Live From Death Row - and Live at Rowan

Lessons about wrongful conviction, capital punishment and life on death row pack Student Center program.

Lessons about wrongful conviction, capital punishment and life on death row felt as real and jarring as a slamming cell door when two former death row inmates - and two calling from out-of-state prisons - addressed students Feb. 25 in the Chamberlain Student Center.

More than 100 students packed the noontime program, a stop on the national "Live From Death Row" tour of former death row inmates and others who seek an end to capital punishment in America.

Scheduled to call in for the program were three death row inmates including Mumia Abu-Jamal, an international cause célèbre whose conviction and death sentence in the 1981 slaying of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner has inflamed death penalty supporters and opponents alike.

Abu-Jamal did not, because of technical or scheduling difficulties, address the students, but convicted killer John Booth-el, serving time on Maryland's death row, did call in, as did Stanley Howard, a former death row inmate who remains incarcerated following the abolishment of capital punishment in Illinois. Howard said police coerced the confession that led to his conviction through beatings and other torture.

"It feels like hell."

Addressing the audience in person, Darby Tillis, who was tried and wrongly convicted with a friend, Perry Cobb, for the 1977 murders of a Chicago hot dog vendor and an employee, spent nine years, one month and 17 days on Illinois death row. Initially released from death row by the Illinois Supreme Court over judicial error, Tillis and Cobb were exonerated in a bench trial in 1987 after a magazine article raised questions about their case and an assistant state's attorney testified on their behalf.

"Let me tell you about death row," said Tillis, standing before the assembled students like a preacher, head to toe in black with a heavy gold crucifix about his neck. "Death row is a place of horror. It feels like hell, it looks like hell, it is hell."

Tillis, an African American, believes institutional racism played a big role in his conviction. He said prosecutors eliminated 30 black potential jurists from the jury pool and he was convicted by an all-white jury led by a white prosecutor before a white judge.

Though he survived death row, Tillis said he was nearly broken by it, little by little, day after day.

"You're like contaminated meat," he said. "You're put there to die. You live a little bit, you die a little bit."

He believes the death penalty in America is racist in its application and more costly than keeping a prisoner incarcerated for life. Typically, death row inmates are isolated from the general prison population in small cells for 23-24 hour per day. Tillis said even before capital punishment is carried out it is inhumane, unjust and, upon execution, irreversible.

"Once you kill a man, you find out later he is innocent, you can't bring him back," he said.

Lawrence Hayes, a former Black Panthers member convicted in connection with the 1971 killing of a New York City police officer, also addressed the assembled students. Sentenced to die for the slaying, Hayes was released from death row following the 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling that abolished capital punishment in America. (A subsequent decision, Gregg V. Georgia, reinstated the death penalty in 1976).

Resentenced to life, Hayes was paroled in 1991 and has been an advocate against the death penalty ever since.

"There is no reason to kill," he said. "No reason for me to kill, no reason for you to kill, and no reason for the state to kill."

A mother's anquish

Barbara Lewis, whose son Robert is on Delaware's death row for the murder of his girlfriend, said she campaigns against the death penalty even though she knows her son is guilty and may never leave prison alive. Still, she said capital punishment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, not only for those sentenced but for their loved ones.

"There have been six dates set for Robert to die," she said. "His cellmate was the next to last one to be executed in Delaware."

Lewis, whose other three children are successful businesswomen, told the assembled students that parents simply can't plan for the arbitrary nature of life.

"How can I, with three girls of this quality, have a son on death row?" she said. "I have been fighting the death penalty for 20 years. Whether I save my son or not, I pray to God he will give us this freedom before you have children."

Molly Shaw, 20, an early childhood education major who attended the program for a religion class, said she held strong views about capital punishment before the program and she left with them intact.

"I just don't agree with it," she said. "Capital punishment is wrong."

Sociology Professor Sandra Jones, one of the program's organizers, said her professional research has focused on capital punishment, most recently in connection with the grief process of family members of death row inmates.

"Society at large does not understand that these ‘monsters' do have people who love them," Jones said.

And, she said despite what some might think, people who oppose the death penalty are not necessarily soft on crime or anti-incarceration.

"We just feel the punishment should fit the crime and we should not dehumanize people in the process," she said.

Jones also noted that in 14 states that abolished the death penalty, including New Jersey, the murder rate is actually lower than in many states that still have it.