Maryland death-row inmate Kenneth Collins spoke live via speakerphone to students in an overflowing room in Corcoran Hall Thursday night.
Supporters greeted him with chants of, they say death row, we say hell no.
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty and GW chapters of NAACP, International Socialist Organization, ACLU and GW Action Coalition co-sponsored the event.
Sponsors said they hoped to personalize the death row experience for students so they become active in the fight against a practice they feel is inhumane.
These events are the only way to put human faces on these people, said senior Lauren Lastrapes, an event organizer. They aren’t monsters and a lot of the time they’re not even murderers.
Collins was placed on Maryland’s death row in 1986 after he was found guilty of the murder of Wayne Breeden. Collins was not identified by a witness until six months into the trial and no physical evidence was ever presented against him, said Collins’ attorney Peter Keith, who attended the Corcoran Hall event.
Collins’ state-assigned lawyer during the murder trial was later tried for tax fraud but was acquitted because he was found to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder that made him unable to perform his job properly.
Despite the fact that Kenneth Collins was not given fair representation and there is no physical evidence that he committed the crime, he is being held in a Maryland state prison where he awaits his execution, Keith said.
Collins answered students questions, describing prison life and his experience on death row.
I live in a maximum-security segregated institution of punishment, he said. We don’t get the opportunities that free people do.
Collins described the high level of tension and stress in the death houses – the name used to describe buildings that house death-row inmates.
We just try to keep ourselves busy by getting involved, he said. I am involved with yoga, exercise and studying.
Collins finished by thanking the crowd.
Being with you all today has energized my spirit, he said. I don’t consider this battle to be over because it is still tough to sustain. Thank you all for getting to know me.
Lawrence Hayes, an ex-death row inmate from New York, spoke after Collins.
Over 30 years ago, I sat in a cell waiting to die, but because of your efforts I am here today to talk to you, Hayes said.
Hayes was an active participant in the Black Panthers organization before his arrest in 1986.
What people fail to see is that the Black Panthers are trying to help, Hayes said. I was put on death row for a crime I was not guilty of committing because of who I was.
Opponents of the death penalty argue the sentence is discriminatory, because a greater percentage of minorities are on death row.
We need to recognize that the death penalty is reserved for minorities, he said.
Now Hayes is working with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s program to spread knowledge about discrimination in sentencing and reportedly innocent people who are awaiting execution.
If we cannot act together as a human family and stop killing, or executing, we will not, we cannot advance as a whole, as a family, Hayes said.
Organizers said they were encouraged with the event’s student participation. Over 100 students attended the event
We are extremely pleased with the turnout this evening, Lestrapes said. People are taking a stand on this extremely important position.
Students also protested the death penalty Saturday at the maximum- security prison in Baltimore, where Kenneth Collins is detained.