For the men leading the procession from the Capitol, down Congress Avenue to 6th Street, it’s a tough walk. They were once on Death Row. Evidence exonerated them. The journey’s been an especially hard one for Gregory Wilhoite. After he was freed, an accident put him in a wheelchair.
“For whatever reason, I’m convinced that God’s got a job for me, so I’m a man on a mission, and the mission is educating people about the realities of capital punishment,” Wilhoite says.
He used to be pro death penalty until he found himself on death row for a crime that evidence would later show he did not commit. Another Death Row survivor, Shujaa Graham, says he made a lot of promises while he was there.
“I promised a lot of prisoners that once I was released from prison that I would fight and try to see that they would be able to survive themselves,” Graham says.
The survivors here are not just ex-prisoners. Bill Pelke’s grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls. One got the death penalty.
“Originally I supported the judge’s decision,” Pelke says. “But I went through a transformation and became convinced that execution is not the solution.”
Some protestors carried signs and shouted chants against Governor Rick Perry, a death penalty proponent. Not everyone at the Capitol agrees with those views.
“I am for the death penalty,” Mike Smith, visiting from Houston, says. “But I also agree to freedom of speech, and it’s a good thing that they can voice their opinions.”
Sylvia Garza is voicing her opinion. Her son Robert was convicted under the law of parties.
“It’s not a crime to be in a car behind some people that committed a murder,” Garza says. “He didn’t commit the murder.”
Many Death Row inmates claim innocence, including Rodney Reed of Bastrop. Now the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding whether Reed will get to walk this walk with other death penalty survivors.
Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, says, “If he wins this appeal, then my brother will come home and be a free man so that’s what, that’s what we’re shooting for.”
How important the death penalty issue is remains to be seen at the ballot box on Election Day. According to several recent polls, immigration and the economy are the two top issues on voters’ minds.
Texas has executed 17 people so far this year. The state executed 24 people last year. There are currently 333 people on death row in Texas.
Special guests this year included 6 exonerated former death row prisoners Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine, Gary Drinkard, Curtis McCarty, Albert Burrell and Greg Wilhoit. Curtis spent 21 years in prison – including 19 years on death row – in Oklahoma for a crime he did not commit. Shujaa spent 3 years on death row in California for a crime he did not commit. Ron spent two years on death row in New Mexico for a crime he did not commit. Gary spent almost 6 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Albert spent 13 years on death row in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit. Greg spent five years on death row in Oklahoma for a crime he did not commit.
Also speaking was Ron Carlson, whose sister Deborah Ruth Carlson Davis Thornton and Jerry Lynn Dean were murdered in Houston with a pick-ax by Karla Faye Tucker and Daniel Ryan Garrett. Ron opposes the death pealty and witnessed Tucker’s execution in Huntsville at her request. Other speakers will be announced later.
Elizabeth Gilbert also spoke at the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at 2 PM on October 30th at the Texas Capitol in Austin. She is a Houston teacher and playwright who befriended Texas death row prisoner Todd Willingham. Her story is featured in the New Yorker article by David Grann about the case as well at the Frontline Documentary “Death by Fire”. Elizabeth actively investigated the case on her own. She became convinced of Todd’s innocence and was instrumental in helping his family find an expert fire investigator to examine his case.
Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner also spoke. She is a French national married to Hank Skinner, who is on Texas death row and is seeking to have DNA tested that could prove his innocence.
On October 13, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Hank Skinner to determine if he may seek testing of DNA evidence through a civil rights lawsuit. If he is not allowed to test the DNA evidence, then Texas may execute an innocent person. Hank Skinner received a stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court on March 25, 2010 only hours before his scheduled execution.
Bill Pelke also spoke. Bill recently authored a book entitled Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, which details the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher, by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder
Pelke originally support the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. He became involved in an international crusade on Paula’s behalf and in 1989 after over 2 million people from Italy signed petitions and Pope John Paul II’s request for mercy, Paula was taken off of death row and her sentence commuted to sixty years.
Bud Welch was also a speaker. In April 1995, Bud Welch’s 23 year old daughter was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the months after her death, he changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh to taking a public stand against it. His change of heart was inspired in part by Julie Marie herself. Once, while listening to a radio report on an execution in Texas, she had turned to him and said, “Dad, that makes me sick. All those Texans are doing is teaching all the children down there to hate. The murderer did wrong, but now the government has stooped to his level.”
Bud eventually arranged to meet with Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill. “I saw a deep pain in a father’s eye, but also an incredible love for his son.” Bud says, “I was able to tell him that I truly understood the pain that he was going through, and that he – as I – was a victim of what happened in Oklahoma City.”
Rodrick Reed, brother of Texas Death Row prisoner Rodney Reed also spoke. Rodney and his family are fighting to prove his innocence in the 1996 strangling of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop County. Rodney’s case is a troubling mixture of prosecutorial misconduct, police corruption, poor defense, and institutional racism.
Terri Been also spoke. She is the sister of Jeff Wood, who is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties for a murder committed by someone else. Jeff never killed anyone. He was sitting in a car outside of a convenience store when someone else went inside and killed someone. Jeff did not know that the other person planned to rob or kill anyone, but Jeff was sentence to death because of the Texas Law of Parties. Terri successfully lobbied the Texas House of Representatives in 2009 to pass a bill to ban the execution of people convicted under the Law of Parties. The bill passed the House, but was killed in the Texas Senate after Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto it if it was approved.
Delia Perez Meyer also spoke. She has been fighting for years to prove the innocence of and to save the life of her brother Louis Castro Perez who is on death row in Texas. Delia is a Commissioner on the Austin Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the board of directors of Texas Moratorium Network. She also works closely with the Journey of Hope … from Violence to Healing, CEDP-Austin and many other anti-death penalty organizations.
Nick Been of Kids Against the Death Penalty also spoke. KADP is an organization formed initially by nephews of Jeff Wood, a person on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone. In February 2010, members of KADP traveled as invited speakers to Geneva, Switzerland for the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.
Lawrence Foster, grandfather of Kenneth Foster, Jr also spoke. Kenneth’s death sentence under the Law of Parties was commuted by Rick Perry in 2007.
Minister Robert Muhammad also spoke.
Brit Schulte of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Denton chapter read a letter from Rob Will, who is on Texas death row.
“This is fast becoming one of the biggest anti-death penalty events in the country. I’ll be there“, said death row exoneree Ron Keine.
Each October since 2000, people from all walks of life and all parts of Texas, the U.S. and other countries have taken a day out of their year and gathered in Austin to raise their voices together and loudly express their opposition to the death penalty. The march is a coming together of activists, family members of people on death row, community leaders, exonerated prisoners and all those calling for repeal of the Texas death penalty.
The annual march is organized as a joint project by several Texas anti-death penalty organizations: Texas Moratorium Network, the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Texas Death Penalty Education and Resource Center, Death Penalty Free Austin, and Kids Against the Death Penalty.