Interview: Death Penalty Action Is Putting the Abolition of Capital Punishment on the Map
Updated: May 24, 2021
In the midst of state sanctioned violence that deliberately targets poor communities of color, one nonprofit organization has stood to brave the madness of it all: Death Penalty Action. Death Penalty Action (DPA) is one of the leading organizations in the death penalty abolition movement. They work to counteract the effects of capital punishment through on-the-ground support, fundraisers, collaborations with local organizations, and more.
Death Penalty Action's deputy director Brandi Slaughter just recently joined the organization alongside Charles Keith, organizer and spokesperson for Death Penalty Action. Along with a powerful Twitter and Instagram feed, Death Penalty Action seeks to inspire and aid an America in which the death penalty is fully abolished on both federal and state levels. To discuss the organization, Angry Black Women spoke by video call with Brandi Slaughter, Charles Keith, and Allison Cohen, communications director for Death Penalty Action.
Kamsi Obiorah: What is Death Penalty Action? What do you guys strive to accomplish?
Brandi Slaughter: Death Penalty Action was founded about a decade ago by two founders, Abe and Scott, who wanted to see more direct action in this movement. There are a lot of folks that do a lot of the lobbying and some of the direct interaction with legislators. But we wanted to have a place where advocates and activists and organizers could all be at the ground level to move this work forward. Our goal is very simply to work ourselves out of business, to end the death penalty at the federal level, at the state level—to end state sanctioned murder.
Azure Onyewu: When did you first start working for Death Penalty Action?
Brandi Slaughter: I'll start and then kick it to Charles. I'm actually a newbie at the organization. Probably about three weeks in—it feels like dog years though. I would classify it as three to seven years because of the time of heightened awareness on this work. The death penalty is a journey. But I began exploring probably two years ago. It's not something that's like kitchen conversation—if you will. Because of my work with churches, I began thinking about how I felt about the death penalty, just walking through the journey and the process. Charles, how long have you been with Death Penalty Action?
Charles Keith: I've probably been with Death Penalty Action for probably about five—six weeks. It's fairly new. I've known Abe for probably about fifteen years where I spoke with Ohioans to Stop Executions. I've been personally damaged by the death penalty. I had a brother that was on death row here in Ohio. Innocent, definitely innocent. You hear so many innocent claims that it's not just one or two things that a person claims that makes them innocent. But there's just so many, even in the story line, so many. To me, it's like everybody goes deaf to that story.
You're listening to the convicted story and everybody's gung-ho with that one. They refuse for some reason to want to hear that other side. You are supposed to settle this stuff in court, and the hardest place to get back into is court. They will literally execute you before they give you a chance to actually get in court and fight for your life. I've seen and experienced family strain, especially the financial strain. You know, not to mention the mental health. I realized a long time ago that I was crazy. You know, you don't try to fight the death penalty. You try to survive it. There's nothing you can do to prepare because you are looking at a wealth situation here. Only the wealthy can fight the death penalty and that's why they very rarely ever come up against it.
Allison Cohen (DPA Communications Director): I just wanted to hop in here because you mentioned Abe. Abe Bonowitz is our executive director and Charles and Abe have known each other for a really long time and they met at Ohioans to Stop Executions, so I just wanted to give some context in that Abe is our executive director, one of the founders, and Charles served on the board of Ohioans to Stop Executions. Charles has been telling the story of his brother—both of his brothers—for a very long time to combat this issue.
Charles Keith: It's also tough to even get a person to imagine just out of five minutes, ten minutes, out of fifteen, because it's taken me a lifetime—28 years. 28 years is a lot. You can accomplish a lot. You can be all these things and to know that a man is sitting somewhere waiting, and his family waiting—the victims—everybody's been waiting for decades for another tragedy to happen. How do you put a Band-Aid on something that needs stitches? And that's why Death Penalty Action is coming out.
We're bringing out all this awareness. We're bringing out as much information as we can. We're actually showing up on the ground at Terre Haute, Indiana: the killing field. We've been to DC. We're supporting families, so you know, I am certainly glad to be a part of Death Penalty Action, because that last word is what really brought me in—the word “action.”
Kamsi Obiorah: What has your experience been like working for Death Penalty Action?
Brandi Slaughter: I have nonprofit management experience, so part of this is organic. This allows for folks to play to their strengths. So, I feel like our team is very passionate about this work, some folks directly impacted, some folks working in this space for over a decade or for many years, you know trying to push for abolition. Those things I love about the work. The hard part about the work is the fact that you're talking about people dying. We're talking about people's lives being taken. There is no justice in that. There is no justice at all—whether the person is innocent, whether the person did it—there is no justice. And to have our tax dollars and to have our country support this is difficult.
So, doing the work is encouraging because we have a president that we believe will help us move forward and to put a stay to executions at the federal level. We have legislation at Congress that's been introduced that we're hopeful can move in this new environment. I've been in advocacy for a long time. I've been a registered lobbyist for a long time, and you need ground pressure. And that's what DPA does very well. While there are folks that are working internally and trying to convince the hearts and minds of legislators, we mobilize their constituents: the people that vote for them and give them financial contribution. I love the work that I do with DPA, but it is heavy and it takes all of us coming together and encouraging each other, and it takes people like you and people outside to encourage us to do this work.
Charles Keith: I've always said to myself, "How do you fight death? How?" You cannot fight the death penalty. That's why we've got all these people out there on death row. When you show up as a poor family, you're not showing up as an educated family. You're not going to go to the playbook and ask, "What's the rules?" Once convicted, everybody else goes home. The prosecutor uses all the city and the state's resources to convict you, and then you turn right around and have no resources to vindicate you.
You don't have any money. Your family's poor, probably a prison personality type family. You know, you're not going to be executing the great families where great people come from, because those are not the type of people that go on death row. You put people on death row that's not related to anybody that has any type of meaning. It's almost like you're selected.
You know, you hit the poverty level and then you get death row and then by the time it's time to execute you, nobody knows you anyways. You might get some sympathy. They may feel somewhat sorry, but they still execute the innocent. And that is what is so frightening. Me and my brother and my family went within thirteen days of my brother being executed, and then you have to sit and wait for that phone call.
Oh my god! I never wanted to answer that phone, but I did. And they told me about the parole board. There were eight members, and we put on a show for fourteen hours. We did not convince one person on that parole board—not even of any type of doubt, residual doubt—anything. And I was like, "Oh my god! They didn't hear anything!" And when I looked at that parole board, I could see black beady eyes: "Charles, you're fighting death. You're not fighting intelligence. You're fighting people that want to kill." And that's what I found myself fighting. And now we have the people that don't want to kill fighting the people that want to kill. And that's what this has come down to. So, we're fighting death, and it's a horrible thing. And there's not anything that you're going to be able to find in the playbook. You gotta find this fighting in your heart.
Azure Onyewu: Has your organization been in contact with the families of murder victims? And if so, what has your organization's experience been like with that level of contact?
Brandi Slaughter: I'll go first, Charles, and then kick it back to you, because of course you know you are one of the impacted folks. You asked the question earlier: how did I start this work or how long I've been in DPA. My initial connection to DPA was through the Journey for Hope, which is an organization that has murder victims’ families, and I also support someone very closely: Reverend Jackson. I love him greatly. He's very much active in that movement and lost his sister to murder.
And so for me, when I talk about this journey, about how in the beginning I might not have necessarily even thought about the death penalty, and then I might have been out of place like, if people are treasonous or have these mass murders, then they deserve to die—to now, to a point where I'm like in no way shape or form is it ever appropriate—is because I listened to those murder victims’ family members.
Their capacity for forgiveness is way more than—it is the very essence of being a person of Christ, you know, and I am also a minister, so you know that's where my frame comes from. So, we work very closely with those families. Part of Charles's role within our organization is to help families that are on both sides of the spectrum where they have been a victim of violence or whether their loved one has.
I don't know that I would have been convinced or be where I am today, despite all of my faith leanings, despite the Word very clearly saying “thou shall not kill,” if it weren’t for people who have been directly impacted, those who choose to forgive and don't want the state killing people and do not want that type of vengeance. So, it's a very important voice that we partner very closely with.
Charles Keith: Myself, I had a brother murdered in 2007. And people thought that I would feel differently about the death penalty, you know, that I'm going to run around, investigate and try to find this guy. But my brother was shot three times in the back all on a robbery that was wrong. The people went to the wrong house and he startled them. And sure it tore me up. I've already been fighting the death penalty, but I refused to use that as a weapon. If this guy ever gets caught—because right now it's an unsolved case—if this person ever gets caught, you know, I'm gonna leave that to the law. But I am praying that the death penalty is not there. There's so many other options. They lock people up for astronomical amounts of time. I know that these people will not get out, and we don't have to and I refuse to look for revenge. Revenge is not justice, and I don't have that burden in my heart of my brother's murderer. I've forgiven them. I've moved on. I'm fighting a death penalty case, and I've had to learn a lot.
I've been been with Abe Bonowitz probably before it was even Death Penalty Action. So, to me, Abe has always been Death Penalty Action. We've been that together. So, when he became Death Penalty Action, he called me on, and I didn't hesitate. I became Death Penalty Action, too. I take numerous amounts of calls from people. I had been doing that somewhat generically, and now, you know, with Death Penalty Action, I could do it on a much higher professional level. I had a family call me the other day, and they were kind of confused about how to locate a loved one that's in the system. There's no attorneys to talk to, so I steered them to where the documents were. I gave them different information so that they could locate him, and so I gave them a follow up call.
They did locate him. They thanked me. They found out the information that they needed because most of the time people are cut off from information, and they think that they're supposed to call a lawyer and get it. Lawyers most of the time won’t give you information unless it's a legal case. And your community people, your city council, they don't know where to find anybody like that, that would be able to help you, you know, so I'm a lot more, should I say—in the news. I'm a lot more out front and available for those that will need my action, my help, Death Penalty Action's help, so on and so forth.
Kamsi Obiorah: Has your organization been in contact with death row inmates or families of death row inmates? And if so, what has your organization's experience been like with that level of contact?
Charles Keith: Contact with death row inmates—it's a very sad thing. The guilty usually just want a pen pal. They want someone to talk to. They want that sympathetic ear. A lot of times there are guys in there, you know, like “Hey there's a document—there's maybe some document that’ll cause some type of controversy in this case.” And it's hard for them to get a hold of family members that will go and look for that piece of paper or pass on that information, so that you become like a go between. Or sometimes, you are that person that just listens when there are no answers. I understand that because I've been dealing with my brother for all these years. Sometimes, you’re just an ear. Sometimes, you're a pen. Sometimes, you contact another relative for them.
Brandi Slaughter: The other thing Charles talked about is DPA being at Terre Haute when executions are scheduled. And oftentimes it gives family members comfort knowing that there's somebody there. We can't physically be in the room when someone passes away, but we are there in spirit and in heart. I participated in the last—I think—two of the thirteen executions in Terre Haute. Oftentimes, we invite family members to come and be with us, if they're not planning to be there in the room with their loved one.
Gosh, in the last two—I think it was Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs—being able to hear from family, being able to hear from clergy that might have interacted with the person as they were preparing to die, was really meaningful and poignant to me. DPA will be there, so long as there are executions going forth. But I do think that it gives peace to family members knowing that their loved one is not alone and not forgotten and that we hold space for them in our hearts.
Charles Keith: It helped myself when I met those family members, and I told them my story. We didn't sit and swap stories, but we did trade hugs and tears, because that could have easily have been me—very easily—and I felt so bad that it was them. But, it just takes eye contact and not much more. Your spirits are talking, And we know what it is when they say, "Hey, this is it." And we understand that. So, it's tough. I'm glad that I was there to give them that hug and to share that tear, because now it's like every time a person gets executed—it's like a piece of my soul is being chopped away. So, I'm really hoping for this thing to hurry up and get over with, because like I asked you, "How do you fight death?"