Human Rights - Facing Death Row

Fifteen SMU students, faculty members and others will travel by bus through the Deep South Aug. 2-10 to visit the people and places involved in operating, reporting on and opposing the death penalty in America. The 10-day experience is designed “to expose people to the physical and emotional aspects affiliated with our country’s use of the death penalty, the majority of which is carried out in the states we’ll visit – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas,” says capital punishment expert/activist Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, the trip’s sponsor.

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What does justice really look like?

An update from M.B.A. student Diane S.:

It’s 6 a.m. on a humid summer morning, and I’m standing in a commuter lot at SMU anxiously awaiting our departure to one of the most unique opportunities to date that I’ve ever had. We were about to hop on a bus and start our tour through the South for our “death row” trip. Yes, you read that right. Fifteen of us were going to spend 12 days visiting death row facilities and various human/civil rights organizations in Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana, among others. The trip, organized by the Embrey Human Rights program at SMU, aimed to educate students and community members about the intricacies surrounding the death penalty, but also the implications it has on society, families and what it ultimately means for criminal justice.

Our trip started in Oklahoma City at the National Memorial honoring the victims, survivors and all those who were affected by the bombing that occurred on April 19, 1995.  I was six years old at the time, but I have recollections of the images broadcasted 24/7 of rubble, people being hauled out on stretchers, despair and anguish. I remember seeing a young Timothy McVeigh in an orange jumpsuit shackled and being led out of a courthouse, and wondering why anyone would intentionally want to cause so much harm.

Fast forward to present-day, and as a 28-year-old woman walking through the interactive exhibits – reading, watching and reliving those same emotions through second-hand accounts – it still didn’t make much sense to me. McVeigh was sentenced to death by lethal injection and died on June 11, 2001. There was no doubt in my mind that his actions were reprehensible, but as a student on a human rights trip I couldn’t help, but wonder: should one’s punishment mirror the crime? Is this the only way to uphold the moral priority of justice?

Outside of the memorial, we met Nancy Vollertsen, sister of death-row exoneree Greg Wilhoit. Greg was wrongfully convicted of killing his ex-wife and spent eight years on death row before he was cleared of all charges in 1993 due to bite-mark evidence. Nancy’s perspective is that of one often forgotten: the loved ones that are left behind when the unthinkable happens. Greg came from a middle-class, conservative family from Tulsa, had never gotten into trouble in his life, and as Nancy put it “sometimes crime just comes knocking on your door.”  At times, her voice would quiver and her eyes would well up proving that time simply is not capable of healing all wounds. Greg spent the remainder of his life as an anti-death penalty activist teaming up with Witness to Innocence, an organization that aims to empower death row survivors in the struggle to end the death penalty once and for all.  He passed away in his sleep in 2014.

Here we were posed with another thought-provoking question: what about those withering away on death row that were wrongfully convicted? I wish I could tell you that Greg’s story was an aberration, but the fact is that there is an overwhelming amount of innocent people sentenced to death every year due to prosecutorial misconduct. Thanks to Witness to Innocence, we were able to speak to six exonerees in different states throughout our travels. Although the details were different, the underlying theme was the same: families were ripped apart, lives lost and injustice was rampant when “justice” should have been served.

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