The 2016 TADP Student Conference on the Death Penalty once again managed to combine powerful personal testimony, overwhelming evidence, and tools to make repeal a reality, all in a single day.
You could have heard a pin drop on Saturday morning, when Nebraska native Miriam Thimm Kelle shared her story about the horrific death of her brother James Kelle. James was tortured for three days and murdered in notorious cult killing when he was only 25 years old. Kelle talked about the excruciating thirty-year process of appeals her family endured as the state sought the death penalty for James’ killer, Michael Ryan. Kelle movingly shared about how her experience with the death penalty drove her work with the Nebraska legislature to enact death penalty repeal in 2015. Her work continues, as the issue will be voted on in a referendum this year.
Following Kelle’s presentation, the panel “The Changing Conversation on the Death Penalty” dissected the system, highlighting the flaws and the growing call for repeal from increasingly varied constituencies. Journalists Radley Balko and Liliana Segura, public defender Alexis Soler, and Tennessee Conservatives Concern Coordinator Amy Lawrence detailed points from their unique perspectives on the continuing momentum against the death penalty, including insights on legal procedure, forensic evidence, and dialogue among conservatives.
The Tennessee cases of Ndume Olatushani and Paul House were the focus of the next panel concerning how wrongful convictions happen. Public defenders Anne-Marie Moyes and Steve Kissinger, attorneys who worked on these specific cases, delivered accounts of what went wrong, bringing to light many of the systemic issues that still plague the death penalty system today, including prosecutorial misconduct and the precedence of process over getting to the truth. Joyce House, Paul’s mother and full-time caretaker, was on the panel. Paul was present, though unable to actively participate given his advanced multiple sclerosis. Paul was wrongfully convicted and spent nearly 22 years on Tennessee’s death row before his release. As Joyce recalled, “My son walked into prison but had to be rolled out in a wheelchair. He is still in it.”
A call to action concluded the conference, asking all the participants to attend Justice Day 2016 on March 9th, to speak with lawmakers about their concerns. A big thanks goes to everyone who participated in our conference this year. We hope to see you as we continue our work for death penalty repeal!
Photo Credit: Rev. Dr. Jason Curry, Dean of Fisk Memorial Chapel
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