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REPORT FROM ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER JUDY COLLINS FROM THE EJI "CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM IN AMERICA" PRESENTATION

REPORT FROM ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER JUDY COLLINS FROM THE EJI “CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM IN AMERICA” PRESENTATION


"Who could have imagined we'd ever see something like this in our lifetime," exclaimed intrepid abolitionist Murphy Davis outside the EJI bookstore, tapping Jim’s shoulder, “Good shirt!” The back of it proclaimed, ”The Death Penalty Is:  Arbitrary, Not a Deterrent, Racially & Economically Biased, More Costly than a Life Sentence, Does Nothing for Victims, Kills Innocent People, Sanctions Violence, Mocks Justice, A Human Rights Abuse—ABOLISH IT.”


With immense thanks to EJI which had given guest tickets to PHADP for the “Criminal Justice Reform in America” presentation, Jim and I were “shirt-witnessing” for abolition (I, with PHADP’s original “Execute Justice, Not People”). What an immense gift also to see Murphy and her husband Ed Loring who continue their life works of compassion and for justice, now in Baltimore after over 30 years as founders of Atlanta’s Open Door Community. Her joyous greeting—after yet another victory over almost fatal cancer—typified the spirit of that indeed amazing event where people from all over this country and even the world converged on Montgomery AL to examine at EJI’s Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial the deep roots from which torturous cries have pierced the skies over generations. As Atty. Steven Bright declared in the session we attended, “Criminal justice was the part of the system least affected by the civil rights movement. 80% of the death penalties has been in the southern states. When the South got bad press about lynching, it was moved into the courthouse.”


Ray Hinton’s testimony after having been a death row inmate for 30 years was a profound example of that. Having seized the lawn-mowing youth from his back yard, then handcuffing, and driving him to jail for a crime Ray knew nothing about, the cop turned to him, “I don’t care whether you’re innocent or not—your prosecutor will be white, your attorney white, like the judge and all the jury. You will be guilty.” Hinton’s victory with a 9-0 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that his original  lawyer had been “Constitutionally incapable” was achieved through Bryan Stevenson’s determined work.


And now that work is lifting up for people to recognize the truths of our torturous past so that finally we can begin the healing from a system that in many ways, “Sanctions Violence,” as the shirt proclaims. As many addressing violence in the U.S. proclaim, we have a critical “public health” problem.  Continuing the medical analysis: a boil has to be lanced before it can heal. And thus we must continue the painful work of probing the truths (when even now 95% of the prosecutors are white, 4% are black, only 1% are women of color) before we can begin essential healing and reconciliation.


But in that work we can recall that during the ’90s, there had been 315 death sentences in just one year. In 2017 there were 39, in 2016, 35. That is something to celebrate! 


And there are people like Bryan Stevenson, like Murphy and Ed, like PHADP’s executive director Esther Brown who during the EJI event was back in FL where many years ago she risked her life by being wired to get the proof determining innocence of and release for two black death row inmates. May 9 is her 85th birthday, and it will assuredly be another day when she, like multitudes of other Alabamains, particularly participants in the 2018 Poor Peoples Campaign, are tenaciously following Dr. King’s call: ““We are trying to remind the nation of the urgency of the moment. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to transform Alabama, the heart of Dixie, to a state with a heart for brotherhood and peace and good will. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."