One Thursday night in January, I arrived late to a rally at Chicago’s Hyde Park Community Church, a 100-year-old architectural landmark with its stone and oak benches and oak trim everywhere.
There were no seats left, the church was packed and, as I tried to drift down an aisle, I was stunned by the absolute silence of the congregation. A slight, young-looking African-American man was at the microphone. He was one of the six men present who had been exonerated of crimes and released from Illinois death row.
Six innocent men – all of them freed from death row – standing at the front of the sanctuary and facing us. When he finished his halting account of what life on death row was like, a storm of clapping, shouting, groaning and cheering shook the church, and people began stomping rhythmically, drumming on the wooden floor.
Posters with pictures of our six death-row guests ranged across the sanctuary. Standing ovations repeatedly interrupted each as they recounted their experiences awaiting the day and hour of execution. Darby Tellis was the sole honoree wearing an orange jumpsuit. This elderly looking grey-bearded, husky man was shackled, feet together, hands clasped, chained as a prisoner.
When he was called to the pulpit, he stood and hopped in baby steps to the microphone. The mistress of ceremonies unlocked his hands. He pulled out his harmonica and played a haunting, sweet, soulful song – his death row song – and then in strong shouts told us of the broken system that has kept 96 prisoners on death row for a total of 761 years, all of whom are, like the six who led our rally, now back out and among us.
Others on the platform were Alice Kim, the attorney for Aaron Patterson, and eloquent organizer of the Illinois Committee for Abolition of the Death Penalty, Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/Push choir.
Aaron’s mother has lobbied throughout the state for her son’s release, and his attorney promised that Aaron will be the next and 14th death row prisoner to walk free in Illinois.
Aaron was tortured by three Chicago police officers, one of whom has comfortably retired to Florida, the other two are still active detectives in Chicago. Aaron has spent years awaiting execution.
The vestibule of the church was jammed with literature tables, as pacifists, socialists and progressives sold or gave away newspapers, leaflets, buttons and schedules of upcoming events in Chicago, including one at which our own Gov. George Ryan is on the program.
After one execution early in his administration, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions and there have been no more since then.
The next day, I read about President Bush’s State of the Union address being interrupted with standing ovations. I’m sure that our rally was more exciting – with glorious songs of freedom by the PUSH choir, incisive comments by Rev. Jackson, an ovation for Jacqueline Jackson, Jesse’s activist wife, and a big collection for the Abolition Movement – and I’ll bet we had 100 standing ovations. “Feel the fire a-burning,” says a freedom song. The anti-death penalty movement is burning brightly in Illinois.
The growing sentiments in support of a moratorium were further evident in other developments. The blue ribbon commission established by Gov. Ryan, and chaired by former U.S. Senator Paul Simon, to study the application of capital punishment after Ryan declared the moratorium has nearly completed its work. In a preliminary vote, the committee voted 8-5 to recommend the abolition of the death penalty. Last fall, in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, the state legislature rushed a version of the USA Patriot Act spearheaded by State Attorney General Jim Ryan. Last week Gov. Ryan vetoed the section of the bill calling for capital punishment in cases of terrorism.
Gov. Ryan stirred public debate recently when he announced he was considering commuting the sentences of all 160 inmates still on death row. “I’d rather have someone angry at me than kill an innocent person,” he said. While 12 executions have taken place since 1972, 13 death row prisoners were found to be innocent and freed in the last few years, a development that led Ryan to impose a moratorium.
Rev. Bill Hogan is an activist in South Chicago.