Texas march spotlights executions

November 2, 2009

Laura Brady reports on Texas's Tenth Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty--and the botched cases that are leading more people to question the death penalty.

NEARLY 500 people rallied against the death penalty in Texas as the issue of wrongful convictions and state killing of innocent people has come center stage.

Days after the march, anti-death penalty activists in the state lost one of their strongest fighters: Reginald Blanton. Blanton was executed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry on October 27, despite compelling evidence that he was innocent--including coerced testimony from witnesses and a shoeprint that did not match his.

Blanton's execution put Perry on the spot as the scandal around the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham continued to grow. Willingham, several experts have come forward to say, was innocent of the crime he was convicted of--a supposed arson that killed his three small children in 1991. Despite an arson report that exonerated Willingham before his execution in 2004, the governor's office never acknowledged it, allowing Willingham to go to his death.

Now, with overwhelming evidence mounting that Willingham is innocent, Perry took the remarkable step of firing several members of a Texas state panel in late September, just days before it was set to hear about the flaws in the scientific evidence and testimony that secured Willingham's conviction.

Hundreds of protesters joined in Austin's 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty
Hundreds of protesters joined in Austin's 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty (Matt Beamesderfer | SW)

If more evidence of the corruption and incompetence of the Texas justice system was needed, on October 28, prosecutors finally dismissed all charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen--convicted in the 1991 killings of four teenagers at an Austin yogurt shop. Springsteen was sent to death row in 2001, while Scott was sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors were forced to drop the charges after DNA tests failed to match the men to the crime scene--and instead showed the presence of another man.

SUCH LIFE-shattering errors were part of what prompted the demonstrators to turn out to the Tenth Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin on October 24.

Protesters came together to demand a halt to the Texas killing machine, remember Cameron Todd Willingham, and fight for the life of Reginald Blanton. They rallied at the Texas State Capitol building and marched in the streets through downtown Austin, with a vibrant presence of banners, placards and photographs of executed loved ones. Chants for abolition rose in the air.

Family members of those on death row and exonerated prisoners led the march, as well as members of Kids Against the Death Penalty. Speakers at the rally portion included Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine and Curtis McCarty, who served more than 20 years combined on death row before being fully exonerated and released.

As Elizabeth Gilbert addressed the crowd, she spoke to a sea of listeners holding photos of the face of Cameron Todd Willingham. Gilbert was the pen pal of Willingham, and first pushed for his claims of innocence to be recognized, helping his family find a fire expert to investigate his case.

Since then, in three independent reviews over the last five years, seven of the nation's foremost arson experts have found that the forensic analysis that led to Todd Willingham's conviction and execution was completely wrong--that there was no scientific basis to find that the fire was anything more than a tragic accident. All of the non-scientific evidence against Willingham has also been discredited.

The most moving of all testimonials came from Anna Terrell, the mother of Reginald Blanton, who pleaded for the life of her child. "This is my son, my life, my blessing and I have strange people that do not even know my son who want to kill him," she told the crowd.

In a fitting tribute to her son's work behind bars, Anna spoke of the deplorable living conditions at the Polunsky Unit, Texas' death house. As a founding member of the DRIVE organization, a group of prisoners who nonviolently struggle against the abusive conditions of Texas death row, Reginald was a fighter until the end.

That Tuesday, in the midst of a last stand of about 60 protesters in Austin, Anna received word that the state of Texas had in fact murdered her son. With Perry away from the state in New York, Reginald refused to walk to his own execution in Texas.

The day after Reginald's execution, all charges against Yogurt Shop defendants Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen were dropped. It was a bittersweet victory as news reached mournful activists that the 10-year nightmare and wrongful incarceration of two innocent men had ended. Michael and Rob are now free men.

With over 50 organizations sponsoring and the second-largest turnout since its inception, the Tenth Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty was a success. We celebrate our victory in the Yogurt Shop case. We remember Reginald, and we prepare to push the movement forward. As Reginald himself proclaimed:

I need people to use my plight as a means to further build the grassroots movement to abolish the death penalty. I need people...to be willing to take to the streets; to be my voice and the voice for the voiceless; to distribute literature on my plight everywhere they go...This is the only way I believe we can level this imbalanced scale of so-called justice.

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