, because there is no reason for it.
What came out is that it’s used to keep the prisoner’s face frozen in a position of looking like he or she is blissfully asleep.
The other powerful moment in the testimony was when he was asked why he didn’t kill animals using the protocol that the state of California and other states use in executions, and he said, “Because I have ethics, I have standards, and I wouldn’t knowingly use a protocol like that protocol, which I know has a high chance of causing that animal to wake up and experience excruciating pain.”
It was one of those moments you could hear a pin drop on the floor, because without saying the rest—that the state of California apparently does not have standards—it was loud and clear.
Another thing that came out was that the pharmacological expert talked about the drug that knocks you out and puts you to sleep. He said it is a very unique drug that knocks you out immediately, unlike the drugs any of us had for an operation, where you drift off. But he said was the half-life of this drug is quite rapid—it knocks you out immediately, but the average person begins to wake up within two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minutes.
In Stan’s case, it took them 10 additional minutes—after the 25 minutes to get the tubes into Stan’s arms—from the time he was knocked out to the time he died. So according to this pharmacological expert, somewhere between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half minutes into that ten minutes, he woke up.
I was there, and what I saw was a man who was in real trouble. Because he was so big—Stan was 250 pounds of muscle, and the state of California’s protocol is one-dose-fits-all.
At one part during this 10 minutes, the paralysis agent didn’t work entirely, because his feet and part of his body started contorting and distorting. And I went from praying that we would get a miracle and that phone would ring to stop the execution, to praying that God would take him now, because I could see he was in trouble.
So that’s the lie. Stanley Tookie Williams died a horrible, excruciatingly painful death, where he not only woke up to the horror of his lungs paralyzed, so he was being slowly smothered to death, but the drug that makes your heart stop makes your veins feel like they’re on fire at the same time as it causes a massive heart attack, so it’s as if someone picked up a Mack truck and put it on your chest. That’s what he woke up to, but he couldn’t scream out.
So, we’re looking at the lie that we’re giving them the death sentence fairly, we’re looking at the lie that they have ample opportunity to prove their innocence, or to prove the unconstitutionality of their trial, and we’re looking at the lie that when we do kill them, we ‘re doing it in such a humane way.
It’s all a lie, and that is why I was willing to participate in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s Witness to an Execution tour. It’s been less than a year, but I don’t know if it was 20 years from now that it would be any easier.
That was beyond a doubt the most horrific experience of my life—being there that night and watching them torture and murder my friend of 13 years, and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. And every time I talk about it, it brings me right back into that room, so it’s really hard.
But the reason why I’m willing to do it is I want to shine a light in the darkness that they are trying to keep over what they are doing in the state of California, and all of the states that support and implement the death penalty.
The movement that emerged to fight the battle to try to save Stan’s life was a cross-generational movement, it was a multiethnic movement, it was a multi-nation movement. It was an extraordinary movement, and the good news is that all those people are still with us. We just need to organize ourselves and create a strategy that re-engages them. It’s up to us to create that strategic plan that embraces them and brings them back.
Derrel Myers: Making this world a livable place
Member of Murder Victims for Human Rights, the CEDP, and the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose son Jo Jo was shot and killed in 1996 by a still unknown gunman.
I want to say how honored I am to have been invited to speak here, and to be in the same room with so many incredibly courageous and wonderful people who through their own suffering are fighting to make this world a better place. I know that my own son would be proud that I’m here with you today. First of all, I think I should start by reading a statement that his mother and I wrote after his death:
“On January 19, 1996, our 23-year-old son, Joshua “JoJo” White was returning home with friends from work at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School when he was confronted by an agitated stranger who shot him to death. His last words, in hope of calming his assailant, were “Peace, brother, One Love.” His killer escaped and is still at large. We, of course, want this man off the streets, unable to hurt or kill again.
“But we think he’s not the only one responsible for our son’s death. Who, then, besides the gunman is responsible for this outrageous loss?
“JoJo was killed, in our opinion, by the same social system he was trying to change. It’s a system that takes food, music, health and recreation programs from disadvantaged school children so that wealthy corporate executives and stockholders can pay fewer taxes.
“It’s a system that, in the name of peace, wages endless war at home and abroad, militarizing our civil society and promoting more violence in the form of the death penalty and the war on drugs.
“The real criminals are the policy makers who are responsible for a system that is making war on the poor—and in the process, creating hopeless and enraged people like the man who killed our son. That man is as much a product of this system as the handgun he used.
“If we don’t provide a child with a decent life how does that child grow up to respect life? If we were a truly just society—one that respected the children, respected all children in all their great diversity, one that offered real equal opportunity, liberty and justice for all—our son JoJo would be here living a hopeful, loving and generous life. And so would the young man who killed him.”
I’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re seeing what we’re seeing with the death penalty and this incarceration frenzy in the so-called “war on drugs” is the response of the wealthy people in this country, who were terrified by the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s and terrified by the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement.
What impressed me the most was the courage that it took for those young people to sit at those lunch counters and accept the kind of brutality and terrorism that was brought on them by those segregationists. And I thought, “How are we ever going to end segregation when they are so violent and they are so powerful?” But I thought, “At least I want to be on the right side.”
Five years later, we had a Civil Rights Act passed, and I thought, “Well that’s the end of segregation in America.” But many of us know that it takes more than laws to end injustice. It takes human beings, and it takes a social system that does not reward injustice.
I say that because whatever we got from the recent elections, we have to see that as a positive sign that the American people in their majority are on our side. But this is just the beginning. Those of us who are struggling to make this country and this world a livable place—we now have a lot of work to do, because there are a lot of people on our side, but we are not organized.
If you just look to Oaxaca, Mexico, you know that hundreds of thousands of people in that state of Mexico are mobilized.
I heard a woman from Bolivia at the World Social Forum last January, and she said, “What I have to bring to you is the knowledge that my people have been oppressed, robbed, beaten, pillaged and plundered for five hundred years. And we still love our children enough that we will fight for them.” She is our ally. She is one of us.
At the rally for Tookie Williams, I was proud to see all kinds of people. It was good, because even though we lost Tookie Williams, his story and his experience brought a lot of people together who would not have been together. So the death penalty and ending the death penalty can be an important rallying point.
I’d like to end by reading a hopeful poem by an 11-year old child named Jo Jo White, who at the same time was diagnosed learning-disabled and was put into special classrooms to be with other children who had difficulty sitting still in the class, probably because they were hungry.
Some had difficulty paying attention because they were upset with the anger and the war that was going on within their own homes. Some of them couldn’t pay attention because they knew that if they didn’t get some money together they wouldn’t have a home to live in by the end of the month.
If I could change the world
I’d dismantle all the bombs
If I could change the world
I’d feed all the hungry
If I could change the world
I would shelter all the homeless
If I could change the world
I would make all people free
I cannot dismantle all the bombs
I cannot feed all the hungry
I cannot shelter all the homeless
I cannot make all people free
I cannot because there is only
one of me.
When I have grown and I am
strong I will find many more of me.
We will dismantle all the bombs
We will feed the hungry
We will shelter all the homeless
We will make all the people free.
We will change the world
Me and my friends
all together, together at last.
I want to say I feel very proud to be part of this conference, because you, to me, are the friends that JoJo was talking about in his poem.
Marlene Martin: We will be impatient with our demand
National Director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
It is now thirty years since the historic decision was made back in 1976 by our Supreme Court to allow the machinery of death to start up again in this country. And we now have a 30-year history that documents what a dreadful mistake was made back in 1976.
We have a 30-year record of the racist barbarism suffered disproportionately by African Americans and almost exclusively by the poor. Because when you have money, you get a good lawyer, and you don’t get the death penalty. And when you don’t have money, you get stuck with a lawyer like Ron Mock, the “sleeping lawyer of Texas” who was disbarred for his inadequacies and had the distinction of having more of his clients sent to death row than just about anybody else.
Or you get the lawyer that “represented” Justin Fuller, who was put to death in Texas this year. This lawyer filed a writ for Justin that contained information from one of his other clients. He basically copied from his other client’s file and put in wrong information—wrong judge, wrong co-defendant, wrong situation events. Shamefully, the courts accepted this incompetence, and Justin was executed one month ago.
Back in the 1930s, there was an important case that stands as a great example for us today of the importance of taking on the racist nature of the courts and challenging the death penalty both inside and outside the courtroom.
This was the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Nine Black youth were accused of raping two white women. They were tried by an all-white jury and found guilty, and all but one was given the death sentence. One of the two women recanted early on, but the legal lynching had begun.
Radicals at the time made arguments that in order to win, the fight had to be taken on more broadly—because as they put it, you couldn’t get “fairness” out of a Southern courtroom. And they were absolutely right. Others disagreed, like members of the NAACP, who said no, you have to be respectable. We have to fight within the confines of the legal system and so on.
Some of these questions are the same questions we face today—how to fight within the court system to the best of our ability, but not to leave it there. To understand—as Clarence Darrow, one of the great defense lawyers of all time, did—the limits of the courtroom. He was quite blunt about that the criminal justice system has nothing to do with justice. “It never did, and it never will,” he said.
A few years ago, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the question of lethal injection would be halting executions in many states, but that’s exactly what’s happening. The courts are tangled up in their rules and regulations about how one “painlessly” kills someone. Barbara Becnel has talked in more detail about how the drugs work—or really, how they don’t work and mask the pain when a person is being paralyzed so they can’t scream out or move.
On short notice, we launched an extremely successful tour with Barbara and other speakers, some of whom had also witnessed executions. We saw a crack, and we attempted to push it open and try to expose the real questions around the death penalty in this country.
The second point I want to make is about taking stock of the Stan Williams fight. As small as we are as an organization, we should be proud of the energy, the time and the dedication we put into building the biggest, best fight we could to try to save him.
Someone wrote of Stan that in a different set of circumstances, he would have grown up to be a scholar or professor at a university. But he was born into poverty, to a mother who was 17 years old, and raised by a stepfather who was abusive and neglectful toward him.
One abolitionist asked me why we fought so much around Stan—what about the other men and women who don’t get the attention you are giving to him? Our answer is simple, and I think it should remain central to our work: Working on specific cases makes our activism concrete, giving people something to struggle around—and from this, we can better generalize about what it wrong with the entire death penalty system.
None of the mothers or relatives of death row prisoners who have worked with the Campaign will get up and make speeches just about their loved ones. The power in our fight is that family members see it is not just them, and so they fight not only for justice for their loved ones, but to get rid of the death penalty, so it can never be used against anyone.
I like to think of the death penalty as the tip of the iceberg. Because we see problems of racism, of innocence, of poverty, of unfair sentencing throughout the entire criminal justice system.
Does the abolitionist community have anything to say about the life without the possibility of parole sentence? I feel that we should. Two years ago, we adopted a resolution, and I think we should underline it tonight at this conference and say we carry on in that spirit—that we do not advocate life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty.
We don’t have to be cornered into being tough on crime by advocating this harsh sentence. We should say that we should get tough on the causes of crime—that we want to have zero tolerance for poverty.
I hope that instead of advocating this sentence, we will stop and think about Billy Moore, who admitted to the crime that sent him to death row and is now one of the most gracious people we know fighting for abolition.
If Stan Tookie Williams had come out of prison, what a great teacher and leader he would have been on the outside. I wouldn’t have been pleased if he got clemency and spent the rest of his life in prison, although, of course, I didn’t want him to be executed. The same is true of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kevin Cooper, Stanley Howard. We know many people who should be out here, not spending the rest of their lives in prison and dying there.
We know people can change. That’s what Stan showed us most magnificently, and that is what Barbara says is one of the main reasons they couldn’t grant him clemency—because it would be leaving a living, breathing example that people can change, and they didn’t want that.
Let’s fight on the basis of challenging the tip of the iceberg, with the understanding that the tip is connected to the larger iceberg, and as we fight to change that tip, we can also thaw the rest of the iceberg.
We are in this for the long haul, but we intend to be impatient with our demand.
Madison Hobley: I felt I was going to die in their hands
Former Illinois death row prisoner, victim of Chicago Police torture, pardoned and freed by Gov. George Ryan in 2003. Board member of CEDP.
I was born and raised on the South side of Chicago in a community named Beverly. The Beverly area consists of Chicago workers. Some of my neighbors and some of my relatives are police officers—some of my best friends are police officers to this day.
So I always believed in the police force—I always had great respect for the Chicago Police Department.
On the morning of the fire where I lost my wife and 15-month-old baby, and for whatever reason God allowed me to survive, I learned these police officers wanted to question me. Little did I know that these officers had a history of torturing detainees—that’s what I call them.
They were under the command of Jon Burge, an old Vietnam soldier who’s looked at as a hero in some instances. He trained these guys, and I still remember their names—Robert Dwyer, Jon Lotito, John Paladino and Patrick Garrity.
I was taken into custody, and through the course of the day, I was beaten and eventually suffocated. I just felt I was going to die in their hands, but there’s no way I’m going to say something that I didn’t do, especially with the loss of my wife and child. So I took the beating, and they suffocated me until I passed out.
The first thing that they did was make it into a racial issue. Robert Dwyer had me handcuffed to a wall and started throwing down pictures of the victims. I actually saw my own baby dead. These guys didn’t have any compassion.
Robert Dwyer looked at me and said I was a “nigger,” and he insisted on me calling him a honky. The whole day, I don’t think he called me by my real name. I was nigger this and nigger that. He said that they hated niggers, and whoever did it did them a favor because there was nothing but niggers that died in the fire.
The building was a drug building. Now, we believe the reason the building was set on fire was because there was a gang war, and the guys who were dealing drugs out of the building were in enemy territory.
While I was locked up, there was a series of arsons, and they used my building as a guideline, because all the other buildings were being burned down in the same way. We were never given this information during my appeal. This was a Chicago police report that said there were other fires done the same way while I was locked up.
Eventually, they took me to 11th and State, which was the main police headquarters. They took me into this old utility room with these old file cabinets and typewriters, and they handcuffed me. One guy stood me up, and the other guy punched me in the stomach, and they were saying, “You’re going to say this, and you’re going to say that, and I just kept telling them you got the wrong person.”
Then one of the guys got a plastic cover off one of the typewriters and put it over my head. He was smothering me, and when he felt that I was breathing out of my mouth, he put his whole hand over my nose and my mouth, and I remember passing out.
They eventually gave up on me. They saw that I was willing to die in that room. And I thank God today that I never gave in, because I know some guys who did, and I believe they’re innocent, but because they signed a confession, they remain in prison.
I feel for those guys. I don’t know how a person can get around it if they’ve been coerced to sign a confession. People know what happened in these police stations, but still. How can you prove that you’ve been suffocated?
When I hear about the United States going to other countries and talking about inhumane treatment there, I know that I was right here in Chicago in a police station being tortured. The hypocrisy that we have to deal with just angers me. I have very little respect for the politicians here.
Gloria Johnson: I’m going to fight tooth and nail
Mother of former Illinois death row prisoner Montell Johnson, who suffers from medical neglect in an Illinois prison. She is a leading member of the Hyde Park CEDP.
On August 31, 2002, I had a terrible nightmare, and I’ve been living it since that day. Montell was sentenced to death row. But on January 11, 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted his sentence to 40 years.
This is a case where the victim’s mother as well as myself testified on my son’s behalf. But after the mother, Terry Hope, testified, the judge told her that what she thought she knew and whatever she felt had no bearing on the case.
In January 2001, Montell was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. So now Montell lies in Dixon Medical Correctional Center. He is totally paralyzed from the waist down. I think he is losing the movement in his left arm, because very rarely do I see him move it. In February of this year, Montell was re-diagnosed, and at the age of 40, he has also been diagnosed as having advanced stages of dementia.
It took me from 2000 to November 2005 to get Montell moved from Menard Correctional Center, which is in the southern part of Illinois, also known as Ku Klux Klan land.
I’ve informed the state of Illinois that I know about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in January 2006 in the Tony Goodman case that if you can’t meet an inmate’s medical needs, you have to put him somewhere that can.
Now he’s at Dixon, and now I’m dealing with a new warden, and we are both aggressive, so we bump heads left and right. One of the things she refuses to do is to give me Montell’s medical records, which is crucial to getting him out of there. I’ve retained a federal attorney, and we can’t seem to get the medical reports from them.
During the years Montell and I have been fighting this battle together, one of the things my son does is gives me the strength to continue, by what he tells me when he is able to talk. When we were talking, he told me “Mom, I know I might expire, but I want you to continue the fight for others.”
I may lose my child at any moment, and I think it is inhumane to me or any parent or relative when you’re living in this situation, so I’m going to fight, tooth and nail.
When inmates get sick, they are neglected. States would rather send them to the morgue then send them to the doctors. I will continue even if I lose my son—I’ve made that promise. And as long as I live, I will continue to fight for the medical rights of inmates.
(Note: In December 2006, Gloria finally obtained Montells’ medical records.)