Some 500 people on Saturday gathered for the 12th annual march to abolish the death penalty in Austin, Texas. Organised by several Texas-based NGOs, the march was led by 25 exonerated prisoners who spent years on death row for crimes they did not commit.
The march was attended by the families of US citizens currently facing the death penalty, along with a number of anti-capital punishment advocates.
After assembling at the Texas State Capitol, protesters marched through downtown Austin to deliver the message that killing was never justified. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” said Mrinalini Nishai, 16, who is participating, along with her high-school colleagues, in a campaign against the death penalty.
Matt Korn of the Campaign to End Death Penalty, an organisation that lobbies against capital punishment and works closely with the families of death row inmates, said the death penalty was inherently “racist” since it generally targets lower-income segments of society.
“You don’t find rich people on death row,” Korn said. “And despite the fact that large numbers of people that commit murder in the US are white, you nevertheless see mostly Latinos and blacks on death row.”
Dave Keaton, 58, who was convicted in Florida at the age of 18 of a murder he did not commit, used the event to tell his story.
After spending eight years in jail, the guilty party finally admitted his crime, exonerating Keaton. “Because the crime was unsolved, and the police chief handling the case was running for re-election, they ended up convicting an innocent person,” Keaton said. “Innocent people can pay the ultimate price for other people’s political aspirations.”
“Essalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you],” said Robert Muhammad, a representative of the US-based Nation of Islam and ardent anti-death penalty advocate, greeting the marchers. “When you kill, you encourage others to kill,” shouted Muhammad. “Death is still death; killing is still killing.”
Jianli Chen, research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, explained that America’s flawed criminal justice system was part and parcel of the corrupt US political system.
“The death penalty is designed to make us believe that the government, the politicians, and the rich care about justice and our security, when they’re the ones who break the law, make us less secure, and bring all kinds of injustice down on our heads,” said Chen.
Despite the pro-death penalty attitude prevalent in Texas, anti-capital punishment advocates believe that their efforts will eventually pay dividends. Their ultimate goal is to abolish the death penalty and reform Texas criminal law by ratcheting up pressure on Rick Perry – Texas governor and potential 2012 presidential candidate – whose name elicited negative cries and chants among the activists present.
Korn explained how his organisation had saved the life of Kenneth Foster, who had sat on death row in Texas in 2007. Foster was convicted under Texas state law, which states that if a person is associated with a murder – whether because he/she was present at a murder scene or because his/her weapon was used in the crime – he/she should receive the same punishment as those who committed the actual murder, Korn explained.
“Because Foster was sitting in a car, and another person in that car got out and shot another man to death, Foster was sent to death row,” Korn said.
“We launched a huge pressure campaign on Governor Perry. We protested at his church, at his home,” Korn recalled. “And around six hours before Foster’s scheduled execution, Perry appeared on television and commuted Foster’s death sentence.”
Terri Peen, whose brother currently sits on death row, explained her family’s dire state of affairs.
“Because we’re poor, we had a court-appointed attorney,” she said. “In my brother’s case, the prosecutor also served as the defence attorney. This is hardly justice.”
Although Peen’s long fight for her brother’s exoneration has taken its toll both financially and emotionally, she is nevertheless resolute about continuing the fight. “My brother’s life is more important than anything,” she told Ahram Online, fighting back tears.