‘Our Criminal Justice System Needs to Reclaim its Humanity’ | Sojourners

‘Our Criminal Justice System Needs to Reclaim its Humanity’

Image via JP Keenan/ Sojourners 

Editor's Note: Six months ago, 18 death penalty abolitionists gathered on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in protest of capital punishment. They lay flowers on the court steps in honor of the victims of violence, their famalies, death row inmates, the executed, and their families. After they unfurled a banner reading “STOP EXECUTIONS!,” the #DC18 were arrested and taken into police custody. During the 31 hours it took to process through the Washington, D.C. Central Detention Facility, they were subjected to inhumane conditions.

On Wednesday, 12 of the abolitionists appeared in the Washington, D.C. Superior Court to put the death penalty on trial. During this two-day trial, the co-defendants offered testimonies on the faith and moral motivations compelling them to stand against state-sanctioned violence. Yesterday, they were sentenced to time served and a $200 fine to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. After the Government encouraged sentences ranging from 15 days suspended sentence with six months unsupervised probation, to 60 days in jail with six months’ probation, Art Laffin offered the following closing statement on behalf of the 12 co-defendants. Below is the full text of his statement. 


Judge Salerno, thank you for being patient with us in presenting our case.

I stand before you as a murder victim family member. My younger brother, Paul, was murdered in Hartford, Conn. in 1999 by a mentally ill homeless man named Dennis Soutar. The best way I know how to honor my brother is to work for the prevention of violence, not to replicate it. That is why I am in this courtroom today.

The government has tried to show that the action of those of us arrested at the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 17 constitutes a crime. 

The government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we twelve engaged in a criminal offense.

We, 12, did not go to the U.S. Supreme Court to engage in unlawful conduct or to bring public notice to a party, organization, or movement. It’s not a crime to be part of a group that opposes state-sanctioned killing. Some of us on trial belong to certain groups, as was testified to, and others don’t. We are not all part of one group. On January 17, we converged at the Supreme Court as individuals from different walks of life to convey with many others a message: state-sponsored homicide is unjust, immoral and must end!

We went to the Supreme Court to peacefully exercise our First Amendment rights and to witness for life! The banner we unfurled on the court steps does not bear the name of any party, organization or movement, but simply states: "STOP EXECUTIONS!" Stop Executions is not a movement. This statement demonstrates a cry of the people for life, not death.

The government has presented no evidence that the business of the Supreme Court was impeded on January 17. [The Supreme Court Police Officer] testified that nobody was impeded from going into or out of the building.

Judge Salerno, we ask you so carefully consider the testimony of [The Officer] re: how the Title 40 statute is applied. [The Officer] testified that arrests are typically made on the plaza if there is violence or a disruption of the court. There’s no evidence that the 12 of us were violent or disruptive of the Court. Officer William’s testified that the group did not represent a threat. Therefore, if our group did not represent a threat, then why were we arrested? It seems very clear that the Supreme Court police, based on their political beliefs, determine who should be arrested on the Supreme Court plaza. Based on the testimony of [the officer], we were arrested for trying to stop the death penalty. We submit that our arrest was selective and arbitrary.

The evidence the defense has put forth clearly shows that it was never our intention to commit a crime or break the law, but rather to uphold the essence of the law, which is rooted in justice and saving and protecting life. 

Judge Salerno, you have heard testimony from four defendants, my friends Randy Gardner, SueZann Bosler, Derrick Jamison and Sam Sheppard, who have experienced immeasurable suffering as a result of violence and the death penalty. It is because of their suffering that they were compelled to act at the Supreme Court on January 17.

You have heard from Derrick Jamison, the 119th death row exoneree, as to why he was at the U.S. Supreme Court on January 17. Derrick spent 20 years, 20 years on death row in Ohio for a crime he did not commit. He had six different execution dates. He testified that during his time on death row 18 men, whom he knew well, were executed. It is a miracle that Derrick is alive and with us today. Derrick's testimony underscores how flawed and broken the legal system is and how possible it is for innocent people to be executed. Since 1973, 159 people sentenced to death have ultimately been exonerated because of evidence showing their innocence.

Our society and criminal justice system needs to reclaim its humanity and tell Derrick and other exonerees how sorry it is for the unspeakable injustice they experienced and pledge its commitment to make sure this never happens to anyone else. I pray that each one of us in this courtroom today will make this pledge.

Judge Salerno, given what these four defendants have experienced, the Supreme Court police should have welcomed them onto the Supreme Court plaza, not arrested them.

And finally, you heard testimony from Rob Lee, the attorney who helped represent the now executed Ricky Gray and who is now trying to save the life of William Morva, a mentally ill man who Virginia plans to execute on July 6. Mr. Lee established the fact that there was a petition for a stay of execution before the Supreme Court to save Ricky Gray’s life at the time of our action and that we, defendants, were acting on January 17 to try, with others, to save Ricky Gray’s life.

As was mentioned in the Motion for Judgement of Acqiuttal (MJA), at the time of our action there was a petition before the Supreme Court to stop the killing of Ricky Gray, which was ultimately denied. How can it be a crime to nonviolently try and stop a murder? And so, Ricky Gray is now added to the list of the 1,455 people executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of the death penalty forty years ago. Judge Salerno, if someone has forewarning that a killing of an individual is about to occur, clearly that individual has a moral and legal right to do whatever they can to nonviolently try to prevent it.

Many of us, including myself, who were present at the Supreme Court on Jan. 17, signed petitions to save Ricky Gray’s life. Knowing that time was short and that his execution was imminent, we had to take immediate action to save his life. And so, our action, in a way, was a visible living Amicus Brief, calling on the Supreme Court justices to stop the execution.

We twelve acted to stop a crime and to prevent state-sanctioned killing. Specifically, we acted to try and stop the imminent killing of Ricky Gray who was executed by the state of Virginia after being denied an appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court several hours after our release from custody on January 18. Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted a state, this time the state of Virginia, to carry out an act of premeditated killing.

When will the killing end? Why does the government, 31 states and the U.S. Supreme Court, sanction the killing of people who kill to show that killing is wrong? Some 140 countries, including the European Union, and 19 states in the U.S., no longer practice the death penalty. On Jan. 17, 2017, we, 12, along with many others, went to the Supreme Court, the highest Court in the land, to call on the Court and the nation to stop executions.

We submit that our actions were legally and morally justified and necessary. Judge Salerno, we, twelve, stand in a long nonviolent tradition, from biblical times to now, of people of faith and conscience who have nonviolently acted to uphold God’s law, Thou Shalt not kill, and the law of love and justice, in resistance to injustice, violence, and killing. In the U.S., we now have a national holiday honoring one of the greatest nonviolent prophets in history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was arrested numerous times for acts of civil disobedience. Our action at the U.S. Supreme Court occurred the day following King’s national holiday. We were very mindful of Dr. King when we were on the Supreme Court steps, and who, as an opponent of the death penalty, declared: “Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”

There is a direct causal connection between the nonviolent actions Dr. King and other civil rights activists took and how those actions resulted in the ending of unjust and illegal segregation laws in the U.S. Without countless civil rights workers being arrested and jailed, there never would have been an end to legal apartheid in the U.S. As murder victim family members, a death row exoneree, a family member of the executed and death penalty abolitionists, we, twelve, believe like the civil rights workers who have gone before us, that our actions, and other such similar acts, will result one day in bringing about an end to the barbaric practice of capital punishment in our society. 

Judge Salerno, despite the government’s assertion that we should be found guilty, I submit that we have committed no crime. We were, in fact, engaging in act of crime prevention! Thus, we should never have been arrested and jailed in the first place. We twelve acted out of conscience to stop the state from killing and to save a life. We appeal to you today to act on your conscience and in the name of justice. Judge Salerno, we need your help, and the help of prosecutors Mr. Korba and Ms. Pelker, to end state-sanctioned killing. Please join us in this effort. On behalf of all the defendants, we appeal to this court to find us not guilty.