Student Conference is an Unprecedented Success

The pace of the TADP office has briefly slowed this week after finishing our most well attended Student Conference on the Death Penalty to date. This past Saturday, on one of the warmest days yet in 2015, over 160 high school, college, and graduate students, as well as some community members, spent their morning and afternoon inside at Belmont University listening to speakers and panelists talk about their knowledge and experience with the death penalty system in Tennessee. Students came to the conference from over 20 schools and institutions from around the state. Having been a student participant in the past, I was fortunate to help plan this year’s conference as a TADP intern.

The product of many months of planning and preparation, the 9th Annual Student Conference on the Death Penalty featured a wide range of voices, each bringing their own perspective and experience to share. The day began with our featured speaker, Stephen Owens, who shared his journey of forgiveness and reconciliation that spanned almost 30 years. As a child, Stephen testified in the trial that sentenced his mother, Gaile, to death for the murder of Stephen’s father. It wasn’t until 25 years later in 2009 that Stephen visited his mother in prison, and eventually helped advocate for her release. Governor Bredeson commuted Gaile’s sentence to life, and she was able to walk out of prison in 2011. Gaile was in attendance, and graciously answered questioned along side her son, which many students said was the highlight of the conference. You can read more about their incredible story in Stephen’s book Set Free. We hope to provide a link to Stephen’s keynote and Q&A in the near future.

The day also featured two panels. TADP’s short film, To Honor Life, was shown, followed by a panel of some of those from the film, including Charles Strobel, Preston Shipp, Brad MacLean, and Gayle Ray. The panel spoke of the brokenness of the entire death penalty system, and the need to dispel common myths that are too often assumed as truth. After taking a lunch break, we were incredibly grateful to have three defense attorneys and an investigator who work in various phases of the capital process. Moderated by TADP board member Randy Spivey, the panel (Rob Gown – Shelby County Public Defender, Debbie Drew – Post Conviction, Alexis Soler and David Paschal – Federal Public Defender) spoke to the grueling and traumatic nature of the entire capital process, not only on death row inmates, but jurors, attorneys, judges, correctional officers, and family members of victims and inmates as well. It became clear that each of the panelists face difficult battles with the cases they work, and without legislative repeal, the death penalty will continue to take its toll on everyone involved.

Sixty-nine people currently sit on Tennessee’s death row. Hundreds of people have been involved with each of those cases, some of which joined us at our conference to share of their experiences. Their stories highlight the brokenness of a failed system.

The calm won’t last long here at TADP.  After a successful and eye-opening conference, it is now time to take action. Come join us at Justice Day on the Hill on March 4 as we tell the Tennessee Legislature that the death penalty is not good for anyone involved. The voices from the student conference must be heard on Capitol Hill.

Register for Justice Day on the Hill here:


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