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Compassion or the loss of life penalty? Survivors are urgent for an finish to the execution

“I felt like a toy for the state

Just weeks before Williams was due to be executed, Windle had the opportunity to speak on his behalf to the mercy committee and demand that his life be spared. Her request was denied and Williams was executed in April 2017.

Williams' execution took place in a year that Arkansas was called "the conveyor belt of death " The state planned eight men to die in just eleven days. The rapid-fire executions were attributed to the fact that the state's supply of drugs for lethal injections –Medicines that are particularly difficult to obtain –have expired.

To this day, Windle, a devout Christian, says she finds peace in the fact that Williams found God before he was executed. “The only thing I get upset about is that I felt like I was a toy for the state so that they can use me when they want to use me and then ignore me when I choose not with that to go what they want. " She said.

Windle has since told her story to catalyze actions around the movement to abolish the death penalty. She is currently the Vice President of Journey of Hope, a group made up of families of the victims as well as survivors of violence perpetrated by those who have been executed or are currently on death row.

Journey of Hope gives lectures at colleges, schools, and community groups telling the stories of their members and often the stories of those exonerated or the families of those who were executed by the state. One of their key events is an annual vigil on the steps of the US Supreme Court where they fast for five days and give speeches to the public.

Similar to the larger criminal justice system, there are numerous questions about justice, justice and accuracy in the death penalty in its application: People with color –especially blacks– are over-represented, Women experience unique challenges based on their gender and innocent people are often wrongly convicted and condemned. These problems can lead proponents to different goals. While some want to reform the system to remove these prejudices and mistakes, others believe that the entire system should be abolished and replaced with entirely new ways of combating harm and violence.

"Restorative justice is what we advocate"

Groups like Journey of Hope occupy a particularly interesting place within the abolition movement because they offer a different perspective than many expect from survivors or families of victims. In doing so, they expose one of the central tenets that underpin arguments in favor of the death penalty: that deadly vengeance is the only possible option to ensure justice and alleviate an unimaginable loss.

“The Journey of Hope is essentially about compassion and forgiveness for those who have wronged us. We are not saying that this person deserves no punishment, but we are saying that we should have compassion for others and that killing someone will not take that back and relieve our pain, "Windle said.

“So we don't see any executions. As we know, people can change. We are no worse than the deed we committed and we can safely go up from there. We advocate restorative justice. In my case, as a Christian, I can only see someone turning to God, and for me that is a victory. Why don't we give people the opportunity to read the Word, study the Word, and turn to God instead of committing more violent crimes? "

Windle is also committed to removing the roots of the crime and teaching people the basic needs that can prevent them from using violence and harming themselves or others.

"I found out that mom had pimped him up at a young age [Marcel & # 39; s] because she had no food, no money, was an alcoholic, and that was the only thing she could see," said Windle. "So we don't have the essential tools we need when we start, and we go to things that we think are better."

A receptive audience and a diverse movement

Both Journey of Hope's message that true justice for survivors cannot be found in the death penalty and its membership – the survivors themselves – speak to the diversity of the movement to abolish the death penalty and the different entry points that individuals find themselves in are located. Some groups like Witness of innocence reinforce the stories and voices of those who have been exonerated while others like them National coalition to end the death penalty consist of families of murder victims, past and present law enforcement officers, and coalitions of civil justice organizations.

The diversity of these individuals and groups is also diverse. While grassroots groups may use personal stories and storytelling to drive campaigns against the death penalty, larger organizations like Amnesty International USA use both public education and advocacy for law. According to Kristina Roth, senior attorney for Amnesty International USA's criminal justice programs, the group has been working to abolish the death penalty worldwide for over 40 years and oppose it "in all cases".

"There is no more humane method of execution and there is no reason why we think a person should be executed, regardless of innocence or guilt," she told Prism.

Amnesty is stepping up the cases of people currently on death row and using these stories to highlight the shortcomings of the whole system and, hopefully, stop individual executions as well. Roth says these cases generally "symbolize consistent themes of what is irrevocably contrary to the death penalty," citing racial discrimination and the continued execution of the very young and people with intellectual disabilities despite laws prohibiting both.

On the legislative front, Amnesty is working to advance death penalty legislation and amend existing laws to eliminate the death penalty at both state and federal levels.

“With the in-depth administration that did Campaign promise To work towards an end to the sentence, we now have a receptive audience that has already started meeting with teams to discuss how they can administratively restrict the use of the death penalty, prevent executions and do even more for it a future government will find it difficult to use this punishment, ”said Roth.

Amnesty and other groups are particularly confident that Congress will propose new laws on the death penalty. On January 4, the first day of the 117th Congress, New York MP Adriano Espaillat presented one bill end the federal death penalty. The following week Ohio Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin announced their intention to introduce a similar calculation.

"In general, the abolition movement and all legislative efforts to eradicate the death penalty are often swapping the death penalty for life without parole – that's quite common," said Roth. That is, instead of imposing [life without parole] as the standard punishment, these two federal laws would require the re-convictions of those under federal death penalty. I would call this a real sign of progress. "

Roth says this advance is due in part to the increased surge in advocates of color, who are directly affected by all arms of the criminal justice system.

"There is certainly a really strong racial opposition to who will actually be convicted and executed for these crimes and so it would make sense to see more black and brown activists doing this because the people on death row are from our community," said Roth. “I think the conversation about Black Lives Matter last year [about] the surveillance of black bodies explored the idea that there must also be colored voices speaking out against the death penalty. And so, we are gradually seeing more investment in the movement of communities that have been disproportionately affected by this punishment but have not really been on the front line or focused on the voices that speak out against it for many years. "

Amnesty's criminal justice programs are focused on ending state-sanctioned murders as much as possible, which means that Roth's work includes both abolishing the death penalty and ending the use of lethal use of force by law enforcement agencies. In a way, the shape of each movement helps inform the other – for example, the rise of a black-led movement to end police violence has helped the death penalty movement more purposefully center black voices. Difficulties can arise, however, when the solutions put forward to address one problem serve to undermine the other.

“Last summer, in Congress, we looked at comprehensive police reform legislation. We wanted to change a number of things and the use of force was part of that effort, in which Amnesty invested heavily, ”said Roth.

This comprehensive legislation came in the form of the George Floyd Justice in the Police Act, a major bill aimed to tackle police misconduct by creating new standards for data collection and lowering the standard of criminal intent required to convict an officer of misconduct in a federal prosecution, among other things. While Amnesty supported the bill, it also had to ensure that while law enforcement made prosecution easier, the resulting penalties did not include the death penalty.

"None of the organizations that support efforts to hold the police more accountable believe the death penalty is the answer," said Roth. "So we have to be aware of the idea that we don't really want to cause harm with any of these punishments and that [death penalty] shouldn't be a punishment."

"Why would you take that away from us?"

Roth says that listening to people who are directly affected by the problem is critical to managing this balance. However, if the harm of the death penalty is repaired, that alone may present challenges of its own. While groups like Journey of Hope can represent the victim's families and survivors who speak out against the death penalty, the families of other victims have strongly supported the death penalty. In 2017, the brother of Stacy Erickson, the woman murdered by Marcel Williams, said in response to his execution that “justice served. It is time. "The family of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, the young woman murdered by Lisa Montgomery in Missouri in 2004, also supported Montgomery's execution despite growing support for Montgomery's case.

The wishes of the families of the victims, the survivors and the relatives of the death row inmates are in no way uniform and cannot be shown in black or white. It is clear, however, that the system itself is not designed to detect the myriad of ways people feel after violence and harm. When these gray areas are ignored, there is also a failure to provide options or decisions for those most closely involved in the crimes for which a defendant has been convicted – mistakes that occur at every step of the judicial process.

In her current job at the Public Defender's Office, Windle says she sees how heavy sentences are instigated and how prosecutors can distract from compassionate convictions. Even after a trial is well underway, the needs of the defense can prevent survivors from receiving what some need most.

“I wasn't allowed to speak to [Marcel] because his defenders didn't want it to appear like he was influencing me. And God forbid, if I go into the state and say I have to talk to this man, they say, "No, he's bad, he's terrible." We're doing this for your own good, "said Windle." I couldn't sit down and have a face-to-face conversation with this person because everyone is concerned that their rights will be violated, and I understand that. I'm on the defense and I understand we don't want our client to talk to anyone. But there has to be some kind of leeway in which I could know he wanted to apologize to me. Don't you want to hear that as a human? For someone to say to you, "I have wronged you and I am so sorry to be a changed person?" Why are you taking this away from us when this is all we have? "

Tamar Sarai Davis is Prismas' criminal justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.

Prism is a nonprofit news agency, run by BIPOC, that puts the spotlight on the people, places and topics that our national media currently does not cover. Through our original coverage, analysis and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives that are immortalized by the mainstream press, and work to create a complete and accurate record of what is happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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