Taking on the Texas death machine

By: Hooman Hedayati

As we began 2008, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and all executions in the U.S went on hold, including in Texas. For the first time in Texas, Rick Reed, one of the candidates for Travis County district attorney, ran for the office on a progressive platform opposing the death penalty.

We in the Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) took advantage of this opportunity to highlight the flaws of Texas' death penalty system by sponsoring and organizing several different events and workshops.

On January 10, we participated in the annual Martin Luther King march in Austin by holding anti-death penalty signs and showing the racism of the the death penalty.

On February 2, the CEDP organized a successful march and rally in Austin calling for a new trial for death row prisoner Rodney Reed. Rodney's case is in a critical phase, as the possibility of a new trial is greater than ever. His appeal is before the Court of Criminal Appeals (over which Texas' killer judge Sharon Keller presides), which is expected to issue a ruling sometime in the spring.

In recent months, there has been a lot of media attention around the case. Rodney's defense has long posited that another suspect in the initial investigation is responsible. That suspect, Georgetown police officer Jimmy Fennell, was recently indicted for the rape of a woman in police custody (see page 7 of this issue for a story on Rodney Reed).

In March, the CEDP participated in Death Penalty Awareness Week by organizing a People's Tribunal Against the Death Penalty on the west mall of the University of Texas campus. During the tribunal, students and members of the public conducted a sort of public "trial," with the death penalty as the "defendant." At the end, CEDP activist Stefanie Collins, acting as judge, found the death penalty guilty on all counts.

During the week of March 10-14, we co-sponsored the fifth annual anti-death penalty alternative spring break with Students Against the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Amnesty International and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Alternative spring breaks are designed to give college and high school students something more meaningful to do during their week off, rather than just spending time at the beach or sitting at home catching up on schoolwork.

The specific purpose of this alternative spring break was to bring students to Austin for five days of anti-death penalty activism, education and entertainment. The spring break was a historical echo to what happened in the 1960s when people came down to the South during the civil rights movement to help people register to vote--what they called "freedom summers."

Here, the issue was the death penalty. The CEDP's Bryan McCann hosted a workshop on how to debate the death penalty, Lily Hughes helped with organizing a live from prison call-in, which according to some students was the most emotional activity of the spring break. The CEDP also helped organize another Tribunal Against the Death Penalty on the steps of the Texas State Capitol.

On the last day of the spring break, the CEDP joined the other spring breakers by organizing a march from the State Capitol to downtown Austin, during the South-by-Southwest Film and Music festival.

On April 8, as part of the Campaign's national speaking tour, we sponsored a death row mothers' panel on the campus of UT-Austin. Speakers included Sandra Reed, mother of Rodney Reed; Anna Terrell, mother of Reginald Blanton; and Jeannine Scott, wife of Michael Scott.

The speakers talked to a crowd of about 50 people about their personal experience with the death penalty and how it has affected their lives. The event showed how family members of those on death row also suffer and become victims of the criminal justice system.

In the upcoming weeks, CEDP is planning to organize a press conference and protest in support of Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who are waiting a retrial for the murder of four teenage girls at an Austin yogurt shop in 1991. The police, without any physical evidence, convicted both through coerced confessions. Also, a recent DNA test done by the state could not link them to the murders.