We Sentence Innocent People to their Deaths

By Andrea Woods 3-03-2010

100303-death-penalty-innocentIt is Death Penalty Awareness Week, and supporters of human rights across the country have turned their attention to a uniquely complicated injustice -- the implementation of capital punishment in the United States. I applaud the excellent work being done by communities of faith, student organizations, and concerned citizens around this issue; I am a firm believer that the more education that takes place around the death penalty, the more difficult it becomes to support.

For many reasons the death penalty is an egregious violation of human rights. It is utilized in a manner that is racially discriminatory and targets those who are poor, marginalized, and systematically vulnerable. It instigates cruelty, violence, and suffering in the name of justice. It denies human beings the opportunity for redemption, forgiveness, and healing in an ultimate way.

And we sentence innocent people to their deaths.

Since the 1976 national upholding of capital punishment laws, 139 people have been wrongfully convicted and condemned to execution for a crime they did not commit. That's 139 stories of trauma and torture. They are 139 stories of cruelty and suffering, of human error when the stakes were most critical. That number -- 139 -- represents one innocent person for every eight executions carried out in the U.S.

I work to support these very people through an organization called Witness to Innocence. Witness to Innocence is composed of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones -- people who've demonstrated more grace, resilience, and tenacity than I knew possible. This organization has dual missions: to provide a peer-support network for the innocent exonerees and their families, as well as to educate the American public about the reality of wrongful convictions at the highest level. For years our witnesses have been sharing their stories with student groups, communities of faith, law-makers, and other audiences across the country. These testimonies have an unprecedented way of transforming people's perspective on the issue of capital punishment. As we like to say, they bring a human face to an issue that most of us would otherwise only consider hypothetically.

Through my connection to Witness to Innocence, I've heard the most extraordinary -- and true -- stories. I've slammed full-speed into the realization that our criminal justice system is nauseatingly cruel and unfair. And yet, every time I want to resign myself to the immense complexity of this problem, I am given a demonstration of hope by the members of Witness to Innocence. Despite what they've been subjected to, these men continue to march forward in the struggle for freedom and justice. Even though it's painful, they continue to speak out about their experiences. Rather than succumbing to the paralysis of bitterness, these men make themselves available to the anti-death penalty community as a uniquely powerful voice for change.

Please visit www.witnesstoinnocence.org to learn more about our partnership with Amnesty International's Death Penalty Awareness Week, and to consider hosting an event in your community with one of our witnesses.

Even after the official week of action comes to a close, may we all continue in the fight for peace, empathy, and justice!

Andrea Woods is a Program Assistant for Witness to Innocence. This post first appeared on the RAC Blog of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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