The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a host of exonerated death row inmates, and family members of those on Death Row assembled at Hyde Park Church on 53rd Street last Thursday in order to galvanize support for the abolition of the death penalty and to raise money for the Illinois chapters of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP).
During his remarks, Jackson repeatedly linked the abolition of death penalty to the abolition of American slavery, implying that the two movements were synonymous with removing racial oppression in the United States. "[The country] really couldn't fix slavery," he said.
Jackson affirmed his belief that there is no way to justify the death penalty, nor is there a legal course to reform it. He argued that the death penalty is equal to slavery. "You couldn't modify good slave masters, [or] bad slave masters," Jackson said, "Let's abolish the death penalty."
During his 20-minute remarks, Jackson continually targeted the political nature of the death penalty. "There are people killing for sport, people killing for political gain, people killing to posit themselves as leaders," he said.
The war in Afghanistan served as fuel for Jackson's anti-death penalty rhetoric. "It was wrong to kill innocent people in New York, it was wrong to kill innocent people in Washington It's wrong to kill innocent people anywhere," he said.
Jackson was also critical of the U.S. military's failed attempts in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden. "We have no idea how many innocent people were killed," he said. "[Our nation] must be more civilized than that."
Jackson described the threats to the effectiveness of the criminal justice system caused by the terrorist attacks. He criticized Attorney General Ashcroft for taking $500,000 earmarked for DNA testing in criminal forensics and putting it into a fund to excavate the ground zero site in New York City. "What's become of our country to have to choose between saving innocent lives and those of the dead?" he said.
Jackson's speech was religious in tone. He repeatedly used the Bible to justify his stance against the death penalty. At one point, he told the parable of the woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery but who was saved by Jesus. "We must challenge the arrogance of those in power, those who throw rocks," he said.
One of Jackson's primary tasks at the forum was to raise money for anti-death penalty action groups including the CEDP, and the Chicago Committee to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. "For transportation, going back and forth to jail, the resources for many lawyers it takes [to fight for the cause], I want to take some responsibility tonight to take up a collection," Jackson said.
Gary Gauger was the first of four exonerated inmates who spoke at the function. Gauger was indicted on May 5,1993, for the murder of his parents based on a confession that he never gave. According to Gauger, the police who interrogated him perjured in court more than a 150 times to seal his conviction. It was later found that his parents were murdered by two members of the Wisconsin Outlaws motorcycle gang.
According to Gauger, his conviction pointed out the many inadequacies of the Illinois police force and the justice system. "The police conspired and fabricated a confession against me," Gauger said. "Nothing was written, nothing was recorded, no physical evidence tied me to the crime, no motive was ever established, and yet the jury deliberated for three hours before finding me guilty."
Gauger was scheduled to be executed when Professor of Ethics Larry Marshall of Northwestern University and his students were able to arrange his release. The judge offered Gauger life without parole for Marshall to drop the case, but Marshall refused. Gauger spent three-and-a-half years in prison before being exonerated. "At the time Larry [Marshall] didn't have any time for death penalty cases, but he could see something was really fishy here," Gauger said.
The problem of forced confessions was one of Gauger's primary reasons for opposing the death penalty. "[The death penalty] is basically an immoral tool used to intimidate people to get confessions," he said.
Anthony Porter produced the most significant audience reaction of the inmates who spoke. Before Porter approached the podium, Reverend Jackson rose his hand to the applause of the audience. Porter won a reprieve from the Illinois Supreme Court 50 hours before he was scheduled to be executed. Afterwards, Northwestern professor David Protess and a handful of his students were able to gain Porter a complete exoneration.
"I spent 16 years on death row for something I didn't do, " Porter said, "After they convicted me of a double murder homicide, they found out later that another person had confessed to the crime."
Many inmates spoke out against police brutality during interrogations. Several reported having been beaten and tortured by former Lieutenant of Chicago's Area II violent crime unit, Jon Burge. Speakers repeatedly cited the Death Row 10, a group of inmates currently on death row who claim to have given forced confessions under Burge's interrogation.
David Bates, who spent 10 years in prison after allegedly having been beaten into a confession by Lt. Burge, spoke out against the unfairness in police interrogations. Bates read a letter from Grayland Johnson, a member of the Death Row 10. "[The death row inmates] were tortured, beaten, and suffocated, and that was the basis of the conviction," he said afterwards.
One exonerated inmate, Perry Cobb, who was convicted in 1979 and was later pardoned by Illinois Governor George Ryan, described the difficulty of getting on with his life after having spent more than a decade on death row. Cobb encountered many legal boundaries in getting a driver's license and has to carry around a folder of documentation wherever he goes. "I don't know my children," he said, "I'm trying to establish a bond with my grand children."
Concerned citizens and legal advocates also spoke at the forum. According to Tim Buroff, a defense attorney for capital trials, cases in which the death penalty is given often are marked by a lack of physical evidence, recanted testimony, and the refusal of DNA evidence. "The death penalty creates a corrupt and racist criminal justice system," Buroff said.
The race bias of the death penalty was a continued point of contention. John Bagley of the Concerned Friends of Marilyn Lemak, gave the example of Lemak, a Naperville resident, who was recently convicted of killing her three children. The state's attorney was initially pressing for the death penalty but later changed his mind for life imprisonment without parole. Bagley believed her sentence was lightened because she was white.
"Think about it, if Marilyn had been sent to death row, she would have been unique," said Bagley. "She's affluent, she had a great lawyer, she's a woman, and she's white: none of those are on death row in Illinois."
Other political organizations joined the chorus of voices against the death penalty, including Amnesty International and International Socialist Organization. Hector Reyes, a member of ISO, emphasized the strength of the movement in Illinois. "The reason we have the moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois is not because Illinois is unique," he said. "Florida has released 22 or so people that were innocent and had been on death row for many years, but the difference is there have been many people working hard denouncing the death penalty."