Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2, Evening workshop

Elaborating arguments to convince public opinion

Influencing public opinion was acknowledged across the 3 days of the World Congress to be a key challenge facing the abolitionist movement. In some countries, and States of the USA, even those which are currently without the death penalty, point-in-time polls have revealed staggering public support for executions. There are some massive caveats around this which we’ll revisit in other posts in coming days, however the point is that some governments are hiding behind ‘the will of the people’ to refuse to even begin to negotiate on terms for abolition. Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that even in Europe, where we are lucky to have almost total rejection of capital punishment at statutory and constitutional level, this remains an emotive topic; so popular that it’s not inconceivable pressure could increase to reinstate it in some regions ‘for the worst crimes’. Of course in Europe this would never in all likelihood gain traction given the steadfast position of the European Union on Human Rights; but it remains important to consider, as a general theme, arguments which we can draw on to remind people or persuade them that the death penalty is a bad thing. So it was useful to hear in this session about two very personal perspectives which campaigning groups are drawing on to attempt to remind the public at large why the death penalty makes no sense.

Wrongful conviction, exoneration and enlightenment

In this workshop we heard from Joaquín José Martínez, a former death row inmate of Florida, now exonerated and living in Spain, and from Bill Pelke, co-founder of  ‘Journey of Hope’, whose grandmother was murdered. The panel was moderated by David Lindorff, a freelance journalist and author of ‘Killing Time’, a report on the facts surrounding the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquín told us his story. He had once been an arrogant upstart, a supporter of the death penalty and blessed with a good upbringing and education. He used to say things like ‘Why wait to execute ’em?’ He was a successful business man in his early twenties with two young daughters, and already going through a somewhat acrimonious divorce. Now, he looks back and knows, from what happened to him, and from what he witnessed while he was on death row, just why he was so wrong.

In 1996 a double homicide in Tampa, Florida, occurred. There was a huge public outcry to find the killer and see justice served, augmented by the fact that the victim was the son of a local sheriff. Altogether 12 suspects were arrested in connection with the killings, and Joaquín was one of them – but why? It transpires that his estranged wife decided to incriminate him out of spite, perhaps not fully cognisant of the potential outcome. She told police that he had given her information which would appear to implicate himself, and that she had it on tape. In short, Joaquín was convicted on the basis of an alleged confession, and one way or another the police managed to stitch him up completely with ‘lost’ evidence, inaudible recordings and the unreliable testimony of his embittered ex-wife. In his arrogant naivety, and given the lack of any evidence anyway, Joaquín had not really believed that he would come badly out of his trial and had engaged his personal business lawyer to defend him, rather than spend decent money on a fully competent lawyer.

Subsequently, in 1997, Joaquín ended up on death row. Even as recently as that, the default method of execution in Florida was the electric chair. Joaquín tells how the prison would test the chair every week, and the effect that had on the inmates. The row would be quiet and still; he recalls hearing inmates crying as the lightbulbs dimmed along the block. Is this not mental torture?

Eventually, with the help of his parents and family back in Spain, Joaquín managed to raise enough money (about $1 million) for a ‘proper’ defense and his case was eventually appealed and overturned. Through the love of those who believed in him, he managed to gain the support of senators, press, and a retrial at which the maximum sentence available would be life in prison. But he was freed.  He now lives in Spain, but stays in touch with his daughters, speaking to his ex-wife daily.

Joaquín understands the emotions that someone feels when you lose someone to violent crime. Hate, rage, desire for vengeance, these are all things he himself had the misfortune to endure when his own grandfather was later killed. But he acknowledges that he could have seen the perpetrator electrocuted a hundred times over and the pain of loss would not be lessened. Today Joaquín tours, speaks and campaigns against the death penalty.

Forgiveness vs revenge

Bill Pelke pointed out that exonerees are not saved by the system, but in spite of it. He said the death penalty is cruel and it is unnecessary, not just to the condemned, but to their families as well.

‘As long has human beings make decisions, they will make mistakes,’ he said. ‘But people will listen to other people’s stories, it’s very compelling.’

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Journey of Hope knows that if you can touch people’s hearts you can change their minds. So it is murder victims’ family members who lead the association, which also includes families of the condemned, of the executed, exonerees and general activists. They undertake speaking engagements and tours to reach out to communities, schools and other groups, to help them to understand that there are no number of retaliatory deaths that can replace a loved one. He quoted that the death penalty is nothing more than the ‘animal instinct for gut-level, bloodthirsty revenge.’

Bill and his colleagues believe  that  love and compassion is the answer. Healing is what victims need, not revenge. Bill himself lost his grandmother to murder… And knew that she would have been horrified to think her murderer would perish in turn. Forgiveness is what has helped Bill to heal.

Bill told us about his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper. She was only 15 in 1985 when the murder occurred, but this was prior to the introduction in the USA of legal prohibition of the execution of minors, and so she was sentenced to death. At first, Bill was glad, and wanted nothing more than to see his gentle grandmother’s killer executed; but then upon reflection he came to realise that his grandmother, a Bible teacher, would have wanted compassion. After her conviction, news of the young girl being condemned reached Italy, and a campaign was begun there to petition for Paula Cooper’s life. Bill could scarcely believe the strength of compassion coming from abroad, as in his home state of Indiana everyone wanted the girl dead, and as soon as possible. Ultimately, the state legislators were extremely embarrassed by the international attention and raised the age limit for death eligibility to 16; but no mercy for Paula. Eventually, with Bill speaking out at every turn to say he did not want the girl to be executed, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.

In 2014 Paula Cooper will become eligible for parole. She committed her crime and was condemned at 15. Upon release she will be 44 and a completely different person. Bill has remained in close touch with her over the years, and knows she will need tremendous support and rehabilitation to re-enter the outside world.

‘On the day Paula is released, I will meet her at the gates,’ said Bill. ‘She has already agreed to come with me wherever I want to go. “You saved my life,” she tells me’.

Bill has plans to take Paula touring with him and Journey of Hope to continue telling their story of violence, hurt, lives lost and lives saved, and the reconciliation that has ultimately enriched and directed Bill’s own life.

So in conclusion, the theme of the session was to set the scene for an elaboration on a few of the reasons why the death penalty needs to be abolished, via a pair of extremely close-up and poignant perspectives.

  1. The innocent man condemned, who escaped death, and has learned to forgive and completely turned his youthfully ignorant views on their head.
  2. And the victim’s family member who not only forgave his grandmother’s killer, but was instrumental in saving her and is a role model for reconciliation and restoration.
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Death by stoning: a 21st century guide

Hi! How’s your criminal justice system looking these days? Failing? Considering a new penal strategy? Well then, why not consider adding tried-and-tested “Death by Stoning”?

death by stoning

Convicts are often buried to their waist or neck

You’ll be in great company! Just look at all these countries who mete out stoning as acceptable punishment: Afghanistan; Nigeria; Somalia; and although there is little official information, reports have also been received of stoning sentences effected in Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Iran, it is alleged that attempts are underway to write stoning out of the nation’s statutes, but hey – there are still at least 10 people in custody (9 women) awaiting their deaths, and this month in Iran, another two stoning sentences have been upheld by the District Court of Appeals.

Stoning is all the rage! Check out this report stating that 83% of Pakistanis believe stoning is an appropriate punishment for adultery; and consider Indonesia, where the Aceh province has as recently as September 2009 ratified their implementation of Sharia Law permitting a sentence of death by stoning.

You may be thinking ‘adultery’ is a bit of a narrow criterion for settling on when to inflict stoning. Want to use it more often to keep women in their place? NO PROBLEM! Use stoning to silence women who claim to have been raped, or who have been forced into prostitution! In addition, when we say ‘adultery’, this is not just limited to sex WHILE married, oh no! Women who are not yet married and fall in love with a boy of the wrong religious group, or who have BEEN married and are now divorced can also be taught a lesson they will never forget!

adulterer in stoning pit

Somalian stoning pit - man is buried to chest

Interested? Here’s how to carry out an effective stoning. The best thing about a stoning is that it is a deliberately cruel form of execution that the whole community can participate in. The family, including the children of the person-to-be-stoned, are brought along to witness their shame. Optionally, prepare a hole or pit for your criminal to stand in and then back-fill the hole so that they are held in place up to their waist, chest or (for women) the neck. Alternatively, tie your wrongdoer to a post or tree. Ensure your execution squad (local members of the community, or members of rival gangs will suffice) are equipped with stones the size of a man’s fist for maximum effectiveness. Remember, the point of stoning is for when shooting is too good for the condemned person, they need to be made to suffer first.

Article 104 of the Law of Hodoud provides that the stones should not be so large that a person dies after being hit with two of them, nor so small as to be defined as pebbles, but must cause severe injury. This makes it clear that the purpose of stoning is to inflict grievous pain on the victim, in a process leading to his or her slow death. (Source: Stoning to Death in Iran: A Crime Against Humanity Carried Out By the Mullahs’ Regime)

You may have been confused by rumours of a clause in Sharia Law allowing your captives to be ‘let off the hook’ should they manage to escape their stoning pits alive. We can’t deny this has happened, however rest assured that the execution mob will rarely allow the evildoer to get away, and will most likely pursue the escapee and return them to the place of execution in order to finish the job. Here are a few examples from Iran from the same case study as above:

On August 10, 1994, in the city of Arak, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning. According to the ruling of the religious judge, her husband and two children were forced to attend the execution. The woman urged her husband to take the children away, but to no avail. A truck full of stones was brought in to be used during the stoning. In the middle of the stoning, although her eyes had been gouged out, the victim was able to escape from the ditch and started running away, but the regime’s guards recaptured her and shot her to death.

In October 1989 in the city of Qom, a woman who was being stoned managed to pull herself out of the hole, only to be forced back into it and stoned to death.

If you require further guidance, there’s video footage on the internet too – all you need to do is enter the words ‘death by stoning’ in the search engine of your choice.

Warning: some subversive organisations worldwide are trying to spoil these nations’ right to inflict fear, oppression, pain, torture, cruelty and death by raising awareness of and campaigning AGAINST stoning. Here are a few to watch out for:

Amnesty International

The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women

Apostates of Islam

Additional note: I composed this blog post as a reminder that ALL capital punishment in the world today is vile and barbarian. When we consider the death penalty, we usually think immediately of the travesty of the USA’s death rows. Capital punishment is unacceptable whatever form it takes and wherever it occurs, and dehumanises those who sanction or champion its use.