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Statesman: Protesters march to call for an end to executions

DEATH PENALTY

Protesters march to call for an end to executions

Recent remarks by Perry fuel anti-death penalty rally.

By Joshunda Sanders

Photos from Statesman Photographer Larry Kolvoord

Anti-death penalty protesters gathered at the Capitol on Saturday in part to voice their disapproval of Gov. Rick Perry’s remarks this month regarding Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young children on Dec. 23, 1991.

The 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty occurred in the midst of a renewed debate over capital punishment, largely spurred by Willingham’s case. Most recently, former Texas Gov. Mark White said the state should reconsider its use of capital punishment “so we don’t look up one day and determine that we, as the State of Texas, have executed someone who in fact was innocent.”

White’s comments came as Perry has been criticized for replacing four members of the Texas Forensics Commission and delaying consideration of a fire scientist’s report questioning the 2004 execution of Willingham. Perry has described Willingham as a “monster” and said he is certain of his guilt.

One of the lawyers who represented Willingham in his appeals disagreed.

“Todd Willingham was a person who deserved to be treated fairly, and he didn’t get that,” said Walter Reaves, Willingham’s appellate attorney. “No one could ever make the case that if we knew then what we know now that he would have been convicted, tried and executed.”

Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, said that the Willingham case “represents an opportunity for Texas to fix a broken criminal justice system.”

Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to mobilize support for a moratorium on state executions, said about 50 organizations were responsible for organizing Saturday’s march.

The event attracted hundreds of people, who carried signs with photographs of inmates currently on death row and posters bearing slogans such as “Stop All Executions.”

About a dozen protesters sat on the steps of the Capitol, holding white posters with lists of the hundreds of inmates who have been executed in Texas since 1982, when the state resumed executions.

Austinite Jeanette Popp, 60, came to the march with a different perspective.

On Oct. 24, 1988, Popp’s 20-year-old daughter, Nancy DePriest, was found dead with her hands bound behind her back at the North Austin Pizza Hut where she worked. Two men were wrongfully convicted of her death and served 12 years in prison. They were freed in 2001, after DNA evidence implicated another man.

The confessed killer, Achim Josef Marino, said that he had shot DePriest as part of a satanic sacrifice. Eventually, Popp lobbied for Marino to be spared the death penalty, which he was.

Despite the time that has passed, Popp said, the conversation on capital punishment has not changed.

“It’s the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s murder, and we’re still talking about murdering people with the murdering machine,” she said.

Larry Kolvoord

Several hundred protesters, many bearing placards and photographs, gathered on the south steps of the Capitol at the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. About 50 groups helped organize the rally, said Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network.

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