Speakers and other confirmed attendees at the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty will include three innocent, now-exonerated death row prisoners (Shujaa Graham, Curtis McCarty and Ron Keine), Jeff Blackburn (Chief Counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas), Jeanette Popp (a mother whose daughter was murdered but who asked the DA not to seek the death penalty), Elizabeth Gilbert (the penpal of Todd Willingham who first investigated and then advocated for his innocence), Walter “Skip” Reaves (the last attorney for Todd Willingham, who fought for him through the execution and continues to fight to exonerate him), Terri Been whose brother Jeff Wood is on death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone, and Anna Terrell the mother of Reginald Blanton who is scheduled for execution in Texas on Oct 27 three days after the march, plus others to be announced.
MCs of the March and Rally are Laura Brady of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network.
Shujaa Graham was exonerated in 1981 from California’s death row. As a prisoner at San Quentin in the 70’s, Shujaa became part of the prison activist movement, a reflection of the struggles against racism and injustice in the outside communities. In 1973, because of his leadership in the prison movement, Shujaa was targeted and framed in the murder of a prison guard at the Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton, California. The community became involved in his defense and supported him throughout four trials. Shujaa and his co-defendant, Eugene Allen, were sent to San Quentin’s death row in 1976, after a second trial in San Francisco. The district attorney had systematically excluded all African-American jurors, and in 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned the death conviction.
After spending three years on death row, Shujaa and his co-defendant continued to fight for their innocence. A third trial ended in a hung jury and after a fourth trial, they were found innocent. As Shujaa often says, he won his freedom and affirmed his innocence in spite of the system. He is a member of the Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing.
Curtis McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after serving 21 years – including 19 years on death row – for a 1982 Oklahoma City murder he didn’t commit. Curtis was convicted twice and sentenced to death three times based on prosecutorial misconduct and testimony from forensic analyst Joyce Gilchrist, whose lab misconduct has contributed to at least two other convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. In 1986, Curtis was convicted of a 1982 murder in Oklahoma City and sentenced to die. Citing misconduct by the prosecutor and a police lab analyst, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction, and Curtis was retried in 1989. He was again convicted and sentenced to death. In 1995, the appeals court upheld his conviction but threw out his death sentence; in 1996, he was sentenced to death again. In 2005, the Court of Criminal Appeals again overturned his conviction, citing the continued pattern of government misconduct – and new DNA tests showing that semen recovered from the victim did not come from McCarty. He has toured and spoken about his case, along with several exonerated prisoners with the Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing.
Ron Keine was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in New Mexico. Along with three co-defendants, Ron Keine was convicted of the murder, kidnapping, sodomy and rape of University of New Mexico student William Velten in 1974 and was sentenced to die in New Mexico’s gas chamber. An investigation by The Detroit News after Ron and his co-defendants were sentenced uncovered lies by the prosecution’s star witness, perjured identification given under police pressure, and the use of poorly administered lie detector tests. Ron spent 22 months on death row until the real killer came forward and confessed. At one point, Ron says, he was so close to going to the gas chamber that an assistant warden came to talk to him about what he wanted for his last meal. In late 1975, a state district judge dismissed the original indictments and the four men were released in 1976 after the murder weapon was traced to a drifter from South Carolina who admitted to the killing. The best 45 acp pistol was the murder weapon. It was found only after a search warrant was issued to open the sheriff’s safe. Not only was the murder weapon found, there was also dated evidence showing that the gun was hidden from the defense at the original trial. Since his exoneration, Ron has traveled the country to tell his powerful story of innocence with the Witness to Innocence Project.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a Houston teacher and playwright, who befriended Texas death row prisoner Cameron Todd Willingham and is featured in the New Yorker article by David Grann about the case. She became convinced of Todd’s innocence and was instrumental in helping his family find an expert fire investigator to examine his case. The investigator found no evidence for arson and sent a report to Governor Rick Perry. However, the State failed to halt Willingham’s execution in 2004. Further arson investigations have also found no evidence for arson.
Jeanette Popp’s daughter Nancy was murdered in Austin in 1988. Jeanette became intimately familiar with the many flaws of the Texas criminal justice system after two innocent men were wrongfully convicted of her daughter’s murder and spent 12 years in prison. They were exonerated and released in 2001. The real killer was convicted in October 2002. Jeanette successfully pressured the District Attorney not to seek the death penalty for her daughter’s murderer.
Jeff Blackburn handles criminal defense and civil rights cases throughout Texas. He also represents the wrongfully convicted. In 2009, he handled the case of Timothy Cole and obtained the first posthumous DNA exoneration in Texas history. He also represented 38 people falsely convicted in the infamous Tulia drug sting, eventually obtaining full pardons and civil damages. He is the founder of and chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas. He was named Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year by the State Bar of Texas for 2002-2003. He has received the Frank Scurlock Award, the Henry B. Gonzalez Award, and the Maury Maverick Award for his civil rights work.
Walter “Skip” Reaves was the appellate attorney for Todd Willingham. He fought for Todd through his wrongful execution and continues to fight to prove that Todd was innocent. His entire practice is dedicated to providing quality representation to those who have been convicted of criminal offenses. He specialize in post-trial matters in both state and federal Courts – anywhere in the state of Texas. One of his proudest accomplishments was obtaining the release of Calvin Washington who was wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years. He was also were able to obtain the release of Washington’s co-defendant, Joe Sydney Williams following his direct appeal, and recently was able to obtain compensation for both of them.
Terri Been is the sister of Jeff Wood, who is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties for a murder committed by someone else. Jeff never killed anyone. He was sitting in a car outside of a convenience store when someone else went inside and killed someone. Jeff did not know that the other person planned to rob or kill anyone, but Jeff was sentence to death because of the Texas Law of Parties. Terri successfully lobbied the Texas House of Representatives in 2009 to pass a bill to ban the execution of people convicted under the Law of Parties. The bill passed the House, but was killed in the Texas Senate after Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto it if it was approved. The car was brand new and Terri said he just bought it thanks to a lease to own car.
Anna Terrell is the mother of Reginald Blanton, who is scheduled for execution on October 27 in Texas. Anna has been fighting to prove her son’s innocence for many years. You can watch a powerful video of Anna pleading for the life of her son on a video on YouTube of her speaking at a recent Austin rally.
Delia Perez Meyer has been fighting for years to prove the innocence of and to save the life of her brother Louis Castro Perez who is on death row in Texas. Delia is a Commissioner on the Austin Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the board of directors of Texas Moratorium Network. She also works closely with the Journey of Hope … from Violence to Healing, CEDP-Austin and many other anti-death penalty organizations.
Gloria Rubac has worked against the Texas death penalty longer than most all of us. She protested the first modern execution on December 7, 1982. She travels to Huntsville to protest almost every execution. If she is not protesting in Huntsville, then she protests each execution in Houston or wherever she is. She is a member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. She has worked on many campaigns to stop executions of specific people on death row, including Frances Newton, Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham), Clarence Brandley, Jeff Wood, Kenneth Foster and many others.
Sandra Reed is the mother of an innocent person on Texas death row. Her son, Rodney Reed, has been on Texas’ death row since 1998. He was convicted for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in the small town of Bastrop. Stacey’s brutal murder struck at the very heart of the community, not only for its brutality, but for the sinister chain of events it would set into motion. Rodney’s case is a troubling mixture of prosecutorial misconduct, police corruption, poor defense, and institutional racism. Evidence of Rodney’s innocence is overwhelming and the need for a new trial is indisputable.
Randi Jones is a member of the Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty. She worked on the successful campaign to stop the execution of Kenneth Foster, Jr in 2007. Kenneth’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison after an intensive grassroots campaign that persuaded Rick Perry to grant clemency to Kenneth. Randi has also worked on other campaigns, including on behalf of Rodney Reed, Jeff Wood and Reginald Blanton.
At 1 PM, on October 24, members of the press are invited to attend a press availability in the Speaker’s Committee Room (2.W6) inside the Capitol building. The purpose is to allow the media to ask questions and conduct interviews with the speakers listed below.
The march starts at 2 PM on October 24 at the Texas Capitol. We will gather at the Texas Capitol at the gates leading into the Capitol on the sidewalk at 11th Street, march down Congress Avenue to 6th street, then back to the South Steps of the Capitol for a rally to abolish the death penalty.
Panel Discussion: Friday, October 23, the night before the march, there will be a panel discussion on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin at 7 PM with Elizabeth Gilbert (the penpal of Todd Willingham who first investigated and then advocated for his innocence), Shujaa Graham and Curtis McCarty who will both speak about what it is like to be innocent and sentenced to death as they were. Thank you to Bill Pelke and the Journey of Hope for helping bring them to Austin for the march. The panel is in the Sinclair Suite (room 3.128) of the Texas Student Union on Guadalupe. Call if you need more directions 512-552-4743.
Post-march Strategy Meeting: Immediately after the march on October 24, we plan to hold a networking and strategy meeting inside the capitol. Everyone is invited to attend the strategy session and help us plan how to move forward towards abolition in Texas. The strategy session will start about 30 minutes after the last speaker at the march.
Now is one of the most critical times ever to march against the death penalty.
We just learned from a state-funded report that Texas executed Todd Willingham for arson/murder even though the fire was not arson it was just a fire, so Texas executed an innocent person.