|Former Bexar County DA Sam Millsap speaking to participants|
at the 2011 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break
It never would have happened without the curiosity of students.Last week, Illinois became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty, and it’s worth remembering that the momentum for this policy shift started with investigative journalism students at Northwestern University in 1999. That was the year professor David Protess launched the Medill Innocence Project and his students started systematically building the case for institutional reasonable doubt.Their work is the foundation for this statement by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn last week: “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”The Medill work has grown into the Innocence Network, which includes more than 50 schools nationwide, and their researchers have found plenty of shaky cases worth investigating in Texas. For example, Northwestern students were involved in the recent Supreme Court victory for Hank Skinner’s legal team, which is fighting for DNA testing of evidence in his murder case.This week in Austin, about 30 students from across the country have gathered to learn how they can build upon recent successes during the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. Begun in 2005, this annual event brings students together for a crash course in lobbying and other useful information. This year, they will hear from six men who spent a combined 50 years on death row before having their flawed convictions thrown out.The students also will attend a special screening of Incendiary, a new documentary about allegations of junk science in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.Coincidentally, spring break beach-goers may well have packed John Grisham’s entertaining best-sellerThe Confession, which centers on a seemingly absurd case in which the appeals court closes early instead of considering a life-or-death filing and ignores the fact that the prosecutor was sleeping with the judge. They probably will credit the author’s imagination for the accounts of a forced false confession, absurd jailhouse snitch testimony and botched forensic science.But all of those examples — all of them — were pulled from real-life cases, and it was often young adults who helped uncover the sordid facts. In the past few years, students from Arlington, Houston and Austin have taken a keener interest in discovering the truth than many jurists elected to the state’s highest appeals court.We urge those students who are skipping the beaches in order to gather in Austin this week to find ways to work together, learn from one another and never give up in this monumental quest.