Death-Penalty Foes' Efforts Re-Energized, Focused on Texas

By Price, Joyce Howard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Death-Penalty Foes' Efforts Re-Energized, Focused on Texas


Price, Joyce Howard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The groups leading the charge against the death penalty are longtime activist groups, energized anew by presidential politics, greater coordination, better use of the media and increased public uncertainty about the guilt of all convicts being executed.

For example, the 24-year-old National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, one of the nation's top anti-capital-punishment groups and a leader in the publicity campaign to halt the execution of convicted murderer Gary Graham in Texas, is not a newcomer to the cause nor to the Lone Star State. The coalition vowed back in 1993 that starting the following year it was "going to make a major focus" in Texas, a state that led the country in criminal executions then and now.

"The abolitionists had no success in 1994. They are succeeding now," said Dudley Sharp, director of the Houston-based Justice for All, which supports the death penalty.

Their success, he said, is evidenced by delayed executions, a death-penalty moratorium in Illinois and calls for others in states around the country.

"These people are a lot more coordinated than they used to be," Mr. Sharp said.

Other organizations in the forefront of the campaign to abolish the death penalty include Amnesty International of the U.S.A., the Death Penalty Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund's Capital Punishment Project, the Death Penalty Information Center, and the California-based group Focus Death Penalty, headed by actor Mike Farrell.

The Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, founded in 1990, is the youngest of those organizations. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), founded in 1917, is the oldest.

"There's definitely more working relations between the different organizations today than there has been," said Kurt Rosenberg, death-penalty project assistant for AFSC. "That has happened over the last year or two."

Mr. Sharp and others believe politics has a lot to do with the fact that death-penalty opponents are targeting Texas.

"The fact that [Gov. George W.] Bush is from Texas and that he's running for president is what brought this issue to the forefront," said Mr. Rosenberg.

But Dave Atwood, head of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, an affiliate of the national coalition, countered: "It was not until George W. Bush said he never executed an innocent man" that the media swarmed over this issue.

There is a consensus that a November 1998 conference at Northwestern University School of Law "galvanized the movement and brought tremendous attention to the issue of innocence" among those sentenced to death, Mr. Rosenberg said.

The conference, organized by Northwestern law professor Larry Marshall, featured about 30 death-row inmates who had been released.

The AFSC and other groups that wanted to end the death penalty already recognized "a need to come together to address what some have seen as a fragmented movement," Mr. Rosenberg said, and the conference at Northwestern proved to be a catalyst for greater unity.

The Death Penalty Information Center succeeded in gaining the media's attention in 1993 when it issued a report on the "danger of mistaken executions.

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