“If we seek a world in which men do the least possible violence to each other . . . then we are committed not simply to try to avoid violence ourselves, but to try to destroy patterns of violence which already exist.”
― Barbara Deming, Prisons That Could Not Hold
Over the past year and a half, Death Penalty Focus has profiled several of the men and women who have worked tirelessly to abolish the death penalty in the United States, people who have committed themselves to end the cycle of violence that capital punishment perpetuates. They are religious and political leaders, victims’ family members, former prison employees and, most important of all, exonerees, men who spent years on death row for crimes they didn’t commit, who were released when evidence finally proved their innocence. Forever scarred by their imprisonment, they have devoted their lives to trying to prevent another man or woman from experiencing the horror they lived through in their years on death row.
After a challenging year in the abolitionist movement, we thought this might be a good time to re-visit some of these men and women, and let them inspire us once again.
Those who work in the prison system said one reason for their opposition to the death penalty is the toll it takes on those whose job it is to execute another human being.
“I stood over that person, watching him breathe, and realized it was my job to stop him from breathing. I was hired to kill somebody, get the mission done. Society shouldn’t put men and women in the position of taking a human life in a process that has not been proven to work.”
Former Oregon State Penitentiary Superintendent (warden) Frank Thompson
“I consider the staff to also be victims of this process. We’re not made to kill a healthy human being at 5 o’clock and go home and feel good about it. So I have watched what this process does to good people whose job we — the taxpayers — feel is to kill somebody for us. They’re victims too.” Brother Dale Recinella, Spiritual Advisor, Florida State Prison
Proponents of capital punishment often point to victims’ family members as justification for capital punishment, saying it will provide closure, or provide them with a sense that justice has been done. But many family members are opposed to capital punishment, citing their spiritual beliefs, or their reluctance to endure a death penalty trial and re-live the horror, or their feeling that the government should not be in the business of execution.
“I don’t believe we have the right to say someone should be put to death for his crimes. Even though Dylann Roof killed my mother and cousins, I don’t think killing him will solve anything . . . one day Dylann Roof will be able to open his heart and accept Jesus Christ. He can’t do that if he’s dead.” Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins were killed in the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in 2015.
“Why would I want that? To be as ugly as him? To be as detached from human compassion as he is? Every time we execute someone we are condoning murder, saying murder is okay in some circumstances.” Beth Webb, whose sister was killed and mother wounded in the Seal Beach killings in 2011.
Politicians are often wary of speaking out against the death penalty, which was why it was such a welcome surprise that abolition was a plank in this year’s Democratic Party platform, which most observers believe was at the insistence of Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Proposition 62 from the beginning. We profiled three politicians who have publicly opposed capital punishment, two of whom worked hard to get it repealed in their states.
“Since I was first conscious of the difference between right and wrong, I have been opposed to the death penalty. My argument is simple: Nobody should kill anybody. And killing someone as punishment is the most barbaric act of all.” Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers who, after 38 attempts, finally got a bill repealing the death penalty passed last year, only to have it repealed by voters last November.
“In politics you get very few do-overs. In life you get very few do-overs. For me, this is a do-over. . . I decided if I ever got the opportunity I would do whatever I could to end the death penalty.” Former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs, who helped draft Proposition 7, the 1978 initiative sponsored by his father, former state Senator John Briggs, which expanded the death penalty in California by increasing the categories that qualified as special circumstances.
“It is clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish the
death penalty.” Former President Jimmy Carter, “Show Death Penalty the Door” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Religious leaders have become more vocal in their opposition. Pope Francis called for global abolition, saying, “Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
And, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, one of the largest Hispanic Christian evangelical organizations in the United States, publicly reversed his position in 2015, when he told us, “I can no longer justify my support of the death penalty when I am serving as an advocate for life, when I believe that all life is beautiful, all life is sacred. I have evolved in my thinking.”
Who better than someone sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit to make the argument that one of the major problems with the death penalty is the very real risk of executing an innocent person? Since 1973,156 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Two exonerees spoke to us about their experiences, and the scars that will never heal.
“It left an indelible mark on my life, but there’s no sense in being bitter. Bitterness is not going to help me regain those years.” Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison, two on death row, for a murder he didn’t commit. He was the first death row inmate to be exonerated based on DNA.
“It’s hard to live without hope. You have to hang on to some string of hope. Some days I could do that, but some days when I went to bed, I prayed I wouldn’t wake up. Think of the worst day you’ve ever had, and when you wake up, it’s even worse than the day before.” Shujaa Graham, who spent five years on San Quentin’s death row before being exonerated and freed in 1981.