A bill to abolish Colorado’s death penalty failed during this past Legislative session, but Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CADP) has come back strong, teaming up with a diverse and powerful group of community partners. Together they will engage Coloradans throughout the state in dialogue about why abolishing the death penalty will make Colorado a stronger, safer, and more just place to live.
CADP is working closely with the faith community, murder victim family members, the NAACP, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, the Catholic Mobilizing Network and other organizations. I had the opportunity recently to speak with three coalition members who are heading up these efforts—Jim Ryan, former Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches, Sharletta C. Evans, Statewide Victim Coordinator for CADP and a powerful murder victim family member herself, and Rosemary Lytle, President of the NAACP CO-MT-WY State Conference and Board Chair-Elect for the national organization, Murder Victim Family Members for Reconciliation. These three visionary leaders are among those who are working with Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to create a statewide coalition that reaches every corner of the state and brings critical conversations about this issue to as many kitchen tables, classrooms, houses of worship and community forums as possible.
Rev. Dr. Jim Ryan recently retired after serving for 13 years as the Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches. Since retiring, he has created his own company, Doing Justice LLC. He says, "When I get up in the morning, I check to see if there is still injustice in the world. If there is, then I still have work to do." He is facilitating a process for faith leaders to educate themselves about the death penalty in order to host conversations within their communities that allow individuals to reflect on how their faith might influence their thinking about the issue. It is a process of open exploration, and an opportunity for people to express their opinions whatever they may be. “All perspectives will be welcome at the table. Our intent is to move the conversation from a political debate to a conversation about morals,” Jim explained. “The goal is to help people move beyond what their personal gut reaction may be to a place where they reflect on what their faith teaches them to think about this issue.”
Faith leaders met early this month to discuss what each will need to host these community conversations. They also began planning for a series of public interfaith discussions on the death penalty in 2014. They hope to partner with one or more Colorado seminaries to host these events.
In a similar vein, Sharletta C. Evans is working with a growing community of murder victim family members who want to be involved in the campaign to end the death penalty. The alliance that Sharletta is building among these family members is truly unique. This alliance will be by and for murder victim family members. “We will move forward as a family and as one—utilizing everyone’s ideas. I ask, what do you see happening, and what do you want to happen?” Sharletta explained. “Our slogan is ‘I am a voice for change.’ Beyond abolishing the death penalty we can come together and accomplish even more. We have to make our loved ones live on through us.” Her goal is to give victim family members a sense that they do have a voice, and that they can change laws.
Sharletta herself became a national advocate for the repeal of juvenile life without parole after she lost her 3-year old son, Casson Xavier Evans, on December 21, 1995, in a drive-by shooting. All three of the boys arrested for the crime were juveniles. “It was in watching my surviving son, who was six at the time and with his brother when he was killed, that I asked myself eight years later when he was 14-years-old—the same age as the teens when they committed the offense—would I want him imprisoned for life at 14 years old? That is when I started to feel empathy and forgiveness,” Sharletta recounted.
Sharletta has been speaking with murder victim family members throughout the state one-on-one, whether their family member’s case was a capital case or not. “Most of them have a strong “why” for why they oppose the death penalty,” Sharletta explained. She recounted that some of the primary reasons victim family members tell her they oppose the death penalty include moral opposition to the death penalty, recognition of the racially biased nature of how the death penalty is carried out, and most importantly the agonizing process family members endure, that is often re-victimizing, while pursuing justice for their loved one. Many families also say they don’t want to see the government taking the life of another in their names or the names of their loved one. “We are the most fragile, yet the most powerful part of that campaign,” Sharletta told me. “I and the other murder victim family members must be more involved in the details of the campaign, move forward together with unity, and support each other through the process. We will be a family.”
The woman connecting the dots between abolitionists, murder victim family members and the civil rights community is Rosemary Lytle. Rosemary is not only the president of the NAACP State Conference, but she herself is also a murder victim family member. Her father, Johnnie Banks Sr. was shot in a robbery gone bad and died just before Thanksgiving Day more than 20 years ago. The murder was never solved, but Rosemary emphasizes that even if they knew who was responsible, the death penalty would not have been justice for her or for her Dad. The moment that she realized this, she became an activist.
Rosemary is ensuring that Colorado is staying on top of the criminal justice reform agenda ratified by the national NAACP which includes a priority to end the death penalty. “People are shocked when they learn that while only 4% of Colorado’s population is African-American, 100% of its death row population is African-American,” Rosemary explains. Through her broader civil rights advocacy work, she and other civil rights and criminal justice reform colleagues explicitly talk about the problems of mass incarceration, police brutality, and the need for drug policy reform to mitigate high incarceration, particularly of youth of color. Even before talking about the death penalty, people she speaks with see that the criminal justice system is highly flawed. Therefore, for Rosemary, taking people that one step further to look at the problems with the death penalty is not a huge leap. “They begin to know they would never be in favor of a death penalty system put in place by the same people responsible for these other abuses,” she explains.
Among the NAACP’s membership in Colorado-Montana-Wyoming are retired military officers, former law enforcement, and elected officials who have also seen the problems and concerns of the “maze” of the criminal justice system. While there should be a way out, for too many people, especially for young, African American men from Arapahoe County—the only death sentencing county in Colorado—that door is a sealed concrete slab. There is no way out unless the death penalty is repealed.
“What we are doing over the next year is educating people no matter where they are in Colorado. African-Americans are so disproportionately affected by murder in one way or another. Yet, so many African-American families hold fairly regressive attitudes, such as “an eye for an eye.” When we take our messages to people in intimate ways, around the dining room table, they begin to listen. I’m taking a leadership role because this is the most important criminal justice policy facing us at this time in Colorado. If we end this policy, then we can begin to talk about further criminal justice reform,” Rosemary concluded.
“The collaboration with our coalition partners is an invaluable part of our work,” commented Lisa Cisneros, Executive Director of Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “Slowly, person by person, community by community, we are inviting our fellow Coloradans to take a moment to reflect on their faith, on their personal experience, on the experience of those affected by crime and violence and to ask themselves, honestly, whether or not the death penalty is a policy that they can stand behind.”
Dr. Martin Luther King’s reflection on the beloved community comes to mind for me here. He said, “While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” I hear the members of the Colorado coalition saying, while abhorring the violence we shall love those responsible for this violence, for they could be our sons, fathers, daughters, and mothers. Only in this way can we end this barbaric practice of the death penalty and move one step closer to the beloved community.
Only nonviolence, King believed, had the power to break the cycle of retributive violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation .