Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alternative Spring Break: Lessons in activism

This is the second in a series of blog post by James Tate, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, for the Dallas Morning News. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he plans to attend law school and pursue a career in international humanitarian law. He also volunteers for the Innocence Project. His e-mail address is

Yesterday was the second day of the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break, and it was just as loaded as the first. As in most situations were there are large groups, students found their niche and relationships began to foster. Spring breakers were less nervous to ask questions and were much more eager to be a part of the process. It was interesting to take a step back and absorb fractions of conversations around the room. Some were amazed by the details of executions and the process, while others were outraged by the lack of determination and know-how by public defenders on these cases. However varied the opinions and ideals were in the room, it was evident that the light bulb had turned on. I suspect that it the real reason that we are here.

The day started off with a discussion on the religious views of the death penalty. Steven Crimaldi, National Director of Dead Man Walking Theater Project, captivated the room with a showing of the last ten minutes of the movie from which the play derived. A tearful Susan Sarandon walked behind a condemned to death inmate, played by Sean Penn. "I want the last face you see in this world to be one of love," she whispered. Mr. Crimaldi, who in his work is very close with the real-life Sister Helen Prejean, said it was essential to director Tim Robbins that the audience be aware that this criminal did indeed commit the crimes to which he was found guilty. Flashbacks to the violent rape and murders are intertwined with the execution itself, and the girl sitting next to me turned her head away more than once. This scene validated a poignant argument for those opposed to the death penalty. Even though this man participated in barbaric acts, a stranger had found compassion and love in his goodness. It was a story of humanity - of redemption and salvation. And the State chose to kill him anyways. It was certainly a way to wake up the audience.

We were introduced to Mary K. Poirier, a mitigation specialist from the McCallister Law Firm. Her job is to create a life story of the defendant to be used by the defense. It is her responsibility to paint a picture of the defendant and his or her upbringing, social and economic environment, and other factors that might have played a role in the crimes that their clients have committed. Her findings, unfortunately, are only utilized after a guilty decision has been entered and is used in the trial deciding whether the defendant will get a life sentence or the death penalty. I had a moment to speak with her after her presentation and her work has a striking similarity to that of Erin Brockovich. She is not an attorney, and she owns that, but her efforts take her in the face of danger at times and she gets closer than most to the clients. She has a background in clinical social work and finds herself on a slippery slope of befriending the defendants and their close relationships to compose her stories. The room, and myself included, were quite inspired by her character and the work with which she is involved.

The finale to our day was certainly the most eye opening thus far. We were charged with the task of collecting signatures for a moratorium on the death penalty. Myself and my two partners were hopeful. We had naively concluded that parallel to our conference was the worldwide know SXSW Festival and we were sure to capture a collection of young, liberal artists and musicians. Our mission was to collect 50 signatures on our petition and we had two hours to complete our task. So we set out to an energetic 6th Street, where smiles were abundant and laughter floated throughout the air. Our strategy was to approach our enthusiastic passer-bys with a quick "how about saving a life" tag line. Our first encounter was a young man at a bus stop whose only reply was that were were basically wasting our time and, "we can't do anything." He wasn't speaking to myself and my partners, rather he was speaking of citizens as a whole. We were little disappointed admittedly, but we pressed further. We engaged with people from all corners of the earth and our momentum picked up. We received everything from "Sure" to "I'd be happy to" to one "I love death". Ultimately our efforts paid off and we achieved our goal of 50 signatures. Unfortunately when we returned back to campus, we were told that we had only received 35 valid signatures as some had left out their address or additional contact information. We weren't disappointed however. We felt accomplished that we had broken the ice and had approached strangers with a purpose that is growing more and more personal to us. The climate is changing and I am sure that this experience will leave us forever changed.

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