Nearly 100 students gathered at Tennessee State University on Saturday for TADP’s annual student conference on the death penalty. As the new organizer for TADP, I was curious as to how the issue would be presented and how the students would respond. Discovering that only about three of the participants had ever attended this conference before, I figured that a good number of those in the room knew very little about the issue. I really didn’t know how receptive they would be to the speakers, all of whom shared a common interest in ending the death penalty.
Frank Thompson, a former state penitentiary warden who oversaw Oregon’s only two executions, keynoted the conference. I later realized that at least a few of the conference attendees themselves were correctional professionals who turned out to hear from Mr. Thompson. He shared about his former support for the death penalty, until he was faced with leading his staff in carrying out an execution. From that point, the issue moved from the abstract to the very real. As he learned more about the policy itself, he realized just how flawed it is. He also determined that if our public policies should rely on evidence-based outcomes that benefit our communities, then the death penalty is woefully failing since it is unfairly applied, racially biased, exorbitantly costly, takes years to carry out, does not serve as a deterrent, and risks executing the innocent.
Thompson reiterated to the crowd, “I was asked to prepare my staff—decent, hardworking individuals—to carry out the premeditated death of a human being in the name of a policy that I knew was a failure.” He spoke of his concerns for correctional officials across this country who are asked to do the same thing and what effect this policy has on their mental, physical, and spiritual health.
Participants also heard from Ndume Olatushani who spent 27 years in prison, 19 on death row, after he was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Memphis storeowner, Joe Belenchia. Despite the testimony of multiple witnesses who placed him in St. Louis at the time, Olatushani was arrested and “brought to the state of Tennessee for the first time in my life in handcuffs and shackles to stand trial.”Olatushani was joined on the panel by his wife, Anne-Marie Moyes, a Vanderbilt Law School graduate and public defender, who worked tirelessly to secure his freedom for decades. As a visual representation of the hope he maintained throughout his incarceration, Olatushani displayed some of the beautiful artwork he produced as a self-taught painter during his time on death row.
Attendees finally heard from a panel of four surviving family members of murder victims who spoke candidly about their family members’ cases, as well as the range of emotions they traversed to come to their opposition to the death penalty. The segment, aptly named “Sharing Our Stories”, provided the audience an opportunity to consider the courageous stance each individual was expressing considering the deep losses he/she had experienced.
I left this conference feeling exhausted from the pain of the stories but encouraged by the questions and comments of those who were gathered. The goal of this conference was to get students to think more deeply about this issue and to take a look at the mounting evidence concerning the system’s problems. I think all who attended, regardless of what they ultimately decide about the death penalty, came away much more informed and impacted than before. I know I did.
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