Tuesday, October 09, 2007

National neglect and our death penalty struggle

Also in The Daily Texan

In August the nation saw the result of months of the Texas anti-death penalty movement's tireless work: the commutation of Kenneth Foster's death sentence, mere hours before his scheduled execution. In September the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would take a Kentucky case to decide if the method of lethal injection used by many states, including Texas, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, there could be a de facto moratorium on executions nation-wide, and possibly in Texas, until there is a ruling on this case. However, despite the recent successes at the Supreme Court and of the Kenneth Foster campaign, the Texas anti-death penalty movement is in troubling shape. Major foundations and national anti-death penalty leaders see Texas as a lost cause and are choosing not to fund a grassroots infrastructure here.

An enormous opportunity looms in Texas to actually achieve a moratorium on executions because of growing awareness that innocent people can be caught up in the system. But, lacking support on the national scale, Texas groups working to stop executions are not as well-equipped as they could be to take advantage of this ripe political moment.

The Kenneth Foster campaign taught us that organizing at the grassroots level works. Gov. Rick Perry would not have stopped Kenneth Foster's execution if there had been no public outrage concerning the planned death of a person who had not killed anyone. The group that played the biggest role in stopping Foster's execution was a student organization right here at UT: the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. In a thank-you letter after his commutation, Kenneth Foster wrote, "these people are gladiators when it comes to grassroots activism, and they definitely were the force behind this frontline."

The Texas nonprofit groups dedicated to abolishing the death penalty are run mainly by volunteers, and they lack funding and professional staff. There is not a single person in any grassroots anti-death penalty organization in Texas who is paid to work full-time. However, other states with far fewer executions than Texas have several full time staff members and much more funding.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been directed to fight the death penalty in states such as New York and New Jersey, where there have not even been any executions since the 1960s. If that kind of money could come to Texas, it would be much easier to put pressure on policymakers. A bill to create an Innocence Commission in Texas died last May in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, and its failure to pass was a direct result of misplaced priorities by the national anti-death penalty movement.

The Tides Foundation's Death Penalty Mobilization Fund donated $50,000 last year to the Wisconsin Coalition Against the Death Penalty and $20,000 to Iowans Against the Death Penalty. What's wrong with this picture? Neither Wisconsin nor Iowa even has a death penalty. Wisconsin has not executed anyone since the mid-19th century. Meanwhile, five Texas executions were scheduled in September alone, and more than 400 people have been executed in Texas since 1982. Still, a group of several Texas anti-death penalty organizations applied to the same Tides funding program but received nothing.

The JEHT Foundation (Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance) gave a total of $542,400 to New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty from 2004 to 2006, but there hasn't been an execution in New York since 1963, and there is one person on that state's death row.

Working against the death penalty in Texas is not a lost cause, as working against segregation in Montgomery, Ala., was also not a lost cause during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. While Texas is ground zero in the fight to abolish the death penalty, we are making progress. But to continue this progress, the national anti-death penalty movement should invest more time and money in our state. How many lives could have been saved, as was Kenneth Foster's, if national campaigns channeled more funds into Texas over the last 10 years?

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