Campaign to End the Death Penalty National Convention 2008

Working to end the death penalty


On November 8 and 9, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty held its eight annual convention in Chicago. More than 80 people from across the country turned out for a weekend packed with insightful discussions and moving testimonies.

At an evening meeting that drew a crowd of more than 100 from around Chicago, Mumia Abu-Jamal called in live from his prison cell in Pennsylvania and talked to the hushed crowd. "I'm overwhelmed," he said when he heard the crowd chant, "They say death row, we say hell no!"

Featured in this issue are excerpts from some of the speeches at that evening meeting, as well as throughout the weekend.


Let's make this work

Lawrence Foster is the grandfather of Kenneth Foster Jr., who had his Texas death sentence commuted in August 2007 after coming within hours of execution. Kenneth and his family worked with CEDPers to spearhead the fight that won commutation.

Kenneth had been convicted under the "Texas Law of Parties" for the "crime" of driving a car carrying Maurice Brown, who that night shot and killed Michael LaHood. Though Kenneth's execution was halted, he is still serving a life sentence for driving that car--so the struggle continues.

Lawrence gave opening remarks at the start of the CEDP convention.

Good morning. It's just so good to be here, and to see each and every one of you.

I would like to make a few comments about the fight that we've had with Kenneth Foster. First of all, I don't want to just emphasize Kenneth Foster, because there are many others who are in dire need of the support we have given him. Just because he was exonerated, that doesn't mean the struggle has ended.

Each and every one of us has put forth an exceptional effort to free the others who are there on death row. I cannot just sit down and be idle because Kenneth has been removed from death row--no.

I often think back on the experience that I have had with Kenneth. Who would ever believe that driving a car would put you on death row for 11 years? And even after being saved from death row, you're still incarcerated.

I still say if it was not for the organization the CEDP, I don't think Kenny ever would have been freed from death row. I don't think he would be alive now. The effort that every individual put forth--this was instrumental in getting him freed. And his relatives put forth a lot of effort. I know myself and his dad put forth a lot of effort in trying to get him freed.

It's not just one person's responsibility. It's everyone's responsibility. But you as an individual--yes, it is your responsibility. You have to help do what you can. When the meetings are called, make sure that you put forth a little extra effort to attend them. There are going to be thoughts and ideas in your mind that you may want to express, but feel a little reluctant or reticent to do so--don't do that!

I know when I was in school, I was very bashful--even as I am now. I would be apprehensive about asking a question because I would think, "That's a stupid question." But the stupidity of the question is that you didn't ask it. So let's comment and express ourselves, and let's make this work.

I feel so good that Kenny is off death row. (applause) It's quite a feeling, and I cannot even express it. Just to think that while he was there, there were no contact visits or anything. And when he was moved, I was able to go there and hug him. I had contact visits with Kenny. This was great. It was just so elating. We just kept hugging. I guess some of the other inmates there thought we were lovers or something.

We will start first with one, just one individual free. Then two, three, four--until the last one is freed. And we cannot stop until such things happen. I'm not going to stop, and I hope you won't either.


Organize, organize, organize

Mumia Abu-Jamal is an acclaimed author, a former Black Panther and a tireless fighter against injustice. He has spent a quarter century on death row after being wrongly convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. His determination to speak out on behalf of justice, not only in his own case, but for all the other victims behind prison walls, is why he is known as the "voice of the voiceless."

During the evening meeting at the CEDP convention, Mumia spoke live from his prison cell on Pennsylvania's death row, addressing several questions read to him by the meeting's moderators. Unfortunately, much of what Mumia said was lost due to the poor quality of the sound recording of the event; any errors in the transcription are mine. MM

(Audience chants "Free Mumia, Free Mumia")

Mumia: I'm moved almost beyond words. I'm touched. I thank you all at the Live from Death Row meeting. I wish you many more occasions such as this, with brothers like Aaron Patterson, and other brothers and sisters from all around the country, to share some brief moments of their lives with you.

Question: What do you expect to see both in terms of your defense and the prosecution?

Mumia: It's going to be a struggle. It's going to be a fight, a struggle each day, every inch of the way. Never underestimate the power of the people, never underestimate the power of the activists, never underestimate the power of the movement.

Question: What are your thoughts on the outcome of the presidential election and Barack Obama assuming the White House? And what advice do you have for political activists now that he will be the first African American president of the United States?

Mumia: My reaction is really a kind of cautious optimism. Cautious, because if people believe that the struggle is won, then you know change won't be accomplished. But if people begin to really organize a deeper, broader movement, then change will come. This is an important lesson for a lot of people to take back to the struggle for change, if it's going to happen.

Question: Could you say what some of the recent victories around the death penalty--the stay for Troy Davis, the halt to Kenneth Foster's execution--have meant to you and what this means for the future of our movement?

Mumia: Organize, organize, organize--I want people to take that to heart. Don't forget what you can do if you organize. I thank you all.

(Audience chants "They say death row, we say hell no!")


We're going to be heard

Darrel Cannon was tortured by Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge, who were attempting to coerce a confession from him to a murder he didn't commit. Officers used their fists, boots and electric shocks, and threatened to shoot Darrell, putting a shotgun in his mouth.

Darrell spent over 24 years in prison before being released in 2006--but he was able to protest when Burge was finally brought into a courtroom last year to be charged in connection with the torture he oversaw.

I regret that I won't be able to stay for the whole program. We just buried my sister today, and we still have family members at the house. But I had to leave to come here to share this moment with you, and to say that through the struggle, we've been able to make some headway.

I didn't get a chance to see the torturer [Jon Burge] when they brought him into court, but I wasn't maybe any more than 25 feet away from him during the court session that day. And I'm sure that the news media have allowed him to see me, and that in itself is a blessing, because I'm no longer in prison. I'm outside. (applause and cheers)

There are other brothers who are still languishing in prison. They haven't been as blessed as I have, but I intend to keep them alive.

Stanley Howard shouldn't be in prison. You know he should never have been on death row from the get-go. It's regrettable that my brother Aaron [Patterson], who I know personally and I've known since he was a kid, is back in the system again. But please keep in mind that all of these men who have been blessed enough to come home got no counseling whatsoever, no assistance whatsoever.

Mayor Richard Daley made a joke of how he apologized to us for doing 24 years. Of the 24 years that I did, the last nine were in Supermax, where you have no human contact with anyone. They turn the light on every half hour throughout the night. This is to deprive you of sleep, and to break you in every shape, form and fashion.

So my torture that began 24 years ago continues today because of the fact that the city has not owned up to what they did to me, and what they did to others. But some way, somehow, we're going to get justice.

As long as we continue to organize, as long as we continue to make noise, we're going to be heard.

I don't mean this as a criticism, but I'm not looking at Barack Obama to do anything for me. He will have his hands full trying to deal with the Senate and Congress. We have the power right in Chicago to take on the mayor and the aldermen and say, "Look, the same way you thought it was impossible to put a Black man in the White House, it's not impossible for us to beat you out of office and put somebody else in." (applause and cheers)

Daley seems to think that he's following in his father's footsteps, and he can remain in office until he dies or until he retires. We can make a liar out of him. We can make a liar out of those aldermen who sit back and do nothing. Some of the aldermen who have come out lately only came out because the tide has turned, and now we're beginning to be heard. So now it's "Oh, well, let me get on the right side." You should have been on the right side from the get-go.

Do you know that the two detectives, Jon Burge's right-hand men, have yet to be indicted? I have sent emails, I have called, I have screamed, I have asked a federal prosecutor, "Look, do you have the backbone to do what is necessary?"

So please, it can't stop with Jon Burge. You've got to get his main henchmen, and God willing, we will get his main henchmen.

I did 24 years in prison. During that time, I lost my mother, my father, my brother. I lost my son, and I lost two nephews. I can never recoup any of that. And then my sister just gave her deposition in my case last week, and we just buried her today.

So my family continues to go through the torture, and the city of Chicago continues to pay the defense for a torturer who they know tortured people--who they know tortured Darrell Canon and other Darrell Cannons who have yet to speak out.

But God willing, I will continue to speak. I will continue to get people to come together to do the right thing, to let the politicians know, "You're not going to pay for Burge's defense anymore. You're not going to pay the defense for the other detectives who have been involved in torture." This is our money. I'm not in prison now. I'm a citizen, and I pay taxes, so I have the right to get my money's worth. (laughter and applause)

I've often said that Burge and company would have come out better by blowing my brains out 24 years ago. They took me out to a rural area, and I was handcuffed behind my back, and they got me out of the detective car. Their exact words were "Look around, nigger. Nobody's going to see you. Nobody's going to hear you." And they told me that they had a scientific way of interrogating niggers.

Throughout the entire day, my name was never Darrell Cannon. My name was nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, and this was something that they enjoyed--the same way they enjoyed torturing me using a shotgun they forced in my mouth and split my upper lip and kept pulling the trigger.

They tried to hang me up by the back of my arms while I was handcuffed behind my back. They pulled my pants and shorts down, and took a cattle prod and touched it to my testicles. (overcome with emotion)

If you ask me if I'm still bitter, yes, I'm very bitter. Do you know that my anger (overcome with emotion, thumping fist), my frustration is what kept me alive? And after losing all of my loved ones, I was never allowed to go home to a funeral, not a one.

Because of all those things, I continue to stay bitter. There are some that say you should forgive, and let live, and all that good stuff. Well, they can do that. To me, I don't have enough hatred. I hate the air they breathe. (applause)

But I'm not going to do anything that will jeopardize my freedom because I don't have very many loved ones left. So I'm going to use the judicial system, the same way they used it against me. I intend to use it against them. And they're going to jail.

If Jon Burge goes to jail for one year, that's fine by me. At least I'll know that he will no longer have a pension, I'll know he no longer has the badge, he'll no longer be authorized to carry a gun, so he will not be able to inflict more pain on any other family. And it will serve notice to all the cops still on the force now that either you do your job properly, or you'll end up like them buzzards.

That's what I like to call them--buzzards. Because they circle around you when you're handcuffed behind your back and you can't defend yourself. That's what buzzards do. Buzzards wait until something's dead, and then swoop right down on you. And that's what they are--buzzards.

But please know that justice will prevail. Darrell Cannon's here today to say that even after 24 years, I have never lost hope that someday justice will prevail.

The death penalty is wrong. I've been on both sides of the law, and I believe in law and order, but the death penalty is wrong. An eye for an eye? Where's the justice in that? You know something better has to be done--a better system has to come, and only we the people can change this.

Thank you so very much for allowing me to speak, and God bless you.


I share with you my life

Martina Correia has spearheaded the fight for justice for her brother, Troy Davis, an innocent man on Georgia's death row who has faced three execution dates in two years, and won a stay each time. Despite facing a battle with cancer herself, Martina has led a national and international struggle to win justice for Troy.

Martina gave brief remarks and then read a statement that Troy prepared for those attending the CEDP convention.

Good evening. My name is Martina Correia, and I'm from the distant planet of Georgia. For those of you who don't know about my brother, Troy Anthony Davis was convicted in 1991 of killing an off-duty police officer. He was trying to help a homeless man.

Someone went and told the police that my brother had shot and killed this police officer. They used nine eyewitnesses to convict my brother and sentence him to death. Seven of those witnesses have since recanted, and yet the state of Georgia still wants to execute my brother--even though they have no physical evidence, no weapon, no motive, no anything.

Here is the message from my brother, Troy Anthony Davis:

I want to thank all of you for your efforts and dedication to human rights and human kindness. In the past year, I have experienced such emotion, joy, sadness and neverending faith.

It is because of all of you that I am alive today. As I look at my sister Martina, I am marveled by the love she has for me--and of course, I worry about her and her health. But as she tells me, she is the eldest, and she will not back down from this fight to save my life and prove to the world that I am innocent of this terrible crime.

As I look at my mail from across the globe, from places I have never ever dreamed I would know about, and people speaking languages and expressing cultures and religions I could only hope to one day see firsthand, I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing joy.

I can't even explain the surge of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all. It compounds my faith, and it shows me yet again that this is not a case about the death penalty, this is not a case about Troy Davis--this is a case about justice, and the human spirit to see justice prevail.

I cannot answer all of your letters, but I do read them all. I cannot see you all, but I can imagine your faces. I cannot hear you speak, but your letters take me to the far reaches of the world. I cannot touch you physically, but I feel your warmth every day I exist.

So thank you, and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form, but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you, I have been spiritually free for some time. And no matter what happens in the days and weeks to come, this movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated.

There are so many more Troy Davises. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me, but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe.

I want you to know that the trauma placed on me and my family as I have now faced execution and the death chamber three times is more punishment than most can bear. Yet as I face this state-sanctioned terror, I realize one constant--my faith is unwavering, the love of my family and friends is massive, and the fight for justice and against injustice by activists worldwide has ignited a fire that is raging for human rights and human dignity.

You inspire me, you honor me, and as I pray for strength and guidance for my family and loved ones, and for the victim's family and loved ones, I share with you this struggle. I share with you our triumphs, knowing that you add to my strength and my courage, and because of that, I share with you my life.

We must dismantle this unjust system, city by city, state by state and country by country. I can't wait to stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form. I will one day be announcing, "I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE!"

Never stop fighting for justice, and we will win!


My heart aches deep with pain

Sandra Reed is the mother of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed, who has been on death row for over a decade. The fight for Rodney has taken a new turn after he was recently denied a new trial by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

I'd like to tell you about my son and the ordeal we've been going through. It's been 11 years now since my son Rodney has been absent from my household due to the corruption of police, and a trial by an all-white jury. He was wrongfully convicted.

Rodney was accused of the murder of a young white lady by the name of Stacey Stites. I knew Stacey myself. She would come to my home and pick up Rodney. I didn't know at the time that she was the girl that Rodney had said that he had been dating, and she was engaged to a cop. She was just one of the girls he was dating.

Rodney was accused of kidnapping and raping and murdering Stacey, based on one so-called piece of evidence, a very small amount of sperm. There were footprints, fingerprints, hair found on her pubic area. None belonged to Rodney. There had been beer cans found at the scene with DNA implicating two police officers, along with her DNA. There were two condoms found. Prosecution claimed that the DNA was too old to be tested.

Stacey's fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a police officer--now a former police officer, but at that time he was a police officer--was the number-one suspect in this case. Yet they never canvassed the apartment he and Stacey shared.

The truck that she was driving the night that she supposedly had been abducted was not tested. The only thing they did was fingerprints, and the fingerprints found on the truck belonged to Stacey and her fiancé. Well, they released the truck back to her fiancé. The truck was found one hour after she supposedly came up missing, and then returned back to the number-one suspect, and he sold the truck the next day.

A year later, after she was gone, the police came to my home looking for Rodney, and I was told it was for a sealed indictment for drugs. We all knew Rodney wasn't a drug dealer. So when Rodney came home, I took him to the police. I thought everything was going to be all right. I trusted the system. Within 24 hours after he was incarcerated, he was charged with the murder.

We would wait one year before trial and while waiting for trial, Rodney was transferred to four different counties, until two weeks before the trial.

The day of the trial, the prosecution made me a potential witness for them, so therefore, I couldn't be in the courtroom with my son. The all-white jury convicted Rodney on that one piece of so-called evidence.

Rodney has been on death row for 10 years now, 11 years total in prison, and we have been fighting so hard. We've gotten his story out, and I'm sure a lot of you know about it.

But if it wasn't for this Campaign, I don't know where I would be mentally today. It has given me the opportunity to tell his story and get it out.

This system is filled with corruption, injustice, and racism. It reeks. It is a system made only for politicians--this is my opinion--and law enforcement. It's a system that feeds off the poor and the needy. It's a system that denies the truth if it chooses to do so. It's a system that does not own up to its mistakes, yet claims to represent justice. What a betrayal, what a disappointment. If my son had been a politician or in law enforcement, he would be home today.

The politicians avoid certain issues--our local and national government tends to avoid issues such as the death penalty. Why ignore issues that matter to millions of people, thousands of families? It is known that the death penalty is cruel and inhumane, yet they won't stop the immoral legalized murder industry.

I always think about the inhumane treatment Rodney is going through, and my heart aches deep with pain. Then I think about the pain that Mary endured, the pain and suffering my Lord, Jesus Christ endured, and my strength energizes.

The thought of innocent people all across the United States who are in prison, who are there for life, who have died and who are scheduled to die compels me to speak out, and to fight not just until Rodney comes home, but until this death penalty is stopped. I will be here every year and tell my story to whoever is willing to listen.


I thank God for people like you

Darby Tillis spent 9 years, one month and 17 days on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Along with his co-defendant, he was the first death row prisoner in Illinois to be exonerated and freed.

Darby is an honorary board member of the CEDP, a leading figure in the fight against capital punishment and a speaker at anti-death penalty events across the country.

Good evening, my brothers and sisters. We've had about a 10-year ride. You all are courageous, strong. You're fighters. Most of you all are not big in stature, but you have a heart as big as Lake Michigan.

In a book that I read, there's a sentence that says, "There is no greater love than to lay your life down for your fellow man." And that's what we do. You all are courageous fighters. I've learned so much from you. I've enjoyed every moment that we have worked together.

My name is Darby Tillis. I spent 9 years, 1 month and 17 days on death row for a crime I did not commit. I was tried five times, including three hung juries. My case did not have DNA. It was mostly prosecutorial misconduct. That's what we call it when the judge, the police and state's attorney all get together and put some lies together, and call it a fine presentation of facts.

Because I walked into the police station on December 8, 1977, of my own free will, after I heard a rumor floating around that the police wanted to talk to me, they found an opportunity to use me, but not like they wanted to.

After being in there for awhile, we began to talk, I found out that there were already two men locked up in the case, one Black and one white. And there was a $5,000 reward. So they offered me the $5,000 reward to cooperate and make up lies about these two men.

Well, it didn't mean anything to me. I mean, shucks, I just knew them off the street, so why shouldn't I get $5,000 and just ride on? (audience laughter) But I wasn't raised that way. I was raised that a stool pigeon is the lowest part of the game. And my momma whipped my butt to make me learn to tell the truth, shut my mouth and leave other people's business alone.

Plus, I wasn't going to let no potbelly, donut-eating policeman tell me. (laughter and applause)

No way could I ever walk around in the street if I had gotten $5,000 and hold my head up high after sending two men to the gallows. I couldn't do that. Even if they had offered me a Rolls-Royce and $300,000 and a condo in the Bahamas--no. Life means something to me, even though I was just a little street fighter.

They separated the white man with a record longer than from here to Lake Michigan, and they put me and the Black man, who had just got out of the penitentiary, on trial together. The first trial was a hung jury; the second trial was a hung jury. The third trial, they came hunting for bear. They brought in an all-white jury. The judge was white, the state's attorney was white, the jury was white, and the verdict was what? Guilty. (laughter)

We were given the death penalty. The white man never went to jail. He was given time served for simple robbery. The simple robbery conviction was to conceal the conspiracy--to make good folks feel that they finally got one of them, and he pleaded guilty, so we know we got the right one. We got a great police department, a great court system, and we can sleep with ease at night.

These people are flesh mongers and modern-day body snatchers. They are worse than pimps and dope dealers. It's not Cook County Courthouse out there, it's Crook County Courthouse. (applause)

There has to be a law put on the books that judges and state's attorneys and police, when they knowingly send an innocent man to jail, can go to jail and do some time, too. (applause) There has to be an example made of these people.

Once they realized that they can reach back 15 or 20 years and grab people like Jon Burge and indict them, the police are going to say, "I don't want that to come haunt me 20 years from now, so I'm not going to do it."

We've empowered people to come out and speak up. Brothers like Stanley Howard and Mumia Abu-Jamal are speaking out from the penitentiary. We've encouraged brothers who have come out, like Darrell Cannon, to speak out. We're making a difference. I thank God for people like you.

I was kidnapped, used and abused to send a message to the Black community, that Black on white crime wasn't going to be tolerated. We have to put an end to this corruption.

My judge passed on last week. He had just gotten out of federal penitentiary in March, after spending 12 years of a 15-year sentence [for corruption]. Bless his heart. (audience laughter)

Most of you all out there are very young and, you are the future custodians of this country. It's up to you all to bring legislation to get fair and just treatment in the court system and in the penal system.

A special note of thanks to both Nancy Welch and Cameron Sturdevant for their work on transcribing these speeches.