WASHINGTON – They started fasting at midnight to protest the death penalty. By 9:30 a.m. Monday they were sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court with signs, pamphlets and petitions.
“We fast as a way to focus on what we do. To let go of everything but our goal,” Denny Davis, 66, of Burbank, S.D., a Catholic deacon and director of the South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said. “It is a type of prayer.”
Each year for 22 years, the Abolitionist Action Committee has marked the June 29 anniversary of the Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling with a four-day fast and vigil at the Supreme Court. This year they chatted quietly as the court’s 5-4 decision in favor of the death penalty in the Glossip v. Gross lethal-injection case was announced inside the court.
In Glossip v. Gross, Oklahoma death row inmates argued the state’s three-drug protocol in lethal injection executions was cruel and unusual punishment. In the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case, the court ruled the death penalty was constitutional in murder and rape convictions.
“It is sad, obviously. We want repeal. We think that anything they use is terrible public policy,” Davis said.
About 50 people joined the fast and vigil each year. This year James Basden, 65, a retired truck mechanic of Seattle, handed out small, white pamphlets with blue letters that read, “WHY END THE DEATH PENATLY?”
Basden’s brother, Ernest Basden, was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 6, 2002, in Raleigh, N.C. after his 1993 murder conviction. A month before his execution, the Supreme Court declined to hear Ernest Basden’s case. He argued the jurors in his case did not understand he would actually be executed despite sentencing him to death.
“My brother had a chance. They just didn’t allow it,” James Basden said. “He found salvation, and that made it easier. He didn’t whimper.”
James Basden said he believes the actions of the Abolitionist Action Committee are making a difference.
“We are going to end it. We are closer than we have ever been,” Basden said.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent to Monday’s decision, saying they didn’t believe the death penalty could be fairly administered, but no other justices joined their view.
Mary Johnson, 45, of Atlanta, attended the vigil for the second year. She works with a Christian social activism group called the Open Door Community, which fights against homelessness and the death penalty. One of her duties is to spend time with Georgia inmates like Marcus Wellons, who was executed June 17, 2014, for murder.
Wellon’s execution by lethal injection was the first one following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, the event that began the Glossip v. Gross case. Johnson stayed with Wellons and his family through the deathwatch but did not attend the execution.
“It still has an effect on me. I am still realizing how profoundly it affects me,” Johnson said. “The ripple effects continue. It is continuing the cycle of violence.”
Johnson said she knows the fast and vigil is having a positive effect.
“Not having food for a few days is well worth abolishing the death penalty,” Johnson said. “You never know what the tipping point will be.”
Reach reporter Sarah Fulton at [email protected] or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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