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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Mississippi

An update from law student Brenda B.:

 

She shot us a quizzical look. “Now why are you going to Parchman?” Beth Henry asked in her sweet, Southern drawl. Outside Catherine’s Exquisite Edibles in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, four of us, students, had met this bubbly and charming local who could very well serve as the town ambassador.

Mississippi’s Parchman Farm, the second “prison farm” on our tour, is both renown for inspiring delta blues musicians and notorious for its historic, inhumane inmate conditions (not unlike many Southern facilities). “The school brought us there as kids, so that we wouldn’t want to go back,” Beth half joked. Unfortunately, SMU’s visit to Parchman would be limited to a view from across the street: after granting us a tour, Parchman retracted its statement, saying visits were not allowed at this time. A road sign from across the street (below) gave us a tidbit of history.

Beth’s genuinely warm welcome and candid discussions on the town’s present-day racial tensions was disarming to our group of four, colored students. A sleepy, college town still on summer break, downtown Cleveland is picturesque with quaint shops and friendly folks—think SMU’s Snider Plaza only without the cars and the chaos. The only thing more extraordinary about this town that finally integrated its black and white high schools in 2016 is that the Cleveland Country Club still does not accept blacks—whether by rule or by custom, Beth (a member) did not know.

Before we headed back to the hotel, Beth drove us to Dockery Farms, remnants of a bustling cotton plantation and now a public park. A fellow classmate, doctoral student at SMU, and Dallas community college professor, Arlandis Jones, provided some insight into the layout of this plantation (plantations generally followed the same design).  As we drove away from the verdant grounds of this plantation, Beth summed it up: old families and old money is why Cleveland, Mississippi, has a hard time letting go of the past.

Before heading to the next state, we met the inspiring and resilient Sabrina Butler-Smith, a Mississippi teenager who spent six and a half years imprisoned (two of them on death row) after being wrongfully convicted of child abuse and murder of her nine-month-old son. Not an anomaly in the world of wrongful convictions, Sabrina’s case is one of prosecutorial misconduct (witnesses who could corroborate her story as well as her child’s autopsy, which showed severe kidney disease as the cause of death, were never presented to the jury) and ineffective assistance of counsel (the day before the murder trial, Sabrina met for the first time her court-appointed attorney who came to court high as a kite). Her case was reopened by the second-chair attorney who had seen the misconduct and “felt bad” about what had happened.

“You can overturn a wrongful conviction, but you can’t undo a wrongful execution,” said Sabrina who advocates for “court watchers” who keep the court in check by catching misconduct when it happens and not when it’s too late. Sabrina’s passion for life and joy is contagious, and our group invited her to visit SMU so that our school community can hear her remarkable story: “I stay happy. I make jokes. I like bliss. But that’s because God spared my life.”

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

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