Death row inmates talk live to students

Maryland death row inmates Kenny Collins and Tyrone X Gilliam discussed their individual experiences and general concerns about capital punishment at “Live From Death Row,” an event hosted by GW’s Campaign to End the Death Penalty in the Marvin Center Ballroom Friday.

“What Tyrone and Kenny Collins are doing is asserting their humanity, and showing that these are thoughtful, complex people that are being put to death,” said CEDP member Virginia Harabin. “Above all, the death penalty dehumanizes people.”

Collins, who has been on death row for murder since 1988, spoke to the 75-member audience on speaker phone. He answered questions about his life on death row and discussed the racial and economic ramifications of capital punishment.

“I wake up in the morning with my mother and my family on my mind, and I know they’re thinking of me during the day,” Collins said. “I wonder how I can find the words to say to help them be strong?”

Collins read poems he composed during his years on death row and said he has raised his personal spirituality.

Gilliam, who has been on death row since 1989, said his membership in the Nation of Islam is a source of strength.

Gilliam, whose execution is scheduled for the week of Nov. 16, was involved in a carjacking and murder.

“I am truly, truly repentant for my participation in the crime . we were spiritually dead, deaf, dumb and blind,” Gilliam said. “Those things that I cannot change, I try not to; those things I can change I try to.”

Gilliam said the practice of capital punishment in the United States is racist and urged black audience members to take a stand against it.

“It is strange, our political apathy,” he said. “You don’t see black people out in the streets protesting the death penalty or out voting.”

GW Law School student Johanna Fernandez also called capital punishment racist and classist, and said it is an ineffective deterrent to crime.

Jay Nickerson and Peter Keith, lawyers for Gilliam and Collins respectively, also spoke to the audience.

Keith maintained his client’s innocence and said Collins was arrested seven months after the crime in question occurred. Keith said forensic evidence linked him to the case.

“What does it mean when society has a punishment that is predominantly used on people of color?” Nickerson said. “This is a racist institution. This is the last vestige of slavery.”

CEDP Chair Barak Epstein said the event successfully exposed GW students to the issue of capital punishment. CEDP, a nationwide activist organization chartered at GW last year, works with area universities to abolish capital punishment in the United States.

“I think that it’s experiences like this that round out people’s education,” Barak said. “My hope now is that we can energize the campus around issues of social justice and that we can continue to educate and inspire.”

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