This is NOT what I do, and yet I’m doing it…

Another missive on the power of love.

Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, survived 18 years on Arkansas death row, speaking at the Good Friday rally to stop executions in Arkansas at the Arkansas Capitol building. This event was streamed live on THV11 & MSNBC. There were more than a dozen media outlets covering it. Now look over his shoulder and on the bell. You see that phone number? It rings on my hip.

One of the things about having a toll free number on signs, banners (and tens of thousands of bumper stickers & buttons) used in protests is that people call it. You would think more people would call, but it’s not that many — even when a photo of a sign gets into the national media. This may be a good thing, because 800–973–6548 rings to my cell phone.

The calls generally fall into three categories. Haters, lovers, and people needing help. Stick with me, because this is really about that latter group.

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#1 — Haters: The most common calls are people who DO NOT like our messages. They either hang up when a real voice answers, or to give credit where due, they challenge the message on the sign and we have a little conversation. I try to plant some seeds until we agree to disagree. Sometimes I give up and hang up. Sometimes it goes the opposite way. And sometimes, we find common ground.

#2 — Lovers: These are people who agree with the message and want to connect. I find out where they are and tell them who to call or how to get involved with the anti-death penalty group in their area. I probably should start asking those people to invest in our work before I give them answers!

#3 — People who need help: These are the hardest calls, because it’s people looking for something I usually can’t give them. The number of people wrongly incarcerated in this country is significant. The help available is minuscule. And this leads to today’s phone call.

B called me back today.

Last week someone in Arkansas who had seen our number on a sign gave it to B. She was rather timid when she called in her very thick southern accent. “Do Y’all do protests?” she asked? “Sometimes,” I replied, and I asked how I could be helpful to her.

B said her husband is in prison in Arkansas for a murder he did not commit. I explained that Death Penalty A is a new group run by people who have been in the anti-death penalty movement for a long time. Our work is to help the anti-death penalty movement organize to change the law, and in general, to raise our visibility and increase our capacity by pulling more people into our movement. But we’re not lawyers and we don’t do legal work on cases.

I asked, “Is your husband on death row?” The answer was no, and normally that’s where I say “Good luck — we only work on the death penalty issue.”

BUT, something in her voice made me want to see what I could do. Perhaps it was the sadness, or the feeling of helplessness that was palpable. Or maybe it was love.

B’s husband was “convicted in 1991, and again in 1995,” she said. “Who can help me if you can’t?” I didn’t know, but I told her I would see what I could find out and I asked her to call me back in a few days.

I e-mailed a few contacts in the anti-death penalty movement in Arkansas. One person first said “I’ve got nothing,” but then a few minutes later she sent what turned out to be an old listing for The Innocence Project of Arkansas, including a postal address and this:

Cases Accepted:

  • DNA and non-DNA cases
  • must have been convicted in Arkansas
  • preference for long sentences
  • will work with an attorney

BINGO! This sounds perfect. I call the number. It’s a county public defenders office. I already know that’s not going to help — those people are way overworked and under-resourced as it is. I dig a little deeper and write to the Dean and the clinic manager at the law school where the Innocence Project of Arkansas is housed. I’d received no reply by the time Veulah called me back this morning, so I called the Law Clinic manager. It seems the Innocence Project of Arkansas closed its doors in 2012. I asked if there is another entity that does this work.

Nope. Not in Arkansas. Bam! Another door slams….

I called B back to share that I can’t find anyone in Arkansas who takes these cases. She says “I know. That’s why I was calling you.” We talk some more. Maybe I can give her some advice. I ask her to tell me what evidence she has to suggest [husband] is innocent. “That’s just it. There’s no evidence to prove he is guilty! That’s why his first conviction was thrown out, but somehow they were able to convict him again. I’ve had two different attorneys tell me that there’s no evidence, and he should not be in prison. But that’s Crittenden County. That’s West Memphis.”

West Memphis. THAT made me perk up. I recently met Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three. Damien spent 18 years on Arkansas death row before he and his two co-defendants agreed to an arrangement that allowed them to go free without exonerating them. An Alford Plea is a face-saving move for prosecutors so they don’t have to admit they sent the wrong person to prison. They say “plea to this lesser offense, walk today.” It’s hard not to take that offer when the alternative could be another wrongful conviction.

B tells me the judge in his case, Judge David Burnett, said in open court that he would “put as many black men in prison” as he could. I asked how she knew this. “He said it in court. There’s people who heard it, but they had it struck from the record.” I googled him. This guy is a now a state senator. It turns out he is the same judge who oversaw the trial of the West Memphis three. The prosecutor in the case is now a judge. Now I get it. And now I’m just that much more wanting to help.

This is not what I do — I have no resources to work on such cases. But I’m going to do something. All because I heard the resigned but still hopeful plea for help in the voice of someone who has not forsaken the man she loves. THAT is the power of love. Stay tuned. And if you want to help, e-mail me at abe (at) DeathPenaltyAction.org.

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[Abraham Bonowitz & Scott Langley co-founded Death Penalty Action in order to add capacity to the death penalty abolition movement. They launched it publicly on March 18th, 2017. Please invest in their success and allow them to be your boots on the ground where it matters most via the crowd funder here, or directly, here.]