Death penalty foes launch PR counterattack 28 'death row survivors' share stage at conference


CHICAGO -- In the 22 years since the nation resumed executions, the anti-death penalty movement has been battered, bloodied and ignored.

Public opinion polls show strong support for capital punishment. Democratic and Republican candidates from the city council to the White House argue about who supports it more, and the march to the death chamber continues to pick up speed.

But over the weekend on the edge of Lake Michigan, death penalty opponents mounted a public relations counterattack, bringing together for the first time 28 of the 73 men and two women released from death rows across the country since 1972, usually after many years, for crimes they did not commit.

It was a chilling flesh-and-blood reminder of the greatest fear of opponents and supporters of the death penalty -- the execution of the innocent.

One by one, the black artist and the white yoga teacher and the Hispanic man who wants to be a lawyer marched across a stage at Northwestern University School of Law on Saturday and introduced themselves as death row survivors. Then they sat together in what one of them called "a living graveyard," and one of their lawyers, fighting back tears, called "a stage of honor."

"My name is Dennis Williams," the artist said. "Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I'd be dead today."

For about every seven executions in the United States since 1976, one condemned inmate has been freed, such as Williams, who served 17 years on Illinois' death row; Walter McMillian, who served six years in Alabama; and Sonia Jacobs, who served five years in Florida.

Each was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. And each was eventually freed, largely based on the grounds of outright evidence of innocence or other overwhelming doubts.

Because they are free today and not dead, supporters of the death penalty say that they are living proof that the system works.

The march of survivors was the emotional highlight of a three-day national conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty held at Northwestern and attended by more than 1,000 lawyers, law students, professors and death penalty opponents.

"We want to start a dialogue with the rest of the country," said Lawrence Marshall, the Northwestern University law professor who organized the conference and helped get two of the men on the stage off death row.

The conference was part reunion, part strategy session and part pep rally to energize a movement that silenced the nation's death chambers for years in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s.

But there were also panel discussions about flawed forensics, investigative techniques and DNA evidence. Barry Scheck, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and co-director of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to help free more than two dozen wrongfully convicted people, said that after the conference he expected to see similar projects in every state. "If we can get more people on the ground looking for evidence," he said, "we can free a lot of innocent people."

Some people at the conference talked about changing the death penalty to ensure that innocent people are not condemned to die. But the overwhelming thrust of the weekend was the ultimate abolition of the death penalty, and the wrongfully condemned people -- the "75 reasons to care."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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