By Marian Wright-Edelman
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently took the strong step of declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in California, saying: “Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.” California now joins three other states—Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania—with governor-imposed moratoria on the death penalty and the 20 states and the District of Columbia that have already abolished it. I am grateful to Governor Newsom for being the latest courageous political leader to stand up and reject the death penalty’s shameful legacy and continuing toll. It should be abolished all across our land.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)—led by CDF’s extraordinarily gifted board member Bryan Stevenson—continues to be a leading voice against the death penalty and studies the death penalty’s historical and ongoing bias. EJI notes: “Modern death sentences are disproportionately meted out to African Americans accused of crimes against white victims. African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation’s population but 42 percent of the 2,905 people currently on death row are black, and 35 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black. The victim was white in over 75 percent of the cases resulting in execution since 1976 although only 50 percent of murder victims nationwide are white.” They add: “Prominent researchers have documented a pattern of discrimination in the application of the death penalty based on the race of the victim, race of the defendant, or both, in nearly every state that uses capital punishment.”
EJI also notes that for every nine people executed in our country one innocent person on death row has been identified and exonerated. They call the death penalty “a failed, expensive policy defined by bias and error” and “a direct descendant of lynching.”
They are not the only ones to make this clear connection. One of CDF’s much valued colleagues Ndume Olatushani is a gifted artist and passionate advocate for justice who spent nearly 28 years in prison, 20 of them on death row, before proving he’d been wrongly convicted. Here is an excerpt from a letter Ndume asked me to send to Governor Newsom:
“I have been given the privilege of being able to share a part of my story with you, mine is certainly one of hope. But I want to first say that I commend your courage for standing up and doing the right thing and not letting politics determine who lives or dies.
“I once read a book titled A Time of Terror by James Cameron. It is a book of hope, perseverance and survival. I read this book when I was sitting on death row for a crime that I did not commit … James Cameron’s book found me at a time when I was struggling to survive, trying to maintain hope. If you are not familiar with this story, I will share this little background information: James Cameron was a 16-year-old kid when he and two of his childhood friends were accused of rape and murder; this took place in the 1940’s. His two friends were broken out of jail by a mob and lynched; James was also broken out of jail and taken to be lynched along with his friends. Long story short, by the time he made it down to the tree he said that he was more dead than alive, suffering brutally at the hands of hundreds as he was dragged through the mob of thousands. The news accounts said that it was a mob of 10,000 men, women and children.
“As James was being pulled up by the rope that had found its way around his neck, hanging between his two friends who were freshly dead, James said he heard a voice (others accounted for this as well) over the crowd shout, ‘Let that boy go—he didn’t do anything.’ He felt the tension from the rope give as he slumped to the ground.
“All it took was one courageous voice over the noise of the crowd and he was saved. A lot of people lent their voices to my survival and kept me living in hope. You think you know the enormity of what you have done, but you don’t. Without hope living is hard. You have given hope to thousands, and I am only talking about the people there on death row and their family members. Not to mention the millions of us that like you care about this most important issue.
“Thank you for having the courage to be the voice over the crowd in this moment.”
It is we who should thank people like Ndume who share their stories. James Cameron’s story is extraordinary and Ndume Olatushani’s 21st century deliverance from condemnation to freedom is a stark reminder of exactly what is at stake today. We need more leaders with the courage to stand up against the death penalty right now.
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.
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