Student Conference on the Death Penalty

When I finished my plan for the 2008 Student Conference on the Death Penalty, I had set a goal for an attendance of 100 students from across the state of Tennessee. My thinking was that if I did the work necessary to accomplish the goal and maintained the mindset of a 100 person conference, that the attendance would be strong. As David Kaczynski began his keynote address, Denver told me that 120 students had checked-in for the conference.

The keynote address by David Kaczynski was powerful. David is Executive Director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty (NYADP) and Ted Kaczynski’s brother. He talked about the death penalty from an informed and unbiased standpoint. He told us about his brother Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. David and his wife Linda were responsible for Ted’s arrest as they took their suspicions of Ted’s actions to the FBI. Later, David would receive a phone call from Bill Babbitt that would change his life forever and lead him to the anti-death penalty movement. Bill Babbitt’s brother Manny was responsible for the murder of an elderly white woman in the Sacramento area. Manny was a decorated Vietnam Vet who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Bill turned his brother in after assurances from the police that the death penalty would not be sought. However, the Babbitt family is African-American and was not able to afford good counsel. Ted Kaczynski on the other hand did not receive the death penalty. David was able to afford excellent counsel and maneuver his way through the justice system to save Ted’s life. After attending Manny’s funeral, David knew that his calling was to work to reform and ultimately end the death penalty.

After the keynote address, there were 3 workshops to choose from and they went back to back so that students could attend two. The workshops were: Death Penalty 101 led by Stacy Rector, Sharing Our Stories: Murder Victims’ Families Speak led by James Staub and Denver Schimming, and Mental Illness and the Death Penalty led by David Kaczynski. The death penalty is a confusing and lengthy public policy. Stacy led students through the three tiered system of litigation while also highlighting issues of fairness, cost, and accuracy. Stacy also talked about the troubling case of E.J. Harbison which epitomizes the arbitrary nature of the death penalty and the lack of proportionality in punishment. James Staub talked about his mother’s murder and his stance against the death penalty. James tells an emotional story that presents a perspective most will never have to experience. Denver helped James as they talked about the Sharing Our Stories speakers group and informed students that they could come to their campuses. David’s workshop went into detail about how mental illness, the death penalty, and the criminal justice system coexist.

After lunch, Jeanne Rewa of Equal Justice USA led an organizing training to empower students to build the movement on their respective campuses. The focus of the training was how to effectively build and demonstrate power. Students brainstormed potential events on their campuses and the power required to make them successful. They also gauged how much power they could build through a “building power” event to later transform that into an effective “demonstrating power” event.

The combination of education and empowerment is what defines the Student Conference on the Death Penalty. I hope that students left the conference feeling better educated on the death penalty as a public policy and in a position to take action and effect social change. I feel confident that students will continue to play an integral role in our legislative victories and ultimate abolition of the death penalty.

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