This year, Witness to Innocence should have welcomed Troy Davis into our organization as the country’s newest death row exoneree. But instead, the state of Georgia executed him for murder, despite strong evidence of his innocence.
2011 has been a year both of deep tragedy and great promise for the anti-death penalty movement.
In the Troy Davis era, the issue of innocence is on people’s minds when it comes to the growing opposition to the death penalty—a barbaric system that is fraught with error, impropriety and racial bias, and discriminates against the poor. And innocent people surely have been put to death. Since 1973, 139 innocent men and women survived death row, despite a system bent on killing them.
As the new executive director of WTI, I look forward to 2012 as a watershed year in the abolition of this dreaded American institution. And exonerated former death row prisoners and their families will help lead the way.
Here are some of our accomplishments in 2011:
- We forged new partnerships with the United Methodist Church and progressive evangelicals, recognition of the importance of people of faith in our movement. Plus, WTI participated in the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference, with Shujaa Graham and Kathy Spillman conducting a workshop called “Using Stories of the Exonerated to Teach Race, Class, and Justice Issues.”
- Witness to Innocence supported death penalty abolition efforts across the country. On the heels of our 2009 abolition victory in New Mexico—in which then-Governor Bill Richardson cited wrongful convictions and executing the innocent as his primary reasons for repealing the death penalty—WTI exonerees were instrumental in the repeal of the death penalty in Illinois.
- WTI was the one group that honored Illinois' exonerees for the central role of their sacrifices in ending the death penalty in that state. “As a state, we cannot tolerate the executions of innocent people because such actions strike at the very legitimacy of a government,” said Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn last March. “Since 1977, Illinois has seen 20 people exonerated from death row. Seven of those were exonerated since the moratorium was imposed in 2000. That is a record that should trouble us all. To say that this is unacceptable does not even begin to express the profound regret and shame we, as a society, must bear for these failures of justice,” he added.
- Randy Steidl and Nate Fields were featured in the press during the Illinois repeal, and Randy also traveled to Rome to join the Sant'Egidio Community for the ceremonial lighting of the Colosseum to celebrate abolition in Illinois.
- WTI member Derrick Jamison gave testimony before the Ohio House of Representatives in support of legislation that would replace a death sentence with life without parole as the state’s highest punishment.
- Our exonerated death row survivors took their powerful message against the death penalty across Texas Freedom Ride in October. They also led the 12th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at the state capitol in Austin. Voice of America, Austin American Statesman, Corpus Christi Caller- Times, local affiliates of the major networks and others were there to cover it.
- Joining a chorus of lawmakers, judges and lawyers, 27 Witness to Innocence members wrote a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry urging him to halt the execution of Hank Skinner to allow for DNA testing. An appeals court granted the stay of execution. In September, WTI death row survivors signed a letter to the Georgia State Board of Paroles and Pardons on behalf of Troy Davis.
- Recently, Witness to Innocence members have been all over the news, domestic and international, wit Ray Krone on Anderson Cooper 360, Randy Steidl on CNN and the Tavis Smiley Show, Shujaa Graham on Al-Jazeera and DeutscheWelle, and Juan Meléndez, Delbert Tibbs, Ronald Keine, David Keaton and others featured in Spain’s El País magazine. Kirk Bloodsworth and I wrote in the Huffington Post. And WTI has been featured in the BBC, Voice of America, and on the NBC News website, theGrio, as well.
- In November, WTI members Kirk Bloodsworth, Shujaa Graham and Ray Krone were invited to speak at the Washington, DC and Philadelphia premiere of master filmmaker Werner Herzog’s death penalty documentary, ”Into the Abyss.”
- Witness to Innocence is partnering with London-based filmmaker Will Francome (“In Prison My Whole Life”) on his film project “One For Ten,” a series of films featuring ten individuals who have been freed from death row.
- WTI Compensation Committee members Cheryl Naill, Larry Yates and Nate Fields met with the Innocence Project and U.S. Department of Justice officials to discuss providing reentry assistance to exonerated prisoners, including death row survivors.
In the new year, WTI will continue to work closely with state abolition groups to support their efforts. We will be on the ground in states like California, Georgia, Maryland, Colorado and Florida.
We will continue and strengthen our already robust outreach to communities of color and the HBCUs, to the faith community and murder victims’ families, and seek to make death row exonerees whole by advocating for federal compensation.
And our members will continue to speak around the country about their experiences and change hearts and minds about the death penalty. Further, as a new member of the Paris-based World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Witness to Innocence will expand its human rights advocacy on an international stage.
I encourage you to contribute to Witness to Innocence and join a movement of people who are fighting to end capital punishment in the U.S.— because they know the evils of the system firsthand. Your contribution will allow us to further empower our members to become effective leaders in the anti-death penalty movement; continue to work with abolition campaigns in key battleground states; build our coalition across the country, and reach new audiences. Click here to go to our website to make your generous tax-deductible donation and help abolish the death penalty. Thank you.