"We call it capital punishment, rather than what it is. State killing. Legal homicide."

The first leg of the VHAC tour is done. I’m at home relaxing, thinking more about family, laundry, and my grad school tasks than about work. But here are a few final thoughts after this first week.

Day VI of the tour took the Mystery Machine (that would be our rented mini van with the bad windshield wiper, which is never a good thing when traveling through western PA at this time of year) to Pittsburgh. We absorbed a full day in my college town (Pitt, 1995) with a press conference, a visit to a local Catholic high school, and an event with the Pitt chapter of the ACLU.

Day VI was capped by the annual meeting of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of ACLU-PA. More than 150 civil libertarians came out to hear Harold’s story and to hear keynote speaker Mike Farrell, actor and activist and president of Death Penalty Focus, California’s abolition group. Mike told us:

I am not a person who hates. But I have come to hate the death system. I hate what it is. I hate what it does. I hate the way it corrupts those who touch it…

We call it capital punishment rather than what it is. State killing. Legal homicide…

By supporting state killing, we are stooping to the level of the least among us at their worst moments.

Mike connected America’s continued use of the death penalty with torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and noted the death penalty’s “ruinous impact on our standards as a society,” calling America’s use of torture “the poisonous legacy of mindless authoritarians.”

As he closed, Mike gave us our charge:

We have work to do, ladies and gentlemen. It is good work. It is necessary work. Some say it is holy work. I believe it is all of those things.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Toonces the cancerous cat

Well, the Heritage Foundation’s fearmongering “countdown clock” is still ticking, now up to 40 days, 9 hours, 41 minutes and 32 seconds…no wait, 46 seconds…marking the time that has passed since Congress first stood up to President Bush’s demands that blanket immunity be granted to telecom companies as part of legislation over warrantless wiretapping – and the time that has passed since, the Heritage Foundation wants you to believe, we are now utterly unprotected from the grave, grave danger of terrorist attacks.

But there is something that is often lost in the argument against unchecked surveillance and the Bush Administration’s desire to grant total amnesty to telecom company’s all-too-willing eagerness (Excuse me, alleged eagerness.) to comply with its demands – the law and rights to privacy all beside the point.

Isn’t there something, some way-cool technology perhaps, that would allow our government to ferret out terrorists without granting it complete unchecked access to its citizens’ private thoughts and conversations?

Of course, while the Bush Administration and its Fox News minions would have you believe the only way to protect ourselves from terrorism is the complete abdication of our constitutional rights to privacy, here’s a Seattle Times column that discusses the fact that maybe our government already has less random and more efficient ways at protecting our borders from terrorist attack.

In a meeting with Washington state residents recently, border agent Joe Giuliano described some of that technology.

According to Danny Westneat’s column:

“Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour,” Giuliano told the crowd. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car].”

The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot (near the Bow-Edison exit, 18 miles south of Bellingham). The agent questioned the driver, then did a cursory search of the car, Giuliano said.

Did he find a nuke?

“Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier,” Giuliano said.

Keith Olbermann also discusses the story in yesterday’s segment of “Worst Person in the World,” a dubious honor he awards to Michael Chertoff, for the secretary of Homeland Security’s staunch support of unchecked snooping.

Interestingly, Giuliano, a federal agent for 35 years, is queasy about the technology’s reach. He also said he opposes parts of the Patriot Act, namely the section that expands warrantless searches.

“I think we can do this without tossing out our checks and balances,” he said.

Lauri in York

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50 cups of coffee and you know it’s on

If I said that the VHAC tour is being run on coffee, I’d probably be exaggerating…but only slightly. The only reason it would be an exaggeration is because we’ve barely had time to stop for coffee. Otherwise, we would.

On Day V today, the Mystery Machine pulled in to Edinboro for a stop at Edinboro University, Meadville to visit Allegheny College, and Erie for a community event. Erie and northwest PA are very important to the campaign for a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. With a heavy Catholic population, Erie is fertile ground for building the grass-roots movement. There are also legislators of interest in the region.

Without fail, at every event we’ve held, someone asks if Harold Wilson received compensation or restitution after his 16+ years on PA’s death row after his wrongful conviction. Harold has received nothing. Well, that’s not true. He received 65 cents and a bus token and was escorted out the back door of Philadelphia County jail after his acquittal at retrial in November, 2005.

22 states have some form of compensation for exonerated prisoners, but Pennsylvania is not one of them. The Innocence Project considers this a “priority issue.”

The Innocence Project is intimately familiar with the tremendous pain and challenges exonerated people encounter after release, and has developed a series of recommendations for states to compensate the wrongly convicted.

The moral and legal obligation to provide compensation
With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after an innocent person is exonerated. States have a responsibility to restore innocent people’s lives to the best of their abilities.

The Innocence Project recommends that all states:

* Compensate exonerated people immediately after release with a fixed sum or a range of recovery for each year of wrongful incarceration. Congress and President Bush have recommended that this amount be set at $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.
* Provide immediate re-entry funds and access to job training, educational, health and legal services after an innocent person’s release.

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 714 would provide a mechanism for compensating exonerated prisoners. It is not a perfect bill. It would require the exoneree to file a claim in common pleas court, which is not recommended by The Innocence Project. But SB 714 is a step in the right direction. It has eight co-sponsors, including the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This is fresh in my mind not only because we keep getting that question but also because Harold spent most of the trip tonight from Erie to Pittsburgh telling me about the hardships exonerees face. Much of it was not news, but it is good to have that reminder.

Lorry Post of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation re-joined the tour today and will be with us for a big day on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Andy in Harrisburg in Pittsburgh

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“America’s Toughest Sheriff” Meets His Match – U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Allows Prisoners the Right to Choose Abortion

     Prisoners in the United States prison system must relinquish certain rights as they enter jail. Yet I fear any country that will force a prisoner to give up not just personal freedoms but basic human rights. Such may be the case in many U.S. prisons, both here and on foreign soil, but one prison found itself in the spotlight for its denial of human rights to one of its prisoners.

     The ACLU recently championed the case of an Arizona inmate seeking a first-trimester abortion. Learning she was pregnant just before entering prison, Jane Doe asked the prosecutor to allow her to begin her sentence after obtaining an abortion. Her request was denied. Unfortunately, she was entering a prison in which it was unwritten law that no inmate seeking an abortion would be granted one. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in charge of Maricopa County Jail, has “maintained the policy throughout his tenure, consistent with his well-publicized stance against abortion and his ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ persona.” Arpaio himself has admitted that under this policy, “The gal may have the baby by the time it gets through the court system.”

     With the help of the ACLU, Jane Doe challenged this unwritten policy. The court ruled in her favor, granting inmates the right to obtain an abortion despite being in the prison system. The sheriff has repeatedly appealed the decision. This week the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the latest challenge and by doing so (or not doing so) affirmed the right of a prisoner to obtain an abortion. In its highly readable brief, the ACLU enumerates the many injustices faced by this prisoner including the fact that when the guards learned she was pregnant and wanted an abortion, she was transferred to a part of the prison with limited phone access.

     The fact that the United States Supreme Court has decided to protect an inmate’s rights is a significant one, but prisoner’s rights are still in danger in the United States every day. The ACLU has represented many prisoners being treated unjustly, and has long championed a woman’s right to have — or not have — a child in prison. This fact sheet speaks specifically to the ACLU’s championing of reproductive rights in prison. If you know of someone in prison who is being denied abortion care or prenatal care, you or the inmate can either contact the nearest ACLU or call the national Reproductive Freedom Project collect 212-549-2633 (Monday-Friday 9:30 am to 5 pm eastern time).

Marshall, Duvall Project

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No sleep til Clarion

At midnight, we rolled into Clarion. Day IV of the VHAC tour took us to Penn State. Day V will take us to Edinboro and then Erie, which is a 200 mile trip from State College, so rather than biting off all 200 miles late at night or early in the morning, we stopped halfway, which is the sleepy college town of Clarion.

Because of the late hour, I will be brief. My bed here at the Holiday Inn is looking nice. But Harold Wilson, Walter Everett, Ashlee Shelton of PADP, and I were accompanied today by Penn State professor Dr. Frank Baumgartner. Dr. Baumgartner met us for lunch, attended an afternoon event with PSU’s Amnesty International chapter, hosted dinner for us, participated in an evening event that also involved Harold, Walt, and I and was part of a series of discussions on “Reframing Public Policy Discussions,” and, of course, made time for us to make a stop at the famous Creamery.

Dr. Baumgartner and several of his PSU colleagues conducted a multi-year project examining message framing in the anti-death penalty movement. They did this via a two-prong effort. First, they did a content analysis of The New York Times‘ coverage of the death penalty dating back to the 1960s. Second, they conducted experiments to see how people react to different arguments about capital punishment.

The analysis of the Times found that coverage of the death penalty has changed dramatically in the last four decades. Until the 1990s, most of the coverage was considered pro-death penalty. But beginning in the late 1990s, the tone of the coverage of the issue shifted to go deeper into problems with the operation of capital punishment.

In the experimental phase of the work, undergraduate students were given moral arguments for and against the death penalty. These arguments did little to move the previously held beliefs of the participants. Then they were given faux news articles about an innocent person on death row. This moved the participants’ positions considerably, including those who started the experiment in support of capital punishment.

The work of Dr. Baumgartner and his colleagues resulted in the release of the book The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence, which was released earlier this year.

Today was Walt Everett’s last day with us for this week. He’s heading to Susquehanna University for their symposium Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished, a two day symposium that will feature Sr. Helen Prejean, among others. Tomorrow Lorry Post of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation will join us again for two days in Erie and Pittsburgh.

Andy in Harrisburg in Clarion

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Planting seeds, one heart at a time

Day III of the VHAC tour featured three stops in Harrisburg and the first appearance by the Rev. Walter Everett of Murder Victims’ Families of Human Rights. It’s hard to give Walt’s story justice in print, but I’ll try.

Walt’s 24-year-old son, Scott, was killed by a man who was high on drugs in 1987. As one might expect, Walt was devastated. And filled with rage. He was angry at the “faceless person” who killed his son. He was angry at the police whom he felt weren’t giving the case enough attention. He was angry at the state’s attorney who struck a plea bargain for involuntary manslaughter with a ten year sentence for the perpetrator.

But when Walt went to victims’ families support groups, he saw people who were still angry 15, 20 years after the fact. He decided he didn’t want to live with rage for the rest of his life.

And his life changed when Mike Carlucci, the man who killed Scott Everett, spoke in court. “I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett,” Carlucci said the day he accepted his plea bargain. “I wish I could bring him back. Obviously, I can’t.

“These must sound like empty words to the Everetts, but I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”

(A great video on Walt and Mike is available here.)

On the one year anniversary of Scott’s death, Walt wrote a letter to Mike and forgave him. Sometime after that, he visited Mike in prison. And after just three years in prison, Mike applied for early release. And Walt spoke at his parole hearing.

“Forgiveness has less to do with how you feel about the person than with how you want to feel yourself, to begin to heal,” Walt says.

We stopped today in Harrisburg for three events. Our crowds were more intimate, but as I told the audience at Penn State Harrisburg, our friends in New Jersey told me that many of their events were with “eight people in the basement of Sisters of the Sacred Rosary.” And they abolished the death penalty by doing that. We need each and every person we can find to move forward.

Death row exoneree Harold Wilson was with us today and will be for the rest of the week. I will have some photos to share soon. At the moment, I have the camera and Ashlee from PADP has the USB cord. But we’ll have some photos up in the next few days. For now, I need rest.

Andy in Harrisburg

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The Heavy

“At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia.”
–Bruce Springsteen

It’s been a long time since I spent Good Friday in a church. But I can’t think of a better place to have spent Good Friday this year than Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. Day II of the Voices of Hope Agents of Change Tour (henceforth, VHAC) took us to BSM.

This unique church is just a few years old, and BSM has made a commitment to social justice. The Reverend Bill Golderer explained at the start of our event that the community is committed to a number of issues, including HIV/AIDS awareness and criminal justice and prison reform. To borrow a phrase from Buddhism, this is a community of Engaged Christians.

It was obvious when we pulled up to the church at 320 South Broad Street that this was a different place. It’s an old church building, and there were numerous folks hanging around the front steps, probably people who spend most of their time on the streets- based on the full trash bags some of them were carrying. Within a few minutes, it was obvious that this was also a place that welcomes these folks who are so often ignored and marginalized, as several of them entered the building when the doors opened for us and at least one of them helped us carry in our gear without asking for anything in return. A staff person from the church also knew this man by name.

Lorry Post and Harold Wilson were again our featured speakers. At this event, Lorry had more time to speak than at Drexel, and he went into more detail about the death of his daughter and the experience that he and his wife June had after Lisa’s death.

What took my breath away from Lorry’s talk was the manner in which Lisa was killed. She was brushing her teeth when her husband stabbed her from behind, twice in the back. The most mundane daily activity turned into her final act, an act of great tragedy.

And Lorry’s fist-raising moment came after his discussion of their involvement in trying to stop the execution of Pedro Medina in Florida. After Medina was executed, June Post defiantly told the media, “You haven’t heard the last of us.” The group in New Jersey led by Lorry and June became Pedro’s People, then New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, and then New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. NJADP was the catalyst for repealing capital punishment in New Jersey.

Harold Wilson’s talk at BSM was the most emotional of the three he gave in two days in Philadelphia. The setting at BSM added to the mood. The room we were in was lit only by temporary spotlights. The floor was old wood. One of the stained glass windows had a hole in it. The room was ringed by a balcony where old pews were stored, in no particularly organized fashion.

Harold’s tale of being railroaded to death row by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office was clear and poignant. The ADA who prosecuted the case used racial profiling in jury selection, several years after SCOTUS outlawed the practice. The DA’s office was so brazen about this practice that they produced a training video for new prosecutors.

Harold recounted a bloody footprint from the scene allegedly from the perpetrator. It was several sizes smaller than his own foot size.

At his retrial in 2005, a witness admitted that a jacket from the scene was his and not Harold’s, as prosecutors had claimed.

And DNA evidence from that jacket indicated the presence of an unknown person.

The audience at BSM was quite diverse. Old and young. Black and white. And based on appearances, up and down the economic scale. This audience engaged us during the discussion period, and the black audience members, in particular, reminded us of the ways in which racism continues to haunt our society. One woman railed against the recent criticism of Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, saying that church is the one place where African-Americans can speak without a filter.

It was a heavy night. To close, the mood was lightened, but only slightly, by some righteous rock from singer-songwriter John Francis.

If we’re going to topple the death penalty in Pennsylvania, it’s going to happen because of people like those at Broad Street Ministry.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Expelled from Expelled

I realize not everyone shares my obsession with issues of intelligent design and fundamentalist Christians’ fervent battle against the teaching of evolution. So I try to restrain myself and not write too frequently about it.

But this is just too good not to pass on.

For those with lives, you may not have heard that there is a new movie coming out next month on the topic of intelligent design. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed stars Ben Stein (Yes, that Ben Stein. “Bueller? Bueller?”).

While the film reportedly never actually defines “intelligent design” – the concept that life’s complexity demands the guiding hand of the divine – it makes the not-very-convincing argument that academics around the country are being persecuted for believing in its scientific validity.

Recently, the movie’s producers have been promoting the movie with private screenings across the country. One has to advance register to attend. While no tickets are necessary, identification must be presented at the screening.

Based on the trailer and those who have been able to get into the screenings, the movie argues that scientists, in cahoots with the media and our public education system, is doing everything they can to shut down honest discourse.

It also makes a rather disgusting connection between Charles Darwin and the Holocaust. Stein, who is a Jew, muses over his fate at the gates of a Jewish concentration camp and equates Darwin’s theory of natural selection with genocide.

So, it’s ironic that a movie that argues it is merely trying to present the truth would do this.

Lauri in York

Editor’s note: This blog was founded on an obsession with intelligent design.

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On the road

I haven’t been blogging much lately, in part because we have been planning the Voices of Hope, Agents of Change Tour, a statewide odyssey across Pennsylvania with death row survivors and murder victims’ families. These voices of experience will topple the death penalty. It’s a two week adventure, covering 20 events in 11 towns, and over the course of the two weeks, I plan to post here what we’re doing.

Yesterday the tour kicked off in Philadelphia and touched more than 130 people. Over the lunch hour, we stopped at Temple University School of Law for pizza and stories of death row with exoneree Harold Wilson. About 50 law students heard Harold’s story of spending 16 years on death row, only to be acquitted at retrial in 2005. At the second trial, DNA evidence from the scene indicated the presence of another person, the likely perpetrator.

I missed the Temple event but made it in time for an event with the National Lawyers Guild chapter at Drexel University School of Law. It was standing room only at Drexel, as nearly 90 people filled the room to hear from Harold and from Lorry Post, Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Lorry started his talk in dramatic fashion by holding up a photo of his daughter Lisa, who was killed by her husband in 1988. The man received a 20 year sentence. Lorry went on to talk about his involvement in a Florida case in which a man’s head was set on fire during his execution in the electric chair. As Lorry asked, how is that one man who was definitely guilty gets 20 years while another man, who may well have been innocent, gets his head set on fire?

As at Temple, Harold kept the audience’s rapt attention.

Throughout the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing our adventures and photos from the tour here at SF. Stay tuned. See you in Harrisburg on Monday.

Andy in Harrisburg in Philly

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Pittsburgh Seniors Graduating Without Sex Ed

Right now, senioritis is gripping students across the nation. From California to Maine, students are exhibiting the signs of a second-semester high school senior, namely, more play and less work. To these teens, this grace period between high school and The Real World is a well-deserved break. They have spent the past four years conjugating verbs and learning algebra. In addition to reading and writing and arithmetic, however, teens are also learning how to become adults, as they gain more responsibility as they age and grow.

Yet, in the Pittsburgh school system, students are graduating without vital skills required of adults. These students, preparing to enter college or the work force, many planning to move away from home, have received no sex ed. They have not even heard the word “condom” mentioned in a classroom.

And these Pittsburgh seniors are not alone. Across the country, students are becoming citizens, turned out into the world shamefully ignorant of how to make safe and smart choices. Instead, these students are treated as children as their sexual and intellectual maturity is ignored.

In Pittsburgh, this idea disturbed a group of fifteen parents and teens who approached their school board, demanding better education. The school board said they would look into it.

More than a year later, they haven’t. Pittsburgh has failed another year of seniors, allowed them to pass through the system unarmed with vital information. The parents of the Pittsburgh school district are tired of waiting.

Terri Klein and Ilene Schwartz, with the support of the ACLU and other programs, have begun circulating an internet petition to parents and concerned community members of Pittsburgh, outlining their complaints with the current abstinence-only program being implemented in their schools.

The textbook for the current program, Totally Awesome Health, not only urges only sexual abstinence as the “right choice,” but doesn’t even define what sexual activity is. Furthermore, it acknowledges only heterosexual, married families. Apparently the curriculum makes up for lack of information by saturating it with prejudice.

The petition has currently collected over 350 signatures and growing, and the issue is getting press coverage from several news sources, a refreshing fact when we consider that often it is the screeching, braying and sensationalist voice of the minority that oppose sex ed that gets heard. The story was even featured on Fox National News this Wednesday morning.

The school board is being forced to pay more attention to the issue, and it comes not a moment too soon. A recent study found that 1 in 4 girls has a STD, a frightening fact that is getting much media coverage.

Hopefully, these numbers will only further galvanize the movement to push abstinence-only until marriage out of schools before Pittsburgh and other school districts fail another graduating class.

It’s either that, or their students will continue to graduate with diseases far worse than Senioritis.

Marshall, Duvall Project

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