Highlights of the struggle

Reports From Campaign Chapters Around The Country

Texas By Reid Smith

In February, our chapter hosted a special forum with family members of death row prisoners who shared how their lives have been impacted by the death penalty. Featured speakers included Pauline Matthews, mother of Louisiana death row prisoner Ryan Matthews; Monique Matthews, sister of Ryan Matthews; Roderick Reed, brother of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed; Delia Perez-Meyer, sister of Texas death row prisoner Louis Castro Perez; Lawrence Foster Sr., grandfather of Texas death row prisoner Kenneth Foster, Jr.; and Jeannine Scott, wife of Texas prisoner Michael Scott.

Leading up to the event, Kenneth Foster Jr. wrote a letter to the editor in The Daily Texan the newspaper of the University of Texas, describing the family forum and encouraging students and others to attend. The event, which was well attended, was covered by the local evening news and in The Daily Texan.

In March, we had a visit from Sujal of the UC Berkeley Chapter. He attended a coffee hour with the Austin chapter and talked about the Kevin Cooper case, giving us behind the scenes information about their successful campaign to halt Cooper’s execution. Austin Campaign members asked questions about the kind of work that was done around Cooper’s case prior to his execution date. We were able to make comparisons with our own efforts at organizing a public campaign to expose the injustices in the case of Rodney Reed, an innocent man from nearby Bastrop, Texas. The discussion was lively, and brought up one particularly important issue for our chapter. Since we live in a state that can sometimes have weekly executions, our chapter has struggled to find a balance in responding to these executions and carving out the time and energy necessary to build a successful campaign around Rodney’s case. Through the course of our discussion, we refocused our efforts on Rodney’s case.

We recently held a press conference and picket at the Austin Court of Criminal Appeals demanding a new trial for Rodney in light of suppressed evidence. Our picket drew about 30 people, who marched and chanted in front of the building, as well as some local news stations. In June, we will march to the Bastrop Courthouse to deliver a petition demanding a new trial. We are also circulating petitions and handing out fact sheets about Rodney’s case, and we’re planning a wheatpasting effort of posters calling for justice for Rodney.

George Washington University By Laura Osterman

The George Washington University chapter had another successful semester. In February, we had a pizza dinner with exonerated California death row prisoner Shujaa Graham. Hearing Shujaa speak is always inspiring and helps to renew our dedication to the cause. After the dinner one member said, "I know that if a lot of people who are unsure about the death penalty had the opportunity to hear him speak, he would really make them think about the issue if not convince them outright" that the death penalty is inherently flawed and unjust. Next semester we are planning on having Shujaa out to many more events.

In March, we had a very successful fundraising event. Our chapter rented out a bar and spent weeks publicizing for the event. We had about 50-100 people come out to the event and ended up raising $200! Hosting the fundraiser gave us the opportunity to meet lots of new people and to engage in some interesting discussions about the abolition work we are doing.

We’ve also built our pen pal program. Writing with inmates has given our members a new perspective on our work as abolitionists and has really enriched our chapter. We are looking forward to continuing our fight against the death penalty. Together we can overcome this struggle.

California By Maya Walker

Inspired by Kevin Cooper’s stay of execution in February, a handful of activists formed a new Campaign chapter at San Francisco State University. Campaigners from the Berkeley chapter helped us get started and our first few months have been very productive, especially considering that we launched our chapter mid-semester. So far, we have held several public meetings, a film screening of Redemption about California death row prisoner Stan "Tookie" Williams, and a successful "Live from Death Row" forum with Kevin Cooper. Topics addressed at our meetings included lethal injection, innocence and, most recently, the possibility of a moratorium on executions in California. Our screening of Redemption brought many new faces and sparked a great discussion afterwards. Our best event by far was our "Live From Death Row." Kevin spoke to the audience for nearly an hour. "I was going to be the sacrificial lamb. I refused to die in silence. Fortunately, there were people out there to hear me," Kevin told the audience.

"It’s not just about the death penalty, it’s about all human rights," Kevin said. "Please note that all movements for human rights have been started by people like you--from the abolition of slavery to unions to women’s rights.  It’s us versus them: us poor people who are not part of the government, who’ve got to stand up and fight."

In addition to Kevin’s empowering words, we were fortunate enough to hear from four phenomenal speakers: David Alexander, Kevin’s attorney; Darrell Meyers of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation; Barbara Becnel, an advocate for Stan "Tookie" Williams; and our own Campaign member, Kirya Traber.

Over the summer, we plan to meet as one chapter with our fellow Campaign members from Berkeley. We are discussing different outreach projects. And when classes resume in the fall, we plan to build on our strong foundation of dedicated individuals to have an even larger network of members. We have high hopes for the year ahead.

The Struggle Continues in California By Sujal Parikh

Drawing on our success with the campaign to save Kevin Cooper’s life, we organized a "Live From Death Row" in March featuring Kevin Cooper, himself, live via telephone hook-up from his prison cell. "They don’t want to spend money on life, they’d rather spend money on death," Kevin told the audience. Just over a month ago, Kevin came within hours of his own scheduled execution, and the audience was excited to hear the voice of a man who had fought so courageously in the face of death.

"Taking money away from schools, raising people’s tuition, doing everything that seems to be against human nature," Kevin said. "Looks like they have their priorities all mixed up. They are firing teachers but they aren’t firing the executioners. They are pumping poison into people’s bodies but not knowledge into people’s brains."

Other speakers at the Live from Death Row included David Alexander, a member of Kevin’s legal team; Rita Barker, attorney for Tommy Thomspon who was executed by the state of California in 1998; and Cameron Sturdevant, a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The audience also had the opportunity to ask Kevin questions for about 40 minutes.

In April, we held an informational meeting with Barbara Becnel, a longtime friend of the Nobel Prize nominee and death row inmate Stan "Tookie" Williams. Barbara spoke about Stan’s case and the making of Redemption, a movie about Stan’s transformation while on death row. Several days later we arranged a showing of the movie, and had vibrant discussions before, during, and after the film aired.

To reach out to other organizations and form broad-based coalitions in support of abolition, the Berkeley chapter held a Town Hall Meeting at the end of April. We invited various groups and individuals to come together and discuss how to build a successful moratorium movement on the Berkeley campus and in the surrounding community. Now, our chapter is planning a moderated debate on the death penalty and a conference on fighting for a moratorium for the fall.

North Carolina By Brad Ward

The North Carolina chapter ended the semester with a bang. We held an event on the death penalty at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro drawing forty-five people from across the state. Speakers included Stephen Dear, president of the People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in North Carolina; Marlene Martin, the Campaign’s national coordinator; Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated by DNA testing earlier this year; and Monique Matthews, the sister of death row prisoner Ryan Matthews.

Hunt’s story of injustice has received widespread attention. Hunt, an African American man, was wrongfully convicted when he was 19 years old for the murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year old white woman. He is the third person whose conviction was overturned in North Carolina after DNA testing exonerated him. His dedication to speaking out on behalf of those that he left behind inspired the room.

Matthews, whose brother Ryan just won a new trial in Louisiana, called in to speak to the audience via speaker- phone. Her words, which were directed against the racism inherent in the death penalty, sent a wave of energy through the room.

Campaigners also participated in a Lobby Day supporting a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. We will continue to support efforts to win a moratorium here in our state, which could pass by the end of the summer.

We’ve found that there is no shortage of people opposed to the death penalty. This summer, we’re working on building relationships with prisoners on North Carolina’s death row. We’re looking forward to growing as a chapter and helping to pave the way for abolition in North Carolina.