By James Clark, AIUSA Senior Death Penalty Campaigner
Arkansas’ conveyor belt of death has finally come to an end. After two weeks in which Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions to beat the expiration date on his lethal injection drugs, four executions have been averted and four men are now dead. Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams, Jack Jones, and Kenneth Williams have been executed.
I traveled to Arkansas on behalf of Amnesty International to help organize in Little Rock. Our efforts were led by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and its leader Furonda Brasfield. A huge coalition of local and national groups joined to lend our support — groups like Amnesty, the ACLU, Equal Justice USA, the Catholic Mobilizing Network, and more.
Taking a stand against executions and holding vigil while a person is executed is never an easy task. But in Arkansas the activists who called on the governor to stop these executions took on that burden over and over again for each new execution date. As more of those scheduled for execution were put to death, the activism and organizing became even harder. Each execution brought sadness and despair, bogging down our efforts.
But organizing for human rights is a beautiful thing. Even in the deepest despair, hope and joy can shine through the darkness and light our way forward. While we mourned four executions, we also celebrated four lives saved and knew our efforts were not in vain.
Powerful stories emerged of resilience, forgiveness and incomparable strength. These stories were the fuel that activists needed to stand against executions night after night.
One such story was that of Dina Windle. Ms. Windle was one of the victims of Marcel Williams, who was ultimately put to death. She spoke on Mr. Williams’ behalf at his clemency hearing, urging that his life be spared. She said that she found healing from forgiveness.
Another story was actually written in a letter that I was asked to delivery to the governor. That letter was written by Kayla Greenwood on behalf of her entire family. Her father, Michael Greenwood, was killed by Kenneth Williams. However, the entire Greenwood family advocated for Mr. Williams to live. They even met with Mr. Williams’ family and paid for their plane ticket to visit him on death row before his execution. Kayla’s letter was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read.
Kayla wrote courageous words about the revenge of execution, about the power of forgiveness, and about the innocent family members of Mr. Williams who would now be made victims themselves. The governor issued a statement to the press saying he had read her letter, but that he was unpersuaded. Kenneth Williams was executed.
We were continually inspired by the commitment of activists near and far willing to roll up their sleeves for justice. From the rally at the capitol with over 400 people, to the local community members who stayed up late into the night holding vigil, to the online petitions with new signatures rolling in by the thousands, we were constantly reminded of all the people standing with us in solidarity. In the end, a quarter of a million people came together to denounce Arkansas’ conveyor belt of death.
While the executions in Arkansas were brutal and heartbreaking, they don’t represent the trajectory of the death penalty in the United States. The death penalty is fading. Even while Governor Hutchinson was rushing through executions on an assembly line, Governor McAuliffe in Virginia actually commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz to life without parole. And Rodricus Crawford, who had been on death row in Louisiana, became the 158th person exonerated from death row because of innocence.
Every governor needs to hear the same outrage that Governor Hutchinson heard. Through the darkness of the executions in Arkansas, human rights activists near and far shined the light for justice. While we can be disheartened by our setbacks and even feel despair, the path to justice is clearer than ever. Amnesty International is calling on every governor in the United States to take a hard look at Arkansas and ask themselves if they want that horror in their own states. Join us, and click here to demand that your governor stand up for human rights by putting a stop to executions.