“We sentence you to die and God have mercy on your soul.”
These were the words a judge delivered to Sabrina Butler-Porter from a Mississippi bench in March 1990 and the words that Butler-Porter recounted in her talk at the Montana Abolition Coalition’s Annual Summit held in Billings on Saturday, April 14.
But she hadn’t committed murder.
After Butler-Porter’s 9-month-old son suddenly stopped breathing in 1990 and couldn’t be revived at the hospital, the mother quickly found herself in prison and, soon after that, on death row for murder. It was later found that her son likely died of complications surrounding a weak heart and other health defects, but through the combination of a slipshod court system, a bogus biopsy (the district didn’t have the funds to perform legitimate biopsies, according to Butler-Porter), and likely some underlying issues of race, Butler-Porter ended up on death row for a crime she did not commit.After an appeals process that kept her in prison for five years, her case was retried, and she became the first U.S. woman to be exonerated from death row.
The Montana Abolition Coalition hopes stories like this one will convince legislators in Montana to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. The MAC’s annual summit is designed to educate citizens and gather existing support for abolishing the death penalty.
The margin for error is too small, and the possibility of executing innocent people, according to the organization, is simply too great. Moreover, the process surrounding the death penalty is lengthy (in Montana, the average is 17 years) and expensive (reports cited on the MAC’s website have reported a death penalty case is at least three times as expensive as life without the possibility of parole).
If true, this could mean that funds are often diverted from policies and programs that could prevent murders to exorbitantly expensive and drawn out cases with alarming margins for error.
Additionally, death penalty fees tend to mean increased taxes and cutting services like police and highway patrol. County budgets suffer the most. Jasper County, Texas, raised its property taxes by approximately 7 percent to pay for a single death penalty case.
More alarming, though, is that courts seem to single out minorities and the poor for punishment. The MAC’s website points out the findings from a recent landmark study regarding race and the death penalty which found that “a black defendant who kills a white victim is up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim.”
And the majority of those exonerated from death row have come from income brackets that allowed them to muster resources unavailable to the impoverished.
The Montana Abolition Coalition has been educating the public since 1998 when it was founded by various faith, civil and human rights organizations - including the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Montana Catholic Conference, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Montana Human Rights Network, and the Montana Association of Churches.
By 1999, the organization had sponsored five bills to limit or abolish the death penalty for all ages and successfully instigated Montana’s abolition of the death penalty for Montanans under 18.
The MAC has experienced setbacks but has gathered considerable support in its 14 years of existence. In 2007, the organization gathered victims’ families, attorneys, a former warden, former prosecutors, an assistant attorney general, lawmakers and a former Montana Supreme Court justice in their push to see the bill passed in Helena.
In both 2007 and 2009, bills sponsored by the coalition passed in the Senate but narrowly failed to make it past the House of Representatives.
One of the night’s speakers, lobbyist Moe Wosepka, reminded the room full of supporters that no less than 43 years passed between the time 19th century abolitionist William Wilberforce introduced his first abolition bill to the English parliament and the time that slavery was actually abolished in England. Sometimes, change takes time.
“This is the best organized issue that I’ve worked on,” Moe Wosepka said with confidence.
The other keynote speaker on Saturday night was Renny Cushing, a former state representative in New Hampshire, whose father was murdered in 1988. Before the murder, Cushing was opposed to the death penalty and he remained solidly against it after his father’s death.
“From that point on,” said Cushing, “the issue of murder was not just an intellectual exercise.”
Cushing recounted two events following the murder of his father that solidified his anti-death penalty stance. The first was the memory of a disturbing news broadcast from Florida in which demonstrators called for the death penalty for a murderer.
“It was like an execution tailgate party ... . Everyone was shouting ‘fry, baby, fry!’”
The other came from a friend who was aware of Cushing’s stance against the death penalty before the murder but tried to console him with the words, “I hope they fry those people so you and your family can get some peace.”
“There’s an assumption in our country,” said Cushing, “that family members of murder victims want the murderer to be put to death.”
“But if I had changed my position,” Cushing went on to say, “that would only give over more power to the murderer because not only would my father be taken away from me but my values.”
Cushing is the founder and executive director of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, an organization that firmly opposes the death penalty - instead emphasizing offender accountability and taking care of the families of murder victims.
“The death penalty and very few other issues define who we are,” said state Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Mont., the senator responsible for introducing the abolition bills to the Montana Legislature and the evening’s emcee.
“We’re that close!” he said. “2013 is our year.”
Supporters were encouraged to educate themselves on the issue and get in touch with candidates and representatives before they are in session in Helena. Signing the petition on the MAC website, writing letters to congressman, and establishing cordial relationships with candidates and local representatives are all encouraged by the MAC in their push to abolish the death penalty in Montana.