When Sabrina Butler’s baby stopped breathing in 1989 she tried administering CPR but the baby died shortly after they arrived at the hospital. Police accused her of beating her baby. After aggressive interrogation the 17-year old signed a paper given to her by a hostile detective. Sent to a county jail she languished for a year awaiting trial without an attorney. During her trial, “the judge overruled everything my attorney said.” The jury convicted her of capital murder. Sentenced to die in 1990, the death sentence was overturned in 1992. But Sabrina languished in jail for three more years before a second trial proved her baby had died of a genetic kidney disorder. Finally, in 1995, Mississippi’s only female inmate on death row was exonerated.
In 2009, Sabrina settled her case. Now she works with Witness to Innocence, “the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.” She travels widely advocating against the death penalty. “It’s my calling,” says the spiritually motivated mother of three.
Sabrina’s story is not as unusual as it seems. According to the Bluhm Legal Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law, “Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones. As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.”
Nor are exonerees the only ones advocating the end of the death penalty. Take Sister Camille D’Arienzo, an activist with the Sisters of Mercy in Queens, NY. She became involved with the issue in 1993 when George Pataki was promising to restore the death penalty while running for governor of New York. Gathering a group of friends together to ask what they could do, they decided to use the Declaration of Life created by a former Mary Knoll priest to espouse their opposition to taking life “because it violates Christian principles.” The Declaration was sent to then-governor Mario Cuomo who immediately signed it. Thus began the work of a now 81-year old nun, who ministers to prisoners on death row.
Then there’s Bonita Spikes, whose husband was killed in a convenience store robbery in Maryland twenty years ago. Since then she has “reached out to other families who’ve suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one to murder.” Focusing on African American communities in Baltimore she knows people “who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss.” Still, she says, for most of them, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer “isn’t even a remote thought.”
Joyce House worked equally hard to get her son Paul released from Tennessee’s death row. Wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1986, he languished in prison, ill with an untreated neurological disorder, until he asked Joyce if she’d ever heard of DNA. As a result of her research a semen specimen proved that he had not raped the victim. They still tried to convict him of murder. The media picked up the story highlighting the abuse Paul suffered by a corrupt legal system. In 2009 all charges were dropped, although he was placed under house arrest for a year so that he would be ineligible for financial reparations.
Delia Meyer has not yet succeeded in exonerating her brother, on death row in Texas for sixteen years. Charged with a triple homicide he did not commit, Delia says, “We’ve had a hard time getting out from under it,” in part because evidence was hidden or withheld. Now the Innocence Project is working on the case.
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These women work closely with organizations advocating an end to the death penalty. Sabrina Butler recently joined forces with the Kentucky ACLU where bi-partisan legislation is gaining traction. In Tennessee, where ten executions are scheduled between now and 2016, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says since the legislature brought back the electric chair, more people are discussing death penalty failures.
Why are so many women in the forefront of the movement? “Because for the longest time women have been the standard bearers for our culture,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s because we have compassion and probably a much better ability for forgiveness,” adds Alicia Koutsouliereis, a volunteer with Amnesty International USA.
Women are clearly having an impact. Coupled with news of botched executions, pharmaceutical companies refusing to provide drugs, and increasing numbers of exonerees, there is growing awareness of the fatal flaws in the criminal justice system, and the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing. During oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this year, a California federal judge declared that state’s death penalty system had violated a constitutional amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He called California’s system “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”
Women working to end the death penalty have known this for years. Their fight to end the travesty continues.