Activists launch struggle

Keep the death penalty out of New York

By: Liliana Segura

On December 15, at the New York Bar Association in Manhattan, abolitionists had their day in court. At an all-day hearing called by state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to examine the currently defunct capital punishment law in New York state, former death row prisoners Madison Hobley, Shujaa Graham and Juan Menendez gave New York legislators three more reasons to send Gov. George Pataki a clear message: Don’t bring the death penalty back to New York!

The hearings were the first of their kind in a state that resurrected the death penalty in 1995, but which has not executed a single person since the 1970s. In a series of emotional testimonies, Campaign to End the Death Penalty members Shujaa and Madison joined Juan Melendez--the 99th person to be exonerated from death row in the U.S.--in exposing the ugly truth about the death penalty. Madison recounted his painful story of being framed and tortured by racist Chicago cops who accused him of starting a fire that left his wife, child and five other people dead. Juan Melendez, a Puerto Rican native of Brooklyn, described the pain his wrongful conviction had inflicted on him and his family, declaring, "I can sincerely say that I was mentally tortured." And later, in electrifying testimony, Shujaa spelled it out plainly: "I am here to say that it is racism."

Other speakers during the day ranged from local religious leaders to legal experts from across the country to members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the newly formed Murder Victims Families for Human Rights. The hearings had a pronounced abolitionist tone, as speaker after speaker provided facts and figures that revealed the deep-rooted flaws of the death penalty system.

Working in coalition with numerous organizations--including the ACLU, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International and Equal Justice, as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo--the City College and Columbia chapters of the Campaign had prepared for many weeks for the hearing, which attracted scores of activists, unions, students and major media outlets. A press conference kicked off the activities shortly before 10 a.m. Taking place on the Bar Association steps, pedestrians along West 44th Street gathered to watch as speakers, including Madison, Shujaa, Andrew Cuomo and David Kaczynski of the New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, decried the injustice of the death penalty. Under the banner "New Yorkers to Execute Justice, Not People," the event filled the air with an energy that set the tone for the day.

While statistically, there remains much support for the death penalty, not many people seem eager to speak out in its favor. This points to a clear and growing reality: The death penalty is losing popularity, plain and simple.

For the Campaign, the victories and lessons of the day were manifest. First, legislators were awakened to the fact that opposition to the death penalty isn’t necessarily "political suicide," as it has been perceived. For the CEDP, which fought to bring such critical speakers as Shujaa and Madison--without whom the hearings would not have been nearly as powerful--the day was a lesson in the power of grassroots struggle.