Leading Death Penalty Opponent Envisions End to Executions

Diann Rust-Tierney

By Hazel Trice Edney

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – A leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty says her organization believes that executions could realistically end across the U. S. someday.

“Virtually every state that has a death penalty is engaged in the debate at some level,” Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the Trice Edney News Wire after the abolition of the Illinois death penalty earlier this month. “This grassroots effort that’s going on around the country is ultimately going to lead us to a new vision on how we approach these issues. That’s really the treasure at the end of the rainbow for all of us - that we’re going to have a clear-eyed approach to criminal justice that’s going to be fair and consistent to all of our values.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn received widespread applause around the country after he signed legislation March 9 abolishing the death penalty in his state. He then committed to the commutation of 15 death sentences of men currently on death row.

As the Illinois abolition takes effect July 1 – becoming the 16th state with no death penalty - the NCADP is already scoping out its next key battleground. The organization reports:

* Kansas is now considering a repeal measure.
* Montana’s Senate passed a repeal measure this year in a bipartisan vote of 26 to 24. But, the bill was defeated in a House Committee.
* Connecticut’s legislature passed a repeal measure in 2009, which was vetoed by then Gov. Jodi Rell. A new repeal bill has been introduced in Connecticut this year, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy “has indicated he would sign the measure if it passes.”
* Maryland, which has the narrowest death Penalty statute in the country, is now discussing repeal.
* Colorado recently came within one vote of ending the death penalty.
* Texas and Virginia are prioritized because they have especially high rates of death sentences and executions.

“It’s a hard choice because so much is happening around the country,” Rust-Tierney said. “Our mission is to help end the death penalty in those states where there is real opportunity because there’s leadership in the legislature and there’s a viable effort. We try and support those.”

While racial disparities have been the reason for much opposition over the years, Illinois and other states are also considering the risk of innocent people being executed.

“When they became aware of the magnitude of the risk that innocent people would be executed, the moratorium on executions was instituted,” an NCADP statement said. “Study commissions conducted thorough reviews of the death penalty, and significant reforms were enacted. They tried to make it work – but did the responsible thing for all involved when they realized that despite their best efforts, it might not be possible to make the system operate with the certainty and precision they would have liked.”

Quinn said in a statement: “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed … It is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.”

The number of death row exonerees in the U.S. is 138. Among them, 71 were African-Americans.

States around the nation are apparently concluding that the risk is too great, leading to a general decline in death sentences and executions.

“Death sentences were at a historic low – 114 – in 2010, 64% less than in 1996, when they peaked at 315. There were 46 executions in 2010, down from 52 in 2009. More than 40 execution dates were stayed in 2010, many due to a national shortage of a key lethal injection drug and concerns about the execution process,” the NCADP reports.

Civil rights organizations around the nation, including Black organizations like the NAACP, the Hip Hop Caucus and the Black Leadership Forum have joined the Rust-Tierney and the NCADP in its annual conventions. They are all working toward abolition.

“Where there are lives at stake and justice at stake, we support those efforts through public education and whatever needs to be done,” Rust-Tierney said. “Our organization’s strength is the network of related organizations around the country that are focused on this issue that are raising it in the public’s eye and raising it with the policy-makers…We go where we’re needed. We believe it can be done.”

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