CEDP Activists Gather for Fifth Annual Convention

By: Julien Ball

Credit: James Ray
Jewel Nelms

Anti-death penalty activists, former death row inmates and family members of those still on death row gathered at the University of Chicago for the fifth annual convention of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) November 12–13. About 100 people came together to share experiences from their struggle to abolish the death penalty and to discuss how to advance the movement.

Especially powerful were speeches by former death row prisoners Darby Tillis, Billy Moore, Shujaa Graham, Madison Hobley and Alan Gell.

“Exonerated like us, we don’t have a choice to fight when people are still beaten down and suffering by the system,” said Gell, who spent nearly six years on North Carolina’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit before his release in 2004. “How many times does it have to happen for there to be something done about it?”

Credit: James Ray
Darby Tillis

Other highlights included the participation of family members who had lost loved ones to state-sanctioned killing. Jewel Nelms, mother of Frances Newton, who was recently executed by the state of Texas despite claims of innocence, attended her first CEDP convention. Bill Babbitt, a board member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, moved many with his description of the execution of his brother Manny, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran.

Capital defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, also addressed the convention, calling the death penalty the continuation of “the terrorism of Jim Crow” and the legacy of lynching in the South. “The emergence of the civil rights movement showed just how much power people have to fight against racism,” said Stevenson.

Credit: James Ray
Bryan Stevenson

Workshops allowed for the opportunity to debate issues relevant to our movement and to learn about its history. Topics included “George Jackson and the Prison Reform Movement,” “Mental Illness and the Death Penalty,” “1976—Why the Death Penalty Came Back” and “Harsh Sentences and Life Without Parole—What Do Abolitionists Have to Say?”

The CEDP convention also was a place for activists, whether new to organizing or longtime veterans, to take stock of their successes and challenges over the past year. CEDP members from Moraga, Calif., described how they started a chapter on a conservative campus, while members in the more long-standing Austin, Texas, branch described how they organized a protest of hundreds of people at the statehouse.

A recurring theme throughout the convention was the urgent need to fight the execution of California prisoner Stan Tookie Williams. At a rally on the last day of the convention, Stan’s advocate, Barbara Becnel, called in from California to build support for the cause. Conventioneers voted to launch a national campaign around his case, including a day of action on November 30. Although ultimately this campaign was unable to stop his December 13 execution, it did bring national attention to his case as well as adding hundreds of new activists to the fight to end the death penalty in the United States.

These statements give a false and deadly impression that if an innocent person was convicted, or if the conviction rested on a constitutional violation, the review process would have certainly discovered and corrected it.