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The Death Penalty Hearings in New York

Beth, Ericka and I attended the first of two death penalty hearings in New York. This one was in New York City and the other one will be in Albany, next month.

Hearings are public for a reason. You should try to go to one in your state if you ever have a chance. It just makes you feel like you are a part of the democratic process and that makes you feel less powerless.

For those of you who can't make it, here is a blow by blow of the first half:

Campaign to End the Death Penalty did a press conference with Andrew Cuomo. I missed what was said but Beth and Ericka will fill you in on their take of that.

The strangest thing about hearings is that they have no real structure. We were given a speakers list at the beginning and Assembly members just ask them questions after they have spoken. It feels a bit like a free for all.

Several of the major activist organizations were there, including Equal Justice USA, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and more that I probably was not even aware of.

The first speaker was Robert M. Morgenthau, New York County’s District Attorney. He is a staunch opposer of the death penalty and gave a long, long speech on why. He referenced Furman v. Georgia in his argument, which made me feel smart.

The Assembly members seemed afraid of him due to his age and overall intimidating stature. Assemblyman Norman asked Morgethau about whether or not he thinks the death penalty is racist in practice. Norman, who is African American, seemed to want Morgenthau to say that it is but Morgethau was not biting. He left that question alone.

Robert Blecker, a professor of law at NYU, spoke and was one of two speakers in favor of the death penalty. This is why they allowed him to speak for 30 minutes. It seems that death penalty supporters were not interested in attending the hearing and he was the only one. That will not be the case in Albany.

I have to admit that he truly is a passionate speaker. He made strong points about the arbitrary nature that the death penalty is administered and is in favor of having a commission. I have to say that the Assembly was a bit harsh with him in the Q and A. “Even the members of the Assembly seem very anti-death penalty,” commented Beth. But I think those were just the vocal ones which were about half and again, this will not be the case in Albany.

But when he quoted Martin Luther King Jr, boos came from the audience. I can’t remember which quote he used but that was just an all around bad move, especially when you are defending the death penalty to a mainly anti-death penalty crowd.

Next up was a panel that included Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Madison Hobley. Many references were made to Ryan and his commission’s findings.

Madison spoke about his case, which for those of you who don’t know is a horrible one. He was wrongfully convicted of setting fire to his home and killing his wife and child. He served 14 years for a crime he did not commit. Governor George Ryan pardoned him along with three other men a day before he announced his decision to issue blanket clemency to all of Illinois’ death row.

I have heard Madison speak many, many times before (and he even spoke at a screening we did in Kankakee, IL) and the horror of what happened to him is still so fresh. He always gets upset, sometimes cries and still makes one of the most compelling arguments that I have ever heard about why there should be no death penalty.

The Assembly members did not ask any questions. This panel was so strong in its arguments that no one had anything to say. We took a five-minute break that became a fifteen-minute break. Time management is not a skill at events like these.

Then a woman whose daughter was killed in the shooting that happened at a Wendy’s in Queens took the stand. She was extremely emotional. She kept repeating the details of the day her daughter died. How she wanted to take her daughter to work but she insisted she would wait for her boyfriend. How she wants the murderer (who was the manager of the store, someone they knew) to die.

At one time, she claimed, she was against the death penalty but now that she had experienced the death of a loved one, she felt differently. In her home country of Jamaica, there was real violence every day, not like the violence we claim to see in New York. Far worse. But again, it was different when it happened to someone you loved.

No one knew what to say.

The next panel was familiar faces from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Journey of Hope. I had to run out because I was out of batteries and tape so I missed their testimony. I have heard them speak many times though and know that their message was one of forgiveness even when a horrible atrocity happens to your family and that the death penalty solves nothing in these cases.

Ericka stayed for the rest of the day so she’ll tell you the rest. We will stream some of the footage on line in a few days so stay tuned.

Posted by Angela at 06:07 PM

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