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.

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 [...]

2017-08-23T07:47:18+00:00 August 22nd, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|


An update from law student Brenda B.: How do we treat our prisoners, and what does that say about us as a society? Despite being condemned, are prisoners entitled to civil rights (those given to us by a nation because of our citizenship) and human rights (those given to us because we are human)? For the obvious reasons, vulnerable women and children are more likable victims. But in the words of Dr. Rick Halperin, director of the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program, “Who cares about prisoners?” In Georgia, our class explored the complexity and correlation of these issues. Jennifer Hopkins (center) is the cheeriest park guide you will ever meet. Hope Anderson ’16, SMU Human Rights Fellow (left), and me. [...]

2017-08-15T14:49:54+00:00 August 15th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|

Different Kinds of Misery

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform: Andersonville, Georgia Standing in a muggy, buggy Georgia field, we tried to imagine Andersonville Prison as it was during the Civil War. Established as a Confederate prison to house Union soldiers, it was originally intended for 8,000–10,000 men.  At its most heavily populated in the summer of 1864, it held 33,000 men. Of the 45,000 who passed through Andersonville, 13,000 died, mostly of diarrhea, scurvy, and dysentery.  The prison closed in May 1865, but in its barely 18-month existence, it earned the reputation of “the most notorious of Confederate atrocities inflicted on Union troops.” The National Parks Service now manages this historic site, and there is a museum at Andersonville [...]

2017-08-15T10:33:53+00:00 August 13th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|

Do I Believe in the Death Penalty?

An update from Bettye H., a graduate student: As a native Texan, I have always known about the prison in Huntsville. We drove past it time and time again on our way from Houston to visit my grandparents in Dallas. I have vivid memories of riding in the back seat of our family Chrysler and staring at the shiny metal fences surrounding the concrete buildings for what seemed like miles – my dad always reminding the family to never stop in Huntsville in case of an escapee. I am not sure when or how, but somewhere along the road my acceptance of the death penalty seeped into my soul as a part of life, and I never questioned it. It [...]

2017-08-15T10:05:06+00:00 August 12th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|


An update from law student Brenda B.: Evidence shows a direct correlation between the lynchings of African Americans at the turn of the century and the modern use of the death penalty: the more prevalent the lynchings, the more prevalent the death sentence in that same area. In Alabama, we visited Birmingham and Montgomery, two cradle cities of the civil rights movement that developed in response to the injustices against African Americans between Reconstruction and World War II. Both cities host civil rights museums and memorials to the heroes and heroines of this era (many of whom were children), and both cities are home to three renowned advocacy organizations we visited: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Southern Poverty Law [...]

2017-08-11T11:49:12+00:00 August 10th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|

Equal Justice Initiative

An update from Grace C., a senior majoring in pre-law: Today we visited two of my favorite places: the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative. I really appreciate all of the work they do to promote public awareness of human rights issues, especially through litigation. At EJI, we had the pleasure to hear from Anthony Ray Hinton. My jaw actually dropped when he entered the room because just 5 months earlier I was at EJI for the Civil Rights Pilgrimage and we watched his video. It gave me chills then, but I never even imagined having the opportunity to hear him speak to us today. It really hit me when I heard his story. I mean I [...]

2017-08-08T15:13:12+00:00 August 8th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|


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 [...]

2017-08-11T11:27:32+00:00 August 8th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|

“Where do I go to receive justice?”

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform: “Where do I go to receive justice?”  Anthony Ray Hinton asked this question at the end of his presentation at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. He had just described how he came to be arrested for a double murder in 1985, and the 30 years he spent on death row in Alabama. Mr. Hinton was innocent. The story he told presented a shocking view of the white supremacist culture of the Deep South. According to Mr. Hinton, the police who investigated his case didn’t think he was guilty, but they worked to convict him, anyway. One of these officers assured Hinton that he didn’t care if he was [...]

2017-08-11T11:35:04+00:00 August 8th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|


An update from law student Brenda B.: “Man cannot outdo God. I don’t hate no more. I love everyone.” – 72-year-old John Henry “Shep” Sheppard, a Rockefeller 15, whose death sentence for the murder of a white woman in 1964 was commuted to life in prison. “I don’t think about the time I’ve spent in jail, but I think about what I did every day.” John Henry encourages new inmates transition to prison life: “These are my children.” Our second stop brought us to the Cummins Unit, the 16,000-acre Department of Corrections prison in Gould, Arkansas. With an inmate population of about 1,800, this “prison farm” uses inmate labor to grow crops, maintain a dairy farm, produce leather products, and make [...]

2017-08-08T15:00:08+00:00 August 7th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|


An update from law student Brenda B.: Our first stop was the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum dedicated to the 168 victims and more than 600 survivors of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. How does this museum connect to our death row tour? Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, a homegrown, anti-government terrorist, was sent to death row. He died by lethal injection at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001, after the federal judge granted his request to stop all appeals of his conviction. A second man and conspirator, Terry Nichols, received 161 consecutive life sentences. A third man who knew of the bombing plan but failed to warn [...]

2017-08-08T15:19:27+00:00 August 5th, 2017|Human Rights - Facing Death Row|
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