“In the same tradition as the civil rights activists during the time of Jim Crow,” one of the Amnesty staff members told us during a meeting, “we’re holding this Freedom School to teach young people about the close links between the death penalty, poverty, race, and innocence. This will be part of the Week of Action before the June 23rd hearing in Savannah, which will include a prayer service, canvassing to collect signatures, and activities and tabling across the street from the Tomochichi federal courthouse in Wright Square. Anyone under the age of twenty-five is eligible to apply.”
As interns we were virtually guaranteed acceptance, and as long as we were willing to put in hours setting up and manning Amnesty’s presence in Wright Square, they would pay for our hotel and most of our meals.
We gathered at the office on the morning of June 20th and split up into two cars to make the drive to Savannah, stopping midway to eat at a GPS-located Mexican restaurant. The Freedom School would essentially be half of the office interns, joined by a few college students from Florida and another from Chicago.
Our first Freedom School speaker was a black, middle-aged professor from Tulane University. She sported long, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks and spoke in a deliberate fashion. “Let’s go over the facts about the death penalty. Who gets the death penalty?” she asked, looking over the group expectantly.
“Poor people!” one intern blurted.
“The most important thing to note about the death penalty,” the professor said, ignoring the intern’s comment, “is how arbitrary the death penalty really is. A large majority of the states still have capital punishment, yet nearly every execution takes place in the south. Half the executions last year took place in Texas. A murderer in Texas or Georgia gets the death penalty while one in Connecticut does not.”
“It’s like a lottery or Russian roulette,” another intern said.
“Exactly,” the professor replied. “The vast majority of crimes eligible for the death penalty don’t get it. Co-conspirators for the exact same crime often get different sentences. In Arkansas, Kenneth Reams was the getaway driver for a robbery that went bad and turned into a murder. The other guy, who was the actual murderer, took a plea bargain and testified against Reams. Reams got the death penalty, while the other guy got life without parole. That’s right. The man who pulled the trigger and killed another person gets to live, while the man who drove the car, not even knowing exactly what his partner was doing, gets put to death.”
“Do most death penalty-eligible crimes result in a death sentence?” I asked.
“Not even close. For eligible crimes, prosecutors seek the death penalty less than two percent of the time. And of those two percent, nearly all who get sentenced to death couldn’t afford their own lawyers. Death row is teeming with poor people, far out of proportion with the number of homicides committed by the poor. And it gets uglier when you factor in race. About half of homicide victims are black, yet three quarters of death row inmates are there because they killed a white person.”
“Don’t death sentences cost more than life sentences?” another intern asked.
“That’s right. Most people don’t know that the death penalty costs more than the alternatives, even life in prison. Much more. Imagine if we spent that extra money on more police, rehabilitation programs, education, or community programs for at-risk youth. This would actually make us safer. DAs running for reelection will push for the death penalty to show they’re tough on crime. But what about smart on crime?
“And finally, we get to the most important issue: innocence. That’s why we’re all here, right? Because Troy Davis could be innocent. There have already been over 130 people exonerated on death row. For every ten executions, one person has been exonerated. And these people are just the canary in the coal mine. How many innocent people have we already executed? If we don’t even trust our government to balance a budget, how can we trust with it with the power of life and death?”