CEDP's annual convention

On the road to abolition

By: Marlene Martin

"It’s really a joy to be here" is how Madison Hobley opened up the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s third annual national convention, held in Chicago on the weekend of November 8-9.

Madison was one of four people pardoned by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and released from death row in January 2003. He is a member of the Death Row 10, a group of African American men who were tortured by former police commander Jon Burge. Shortly after his release, Madison went on a national speaking tour arranged by the Campaign to spread the message of abolition.

"Ten months I’ve been out, and I’m happy to be here," Madison said. "I still think about some of the guys I left behind--it’s still emotional for me. But I’ve seen that no one has given up. We’re still pushing to get other guys that are innocent free, and we’re still fighting to abolish the death penalty nationwide. That’s my goal here."

Madison’s message set the tone for the more than 100 people gathered from across the country, including representatives from all of the Campaign’s chapters. The weekend was filled with the emotional testimony of former death row prisoners, as well as family members of those on death row.

But while the convention was emotional, it was also driven by determination--a determination that we will not stop organizing until we win. "We have to be people of conscience," said freed California death row prisoner Shujaa Graham, "not just people of thought, but people who think and act upon those thoughts."

One of the most powerful sessions brought together family members of those on death row from California, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland and Illinois. The relatives all spoke of their loved ones on death row, but they also spoke out as activists who recognize that the system needs to be changed. "It’s not just about our families, it’s about this country and the people that we know, and the people we don’t know," said Jeannine Scott, a Campaign member whose husband beat the death penalty, but remains in prison with a life sentence.

Pauline Matthews, the mother of Ryan Matthews, who is on death row in Louisiana said that she will never look at the criminal justice system the same way. "My son Ryan, I say he was lynched," Pauline said. "I call it a modern-day lynching. And I feel that this is what’s happening in these courtrooms all around America and I feel like something needs to be done about it."

Since convention, feedback from attendees has been very positive. Sandra Reed, the mother of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed, attended the convention for the first time with another of her sons, Roderick Reed.

"Myself and my son are on cloud nine ever since the meeting," she said after returning home. "I met and talked with so many other people in the same situation from all over the country. I could feel the love from each and every person in that room. I know that God was in that room, and I know good things are going to come from this Campaign. We might be tiny, yet we are powerful. That’s exactly what we were--I could feel the power."

Erica Hahn, an abolitionist who attended the convention for the first time and has started a new chapter of the Campaign in Terre Haute, Ind., the site of federal death row, agreed.

"I have already mailed a letter to all of the inmates on federal death row telling them about the Campaign and the convention," Erica wrote. "My friend Danny wrote me a letter and told me that the entire row is ‘feeling a renewed sense of energy’ because of my experiences. I have already heard from two mothers and one girlfriend of the inmates on death row in Terre Haute. All three echoed Danny’s words and sentiments."

The convention marked an important step forward for the Campaign. Chapter members shared information about successful organizing over the past year and set new goals for next year. One point that was clear was the way that chapters made a point of humanizing the issue of the death penalty. Nearly every chapter relates to their local death row and has family members or exonerated death row prisoners involved in their work.

The energy in the room was palpable throughout the weekend. It was less than a year ago when George Ryan commuted all of the death sentences in Illinois and pardoned four members of the Death Row 10--the most sweeping changes in the death penalty since it was banned back in 1972. The fact that the Campaign championed the cause of the Death Row 10 and was instrumental in building the groundswell of opposition to the death penalty in Illinois engendered a sense of pride--and an acknowledgement that "our" kind of organizing can make a difference.

But convention attendees didn’t gloss over the fight ahead. We face difficult challenges, both in Illinois and other states. For example, people spoke of the attempt by Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan to contest 32 of the death sentences commuted to life sentences by Ryan. In Texas, our chapter in Austin is involved in organizing a demonstration and press conference to protest the killing spree that the state has planned--five executions in the first two weeks of December.

No doubt the Campaign has challenges before it. But this convention shows a growth and commitment that will be needed to build the kind of opposition that can win. As Darby Tillis, one of the first death row prisoners to be freed in Illinois, put it, "We won some victories but we have to win the war."