An organization called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has launched a campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state of North Carolina, and they brought renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean to North Carolina to speak at several events this week. This effort comes on the heels of the Republican-controlled NC State legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which provides prisoners the opportunity to appeal their death sentences on the basis of racial discrimination. Successful appeals on the grounds of the Racial Justice Act do not result in death row prisoners being released from prison or in the overturning of their convictions; rather, the Racial Justice Act enables death sentences to be converted into life sentences.
The Racial Justice Act (see full text here), championed by State Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham, responds to the fact that death sentences are much more likely to be handed down in cases which involve a black defendant and a white victim than any other possible combination of races for defendants and victims. For an excellent report on the statistical data and a review of several studies which prove the racial bias of sentencing in capital punishment, see this article on the Death Penalty Information Center Website. This body of evidence on racial inequality in capital cases first drew national attention in 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case called McClesky v. Kemp. In this case, lawyers arguing on behalf of a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia cited the Baldus study as evidence of racial discrimination in capital sentencing. The court assumed the validity of Baldus et al.’s study yet ruled that this data was “insufficient to demonstrate unconstitutional discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment context or to show irrationality, arbitrariness, and capriciousness under Eighth Amendment analysis.” McClesky was executed in 1991, and despite many follow up studies which confirm and expand the findings of the Baldus study, our nation continues exhibit blatant racial bias in executing its citizens.
Though the North Carolina legislature has voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, this battle is not yet lost. Governor Beverly Purdue still has the power to veto this repeal and uphold this ground breaking legislation. To urge the governor to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, click here.
Last night Sister Helen Prejean addressed an audience of at least a hundred people at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Durham. The event was introduced by an advocate from Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)–a group which brings together the families of both murder victims and executed prisoners to oppose the death penalty. A woman named Jocelyn spoke about the day that her son was shot to death in Durham and the enduring trauma to her family, including her three granddaughters who are growing up without a father. Jocelyn still feels hatred for the unknown perpetrator who killed her son, but she would not want that person, if found and convicted, to be executed. She does not want another mother to lose a child and feels that all violence, including state-sanctioned executions, only leads to more violence. The next speaker to take the podium was Rose, the sister of a man named Ernest who was executed in Raleigh. She described her family’s suffering during the nine years that Ernest spent on death row and the time they spent together on the day of his execution. Since Ernest’s death, Rose, her family, Ernest’s attorneys, and a community of supporters vowed to work to end all executions in North Carolina, and to this end she, Jocelyn, and others like them have continued to tell their stories to all who will listen, even though it obviously pains them greatly to retell the most devastating moments of their lives.
Sister Helen thanked and honored Jocelyn and Rose as she described her personal calling to end the death penalty. Retelling a story she recounts in her book Dead Man Walking–which has also been adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and an excellent play–Sister Helen spoke of how what began as simple correspondence between her and a Louisiana death row prisoner led to a life’s vocation of anti-death penalty work. She has now accompanied six men to their deaths, acting as a spiritual adviser to the condemned and witnessing their executions. She reminds us of the dignity of human life and urges us not to perpetually judge any person for the very worst thing that he or she ever did. She asks Christians to remember that Jesus always invoked the sanctity of life and never called for anyone’s death, and as she describes in her second book The Death of Innocents, she urged Pope John Paul, II, to firm up the Catholic Church’s stance against the death penalty. Through her tireless advocacy, she calls on each of us to stop killing people, through caring for our neighbors and working to end the violence in our communities and the violence being done by the government in our names.
A local religious leader said a prayer after Sister Helen finished speaking. In the periods of silence in between each portion of the prayer, I could hear quiet sobbing from those sitting in the pews all around me. I was struck by the sheer numbers of people in my own community whose lives are shaped by murder, prisons, and the death penalty. I thought of Jocelyn and Rose and their willingness to support the same cause, though public rhetoric often casts victims’ families and prisoners’ families as being irrevocably at odds with one another. Each of us who believes that killing is wrong must stand together now with Jocelyn, Rose, and Sister Helen to demand an end to the death penalty in North Carolina and in the rest of the United States. To lend your support to this vital cause, please contact your state and federal legislators, speak to your family and friends about why you oppose the death penalty, and get involved with activist organizations who are already doing excellent work on this front:
- Contact Governor Bev Purdue to urge her to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
- Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation: Founded in 1976, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFR includes people of many different perspectives. Because violent crime cuts across a broad spectrum of society, our members are geographically, racially and economically diverse. (descriptions of MVFR and the other organizations that follow in this list are taken from their own websites and promotional materials)
- Capital Restorative Justice Project: The mission of the Capital Restorative Justice Project is to promote healing and nonviolent responses within North Carolina communities torn apart by capital murder and executions.
- Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA): DCIA seeks to engage and empower people of faith to create a community of justice and peace through common prayers and acts of compassion; and with prophetic courage we act as advocates for the dignity and well-being of all persons, recognizing that behind every human face is the face of God.
- People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP): People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to educate and mobilize faith communities to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Founded in 1994 in North Carolina, PFADP focuses its programs on organizing among faith communities in the South.
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP): The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) is the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty. We are comprised of an extensive network representing more than 100 state and national Affiliate organizations and thousands of advocates and volunteers. Our members include families of murder victims, persons from all points on the political and religious spectrums, past and present law enforcement officials and prominent civil and racial justice organizations working to end the death penalty forever.
- Truth in Justice: Truth in Justice is an educational nonprofit organized to educate the public regarding the vulnerabilities in the U.S. criminal justice system that make the criminal conviction of wholly innocent persons possible.
- The Innocence Project: The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 280 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
- Death Penalty Focus (DPF): Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through public education; grassroots and political organizing; original research; media outreach; local, state, and nationwide coalition building; and the education of religious, legislative, and civic leaders about the death penalty and its alternatives.
- Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions: Since its founding following the 1998 National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, the Center has been instrumental in the exonerations of 23 innocent men and women in Illinois. Before the founding of the Center, members of its staff were instrumental in 14 additional exonerations — including that of Gary Dotson, who in 1989 became the first person in the world to be exonerated by DNA. The Center was the first university-based innocence project to accept non-DNA cases as well as DNA cases. Of the 37 exonerations in which the Center or members of its staff have been involved, just over half —21— were non-DNA cases.
Though, as the above list demonstrates, many people in the U.S. are committed to ending the death penalty, executions continue. Please get involved and help end this long standing practice of state sanctioned violence.