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Monday, March 21, 2005

Alternative Spring Break: Students Speak Out Against the Death Penalty


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Alternative Spring Break: Students Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter
The Corrections Connection
March 21, 2005

While some Texas college students headed to the beaches of Cancun for fun in the sun this Spring Break, others stayed closer to home to feed their social consciences.

Last week, a group of students from several Lone Star State colleges gathered at the University of Texas in Austin for a week of anti-death penalty workshops and activities. The alternative spring break experience was sponsored by the Texas Moratorium Network and featured guest speakers from national anti-death penalty organizations and the state legislature.

"I wanted to do something more meaningful [during my Spring Break]," said Chaunte Sterling, a senior at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). "I figured this would be the place where I [could] do that."

Sterling, who is the vice-president of the SHSU chapter of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, was one of about 25 spring breakers who opted to spend their vacation in Austin, dedicating their free time to a cause they believe in.


According to Scott Cobb, Political Director of the Texas Moratorium Network, the goal of the program was to get students more involved in anti-death penalty activism and to teach them how to effectively work with politicians, stage public demonstrations and talk to the media about the issue.

During the course of the five-day event, students had an opportunity to hear from many guest speakers, Cobb said. First off, Walter Long, a well-known criminal defense attorney, talked to the attendees about the history of the death penalty in Texas and his experiences handling death penalty cases.

Dr. Michael Young, a UT sociology professor, also spoke to the students about social movements in the United States, including the civil rights movement and the abolishment of slavery.

Program participants also got a lesson in how to handle the media from Brenda Bowser, Communications Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. According to Cobb, she gave a workshop focused on writing press releases, establishing relationships with reporters and speaking to media. 

To polish up their lobbying skills, students also heard from Les Breeding, former legislative director of the Texas Legislature.

"He told them how to communicate with members of the legislature and gave them tips on how they should behave during lobby day, which was the next day," said Cobb.

According to Cobb, lobby day was a chance for students to gather on the steps of the state capitol building and make their voices heard. In preparation for the rally, the students assembled 280 boxes to use as props - a reference to a recent scandal at the Houston Police Department's crime lab.

The boxes represented the misplaced evidence, some of it dating back over 20 years, that was uncovered at the lab in August, Cobb said. Some of that evidence pertained to death penalty cases, prompting Cobb and the students to push the issue in their rally.

Aside from lobbying at the capitol building, the students also organized a "direct action" at Texas Governor Rick Perry's mansion, with guidance from Abe Bonowitz, Director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Bonowitz met with students early on in the week to discuss different types of direct actions with them and to encourage them to start thinking about what kind of event they were going to plan for their final day of the alternative spring break.

Originally, the direct action was slated to coincide with an execution that was scheduled for March 16, Cobb said. But Perry issued a stay of execution in that case, so the students, instead, turned their attention to a new criminal justice advisory council he created.

Last week, Perry announced that he was putting together a nine-person council, charged with examining criminal justice issues and making recommendations to improve the state's criminal justice system.

The spring breakers applauded Perry's decision as they rallied outside his home.

"We turned it into a victory celebration," said Cobb.

After the gathering at the mansion, the students marched, with anti-death penalty signs and bullhorns, to downtown Austin, where a film festival was taking place. 

"We got a lot of positive responses when we went through the crowd in the film festival line," Cobb said. "People started clapping."

Cobb was excited that the students were so well received by the public. He hopes that the crowd's reaction combined with the lessons the students learned during their alternative spring break will drive the attendees to continue to work for their cause.

"I just want them to be educated and, as they finish their university career and move on, maybe they'll continue to be involved in criminal justice issues and be helpful to us as we try to stop executions here in Texas," Cobb said.

For at least one participant, that is the plan.

Sterling said that, when she returns to SHSU, she intends to form an anti-death penalty group on campus.

"I definitely want to start an organization there that the primary focus is to protest during the executions and to get students there to write their legislators," said Sterling.

She finds it strange that both the Texas Department of Justice's Death Chamber and SHSU are located in Huntsville, yet the school has no group that speaks out against the execution of prisoners in the same city.

"We just need to make a big deal about it," Sterling said.

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