Cover design by Yesenia Moya Garay
Story by WangDawg and Rachel Karabenick
On March 29, 2021, the Mass Liberation Project hosted their weekly ‘Mass Lib Monday’ meeting to discuss important issues in the community and hold space for those directly impacted by the criminal justice system. This week’s focus was the death penalty, which has become a subject of particular interest to Nevada legislators this year as they are set to hold a hearing this Wednesday on AB395, a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Nevada.
The Mass Lib Monday call took place over Zoom, where impacted persons shared their stories about how capital punishment has affected their lives. Dan Rolle shared a painful experience of having to plead for his father’s life to a jury in 2008 when his father, Donald Rolle, faced the death penalty. Even though he believed his father was guilty, he focused on the impact the execution of his father would have had on his family and the collateral damage it would have caused the community. He believes that his case shows how the death penalty is inappropriate even in instances where the defendant is guilty.
Branden Cunningham spoke in place of his father, Thomas Cunningham, who was incarcerated for drug smuggling and lost his brother around the same time. He told the Zoom audience that his father was desperate to avenge his brother and nearly had a chance to do so, but after considering the effects that going through with revenge fantasy would have on his family, he decided to move on. After his brother’s murderer finally died, he realized that it brought him no peace, and it didn’t bring back his brother. As a family member of a murder victim and someone who had gone through the criminal justice system himself, he became a staunch advocate against the death penalty.
James Allen described himself as a Native Nevadan who ended up in gang life in Las Vegas at the age of 17. He told a story where he ended up in a gunfight and fatally wounded another man. He was arrested and was charged with the death penalty — a decision it took the jury only 45 minutes to deliberate. He entered prison at 17 years old and would go on to serve 28 years inside. In 2008, he was given a second chance and granted parole. Allen is now 61 years old and mentors the youth to try to help them steer clear of the life of crime that led him to death row. He is also an author and wrote a book about his experience going from death row to counseling young folks. He concluded by thanking individuals from the board of parole for giving him a second chance.
Nissa Tzun, a Mass Liberation Project team member, also shared a story about a friend who ended up on death row in Virginia. William Morva who suffered from severe mental illness was convicted of a double homicide in 2006. Despite the efforts of his family, mental health organizations and legal team to save his life during his nine years on death row, he was executed in 2017, becoming the last person to be executed in the state of Virginia. Virginia is the first state to ban capital punishment on March 24, 2021.
All of these testimonies show different ways in which the death penalty affected everyday people’s lives. Nevada assemblyman Steve Yeager expressed sympathy with those affected and also stated his opposition to the death penalty in general. He supports the bill to end the death penalty in Nevada, AB395.
Mark Bettencourt, a representative of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, noted that the long history of capital punishment reform suggests that it cannot be reformed but instead should be abolished entirely. Dr. Tyler Parry, Jeremy Storms, and Branden Cunningham took turns presenting the history of the death penalty, going through important court cases that shaped the use of the practice in the United States. They also went through statistics such as the high prevalence of mitigating factors (eg. mental illness) that throw the death penalty further into question.
Brief History of the Death Penalty in the United States
The death penalty is as old as recorded human history. While the death penalty has existed in the U.S. since British colonial rule, the use of the death penalty in the U.S. didn’t start to peak until the Jim Crow era.
As the United States became more divided around race leading up to the Civil War, the use of the death penalty against Black people began to rise. At one time in pre-war Virginia, for example, there were 50 reasons a Black person might receive the death penalty compared to one reason a white person would receive the death penalty.
During the Jim Crow Era, Black people were considered ‘free’ and therefore allowed to compete for jobs. This led to a campaign of dehumanization and mob violence against Black people fueled by elites that wanted to keep working people in conflict with each other. It was this climate which historians believe gave rise to the era of vigilante justice in the form of public lynchings. Between 1890-1940 at least 4,000 Black men were lynched. These lynchings were not only publicized, but they were often condoned or even led by local law enforcement. Despite the public nature of these lynchings, the Federal Government turned a blind eye and did nothing to stop them.
By the 1950’s lynchings became less common, but were essentially replaced by a rise in capital punishment. Rather than being targeted by mobs and vigilantes, Black people were funneled into the injustice system. During this time, the death penalty was commonly know as ‘legal lynching.’ To this day, in Nevada 40% of all those on death row are African American but only 10% of the State population is Black. This is clearly the result of the death penalty being a modern-day government-sanctioned lynching system.
In 1919, Black soldiers returning from World War I were met with a slew of race riots and lynchings. The NAACP saw this coming and tried to get ahead of it by publishing a document in 1918 called Thirty Years of Lynchings,� in which they included data about the history of this violent practice. This timing was strategic as America was trying to position itself as a world leader, all the while they were responsible for horrific violence against their Black citizens even as they laid down their lives in battle. The NAACP continued to work toward abolishing the death penalty, and were eventually successful in bringing the very concept of the death penalty to the Supreme Court. And while significant reforms have been made that restrict the use of the death penalty, the practice has never successfully been banned.
Death Penalty in Nevada
Of the 3,000 Counties in the U.S., 36 of them prosecute most of the death penalty cases. Not only is Clark County one of these counties, but they were among the top ten as of last year.
In Nevada, the death penalty disproportionately hurts the poor, people dealing with mental illness and people of color. Furthermore, studies show that family members of murder victims are re-traumatized by death penalty cases which can drag on for years or even decades. Many say they are better served by life without parole.
The current bill would abolish the death penalty and reduce the sentences of people on death row to life without parole.
How the Public Can Support This Bill
Courtney Jones of Mass Liberation Project then began explaining ways the public can get involved in the legislative fight to end the death penalty. After going over the legislative process, she showed the audience how to find and contact their legislators. She suggested participants get engaged by submitting written comments about the bill online or joining the hearing directly by calling in to leave a public comment.
Finally, Essence Jernigan gave a presentation on restorative justice, which emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior instead of punishing people for it. Restorative justice is seen as an alternative to both capital punishment and the punitive system of criminal justice in general. Advocates say that it is a more effective and more ethical approach to our justice system. Jernigan gave examples of specific initiatives in prisons, such as skill-building programs, which aim to put in place models of restorative justice. This model not only seeks to provide rehabilitation to criminal offenders but tries to fulfill victims’ needs as well by finding out their vision of justice and sometimes putting them in a dialogue with the offender. Jernigan stressed the importance of mental health treatment as part of the process, and noted the important role of mental illness as a source of criminal behavior.
As the meeting drew to a close, the organizers at Mass Liberation stressed the importance of the upcoming legislation to be heard in the Nevada Assembly this week. AB395 will be heard early on Wednesday morning at 8AM with some participants in the Zoom chat offering to give others a wake up call to remind them to take action. Mark Bettencourt also offered to answer any questions about the process and encouraged others to reach by phone (702-300-5108) or email (email@example.com) for any questions about Wednesday’s hearing.