Highlights Of The Struggle

Reports From Campaign Chapters Around The Country

"Keeping Busy in New York"
By Liliana Segura

We've been keeping busy this summer. We table regularly and meet weekly. With students away for summer break, we moved our meetings off-campus to St. Mary's Church in Harlem -- a meeting place for many progressive groups uptown.

In June, we hosted a forum about Ryan Matthews, an innocent man on Louisiana's death row. We were fortunate to have Billy Sothern, one of Ryan's attorneys, and Pauline Matthews, Ryan's mother, speak to us about Ryan's case. Ryan, who is mentally retarded, was convicted and sentenced to die as a juvenile in 1997 -- despite gaping holes in the prosecution's case and despite evidence proving his innocence including DNA samples that match a different prisoner who has openly bragged about committing the murder.

Ryan's case is another perfect example of the devastatingly flawed criminal justice system that preys disproportionately on minorities and the poor as well as the youth and the mentally ill. Thankfully, Ryan's case is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. A recently completed documentary by Off-Center Productions called "The Road to Justice," tells Ryan's story. In July, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a biting editorial, "Trapped in the System," which decried the miscarriage of justice in Ryan's case. And his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, spoke about Ryan's case on New York's WBAI radio station.

Our chapter also attended a gala event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rosenberg's execution on June 19, 1953. About 2,000 people came out to hear renowned artists and activists such as Harry Belafonte, Holly Near and poet Emily Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, talk about the urgent struggle against government repression. Actress Tovah Feldshuh, who appeared in the fictionalized film version of the case, Daniel, opened the event with a dramatic re-enactment of the political lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenberg case brought worldwide attention and support. On the day of their execution, thousands poured into NYC's Union Square. The 50th anniversary event was an inspiring tribute to the Rosenbergs.

Live from California's death row
By Michelle Simon

BERKELY, CALIF. -- The Berkeley chapter and the Christian Cellar Fellowship Ministries co-sponsored a Live from Death Row with California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper this past June. Before Kevin called in, Crystal Bybee, a member of the Berkeley CEDP, gave a brief overview of his case. Michelle Simon, another member of the Berkeley CEDP, spoke about the injustices of the death penalty and five reasons to oppose capital punishment. Kevin called in at 7:30, but due to technical difficulties, he had to call back twice. The third time he called he was mysteriously cut off and was not able to call back.

Kevin, whose case has been featured in the New Abolitionist, is an innocent man on California's death row. In 1985, Kevin was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of the Ryen family and a house guest in San Bernadino County. The sole survivor of the killings, Josh Ryen, has always maintained that three white people killed his family, not Kevin, who is Black. Josh and his grandmother believe in Kevin's innocence.

Despite the technical difficulties, there was a lively discussion about the criminal justice system and many connections were made between the lack of jobs and education in urban areas and the growing number of people, particularly in the African American community, that are being incarcerated. The event introduced people who were not familiar with Kevin's case a first-hand account of an innocent man on death row.

Several members of the church, including the pastor of Christian Cellar Fellowship, are involved in a prison ministry program and visit Kevin on a regular basis. Our chapter is excited about the connection we were able to make with the Christian Cellar Fellowship, an African American church in Oakland.

Stepping up the campaign for abolition
by Julien Ball and Noreen McNulty

CHICAGO -- At the beginning of the summer, the Hyde Park chapter held an organizing meeting to discuss the next steps in our campaign to win justice for the Death Row 10, a group of African American men tortured by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and other officers who worked under him. The chapter made a special effort to reach out to family members of the Death Row 10 and other Burge torture victims. About 35 people attended the meeting including many new family members who were attending their first Campaign event. At the meeting, it was decided that the Campaign would organize an action this fall at Chicago Police Headquarters to bring attention to the continued employment of known torturers on the force. To involve more family and friends, one inmate's family recently hosted a video showing of The End of the Nightstick, a documentary about the movement that led to the firing of Burge in 1993.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on June 19th, about 20 people came out to a film screening of the documentary The Unquiet Death of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Later in June, Campaigners participated in a strategy meeting called by the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty (ICADP) that brought together various organizations to map out a plan to build support for abolition over the coming months. Attendees discussed how to reach out to new organizations that may be sympathetic to abolition. Other events in the works include an anti-death penalty teach-in and rally in Chicago and a special performance of The Exonerated, a play based on the stories of innocent people released from death row, for Illinois legislators.

We also took part in a press conference to expose the injustices in the case of Veronica Diaz, who was recently convicted of drowning her infant son. Although Diaz does not speak or read any English, a confession written entirely in English was used to convict her. The state failed to notify the Mexican Consulate of Diaz's arrest, violating her consular rights. Moreover, Diaz, who is need of a liver transplant, has been denied proper medical attention. The Campaign is helping to circulate an open letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine in opposition to the nature of the prosecution of the case.

Marching in Austin's streets
By Quent Reese

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Last spring, we ended the semester at the University of Texas with a bang by hosting the "Free At Last" national speaking tour featuring pardoned Illinois death row prisoner Madison Hobley. About 120 people attended the event to hear Madison tell his story about the torture inflicted on him by Chicago cops, the wrongful conviction that he faced for a crime that he did not commit, and his newfound freedom and new life as an activist against the death penalty.

In addition to Madison, Rob Owen, a capital defense attorney, and Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, spoke about how the victory in Illinois should be an inspiration to those of us fighting against the biggest executioner of all, the state of Texas. Sandra Reed, the mother of innocent death row prisoner Rodney Reed, also painted a stark picture of the racism that was used in the small town of Bastrop, Texas, to convict her son in the murder of a white woman.

Over the summer we petitioned against Rodney's execution and held a picket at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Bastrop. We hope that the recent favorable decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases of Thomas Miller-El and Delma Banks, Jr. -- who were convicted by nearly all-white juries -- will have a positive impact on Rodney's case.

In the absence of a lot of activism, we are holding regular "abolitionist coffee hours" to meet new people. We recently held a public forum on "5 Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty. And we plan to have a study group on the 1972 Supreme Court decision to ban the death penalty based on a reading from Mike Gray's The Death Game.

We're anticipating a very active fall. Our chapter is helping to build for the fourth annual March to Stop Executions in Austin in October, and we're looking forward to having many more new members to help us prepare for the hundreds who will be marching in Austin's streets.