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Sunday, 31 October 2010

Hundreds of people march against the death penalty



Death penalty protestors gather in front of the Texas State Capitol every year on the weekend before All Souls' Day, or The Day of the Dead, which falls on November second. This Tuesday happens to also be Election Day.

For the men leading the procession from the Capitol, down Congress Avenue to 6th Street, it’s a tough walk. They were once on Death Row. Evidence exonerated them. The journey's been an especially hard one for Gregory Wilhoite. After he was freed, an accident put him in a wheelchair.

“For whatever reason, I'm convinced that God's got a job for me, so I'm a man on a mission, and the mission is educating people about the realities of capital punishment,” Wilhoite says.

He used to be pro death penalty until he found himself on death row for a crime that evidence would later show he did not commit. Another Death Row survivor, Shujaa Graham, says he made a lot of promises while he was there.

“I promised a lot of prisoners that once I was released from prison that I would fight and try to see that they would be able to survive themselves,” Graham says.

The survivors here are not just ex-prisoners. Bill Pelke's grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls. One got the death penalty.

“Originally I supported the judge's decision,” Pelke says. “But I went through a transformation and became convinced that execution is not the solution.”

Some protestors carried signs and shouted chants against Governor Rick Perry, a death penalty proponent. Not everyone at the Capitol agrees with those views.

“I am for the death penalty,” Mike Smith, visiting from Houston, says. “But I also agree to freedom of speech, and it's a good thing that they can voice their opinions.”

Sylvia Garza is voicing her opinion. Her son Robert was convicted under the law of parties.

“It's not a crime to be in a car behind some people that committed a murder,” Garza says. “He didn’t commit the murder.”

Many Death Row inmates claim innocence, including Rodney Reed of Bastrop. Now the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding whether Reed will get to walk this walk with other death penalty survivors.

Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, says, “If he wins this appeal, then my brother will come home and be a free man so that's what, that's what we're shooting for.”

How important the death penalty issue is remains to be seen at the ballot box on Election Day. According to several recent polls, immigration and the economy are the two top issues on voters' minds.

Texas has executed 17 people so far this year. The state executed 24 people last year. There are currently 333 people on death row in Texas.

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