In a presentation at the university Friday, Emilia Truluck, president of the local Amnesty International chapter, said that the United States remains one of only one-third of the world’s nations that still implements the death penalty as a form of punishment for capital offenses.
“In 1972, we have the case Furman v. Georgia, that actually ruled that execution was illegal,” Truluck said. “We had a hiatus for four years and since the death penalty [was reinstituted], we have executed over 1,200 people.”
She said that the death penalty is decreasing in popularity to the point that 140 of the world’s nations have outlawed capital punishment. In the United States, she said that often times the death penalty is stacked against minorities in the judicial system.
“Statistics show that cases with white victims more often end in the death penalty,” she said. “It was declared to be limited to the worst of the worst [offenders]. But we’ve also seen 132 exonerations.”
One of these exonerees, Gary Drinkard, was on hand to discuss the implications of the death penalty at the AI presentation Friday. Drinkard, who was arrested for capital murder in 1993, was exonerated in 2001 after spending six years on Death Row in Alabama. Drinkard is now a member of Witness to Innocence, a group made up of former Death Row members and their families with the goal of ending the death penalty in America.
After his arrest, Drinkard spent two years in the county jail before he was given a trial. His defense team, he said, was less than competent and at his 1995 sentencing, Drinkard received the death sentence by electric chair.
“I got to prison that day – the smell overwhelms you, it’s just awful,” he said. “I stayed locked up for seven years and eight months. It affects your mind so you’ll plead guilty to something like 30 or 40 just to get out of jail.”
While incarcerated, Drinkard said he reached out to as many organizations and attorneys as possible to work for an appeal. When he finally caught a break after serving five years in prison, his case became part of a huge statistic – one which indicates that 76 percent of the cases tried in the state of Alabama, including his own, have seen their original outcome reversed.
“Most guys [on Death Row] would commit suicide,” he said. “They call the death penalty ‘more humane,’ but if you’re going to kill somebody, you’re going to kill them...Most murders are crimes of passion, and most people on death row will admit they’ve done something wrong, that they’ve committed a crime. And most will never do it again. The death penalty’s not a deterrent...and with the death penalty, innocent people have been killed and more innocent people will be killed.”
Speaking from a background of faith, the Rev. Kim Jackson, episcopal chaplain at the Atlanta University Center, said that her own activism for the abolishment of the death penalty was born out of the case of Troy Davis.
“I joined other seminarians, and we were out in the night dropping banners over bridges,” she said. “At that time in my life, I was out to save Troy Davis, I wasn’t at all fighting in 2008 for the end of the death penalty.”
However, her involvement in the Davis case and the countless prayer vigils held on his behalf did acquaint her with those that had a stake in ending capital punishment, and it was one of these acquaintances that gave her a new mission to fight for.
Over the years, she attended prayer vigils for many Death Row inmates, including Roy Blankenship, who in 2011 was executed for the rape and murder of an elderly Savannah woman.
“Things changed for me with Roy Blankenship,” she said. “He was the first executed under a new lethal injection drug, and his execution was painful and he suffered greatly.”
Her acquaintance described Blankenship’s death as a tragic one and, at the end, “his life [was] defined by an act of unspeakable evil.”
“To define them forever, for an eternity based on one act is not okay to me,” she said. “My life was changed, my perspective was changed. We need to abolish the death penalty, not just because the system is broken, but because we value human life.”
After years of searching for hope in the case of Troy Davis, Jackson, like many other anti-death penalty advocates was crushed at his execution last year. His loss, she said, has only reinforced the need to fulfill his last request, “Continue to fight this fight.”
“People say that our generation, that we don’t care, that we’re apathetic,” she said. “Your presence here proves that we’re not apathetic. I’m very aware that the execution of Troy Davis was painful and sad. Won’t you fight on a little while longer? Won’t you press on a little while longer? Won’t you pray on a little while longer? ‘Cause if we do that collectively in this state, in this nation, or in this world, we can bring an end to the death penalty. But we’ve got to fight on just a little while longer.”
Lastly, attendees heard from John Starbuck, a Georgia resident who over the course of his life has lost two relatives to murder.
He first lost his grandfather in a 1992 mugging, and then his stepdaughter in a shooting in 2005, and despite these tragedies, Starbuck still opposes the death penalty and the implications it has about the society that uses it.
“[My daughter’s shooter] didn’t disappear from the Earth, he did something stupid, and his humanity is what we’re fighting for here,” Starbuck said. “If we want a society that’s going to be kinder and more effective, we need restorative and comparative justice.”
Rather than use the retributive form of criminal justice prevalent today, Starbuck said he advocates for restorative justice, which is based on the needs of the victim. Through the avoidance of justice through retribution or punishment, he said that humanity is better preserved.
Starbuck is now a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, a national organization comprised of murder victims’ families that oppose the death penalty.
He used the example of the two men responsible for the death of his grandfather, who at the time of the crime were 17-and 25-years-old.
The teenager, he said, was sent to juvenile hall and on to prison for the next eight years. When he was released at the age of 25, Starbuck said he made it only three years outside before he was killed.
“It was a horrendous place. What did he learn in those eight years? He learned to be a criminal, and he went on to live a life of crime,” he said.
The other, he said, lived as a model prisoner for his 25 years and prison and since his release has maintained a job and a life free of the burdens of his crime. If the two had had a chance to be incarcerated together, to positively influence one another’s lives, the outcome for the younger subject might have been better.
“There are many ways of looking at justice,” Starbuck said. “Open your eyes, see what’s going on.”
Following the presentations from the speaker, visitors to “A Night of Action Against the Death Penalty” were invited to ask questions of the speakers and to view a collection of photos from the events leading up to the execution of Troy Davis. The event was sponsored by the University of West Georgia chapter of Amnesty International and the university’s Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, STAND.
For more information on Amnesty International and its work to eradicate capital punishment, visit amnestyusa.org, for more information on Witness to Innocence, visit witnesstoinnocence.org, and for more information on Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, visit mvfr.org.