NLG Students Rally for Day Against the Death Penalty

NYU NLG chalked out the dimensions of a death row cell in the main courtyard in observance of Student Day Against the Death Penalty.
Traci Yoder

Each year on March 1, NLG student members come together at over 100 law schools across the country for the Student Day Against the Death Penalty (SDADP) a day of education about and protest against capital punishment coordinated by the NLG National Office.

Capital punishment has come under growing scrutiny in recent years and 17 states have officially outlawed the practice. Currently, 3,146 people are on death row in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. More than 140 people have been exonerated from death row after evidence of their innocence surfaced.

Public support for capital punishment is at its lowest point in decades. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who approve the death penalty as a punishment for murder is at its lowest level in 39 years. States including Arkansas, Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Oregon are in the process of abolishing the death penalty. The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA showed a decrease of 43 death row inmates from January 1 to October 1, 2012. While these developments illustrate the tremendous momentum gathering behind abolition, the bleak reality is that over 3,000 people remain on death row. The situation may show gradually improvement, but the need for action continues to be urgent.

SDADP events this year focused not only on the cruel and unusual nature of capital punishment but also on its inconsistent and economically and racially biased application. Students educated the public about the social and psychological impacts the death penalty has on those in the prison system and their families and communities. This year’s events marked 10 years of SDADP. Law school chapters organized panel discussions, debates, film screenings, petitions, letter writing campaigns, and more.

Here is a cross-section of this year’s activities:

The University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s NLG chapter set up a booth up where students plugged their fellow classmates in to volunteer opportunities at the local public defender's office, the Human Rights Coalition, and Project Freedom, a local non-profit that focuses on death penalty cases.

Northwestern University Law School NLG tabled all day, handing out black ribbons, candy, and fact sheets on capital punishment.

Willamette University College of Law NLG organized a convocation in which two death row exonerees, Juan Melendez and Greg Wilhoit, spoke about life on death row as innocent men and their present-day struggle against injustice in the criminal justice system.

American University Washington College of Law NLG set up a panel to discuss progress in death penalty abolition with Abe Bonowitz and Anita Grabowski from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Walter Everett of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and Shujaa Graham, a death row survivor who spoke on behalf of Witness to Innocence. AU NLG also sent a caravan of cars to Annapolis for the death penalty vote in the State Senate.

Lewis and Clark Law School NLG coordinated a Week Against the Death Penalty with events including a book display in the library, a death penalty discussion with Oregon Capital Resource Center Director Jeff Ellis, a public phone call with Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate at California’s San Quentin Prison, a wrongful conviction lecture by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a prisoner letter writing session, and a screening of the documentary West of Memphis.

Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University NLG hosted exoneree Nate Fields, who spoke with Marc Bookman, Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation.

University of Wisconsin Law School NLG held a tabling event to disseminate important facts about the death penalty followed by a screening of Deadline, a film documenting Governor Ryan’s decision to commute the death sentences of Illinois death row inmates and examining the death penalty’s national history.

University of Missouri, Kansas City NLG sponsored a letter-writing campaign, tabled to raise awareness, screened the documentary Deadline, and organized a discussion about effective ways to advocate for death penalty abolition.

Arizona State University NLG hosted an event with Juan Melendez, a man who served 15 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. ASU NLG also organized a meeting for Arizona Death Penalty Alternatives, inviting law students to help strategize in ongoing efforts to change the law.

These are just a sampling of the many NLG chapter events. The Student Day Against the Death Penalty will continue every year until the death penalty has been abolished once and for all.