Death row exonerees, survivors, made the day!

Austin, Texas

“Energizing!” “Empowering!” “Sad!” “Inspiring!” These were just some of the reactions to the 24th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty held at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, Nov. 11. The annual marches and rallies began in 2000 when George W. Bush was governor of Texas. They have continued every year since, with most taking place in Austin, except for three held in Houston.

Group photo of speakers and organizers at rally outside the State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas on Nov. 11, 2023.

Abolitionists from all corners of the state and many families of those on death row participated.

Clinton Young, who served 20 years on Texas death row in solitary, opened the rally. Young’s conviction was overturned in September 2021, but he was sent back to his original county court to be retried or released. In an unusual development,  Young was released on bond in January 2022 and now awaits his new trial in freedom. He told the crowd of his ordeal of being only 19 years old, being innocent, and now being out on bond for over a year. He stressed that he is happy to be speaking out in person about the injustices of the death penalty.

Three men with Witness To Innocence who lived years on death row and were later exonerated were the special invitees of the day. Each of their stories had the crowd at the Capitol mesmerized.

Kwame Ajamu was a teenager in Cleveland when he was wrongfully convicted in 1975 due to false eyewitness testimony and police misconduct. He spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and waited another 11 years to win an exoneration. Ajamu is now the chair of the board for WTI.

Gary Drinkard spent close to six years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. After being exonerated in 2001, he has attended college, worked as a laborer and is a Peer Specialist for Witness to Innocence, supporting exonerated death row survivors.

Ron Keine was on death row in New Mexico due to prosecutorial and police misconduct, and false testimony. He was nine days away from execution when it was finally discovered that a cop had committed the murder for which Keine was framed.

Pam Perillo’s words stunned rally participants as she explained she was the only woman on Texas death row when she arrived in 1980. Knowing nothing about the system, she thought she would be executed the next day. During her 20 years on the row she faced two execution dates until her sentence was commuted in 2000. It took another 19 years before she was finally paroled. “Salvation on Death Row, The Pamela Perillo Story,” was published in 2017 and details her life on death row.

Deaths by excruciating heat

No one knows for sure how many of the 120,000 plus incarcerated in Texas died during the excruciating heat this summer. Estimates were almost one a day, but the Texas prison system claims no one did. Dr. Amite Dominick, director of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, spoke of the innumerable atrocities that go without punishment in Texas prisons every day.  She called for the elimination of extreme heat, solitary confinement and executions.

Family members speak out

Three activists with family members facing death spoke about their situations. Terry Been’s brother, Jeff Wood, was convicted under Texas’ Law Of Parties. Under this draconian law, people who did not kill or weren’t even at the scene of a crime can be sentenced to die as Wood was.

Yancy Balderas spoke so emotionally about the case of her spouse, Juan Balderas, that many were moved to tears. Exoneree Gary Drinkard, who had been on death row, told this reporter he couldn’t stop from crying listening to Balderas talk about Juan. “I’ve been off death row for years, but Juan’s issues just brought it all back and I found myself crying listening to Yancy. It’s just so unfair,” Drinkard said.

Delia Perez-Meyer thanked everyone for organizing the event and for supporting her brother Louis Castro Perez, whose case has been taken up by The Innocence Project. She then introduced the Kids Against the Death Penalty, KADP, two of whom did a tag-team presentation about their uncle Jeff Wood and how they have been working to free him since they were little. KADP then led the march around the Capitol area, chanting, “One two three four, it’s racist, cruel and anti-poor! Five six seven eight, stop the killing by the state.”

Rally organizers included Austin Abolitionists, the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, KADP, the Texas Moratorium Network, and the families of Jeff Wood, Juan Balderas and Louis Castro Perez. Attendees included the Austin Quakers and many hundreds of people passing by on their way to the Capitol or the Texas Book Fair.

David Renteria, an Indigenous man from the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo — the oldest community and oldest running government in the State of Texas — was sentenced to death row in 2001, and is the next incarcerated person scheduled for execution in Texas. The execution is scheduled for Nov. 16 in Huntsville.

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