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Giving voice to the voiceless
Stop the racist death penalty

October 14, 2005 | Page 5

FORMER DEATH row prisoners, family members of those still on death row and activists against the death penalty are speaking out across the U.S. this month.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty's (CEDP) "Voices from Death Row" national speaking tour aims to "bring into the open the voices of people who have lived through the pain, the humiliation, the racism and injustice of this system," said CEDP National Director Marlene Martin.

Next stops on the tour

Go to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site for information on these upcoming meetings.

October 10 | Moraga, Calif.
St. Mary's College of California

October 11 | Berkeley, Calif.
University of California-Berkeley

October 11 | San Francisco
San Francisco State University

October 12 | New York City
New York University Law School

October 13 | Washington, D.C.
All Souls Church, 16th and Harvard

October 20 | Toledo, Ohio
University of Toledo

October 26 | Austin, Texas
University of Texas

October 29 | Los Angeles
Location tba

November 3 | Washington, D.C.
Georgetown University


The tour got started last week in Chicago with meetings at two college campuses, plus a featured event at University Church in Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side, where the room was filled to overflowing with close to 200 people. Two days later, New York's City College campus played host to a stop on the tour that drew 50 people.

Among the featured speakers on the "Voices from Death Row" tour are several men who know the hell of the death penalty from the inside--former death row prisoners Shujaa Graham, Lawrence Hayes, Madison Hobley, Billy Moore and Darby Tillis.

At each stop, they will be joined by family members of those on death row, who have been thrust into the movement to right this injustice. Well-known attorneys and death penalty experts--such as Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Louisiana capital defense attorney Billy Sothern--are also speaking out.

"All the people have to do is speak up," said Billy Moore, who admitted he was guilty of the crime that sent him to Georgia's death row, but was freed because the victim's family advocated for his release. "The people have the right to change the Constitution. It's not set in stone. We need to get together and demand change. It's up to us."

MONIQUE MATTHEWS is one of the featured speakers on the Campaign's "Voices from Death Row" tour.

Monique is the sister of Ryan Matthews, who was exonerated and freed from death row last year, after spending seven years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Monique and Ryan's mother Pauline spoke out tirelessly in the struggle to win justice for Ryan, and have continued the struggle against capital punishment since his release.

As Monique had told the crowd at each tour stop, her family faces a new struggle today. They evacuated New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina and now face an uncertain future, uprooted from their lifelong homes. Here, we print excerpts from Monique's speech at the first stop on the "Voices from Death Row" tour, at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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IN 1997, I was living in Jefferson Parish, in Louisiana. It's David Duke country, and it's known for its obscene racism and frequent lynchings. Mr. Duke is the former grand wizard of the KKK, and he came awfully close to winning the governor's election in the 1990s.

This town is also where my brother Ryan was tried and convicted for first-degree murder. The sheriff has been sheriff for 20 years or more. In the 1980s, he issued a statement that if any of his deputies were to see a Black man walking the streets of a white neighborhood, [the Black man] should be arrested and taken in for questioning.

In 1997, my brother was arrested for a murder that took place during an armed robbery attempt. There were two eyewitnesses who said Ryan was the assailant, but the DNA evidence didn't match--something they knew at trial. Neither Ryan nor his codefendant Travis could have been the person who left that evidence.

There was no physical evidence presented at his trial--just two white people who said he did it. One of those witnesses also had a criminal record. On the night of the murder, she said that on a scale of one to 10, she gave Ryan a five about how sure she was that he did it. Her memory got better after two years, and she said he was a 10 at trial. It was her statement and the lack of competent representation that led to my brother's conviction in 1999.

He was a couple weeks into his 17th year when he was picked up, and he was 19 when he was sent to Louisiana's death row--one of the youngest men there.

Ryan's trial attorney had never tried a capital case. Sometimes, during the court proceedings, he would appear dumfounded, so I started sending him questions on a sticky pad--telling him to ask this and ask that. And this man, who actually graduated from law school, took those questions and used them. Our first contact with him was actually the morning of trial.

We would meet with the death penalty phase attorney before that--it was okay to discuss life and death, but it wasn't okay to discuss guilt or innocence. She would also visit Ryan in his prison cell and plead with him to take the plea bargain, because these people were going to kill him. She said, "Ryan, you know life does beat death." And this 17-year-old child would turn to her and say, "Well, if life beats death, then you switch places with me, and you do the time for a crime you didn't commit."

She would also describe to him--this 17-year-old--how the lethal injection would be administered. How long it would take for his heart to stop pumping, what chemicals would be used, at which times.

There were also two bad cops. The arresting officer was tried and convicted for being involved in a drug and prostitution ring, conveniently after Ryan was well tucked away into the state system.

His trial reeked with the stench of racism. There were 11 whites and one Black on Ryan's jury. The judge sent the jury back to deliberate several times, because they had to have a unanimous vote, or the jury would be hung. They were in deliberations until about 5 a.m.

Given the lack of evidence alone, I just knew that Ryan would be found innocent. Boy, was I wrong. My brother served seven years on Louisiana's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Twenty-three hours a day in his cell, and no physical contact. During the two visits we had with him per month, he was shackled and handcuffed. Imagine being innocent and being treated so unfairly, and simply being tortured.

Ryan was exonerated this past year, but he's still tattooed. He will always be known as the murderer who got off on a technicality. There are so many others like Ryan, and I consider him to be one of the lucky ones.

We now have a new challenge ahead. On August 28, my family evacuated the city of New Orleans in order to run from Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, I didn't have the Superdome experience. But what I have faced has not been a great one.

During the aftermath, people's humanity is what kept our family going. People overhearing conversations at a restaurant while we were eating, and coming over and giving up $20, or somebody else picking up the tab. A waitress who doesn't make much money paying for our meal one day. Someone calling the hotel and using their debit card to pay for a couple days. It's the small acts of kindness from individuals after simply overhearing our conversations.

We had our issues with FEMA, too. I think everybody did. Initially, FEMA issued $2,300 for hurricane victims. That's a hell of a price to place on how much people lost--homes, memories, vehicles, jobs. I don't know how they came up with it.

The people of New Orleans have been forced to set aside their dignity and pride, begging for assistance from federal and local governments. We are literally begging for mercy from our country to receive the simplest necessities.

To me, the situation in New Orleans is humiliating as an American. The world may not know Ryan Matthews, but everyone is aware of the hungry, grief-stricken, stranded people who were caught in the city of New Orleans for a week.

America does have issues--issues that will not be resolved overnight, and that may take generations of persistent activism to change. Politicians were so wrapped up in their own red tape that they neglected to acknowledge the suffering of the citizens of New Orleans. If this happened in America, it can happen anywhere.

Our leaders continue to finger-point instead of throwing caution to the wind and taking care of their business. There's only one finger to point, and that's in the direction of the federal government. What are the priorities of this country? Do they lie with fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq?

We have enough business of our own. I'm insulted to hear our commander-in-chief say publicly that he can fight the "war on terror" while assisting the Gulf Coast residents. We have all this money to spend on the war, but we drag our feet to assist our citizens in crisis.

It's time for the government to pay up. A city is under water, and basically to the point of no return.

The careless nature and lackadaisical attitudes displayed by some volunteers and the politicians were offensive and uninvited. Employers are threatening people with termination because they refuse to return to a city that's still under water in parts.

There were people left in nursing homes because it was determined that they wouldn't live through the rescue mission. So they died in those nursing homes. Rescue teams on boats threw people back into the water because they didn't think they would make the trip. They threw them back like perch--that's what we call them in New Orleans, the really small fish that you just throw back in, like garbage.

And with all of this going on, Barbara Bush had the nerve to assassinate the character of the city of New Orleans by making the statement that it would be "scary" to have all those New Orleansians living in the state of Texas.

Well, I'm sure living in Texas will be scary for the evacuees, too--knowing that there's a possibility of being charged, prosecuted and eventually executed, like Frances Newton. That should be at the top of the list of their fears.

I hope everyone here has received their wake-up call today, because, damn it, I've received mine, and I've had enough.

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