Monday, June 22, 2009

Journey of Hope in Magdeburg, Germany

By Daniela Turß (author of the article) and Insa Nieberg (translation) - both Amnesty International Magdeburg

On Thursday the 14th of May 2009 the „Journey of Hope“stopped in Magdeburg. Three speakers from the United States shared their personal experiences with the death penalty with the audience at the Otto-von-Guericke University.

Bill Pelke is a relative of a victim, Terri Steinberg the mother of a man sentenced to death whereas Ray Krone was released from death row after he was proven innocent.

The event was organized by the local group of the NGO amnesty international under the patronage of the Initiative against the Death Penalty. This lecture was the only one in the federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt and the group experienced a rush on the seats available in the lecture room.

Tickets were sold out right at the beginning of the presentation as more than 120 students of all faculties seized the chance to learn more about the personal stories connected to the death penalty. The following two hours were filled with emotional yet balanced presentations that were summarized and translated by interpreters. All the points of views added up to a coherent picture: Death penalty continues the spiral of violence that was triggered by the initial crime in the first place. While convicts are often forced to wait in agony for more than ten years, relatives are in a situation between hope and desperation. At the same time hatred and desire of revenge have faded away- the only thing that prevents relatives of victims to draw a line is the fact that the judgment is still outstanding and not enforced.

Bill Pelke described his change of attitude from being an advocate of the death penalty to becoming a strict opponent. Being the grandson of a woman that was murdered by a group of young girls, he helped to turn the death sentence of the murderer, a girl who was only 15 years old at the time, into a lifelong sentence by founding the initiative “Journey of Hope”. This group informs people in the US, but also worldwide about the background of the issue and supports persons concerned.

Ray Krone, who had the doubtful honor of being the 100th innocent person to be released from death row, told the audience about this desperate struggle against the machinery of law. The story told made all so clear, what a parlous effect a lack of financial means can have on the quality of advocacy. The experience of Krone also illustrates the practice of some attorneys to insistently demand death penalty although evidence is insufficient.

As Krone was not able to afford an attorney, he was represented by an assigned counsel. This attorney was not able to use the countless evidence for Krone’s innocence in the first trial. Although the foot and finger prints found at the site of crime where not those of Krone, he was sentenced to death in his second trial. Ten years later he was eventually able to prove his innocence by a DNA-analysis. Ray Krone states: “There were times when I believed that no innocent man or woman is sentenced to death in the United States- however, by now I have lost every faith in the system of law.” Up to this day he has not received any compensation for the years spent in death row.

Terri Steinberg told the story of her son Justin, who was sentenced to death under dubious circumstances, because he was accused of initiating a contract murder. In this case, there is evidence of innocence as well- the most striking one is a letter in which the murder admits that Justin did not charge him with killing the man and that he made this statement in order to plead in mitigation.

Terri Steinberg is convinced that her son was not involved in the crime and therefore fights with devotion against the sentence of death that shall be executed within the next 12 months.

The conviction drastically changed the life of the family and their lives in the community of a suburb. While Terri tries hard to guarantee a comparably normal life for her other children, she needs all hope not to give in and continue her campaign.

The audience understood this when they saw Terri telling her story with tears in her eyes. It is especially her presentation that makes evident the emotions involved for the speakers when they tell their stories over and over again.

The stories told and emotions shared left the audience shocked and deeply moved. Some took the opportunity to ask Bill, Terri and Ray further questions, whereas others gathered around tables outside in order to sign various petitions.

The “Journey of Hope” was the biggest and most impressive event organized by the local amnesty group so far. It showed that scientific analysis cannot fully grasp the issue of death penalty – the stories of the speakers added more personal and very emotional aspects that illustrated the devastating effects of the spiral of violence connected with the death penalty.