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Momentum to abolish the death penalty picks up among conservatives

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — A gathering of anti-death penalty activists this month in New Orleans was to kick-start a movement to abolish the death penalty at the state level. But those attending are not capital punishment’s typical foes. “I’m a lifetime Republican, a cradle conservative,” E. King Alexander told Facing South. “From a small government perspective, I think the government needs to stay in its lane vis-à-vis the liberties of the people.”



Photo by: Matthew Ansley |

By Olivia Paschal

(Special from Facing South) — A gathering of anti-death penalty activists this month in New Orleans was to kick-start a movement to abolish the death penalty at the state level. But those attending are not capital punishment’s typical foes.

“I’m a lifetime Republican, a cradle conservative,” E. King Alexander told Facing South. “From a small government perspective, I think the government needs to stay in its lane vis-à-vis the liberties of the people.”

A public defender in Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish and a member of his state Republican Party’s Central Committee, Alexander is a part of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The national group was launched at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference as a project of Equal Justice USA, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit that works to break cycles of trauma through justice system reforms.

Conservatives Concerned held its first annual national meeting from Sept. 6- 8, giving like-minded anti-death penalty advocates from across the U.S. a chance to meet, network, and begin organizing campaigns in their respective states. People affiliated with the group hold various views on why the death penalty should be abolished. For some, like Alexander, the taking of a life represents government overreach. For others, it’s a cost issue, as carrying out a capital sentence is often more expensive than life imprisonment. And for those like Donald Triplett, the treasurer of North Carolina’s Swain County Republican Party, it’s an extension of their fundamental values.

“I was raised to be pro-life,” Triplett told Facing South. “Around my teenage years, I started questioning — how far does that go?”

Support for capital punishment, once seen as a necessary credential for politicians running on a tough-on-crime platform, has eroded in recent years as evidence has mounted that the death penalty is ineffective at driving down crime rates, unevenly and often arbitrarily applied, and that many innocent people have been sent to death row. According to Gallup, which has asked about the death penalty in its polls since the 1930s, 45 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is imposed unfairly, the highest level since Gallup began asking that question in 2000. In all, 41 percent of Americans now oppose the death penalty for a person convicted of murder — the highest level since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia briefly struck down capital punishment.

But there’s a deep partisan divide over the death penalty, one that makes its abolition an uphill battle in red states. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that while just 35 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, 77 percent of Republicans favor the policy. While that number might seem high, it represents a 10-point dip from 1996, when 87 percent of Republicans favored capital punishment. Support for the death penalty among self-identified independents, who make up 38 percent of the voting population, is down more than 27 percentage points over the same time period.

The movement to abolish the death penalty continues to gain steam. New Hampshire became the latest state to abolish capital punishment earlier this year, with significant Republican support. Six other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, and Washington — have gotten rid of the death penalty since 2009, two through court rulings declaring state capital punishment laws unconstitutional. Today, 21 states have rejected the death penalty by law, and four more have done so through governor-imposed moratoriums.

But every state in the South except West Virginia still has the death penalty. The region includes two of the three states with the highest death row populations: 349 people in Florida, and 218 in Texas. In Florida, 29 death row prisoners have had their charges dismissed since the 1970s, the most in the country.

Among the factors driving opposition to the death penalty are the dramatic racial disparities in its administration. According to a Facing South analysis of data compiled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 46 percent of the South’s death row population is Black, although Black people make up less than 20 percent of the region’s total population. Several studies, including one by the federal Government Accountability Office, have shown that murder cases with white victims are more likely to result in capital murder charges and the imposition of the death penalty than those with victims of another race. And all too often, capital trials occur without a true jury of one’s peers: Recent high-profile cases in Mississippi and North Carolina have accused prosecutors of excluding black people from death penalty juries based on their race.

“The death penalty continues to exist in the parts of America it exists in because of racism and revenge,” said Kenneth Reams, the founder of Who Decides, a nonprofit that educates people about the history of the death penalty. He is also a current resident of Arkansas’ death row; though the state’s Supreme Court reversed his death sentence last year, he remains there pending further proceedings. “It’s not just racism, but poverty. The death penalty affects people in our society who are uneducated and poor.”

Preaching outside the choir

It’s no accident that Conservatives Concerned’s first national meeting was set for Louisiana. A coalition of groups from across that state’s political spectrum recently came together to pass Amendment 2 overturning a Jim Crow-era law that allowed people to be convicted of felonies by non-unanimous juries. Alexander was part of that coalition, as was tea party Republican Rob Maness, a former U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana and a retired Air Force colonel who sits on his parish’s GOP executive committee.

“We had to build a team of not just conservatives, but also independent and moderate-type folks, and then the very liberal side of the Democrats, and independents too, so across the spectrum of ideology,” Maness told Facing South. “We were able to build that team, because [reversing the amendment] was the right thing to do.”

The measure had support from the state Republican and Democratic parties, from a slew of criminal justice reform organizations, and from the Louisiana branch of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has pushed for criminal justice reform in other states as well. Advocates hope they can keep this coalition together to push for the abolition of the death penalty, either by way of another constitutional amendment or with a state statute.

The meeting in New Orleans was to connect Louisiana anti-death penalty conservatives with each other and with others like them around the country. It will also serve as a training ground to get other state-based movements up and running with sessions teaching advocates how to talk to legislators and how to carry out grassroots organizing targeted at conservatives.

The attendees know their views are out of step with most Republicans; Maness said that if he decides to run for office again he’s certain GOP voters will “hold me accountable” for not being sufficiently “law-and-order.” But they hope to reach people around the South who might be predisposed to discount the arguments of liberals.

“If you’re a Democrat you’re preaching to the choir,” said Alexander. “Where we need to make progress is with Republicans.”

That’s been the focus in Tennessee, said Amy Lawrence, who leads the state’s chapter of Conservatives Concerned. People who have been in conservative circles their entire life may not have thought about the death penalty from a pro-life lens, or may not be aware of the expense of sentencing someone to death, she said.

“We still have some work to do,” Lawrence said. “We have lawmakers who say, ‘I get it, I understand that there are flaws with the death penalty, that it’s an exorbitant cost, that it’s an arbitrary system.’” There’s still a stigma associated with being anti-death penalty in Republican circles, however, and some lawmakers fear that vocalizing their opposition to capital punishment could mean losing their seat, said Lawrence and other advocates.

But that’s beginning to shift. In 10 states this year, three of them in the South, Republican legislators sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty. In Georgia, a bipartisan group of three Republican and three Democratic legislators introduced a bill in April that would abolish capital punishment and change the sentences of the state’s 55 death row inmates to life without parole. Though it was introduced too late to advance this session, its timing was aimed to spark debate next year. In Louisiana, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor put forward a constitutional amendment to get rid of the death penalty, but it was rejected by the legislative body. And in Kentucky, Republican House Majority Whip Chad McCoy introduced a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty. Though it gained several co-sponsors, including other Republican state legislators, it died in committee.

“If we can get lucky enough to get one of the states in the South to seriously look at capital punishment, to simply put a moratorium on it, that would be a start,” said Reams. “If we could get one state in the South to abolish it, I think it would open the door.”

This article originally appeared in the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, The Institute for Southern Studies is a nonprofit research and media center that exposes injustice, strengthens democracy and builds a community for change in the South.

This article originally published in the September 16, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly. LOUISIANA WEEKLY

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 



Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.



Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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