A Houston judge who last week ruled that the procedures used to convict and sentence someone to death in Texas are unconstitutional has scheduled a hearing on April 27 to hear evidence on the issue (Read more here). State District Judge Kevin Fine said he wants more information before making a final decision about whether the state's death penalty statute allows for the possible execution of an innocent person. Judge Fine has asked Harris County prosecutors and defense attorneys to submit motions on the due process issue by April 12. Fine will then have an evidentiary hearing April 27 when testimony on whether innocent people have been executed in Texas is set to be presented. The defense attorneys are still determining whom they might call to testify at the April 27 hearing, but they said it might include officials connected to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 house fire near Corsicana is now being questioned.
With the hearing in Judge Fine's court looming on April 27, a group of students and non-students alike are planning to spend their spring break next week learning about the problems in the Texas death penalty system and training on how to organize to change public policy.
The Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break is March 15-19, 2010 in Austin, Texas. To register, go here.
It starts at 4:30 PM on Monday, March 15. The location is the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center - CMA room 3.112 on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. CMA is on the corner of Whitis Avenue and Dean Keeton (Google Map).
Guest speakers include six innocent, exonerated people who together spent 65 years on death row, Curtis McCarty, Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine, Derrick Jamison, Perry Cobb and Juan Melendez. (Speaker bios)
Other speakers include the national director of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, a representative from the Washington D.C. office of Amnesty International, Bill Pelke, president of Journey of Hope ... from Violence to Healing, Susannah Sheffer of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a student organizer from Campus Progress in Washington D.C., and several family members of people currently on Texas death row, some convicted under the Law of Parties even though they did not themselves kill anyone.
Participants will come away with firsthand knowledge of the anti-death penalty movement and a new understanding of how they can affect public policy. Plus, they will have an opportunity to form new friendships that could last a lifetime. During the spring break students will have plenty of free time to enjoy Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World and home of the University of Texas at Austin and the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Festival, which takes place the same week as our alternative spring break.
The alternative spring break is designed to be an intensive experience for high school and college students interested in human rights, but all of the events and workshops are open to the public of all ages.
We will provide participants with workshops led by experienced, knowledgeable presenters who will teach them skills that they can use to go back home and set up new anti-death penalty student organizations or improve ones that may already exist. The skills participants will learn can also be used in other issues besides the death penalty.
Students will gain valuable training and experience in grassroots organizing, lobbying, preparing a rally and media relations. During the week, students will immediately put what they learn into action during activities such as an Anti-Death Penalty Lobby Day and a Justice Rally at the Texas Capitol on Thursday, May 18.
There will be opportunities to write press releases, organize a press conference, speak in public, meet with legislators or their aides, and carry out a public rally at the capitol.
Now is one of the most critical times ever to learn about and organize against the death penalty.
In Sept 2009, we learned from a state-funded report that Texas executed Todd Willingham for arson/murder even though recent scientific analysis of the fire does not support that it was an arson fire. That means Texas executed an innocent person.
Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has been charged with incompetence and misconduct for saying “we close at 5″ on Sept 25, 2007 when lawyers called her court to submit a late appeal for a person later executed that same day. Her case is still pending at the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Texas leads the nation by far in number of executions. In 2009, Texas carried out almost 46 percent of all executions in the United States. Texas executed 24 people in 2009. There were a total of 52 executions in the U.S. in 2009. Since the U.S Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that allowed executions to resume after a four-year period during which they were considered unconstitutional, there have been 1197 executions in the United States (as of March 11, 2010). Texas has performed 451 of those executions, which amounts to about 37 percent of the national total. According to the 2000 census, Texas has only 7.4 percent of the nation's entire population.
There has been progress against the death penalty. In 2009, New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty. New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. Death sentences have dropped in the last several years. Texas only sentenced nine people to death in 2009.
Nationwide, there are now 60% fewer death sentences yearly than in the 1990s. There were 106 death sentences in 2009 compared with a high of 328 in 1994.
Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break is a program of Students Against the Death Penalty, Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to End the Death Penalty - Austin Chapter, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Texans Against the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing and Witness to Innocence.