WASHINGTON (CNS) — A new coalition has been formed to bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States.
Called 90 Million Strong, the coalition’s director, Diann Rust-Tierney, said it would work on a state-by-state basis to add to the 16 states that currently ban capital punishment.
“Enough is enough,” declared Hilary Shelton, NAACP senior vice president for policy and advocacy and director of its Washington bureau, during a Dec. 9 news conference unveiling the campaign.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty is one of 15 national partners in the campaign. Its executive director, Karen Clifton, was at the event briefly but did not speak.
Clifton is one of 22 people in the campaign’s “leadership circle,” as are Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph and a longtime anti-death penalty activist, and actress Susan Sarandon, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Helen in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” based on the nun’s memoir.
“It’s a strong presence, when we say what we are united against, in large numbers rather than speaking out individually,” Clifton told Catholic News Service Dec. 9 after the news conference.
“We approach it (the death penalty), as Catholics, as a moral and faith issue,” Clifton said. “This is a life issue to us.”
Clifton said the coalition asked the Catholic Mobilizing Network to “basically, do our mission, which is to end the use of the death penalty and to lend our voice as Catholics” to the issue. “It’s an opportunity to be community, to come forward … so that our numbers speak out — and as a public witness.”
Since the Supreme Court reinstated the use of the death penalty in 1976, about 1,400 people have been executed. However, close to 150 others convicted of capital crimes later were later freed when evidence surfaced that pointed to their innocence.
“God knows how many innocent people have been killed at the hands of the state,” said Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, at the news conference.
Wallis said opposition to capital punishment is part of “the consistent ethic of life,” and a measure of how society treats its most marginalized.
Speakers brought up recent police killings of African-Americans in Missouri, New York and Cleveland to highlight what they say is racial injustice throughout the criminal justice system. Most victims of crimes that earn death sentences are white, while a majority of those found guilty of capital crimes are black.
Among the other countries that still practice capital punishment are Iran, Yemen, North Korea and China. “The reason the United States is the only democratic country in the world with the death penalty is that many Americans believe it’s the only way to keep blacks from killing whites,” said Morton Halperin, who worked in the White House for both Democratic and Republican presidents and had a stint heading the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
Said Karen Yarbrough, the Cook County, Illinois, recorder of deeds: “For most of my life, I was a supporter of capital punishment.” Then she heard a speech at an anti-death penalty rally and switched her position — to the point where, as a state legislator, she became sponsor of her state’s death penalty abolition bill, getting the governor to likewise change his views on execution.
Rust-Tierney said, “We’ve had people’s minds change when they know the facts.”
Asked where efforts to abolish capital punishments may start, Rust-Tierney replied, “Kansas is a very interesting state,” and “Delaware is looking at the issue.”
Rust-Tierney told CNS after the news conference that the coalition would provide individuals with tools and talking points to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment on its website, www.90millionstrong.org, and also reach out to organization that have not yet taken a stand on the issue to convince them to join the effort to end the death penalty.