Three innocent people who were wrongfully convicted attended today’s “Day of Innocence” rally at the Texas capitol. Two of those people, Kerry Cook and Shujaa Graham, spent time on death row. The other, George White, was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison. All three were completely innocent and eventually exonerated.

Kerry Cook spent more than 20 years on Texas death row before being released and exonerated. He testified against HB8 and SB5 in today’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee, asking lawmakers to address the problems in the death penalty system instead of expanding the death penalty to apply to repeat child abusers. After his testimony, an aide for Senators Deuell and Seliger followed Kerry out of the room and asked him to autograph their copies of Kerry’s book, “Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit“. Kerry believes that lawmakers should reject the death penalty expansion in HB 8 and SB 5. If they do not take out the death penalty provision, then lawmakers should at least attach amendments to the bills to create an innocence commission, enact a moratorium on executions and create a commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the death penalty system in Texas.

KVUE in Austin has some excellent coverage of the day’s rally and committee testimony. The link contains a video approximately two minutes long that aired on tonight’s 6 PM newscast.

Kerry Cook will be speaking again at the capitol in the Auditorium tomorrow March 14, from 11 AM to 1 PM as one of the speakers on a panel that includes three innocent people who were wrongfully sentenced to either death or life in prison, two family members of murder victims, and the oldest living person (89) whose sentence was commuted from death to life as a result of the Furman v Georgia decision in 1972.

Every lawmaker who is considering voting to expand the death penalty this session should come hear the stories of these panelists.

Wednesday, March 14

11:00 AM – 1 PM: Murder Victim Family Member and Former Death Row Inmate Panel. Location: the Auditorium in the Texas State Capitol on level E1 in the Annex in room E1.004. (Across from the cafeteria).

The panel includes:

Kerry Cook, an innocent man who spent 22 years on Texas Death Row and recently wrote a book, “Chasing Justice”.

Shujaa Graham, an African American man who spent 3 years of his life on California’s death-row for a crime he did not commit

Moreese “Pops” Bickham, who was on death row when the Furman v Georgia decision was announced in 1972 abolishing the death penalty. He is now the oldest living survivor of the Furman v Georgia decision.

Christina Lawson, who has suffered the loss of her father and her husband. Her father was murdered when she was a child and her husband, David Martinez, was executed this past summer, July 28, 2005. She has witnessed the pain from both sides: the loss of her father, the anger and hate felt towards his killer, the loss of her husband, the sorrow for his victim’s family and loved ones, the loss of a Daddy for their child. She has realized through her pain, that the death penalty does not bring anyone back, it does not heal anyone… it brings back the pain of losing a loved one and destroys another innocent family.

Bill Pelke, president of Journey of Hope and Chairman of the Board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He 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. Bill, a retired steelworker, has dedicated his life to working for abolition of the death penalty. He shares his story of forgiveness and healing, and how he came to realize that he did not need to see someone else die in order to heal from his grandmother’s death.

George White: On February 27, 1985, the White family experienced first-hand the insanity and horror of murder. George and his wife Charlene were shot repeatedly by an armed robber at his place of business in Enterprise, Alabama. George held Charlene in his arms as her life slipped away. Their children, Tom and Christie, were only 12 and 5 at the time. The nightmare had just begun. Sixteen months later, George was charged with murdering his wife. Following a capital murder trial that was later described as “a mockery and a sham”, George was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was overturned in 1989 and he was released from prison, but George remained in legal limbo until 1992, when proof of his innocence was finally brought forward. Following a brief hearing the trial court ordered the charge against him forevermore dismissed. The nightmare had lasted more than seven years…had the State of Alabama had its way, George White would be a dead man today. Understanding fully how easy it is to become advocates for revenge, the White family, however, rejects the death penalty as a solution and as way of healing the wounds of their loss.

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