Why I am a monthly sustainer?

By: Jean Terepka

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) stays afloat financially in part through our monthly sustainer program. 

This program makes it easy for everyone to help support the fight to abolish the death penalty, no matter where you are or how limited your time is. Once a month, funds are automatically taken out of your account or charged to your credit card, and donated to the CEDP. These funds are used for publishing the New Abolitionist, taking prisoner phone calls, putting on national CEDP tours, sending out mailings and sustaining the work at our national office.

To join this important program, contact Lily Hughes at lily@nodeathpenalty.org or visit our website at nodeathpenalty.org. You can donate as little as $5 a month, more if you are able.

To all of our sustainers, we thank each and every one of you for helping the CEDP do what it does every day. 

This month, we spoke to Jean Terepka about why she donates monthly to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Jean lives in New York City and works with her church on prison issues.

How did you become a death penalty abolitionist? Why is this issue so important to you?

All my life, I have felt that the death penalty was wrong. It has been a long-standing commitment since I was in school and something that I’ve now finally been able to give some energy to.

I think the death penalty is the chronological end point of a prison system that embodies injustice at every turn. Prison reform has to take place at all levels and in all areas—it must begin with care for the young and addressing issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. But you don’t suddenly abandon the problem of reform simply because you are at the end of the chronological swing of childhood traumas that might have been involved in creating a person who is able to kill other people. You don’t abandon the project at the other end of it.

Has there been a particular case that has had an effect on you?

I think that the most obvious and easy objection to the death penalty comes from cases of people who were wrongfully convicted. But the deeper, tougher confrontation with execution lies in cases of clear guilt.

Most of my work against the death penalty takes place within the context of my church setting, the Episcopal Church. Over the years, there have been churches that have tolled their bells when someone was executed. When Timothy McVeigh was executed, a number of parishioners said, “He killed so many people. Are we tolling the bell in memory of his death or in memory of the people he killed?” The conversation became about what’s death-worthy in terms of punishment and what’s not.

The Troy Davis case also really steered itself in to my being. I was so astonished at the strength of his family and his tremendous courage, faith and dignity. I hold him and his family in my heart and in my prayers as a constant presence to keep doing this work.

As support for the death penalty declines and more states abolish the death penalty,  what other issues in the criminal justice system are important for us to focus on?

I think that the commitment that exists in the New York chapter to address the inhumanity of life without parole is the next most important thing, and the sibling issue has to do with the inhumane prison conditions. I do believe that terrible crimes must be punished and when a person has committed murder and acts of depravity that they constitute a danger to society. But punishment should not be so vicious that it deprives the people who have been convicted of their actual humanity. New York’s life without parole, as it currently exists, is by and large dehumanizing. The nature of life within prisons needs to be reformed.

Why is it important to give financially to grassroots organizations?

Because I think that any outlet for accurate information is invaluable. Giving money is a way of funding public education about the issue. If there was more money, The New Abolitionist would circulate more widely and the occasional person might be persuaded to change his or her mind. The New Abolitionist gives hope to those who would otherwise be hopeless. I think it’s important for people who are in prison, often in terrible conditions, to know that there are strangers out there supporting them on general principle.

What is so special about the CEDP?                                     

It’s a combination of people who are involved because of theoretical principles and those who are involved because in their own life stories they have experienced the injustices of the system, whether it’s family members or formerly incarcerated people. There is a spirit in the CEDP that links actual voices with those who are operating more from theory. 

Do you write to any prisoners?

I have a pen-pal in Louisiana and I find that I get tremendous insight from her living her life with as much grace and dignity as possible, under horrible circumstances. I find her courage inspiring. She is one of those people whose guilt is irrefutable; she deliberately killed and that was many, many years ago. She manages to find some capacity for interior dignity everyday no matter what. I find that very moving.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One of the prayers that guides and informs my daily living is a prayer commonly attribute to St. Francis that starts “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”. It does seem to me that that is what we’re supposed to do in this life, become instruments of peace. We have to limit the state’s ability to be arrogant and capricious in its judgment of its citizens, but I also think at an even deeper level that it is the responsibility of each one of us. It’s a part of being at our best at being human is to try to bring peace where there is no peace. For me, this is not just a moral issue, but a spiritual one.