Anti-death penalty event educates student advocates

William James Gerlich

Students around the country gathered in Austin to advocate an anti-death penalty agenda as part of the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. The weeklong event offered 30 students a crash course in capital punishment education and the opportunity to lobby to end the Texas death penalty system. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas has executed 466 people since 1982, more than any other state. Virginia has the second-highest number of executions, with 108 since 1976. Because of this record number of executions, the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break held a rally at the Capitol in hopes of building on the momentum seen recently by other states. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn repealed the state’s death penalty law, which made Illinois the 15th state to abolish the law. Participants involved in the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break had a full itinerary, which began on March 14 with talks by UT assistant sociology instructor Danielle Dirks and exonerated death-row inmate Stanley Howard. The lecturers educated students on how to become a voice for change. “The death penalty is a very serious topic. Getting together with other informed, interested people is an opportunity to get in on the exciting, social parts of activism,” said women’s and gender studies senior Teri Adams, a member of Campaign to End the Death Penalty Austin. Students also attended a screening at the South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival of the documentary “Incendiary,” which examines the controversial arson case of Cameron Todd Willingham, directed by Steve Mims, a UT Department of Radio-Television-Film lecturer and UT law student Joe Bailey Jr. The documentary investigates the case of Willingham, who was convicted of murder and executed for the deaths by arson of his three young children at their home in Corsicana but maintained his innocence until his death. “We took a scientific approach to this case rather [than] emotional, and hopefully, this film is useful to everybody who watches it,” Mims said. Arson expert Gerald Hurst sent a report that supported Willingham’s innocence to Gov. Rick Perry, but Perry allowed the execution to continue as planned. “Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly, you all aren’t covering,” Perry said to The Associated Press.