Saturday, April 03, 2010

Report from 2010 Lobby Day During Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break

Texas House Speaker's Committee Room
By Hooman Hedayati

As part of the 2010 Anti-Death Penalty Lobby Day on March 18, I and several students participating in the Anti Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break visited several offices of Texas legislators at the capitol in Austin with information on Hank Skinner. We asked legislators to write clemency letters to Gov. Perry in support of Skinner, who was scheduled for execution the week after the Lobby Day. The students had been trained in how to lobby on March 17 in a workshop led by Alison Brock, chief of staff to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. James Tate, one of the spring break students, reported on the lobbying training on the Dallas Morning News blog.

The day after the training, we put into action what we learned from Alison by going door to door to visit the offices of our own state representatives and several other members of the Texas Legislature, including Lon Burnam, Ruth Jones McClendon, Harold Dutton, Elliott Naishtat, and Rodney Ellis.

We had initially intended to lobby for moratorium legislation for next year's legislative session. However, after meeting with Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, Hank Skinner's wife, who talked about her husband's case during the alternative spring break, we decided that we can be more effective by asking legislators to write clemency letters in support of DNA testing that could possibly exonerate Hank Skinner. 

The lobby day started with a press conference at the House Speaker's Committee room. The press conference was hosted by Colleen Farrell on behalf of all the students participating in the alternative spring break. Colleen, Amnesty International's Student Regional Coordinator, is a student at SUNY-Geneseo in New York, She came to Texas to attend the alternative spring break to learn more about the death penalty. With all the local Austin channels present, plus Univision and several other reporters, Colleen introduced the exonerated former death-row inmates one-by-one: Ron Keine, Juan Melendez, Shujaa Graham, Perry Cobb, Curtis McCarty and Derrick Jamison. Some of them had come within days and even hours of being executed. Some of them had come within days and even hours of being executed. The exonerees said they supported a moratorium on executions and called on Gov. Perry and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to stay the upcoming execution of Hank Skinner to allow testing of the DNA evidence. Colleen then introduced Hank's wife, Sandrine, who also spoke.

Video: Fox 7 Austin

After the press conference, we went to one of the committee rooms in the Capitol Extension where each exoneree talked in detail about his case and how he had been convicted despite being innocent and how he later had been exonerated. Rep. Lon Burnam, a long time supporter of SADP and also an abolitionist, had sent an email to all the legislative offices in the capitol inviting them to come and hear the exonerees tell their stories.

The Texas legislature is not in session so a most legislators were not in Austin, but staff members of several legislators attended the event, alongside people from other organizations, such as the Texas Catholic Conference. Many tourists walked in the room curious about what was going on and left the room outraged at the injustices of our criminal justice system.

Afterward, the students divided into several groups with each group assigned to visit several legislative offices. Juan Melendez, who spent more than 17 years on Florida's death-row for a crime he did not commit, accompanied my group. First, we visited the office of Rep. Elliot Naishtat, who represents the University of Texas at Austin, where I and several other students went and still go to school. We met with Dorothy Browne, Chief of staff to Rep. Naishtat. She apologized to Juan for not being able to attend the panel discussion event earlier in the day. She had already heard about Hank Skinner in the news and promised to talk to Rep. Naishtat about writing a clemency letter. Before heading for the 5 PM rally and the march through the SXSW crowd on 6th street, we visited the offices of Rep. Harold Dutton, Senator Ellis and Rep McClendon, who represents a student in our group. According to reports in CNN and the Texas Tribune we know that at least two of the state legislators we visited wrote clemency letters to Rick Perry urging him to stop the execution of Hank Skinner today. Naishtat wrote in his letter regarding questions in Skinner's case, "post-conviction DNA testing of evidence could help resolve these questions. Governor, I believe we have time to answer questions in Mr. Skinner's case. We should take that opportunity to have moral certainty that justice is achieved in the case."

On March 24, minutes before Hank's scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and stayed his execution, giving us another reason to celebrate our success at the 2010 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break.

Next year, the alternative spring break will fall in the middle of the 2011 Texas legislative session, so we plan to spend the next year getting ready to visit the capitol again to lobby for a moratorium on executions.

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