The Injustice of Death

A Speech by Tracie Lamourie, director
Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty

at the International Conference For Peace and Human Rights, May 5th, at the University of Alberta

Hi, my name is Tracy Lamourie and I am a Director and Co founder of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty. We formed in 1998 for a dual purpose - to educate and guard against a return to the death penalty in Canada, to fight for Canadians imprisoned abroad, and to add a strong voice to the international fight against the continued use of capital punishment in the US, our closest neighbor.

The people here may or may not need convincing that the American death penalty is heinous and should be abolished, which has already been done in the vast majority of countries around the world. The European Union has taken the initiative of preventing members states from retaining the death penalty, even countries such as South Africa and Russia, once considered oppressive regimes, have abolished the death penalty, yet the United States continues to embrace this barbaric practice to a large degree. With politicians, judges, district attorneys and others all using it as a stepping stone to political office, in order that they be considered "tough on crime."

Yet , most people labour under some serious misconceptions about the death penalty and how it is applied in the US. Even an American journalist I consulted had a preconception that the deathpenalty was arcane and rarely utilized...and that the typical scenario was that of the storyline of the Hollywood movie "True Crime", in which Clint Eastwood, as a reporter with a conscience, uncovers the "true facts" about the accused's case so that he is given a reprieve even after the process of lethal injection has begun. She told me that most Americans believe that death penalty inmates are typically given stays of execution from kind-hearted governors, and that most executions are thus never carried out. The "True Crime" is that, ever since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976, more than 3,600 people have been sentenced to death, which does not include the 600 plus who have been executed. Already, in the year 2,000, there have been over 30 executions, with the state of Texas contributing 12. Just in the rest of this month, eleven more executions are scheduled to take place in the USA, of these - 8 of them are expected to be carried out, while stays pending further appeal are likely in the others.

The rate and number of executions is dramatically increasing. 1999 can boast the most executions at any time since the early fifties, and 2000 is certain to exceed last years numbers. What most people fail to realize is that the death penalty has been reinstated in the US for nearly twenty five years now. The majority of death row prisoners are approaching the end of their appeals process; both those sentenced in the late seventies and early eighties, as well as those who have been sentenced since Bill Clinton signed into law the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in the mid nineties in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing tragedy. Before that, inmates sentenced to die could expect to spend anywhere from fifteen to twenty five years on death row, while they exhausted all of their appeals at the state and federal levels. Canadian Stan Faulder, who was executed in Texas after spending two decades on death row, was one of these prisoners, as is renowned author Mumia Abu Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania. Throughout the 80's and '90s various laws were passed at the state level to limit the time a prisoner has to file his next appeal before another date is set. Then with the passing of the federal law, they have severely curtailed the number of appeals and the length of time in which appeals can be filed. Thus, prisoners sentenced since 1995, can now expect to be executed within 5 or 6 years from the date of conviction. Since 1976, state after state has reintroduced the death penalty, and 38 of the states now have the death penalty on the books. As the number of executions is increasing, the potential exists that we will begin to see mass executions of dozens of prisoners on the same day in different states as execution dates begin to overlap. The combination of older prisoners exhausting their lengthy appeals process, and the new prisoners who are expected to be executed much more quickly, will very soon result in a bloodbath in the US 'justice' system, with the numbers increasing into the hundreds exponentially on an annual basis.

In a system where the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated, and the ethnic minorities dominate death rows across America, it is no joke that when a wealthy white male commits a crime, he is typically sentenced to serve time at a "country-club" prison where he can "practice his tennis serve." In a society where the rich are getting richer at an unprecedented pace, the poor are getting not just poorer but more ostracized and alienated from society.

Since 1973, over 87 inmates have been released from Death Row because their innocence has been proved. That means 87 people who would otherwise have been legally murdered. How many other people among the 3,600 plus are also innocent...but doomed to die?

Take the case of Jimmy Dennis. A young black man from the ghetto of Philadelphia, Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the shooting of a 17 year old girl in broad daylight. Although numerous eyewitness accounts described the shooter as being a tall, very dark-skinned Black man weighing around 200 lbs., and the light-complected Dennis was 5'4" and 125 lbs., the notoriously racist Philadelphia, PA police outdid themselves in a frenzy to find a shooter--and anyone would suffice. Finally, one intimidated young man from the ghetto, Charles Thompson, named Dennis--after being hand-cuffed, coerced and threatened for hours by five detectives with an incomprehensible agenda. Although Thompson has recanted twice, "facts" were never an issue in the Dennis case. Dennis' own attorney, a man whom he had seen only once before his trial, summoned up the spirit of the case when Dennis asked him about fingerprint evidence that could exonerate him. Shrugging his shoulders, the attorney smugly said, "Who cares?Its not your fingerprints, so why worry about it". As the prosecutor stated in his closing argument, in addressing the fact that Jimmy didn't even fit the description, "This is not a case about race, weight, or height, this is about the right that is right..." the right to take the subway and not be assaulted - the prosecutor essentially closed his argument saying they had to send a strong message to the community - not convict the right man.

Compare this scenario to that of the well-documented case of John and Patricia Ramsey. When their daughter JonBenet was found garrotted, beaten to death and sexually-assaulted in their basement, they both immediately "lawyered up" and even hired a public relations firm to represent them. While the police investigation into both of them as suspects persevered, the Ramseys took parties on yachts, gave barbeque dinners at their summer home, and even took a vacation to Spain. As Amos King, a Florida death row prisoner wrote us, "Its not necessarily those with the worse crimes on death row, but those with the worse lawyers."

Jimmy Dennis, who never had an iota of evidence against him, languishes on death row eating bologna sandwiches and taking a shower a week, enduring the humiliation of prison, knowing that his life will someday be snuffed out for a crime he had no participation in. Although three Supreme Court justices thought that Dennis should get a new trial, they were overruled.

The American legal system is set up so that a frequent scenario is that a poor and uneducated person who cannot afford high-priced legal "talent" pleads guilty even though he may be innocent, believing that copping a guilty plea will spare his life. A jury, however, will naturally think that if someone has pled guilty then he must be so, evidence to the contrary be damned...and the befuddled defendant ends up on Death Row. On the other hand, the prosecutor will say to the defendant, 'plead guilty and you'll get a life sentence. You fight this and we're asking for the death penalty. ' The defendant who maintains their innocence is then subject to the death penalty for failing to admit to something he did not do. As Jimmy Dennis said when he was offered a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, "An innocent man doesn't make deals," and took his chances with a jury. Dennis believed that the lack of facts against him and the re-canting of eyewitnesses would exonerate him...that logic and justice would prevail.

The Supreme Court in more than one state has ruled that "Evidence of actual innocence (such as DNA proof, new evidence of someone else committing the crime) can NOT be taken into consideration when one appeals a death penalty conviction, the court only addresses issues relating to the original trial. Thus, if you were falsely convicted, there are no grounds for a re-trial.

In one symbolic decision, Herrera vs. Collins, 506, U.S. 390, 427-428 (1993), it was ruled that "There is no basis in text, tradition or even in contemporary practice (as if that were enough) for finding in the Constitution a right to demand judicial consideration of newly-discovered innocence brought forward after conviction."

Yet suppose Fred Zain, a former DNA States Expert had testified at your original trial? He has been accused of falsifying over 100 DNA results for both police and prosecutors to match whatever the state wanted in both life and death-penalty cases. Dr. James Grigson, an ostensible "Psychiatric Expert Stae Witness" also testified in hundreds of cases on the accused's mental stability, advising the court whether or not he felt he would be prone to further violence--a legal predicate, since malicious intent must be proven in capital cases. In every single case in which he testified, he branded the defendant as a menace to society. He has subsequently been barred from most psychiatric boards for being incompetent. Who is the true meance to society?

In an episode of the award-winning network televison show "Law and Order", the crack legal advisers obviously had strong feelings about the fact that the lunatics are running the asylum. In one exceptionally well-written episode, veteran actor Steven Hill, playing District Attorney Adam Schiff, cynically tells his staff, "Haven't you heard? Justice Scalia has said that proof of innocence is not sufficient evidence to support a re-trial."

Perhaps the Bettie Lou Beets story personifies the "typical" death row inmate...since the number of female "dead women walking" is increasing exponentially.

Hearing-impaired since infancy after a severe bout of the Measles, Beets was first raped by her father at the age of five. Her mother and aunt attended to her afterwards, following in a decades-old family tradition of incest. Coming from the most extreme poverty in rural North carolina, she was forced to leave school at age 12 when her mother was hospitalized with mental problems. Married at 15, Beets didn't get hearing aids for 25 years, despite the fact that she was a Welfare recipient and was in the hands of "Social Services". Learning to hear sound but not words, she realized how vulnerable she had been while totally deaf. How it had contributed to her being raped, tortured, beaten and left for dead, held at gunpoint by her various husbands. And yet, she stoically plodded on, trying to raise her six children on the $250 a month "The Welfare" had given her. Before her execution, Beets wrote, "I can recall the times I was beaten if I answered and beaten if I didn't. It was the same outcome." After acquiring her hearing aids, she wrote, "I kept to myself a lot where I didn't have to hear any input so no one knew any different or that I didn't know what they were talking about. People sometimes say how quiet I was and I would just smile and say,'I'm listening.' This, so no one would tease me about not hearing or about my hearing aids after I got them."

And yet, when she finally fought back against her final abusive husband in self-defense, the "State" finally listened very seriouslyto her--they gave her a death sentence. The fact that she was deaf and couldn't even hear her own trial was deliberately kept a secret. Her own children and grand-children, who had witnessed her constant verbal, physical and sexual abuse supported her, as did battered women's groups across the USA. Still, this tragic but brave person, who was eloquent enough to quote Helen Keller in her final statement on behalf of all battered women, actually said that death would be preferable to the incessant strip-searches she endured on Death Row, Ever since her first rape at the age of five, she had had a phobia about nudity, and even kept her diapered infant children fully-clothed at all times.

Death as preferable to life with constant strip-searching?

One should judge a society not by the way it caters to its over-priveleged, but by the manner in which it treats its poorest, most vulnerable, members. The disabled, the disenfranchised, the elderly, the children, the Bettie Lou Beets.

Everyone who values the sanctity of all life, or who crusades for civil liberties, or human rights, those who fight against racism, against police and government abuses, for the poor... we call on you to join us in the same fight - against the ultimate injustice - the ultimate police and government abuse - the ultimate institutionalized racism...the ultimate devastation to those who are poor and who cannot seek assistance - the death penalty.

I would like to end my presentation today with the words of Jorge Cordova, a Texas death row prisoner who was executed in February of 1999. Jorge was the first death row prisoner that we had corresponded with, to be executed, shortly after we recieved his request for a burial fund so that he could be buried outside the prison walls. In an essay he wrote to be posted on his personal webpage on the internet - he addresses the public.

"Whoever is reading this message, whether you are Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative, a right or left winger, or simply an ambiguous proponent of the death penalty, on behalf of all the poor, befallen, downtrodden men, the main majority who are illiterate and cannot write to express their pain and sincere, heartfelt contrition, I beseech your support, mercy, compassion, love and understanding. For, I believe that, it'll be the people like you who will make the difference, who will slow down the fast pace of evil and eventually cause it to run out of steam, wither and die. Alone, you are the best soldier on the field; united, marching under the banner of reason, truth and logic, you become even better. "

To see Jorge Cordova's memorial website, along with the websites we maintain for over 250 other death row prisoners, visit our site at, and for details on the case of Jimmy Dennis, an innocent man on death row in Pennsylvania, visit his international justice for jimmy campaign page at which has case information in several languages and links to pages for Jimmy from Turkey to Singapore. Your help is needed!