Compassion or capital punishment? Survivors push for an end to execution

Compassion or capital punishment? Survivors push for an end to execution

As assistant chief investigator in New Jersey’s Office of the Public Defender, Dina Windle knows the ins and outs of the criminal legal system. And a survivor of violence herself, she understands the parts of the system that most people fail to acknowledge—especially when it comes the death penalty and the lack of justice afforded to nearly everyone involved.

In 1994, Windle was a second-year law student at the University of Arkansas when she was walking home and was approached by Marcel Williams, a young man who asked her for directions. Sympathetic to him because she herself was new to the neighborhood, Windle offered help.

“It just went and spiraled down from there,” Windle told Prism. “I was boarded up in a deserted house with the promise that he was coming back. By the grace of God, I managed to escape before he returned and sought help and as it turns out, he had kidnapped three of us and the first woman that he took—he had killed her.”  

Williams was arrested and tried for each of his offenses, with the trials continuing as Windle completed her studies at law school and eventually moved out of Arkansas. Windle, who is from the East coast where the use of capital punishment is less common, never thought Williams’ trial would end up with a death sentence.  

“When you get that phone call from a machine that says so and so’s on death row—and of course it’s a machine so it’s kind of eerie—you’re like, ’What?’ and they say, ‘Are you interested in speaking against it at a clemency hearing?’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘Whoa wait, get me off this boat.’ There is no option for you as a victim to go the other way and say, ‘You know what? No, I don’t wish for him to be executed in my name,’ and so I sought out his attorney and finally I spoke to them and they were totally confused and dumbfounded that I would call them to try to save this man’s life.”

‘I felt that I was a toy for the state

Just weeks before Williams was set to be executed, Windle was given the opportunity to speak on his behalf in front of the clemency board, requesting his life be spared. Her request was denied, and Williams was executed in April 2017.

Williams’ execution came during a year that Arkansas was dubbed “the conveyor belt of death,” as the state scheduled eight men to die within just 11 days. The rapid-fire executions were attributed to the fact that the state’s supply of drugs used for lethal injections—drugs which are particularly difficult to procure—were set to expire.

To this day, Windle, who is a devout Christian, says she finds peace in the fact that Williams found God before he was executed. “The only thing that I’m upset about is that I felt that I was a toy for the state so that they could use me when they wanted to use me, and then disregard me when I decided not to go with what they wanted,” she said.

Windle has since been sharing her story to catalyze action around the movement to abolish the death penalty. She is currently the vice board chair of Journey of Hope, a group composed of victims’ families as well as survivors of violence committed by those who have been executed or are currently on death row.

Journey of Hope gives lectures at colleges, schools, and community groups sharing the stories of their members and also often featuring the stories of those who have been exonerated or the loved ones of those who have been executed by the state. One of their staple events is an annual vigil held on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court where they fast for five days and deliver speeches to the public.

Not unlike the larger criminal legal system, with the death penalty equity, justice, and accuracy issues abound in its application: People of color—particularly Black people—are overrepresented, women experience unique challenges by virtue of their gender, and innocent people are frequently wrongly convicted and condemned. Those problems can lead advocates to differing goals. While some wish to reform the system to remove those biases and errors, others believe the whole system should be abolished and replaced with entirely new ways to address harm and violence.

‘Restorative justice is what we advocate’

Groups like Journey of Hope occupy a particularly interesting place within the abolition movement because they provide a different perspective than what many might expect of survivors or victims’ families. In doing so, they debunk one of the central tenets that underpins arguments in favor of capital punishment: that lethal vengeance is the only possible option for ensuring justice and alleviating an unimaginable loss.

“Journey of Hope basically is about compassion and forgiveness for the people who have wronged us. We’re not saying that this person doesn’t deserve some sort of penalty, but what we do say is that we should have compassion for fellow mankind and that killing someone is not going to take that back and it’s not going to relieve our pain,” said Windle.

“So what we [hope to] see is no executions. As we know, people can change. We are no worse than the act that we committed and we certainly can go up from there. Restorative justice is what we advocate. In my case, as a Christian I can only see someone turning to God, and for me that’s a victory. Why don’t we give people those chances to read the word, study the word, and turn to God instead of more violent crimes?”

Windle also advocates for addressing the root of crime and providing people with the basic needs that can help prevent them from enacting violence and harming either themselves or others.  

“I found out that at a young age [Marcel’s] mother pimped him out because she didn’t have food, she didn’t have money, she was an alcoholic, and that was the only thing that she could see,” said Windle. “So we don’t have the essential tools that we need when we start off and what we do is we go to things that we think are better.”

A receptive audience and a diverse movement

Both Journey of Hope’s message that true justice for survivors cannot be found in the death penalty as well as their membership—the survivors themselves—speak to the diversity of the death penalty abolition movement and the varying entry points by which individuals find themselves within it. Some groups like Witness to Innocence amplify the stories and voices of those who have been exonerated while others like the National Coalition to End the Death Penalty are comprised of families of murder victims, past and present law enforcement officers, and coalitions of civil justice organizations.

Diversity also abounds in how these individuals and groups approach their work. While grassroots groups might use personal story-sharing and narrative work to push anti-death penalty campaigns forward, larger organizations like Amnesty International USA use public education as well as legislative advocacy. According to Kristina Roth, senior advocate for Amnesty International USA’s criminal justice programs, the group has been working to abolish the death penalty globally for over 40 years and opposes capital punishment “in all cases, without exception.”

“There’s no means of execution that’s more humane and there is no reason that any human being should be executed in our opinion regardless of innocence or guilt,” she told Prism. 

Amnesty amplifies the cases of people currently on death row and uses those stories to highlight the flaws of the system at large while also hopefully stopping individual executions. Roth says these cases are generally “emblematic of consistent themes of what is irrevocably broken about the death penalty,” citing racial discrimination and the ongoing execution of very young people and people with mental disabilities despite laws that prohibit both.

Legislatively, Amnesty works to push forward anti-death penalty legislation and change existing laws toward the end of eliminating capital punishment at both the state and federal levels.

“With the incoming administration that made campaign promises to work towards an end to the penalty, we now have a receptive audience that has already begun meeting with teams to discuss how they can, from the administrative side, limit the use of the death penalty, prevent executions from happening and even make it more difficult for a future incoming administration to use this punishment,” said Roth.

Amnesty and other groups are particularly hopeful about newly proposed legislation from Congress addressing the death penalty. On Jan. 4, on the first day of the 117th Congress, New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat introduced a bill to end the federal death penalty. The following week, Ohio Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin announced their intention to also introduce a similar bill.

“Generally the abolition movement, and all of the legislative efforts to eliminate the death penalty, often will swap out the death penalty for life without parole—that’s pretty common,” said Roth. “That said, both of these federal bills, rather than making [life without parole] as a default punishment, would call for the resentencing of anyone that’s under a federal sentence of death. So I would call that a real mark of progress.”

Roth says this progress is due in part to the increased amplification of advocates of color who are directly impacted by all arms of the criminal legal system.

“There’s certainly a really stark racial contrast as far as who is in fact, convicted of these crimes and executed and so it would make sense that you would see more Black and brown activists involved in this work because the people that are on death row come from our community,” said Roth. “I think the conversation elevated around Black Lives Matter last year [about] the policing of Black bodies has given a closer examination to the idea that there needs to be voices of color speaking out against the death penalty as well. And so we are starting to see more of an investment in the movement from communities who are disproportionately impacted by this punishment but for many years haven’t really been at the forefront or centered as far as the voices speaking out against it.”

Amnesty’s criminal justice programs focuses on ending state-sanctioned killings broadly, meaning Roth’s work includes both abolishing the death penalty and ending the lethal use of force by law enforcement. In some ways, the shape of each movement helps inform the other—for instance, the rise of a Black-led movement to end police violence has helped push the death penalty abolition movement to more intentionally center Black voices. However, difficulties can arise when the solutions raised to combat one problem serve to undermine the other.

“Last summer in Congress, [we were] looking at comprehensive legislation on policing reform. We wanted to change a number of things, and use of force was a part of that effort and it’s something that Amnesty was particularly invested in,” said Roth.

That comprehensive legislation came in the form of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a large bill that sought to address police misconduct by creating new standards on data collection and lowered the criminal intent standard required to convict an officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution, among other things. While Amnesty was supportive of the bill, they also had to ensure that while the legislation made it easier to prosecute law enforcement, the resulting penalties would not include the death penalty.

“None of the organizations that may support efforts to further bring more accountability towards policing believe that the death penalty is the answer,” said Roth. “So we have to be sensitive to the idea that we’re not really looking to cause harm to anyone in any of these punishments and that we see that [capital punishment] shouldn’t be a penalty.”

‘Why would you take that away from us?’ 

Integral to managing that balance, Roth says, is listening to people who are directly impacted by the issue. However, when redressing the harms of the death penalty, that alone can come with its own challenges. While groups like Journey of Hope may represent victim’s families and survivors who oppose the death penalty, other victims’ families have been staunch in their support of capital punishment. In 2017, the brother of Stacy Erickson, the woman murdered by Marcel Williams, said in response to his execution that “justice has been served. It’s been about time.” The family of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, the young woman murdered by Lisa Montgomery in Missouri in 2004, also supported Montgomery’s execution despite the growing advocacy on behalf of Montgomery’s case.

The desires of victims’ families, survivors, and the loved ones of those on death row are in no way uniform and cannot be rendered black or white. Yet, it is clear that the system itself is not designed to recognize the myriad ways that people feel in the wake of violence and harm. As those gray areas go ignored, so too is there a failure to provide options or choices for those that were most intimately involved in the crimes for which a defendant is condemned—failures that emerge at every step of the trial process.

In her current work in the Office of the Public Defender, Windle says she sees how high sentences are incentivized and can divert prosecutors away from compassionate sentencing. Even after a trial is well underway, the needs of the defense can also prohibit survivors from receiving what some may need most.

“I wasn’t allowed to speak to [Marcel] because his defense attorneys didn’t want it to look like he was swaying me. And God forbid if I went to the state and said that I needed to speak with this man, they would say ‘No, he’s evil, he’s horrible. We’re doing this for your own good,’” said Windle.”I couldn’t sit down and have a face-to-face conversation with this person because everyone’s afraid his rights are going to be infringed and I get that. I’m with the defense and I get that we don’t want our client talking to anyone. But there’s got to be some sort of leeway where I could know that he had wanted to apologize to me. As a human being, don’t you want to hear that? For someone to say to you, ‘I wronged you and I’m so sorry, I am a changed person?’ Why do you take that away from us if that’s all we have?”

Tamar Sarai Davis is Prism’s criminal justice staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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