Commemorating a decade of struggle


By: Marlene Martin

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s (CEDP) annual convention (see page 15 for convention details this year).

As we approach this landmark, and reflect on our accomplishments as well as the challenges we still face, it’s a good time to ask: Why do we need a group like the Campaign?

The answer to that question became crystal clear when I recently spoke to Martina Correia—a brave, steadfast fighter against the death penalty, whose brother, Troy Davis is on death row in Georgia. “The Campaign is an organization that really wants to hear from the family members—it puts their voices right in the front of the movement,” she said. “It puts a human face on injustice.”

Too often, the voices of prisoners, both current and former, and family members are left on the margins. In the Campaign, we figure out ways to promote these powerful voices—through our annual national speaking tours, in our newsletter and at our conventions. We think when these stories are heard, opinions change. Mix that up with a bit of activism, and we’re on a roll.

The Campaign has been involved in many, many struggles that have won—maybe not all at once and not as completely as we might have wanted, but nonetheless significant victories.

Let me list a few: the 2000 moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois; the commutation of all death sentences in Illinois in 2003 and the pardoning of four death row prisoners; the commutation of Kenneth Foster Jr.’s death sentence in 2007 to life with parole, after he came within hours of his scheduled execution; the halting of Kevin Cooper’s execution in 2004, again just hours before he was scheduled to die; a legal moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland in 2002; the commutation of Maryland death row prisoner Eugene Colvin-El’s death sentence to life without parole in 2000; keeping the death penalty off the books in New York in 2004; the halting of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis’s third execution date in 2008, as well as a positive ruling from the Supreme Court on Troy’s case in 2009.

There are many ways the Campaign made contributions to these important victories; I will just mention two.  First is the decisive role the NY CEDP played in blocking the death penalty from coming back to New York.

Over the objections of mainstream abolitionists, the Campaign argued for and finally won the inclusion of the exonerated to speak at an important legislative hearing on the death penalty. Legislators voted not to resurrect the death penalty, and many cited the powerful testimony of the exonerated in convincing them to vote against the death penalty.

The second example has to do with Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision to issue blanket commutations for all death row prisoners in 2003.

Ryan himself had said this outcome was “unlikely.” What changed his mind, he said, involved a moving private meeting with family members of those on death row—many of them members of the CEDP. After the meeting, he said he didn’t know how he could ever look a mother in the eye and tell her that her son had to die.

Along with our accomplishments, we have also suffered crushing defeats: the executions of Stanley Tookie Williams, Shaka Sankofa, Francis Newton and others—along with the continued incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kevin Cooper, Rodney Reed and Troy Davis. 

 

We know we are engaged in a difficult fight, and we know there will be defeats ahead. But we also know, as Martin Luther King said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If we continue to come together, to care, to listen, to stand up to injustice, we know we can win.