Why am I against the death penalty?

In November 1990, Carl Survine was a vibrant community leader, an Attorney, volunteer mentor and one of my dearest friends in Shreveport. Carl was robbed and murdered by Anthony Brown. The details are too gruesome to recount. I wanted Anthony Brown to be punished to the highest degree of the law: the death penalty. For several years, I followed the case, went to court, harbored a deep hatred for Anthony Brown, and grief for Carl Survine.

Finally, in 1994, the District Attorney convicted Anthony Brown of second-degree murder, and he received a life sentence. Frankly, I was relieved that the case had been resolved. I think many families of victims who hang on to the anger and pain are worse off than the families who can reconcile that life in prison is a lifetime of punishment.

In 1994, I also had the opportunity to meet Sister Helen Prejean and read her book Dead Man Walking. Sisten Helen taught me that both victims and killers have humanity. I found a sense of peace after Carl’s death and began to understand the trials and tribulations of our justice system.

For the last 25 years, I have known many of the attorneys and mitigation experts who have defended the most dangerous criminals who have done heinous acts of violence.

One of those people was a remarkable woman, Scharlette Holdman who created mitigation research to understand the background, motivations, and life experience of people who committed horrible crimes. 

I was fortunate to spend time with Scharlette — and many other death penalty lawyers and mitigation experts — who gathered in the summer of 2017 to be with Scharlette before losing her battle with cancer.

The conversation centered around torture. It is always about torture, or rape, or murder, or crimes too bizarre to reconcile with this group of loving, caring, and compassionate people whose life work was to defend the worst of the worst.

Whether the crimes stem from passion, fear, anger, ideology, or just an accident, these experts were drawn to the flame. What is their flame? The flame may be different for each one — the challenge, the injustice, the work of ending the death penalty — one defendant at a time.

On a sunny day in Florida at the beach, lives and history intersect to focus on joy and love and pain and the search for justice.

Each person brought a longing for justice to the work.

The work.

We were brought together out of love for a woman. We each saw this woman differently and the same; as a mother, as a survivor, as a champion, as a leader, as a creator, as a storyteller, as an advocate, as a mentor and...

We projected our needs onto her. Our need to be there, with her, for her, but mostly for ourselves.

We needed to know that we were there — part of her orbit, her legacy and her lifetime of work.

It always comes back to the work.

People who are committed to the work.   People who learned the work from her and with her and through her…

People who sacrificed for the work. People who put themselves and their families at risk for the work.

Often, family, partners, and children came second to the work.

The work of justice.

On that summer week in June 2017, these advocates came together to celebrate and rejoice and hold near Scharlette Holdman.

Scharlette who crusaded for justice. Scharlette who made monsters into men. Scharlette who transformed killers into frail and scared children and young men. Scharlette who convinced people that deranged killers were more than the impact of a single event. Scharlette who worked a lifetime to abolish state-sponsored killing did not hold back her frustrations and anger over injustice.

Scharlette did not make excuses, nor did she make promises.

Scharlette worked hard and as she faced the end of her 70 years she had lessons and wisdom and love to share.

She also had stories of murder, child abuse, torture, and terrorism and the people who are capable of great evil at any given moment.

Even telling the horrific life story of a young woman: her years as a victim of rape and abuse at the hands of her father, the many men he brought to rape and demean her, and the crime she ultimately committed that brought her to death row. Scharlette still saw her humanity.

These people are drawn to understanding the life stories of killers and criminals, not to excuse their acts, but to reveal what has happened in someone's life to predict, explain, or give context to the crime.

Scharlette invented mitigation research as a legitimate field of inquiry in criminal justice. Her efforts over the last nearly 50 years have laid the foundation for anthropologists, sociologists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and even lawyers, to be interested in what drives people that kill. 

How do you explain killers? Can you give a historical family or community context that enlightens their behavior? Should that context matter in assessing justice? Do horrific individual acts justify the state to kill people who are criminals?

The drive to abolish the death penalty, and to limit the number of people who are killed by the state animated this group. That is their work. Their work is to abolish the death penalty.

In 2019, many in Louisiana are increasingly concerned about how the death penalty is determined In Louisiana. With 77 people on death row in Louisiana and with 11 people exonerated and freed from Louisiana’s death row, there is reason to believe that the most appropriate course of action is to end the death penalty.

Since the state could not get the correct drugs for executions, Louisiana has not executed anyone since 2009.

Ten years later, 2019 is the year to end the death penalty in Louisiana. But Attorney General Jeff Landry wants to kill people faster, even if they might be innocent.

I was saddened by the death penalty circus put on by Attorney General Jeff Landry on March 12, 2019.

Understanding the pain of families who have lost a loved one to violence was the rationale for a hearing at the Louisiana State Capitol.

Orchestrated by Attorney General Jeff Landry, Rep. Sherman Mack turned the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee into a tragic showcase for the pain of families to seek vengeance for lost loved ones.

The frustration and anger of families was inflamed by Attorney General Landry who wanted to grandstand against the Governor and talk about speeding up the executions of men on Death Row at Angola.

Attorney General Landry demonstrated a blood lust, a need for revenge, and wanted to return to hangings and firing squads to hurry and kill people.

Sitting in the committee room was an exasperating experience, to hear Landry pander and exploit the pain of families. The Committee was not interested in hearing from the clergy, lawyers, family members of victims and from people exonerated after serving on death row.

Rather than taking advantage of families who are forced to relive the loss of loved ones, we need to help families deal with their grief.

I think that Louisiana should abolish the death penalty in 2019.

We should abolish the death penalty because prosecuting the death penalty is too expensive and legal oversight and appeals don't happen overnight. The state of Louisiana has spent over $150 million trying cases and funding legal procedures over the last ten years and has only executed one person.

We should abolish the death penalty because too many people on death row have been exonerated.

We should abolish the death penalty because the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder.

We should abolish the death penalty because it does not bring solace to families of victims.

We should abolish the death penalty because it is against our Judeo-Christian faith traditions.

We proclaim to be the most pro-life state, and we need to prove it and abolish the death penalty.

I have been fortunate to know many of the people who work to protect the constitution and the rights of the accused.

In the 2019 Legislative Session, a bill to abolish the death penalty will be introduced. I ask you to stop for a minute and consider your faith, your values, and your best interests. Support the legislation to abolish the death penalty.

For more information on this issue go to Promise of Justice Initiative.

Written by Melissa S. Flournoy, PhD

Louisiana Progress Action

Board Member