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‘The death penalty? Shut it down!’

Published Oct 29, 2009 9:04 PM

Electricity was in the air Oct. 24 as hundreds of people filled the south steps of the Texas Capitol in Austin to shout loud and clear: “Todd Willingham was innocent!”

Anna Terrell, mother of Reginald Blanton,
with her son-in-law and son.
WW photo: Gloria Rubac

Gathering for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty, abolitionists from all over Texas, around the country, and a few from overseas turned out in record numbers to demand that Texas Gov. Rick Perry immediately stop all executions in Texas.

In recent months the national media has written extensively that there was no credible evidence of arson, and therefore the 2004 execution of Willingham was the execution of an innocent man.

Willingham’s mother sent a message to the march that read: “I sincerely appreciate the concern by everyone at today’s 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in your efforts to gain attention to the senseless execution of my son Todd and for his exoneration. I have received letters of support from some of the men on death row stating that Todd’s murder is the reason the appeals court is taking more time going over their cases and they are getting stays of execution. This won’t bring Todd back, but I take comfort in knowing that others may be freed because of him. Also thanks for making this Todd’s day.”

Liz Gilbert, a Houston teacher and playwright, met Willingham after she got his name on a bus trip to Philadelphia for a Millions for Mumia Rally in 1999. As she began to know Willingham and learn about his case, she decided to begin her own investigation. She went to Corsicana, Texas, where Willingham’s three young girls were killed in a fire in their home. She began to figure out that there was no evidence to prove arson and contacted a fire investigator and the Innocence Project in New York.

Their investigation has now catapulted Willingham’s execution into national news and prompted a cover-up by Gov. Rick Perry, who presided over the execution. “I am hoping to bring attention to the fact that if only one innocent person was executed, that’s enough,” said Gilbert at the rally. “In Todd’s case, Texas executed a person who did not commit a crime.”

After the opening speaker got the protesters chanting “Todd Willingham was innocent!” the crowd of around 500 people screamed when asked if they remembered other innocents who had been executed like Shaka Sankofa and Frances Newton.

There was great applause and a rousing welcome for three men who have been released from death row because they were innocent. The Journey of Hope sponsored Shujaa Graham, who was on death row at San Quentin. Curtis McCarty did 22 years on Oklahoma death row before getting out in 2007. Ron Cuney, sponsored by Witness to Innocence, was on New Mexico’s death row in the early 1970s and came within 90 days of execution.

‘Save Reginald Blanton!’

Silence swept the crowd as Anna Terrell, the mother of Reginald Blanton, an innocent man set for execution in just three days, bared her heart and soul to all who could hear her voice.

With her voice and hands trembling with fear of the impending execution, Terrell said, “It is kind of hard to speak because of the pain that I feel—it is my son, my life, that they want to kill on Tuesday. When you take away a life and then later you find out he was innocent—how are you going to bring my baby back to me? How are you going to bring him back? You’re punishing his whole family. You’ve already killed his father. His father and his uncles have fought in the military for freedom, but what kind of freedom do they give my son?

“I feel so much anger. I can’t begin to tell you the life I am living, awaiting my son’s death. It is true that if you have deep pockets, you can buy justice. My son has never stopped writing and screaming that he is innocent. They let me visit him for the first time in a year yesterday, and while we were talking, they told us the board denied a stay, refused to stop the killing. I haven’t held my son for 10 years, and now they want to kill him, and he is innocent.”

As the crowd fought back tears, they clapped their support and began an impromptu chant of “Save Reginald Blanton!” Terrell gained strength and loudly proclaimed, “Rick Perry, you are sitting in your ivory tower, but you are not going to get away with this. You are going to pay for your wrongs. You are evil and you have no right. Anyone who was selected for anything by George Bush—you know where Bush has gotten us. Those people all sleep together, but we can kick them out. We are dealing with no-good, low-down suckers, and we are going to get rid of them. This is a new era and change is coming. We’re not going to stand for this anymore. We’re going to bring this killing to an end.”

Moving testimony of innocence

Families of many men claiming innocence also spoke. Sandra Reed has been publicly fighting for her son Rodney Reed for over 10 years. Regina Guidry told the crowd that her spouse Howard was innocent and still fighting for his life. Supporters and family of Clint Young also spoke about his case.

Connie Wright spoke almost a year after her spouse, Greg, was put to death despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. She moved the crowd when she said she was willing to keep on fighting against the death penalty despite her loss. Former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney, who stood outside the death house to protest Wright’s execution last November, sent a message of solidarity to Connie’s family and to the march.

Delia Perez-Meyer spoke for her brother Louis Castro Perez, who has strong innocence claims, and is affectionately called “Big Lou” by his friends on the row. Perez-Meyers is on the Austin Human Rights Commission, which has passed a resolution calling for a halt to executions in the city of Austin. She then asked all death-row families to come to the front, and dozens and dozens of protesters surged to the top steps of the Capitol with signs and banners for their loved ones.

A number of families spoke for their loved ones who were convicted under Texas’ law of parties, which condemns people to death row even if they allegedly were only accessories to a capital crime. Terri Been spoke for her brother, Jeff Wood, who did not kill anyone and was not even in the store where a person was murdered. Crystal Halprin spoke for her spouse, Randy, as did Marisol Ramirez about her spouse, Juan. Sylvia Garza came from the Rio Grande Valley to stand up for her son, Robert. She and Robert’s sister distributed fliers about his case. Lydia Garza, also from the Valley, spoke about her son, Humberto.

A bus took activists from the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement in Houston to Austin. From Jazzlyn Jefferson, 7, to Joanne Broussard, 74, the activists left the SHAPE Community Center with signs on the bus and coolers loaded with water and soda. Broussard’s son, Windell, was executed in 2002. Jefferson’s mom and grandmother were also on the bus; all three have been protesting the death penalty for years. An older Palestinian activist, Hasan, made the trip, as did Ray Hill, host of Pacifica Radio’s The Prison Show broadcast in Houston. Several death row family members were on the bus as well.

“We hope that we will not be back for the 11th Annual March, but we will be here until the death penalty is totally shut down,” said Laura Brady of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, who co-chaired the rally with Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network.

Editor’s note: Reginald Blanton was legally murdered by the state of Texas on Oct. 27.