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Executing in a Pandemic

A Talk with the Founders of The Digital Abolitionist


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Jonathan Pezzi

3 years ago | 7 min read

With many courts and prisons on lockdown across the United States, much of the judicial system has come to a halt during COVID-19. Nonetheless, several states have not stayed the executions of those on death row.

Instead, some inmates have been faced with the prospect of execution in total isolation, even clergy have been prohibited from reading a prisoner’s last rites.

A collection of students and young activists in New York City felt obligated to address this phenomenon and started a not-for-profit advocacy organization known as The Digital Abolitionist.

The Digital Abolitionist was created to amplify incarcerated voices, track abolitionist efforts, and organize campaigns to assist those on death row.

Originally started by three students at Columbia University, the platform now garners an active community of artists, activists, and scholars around the country, working to abolish the death penalty and greater penal reform in the US.

“The digital part of it was more because we’re in quarantine. It was more about praxis during a pandemic. It seemed so insane to all of us that they (governments) were trying to kill people while everyone else was trying to save lives during a pandemic.

It seemed like such an insane priority to have, one that was very hard to justify, even if you’re very pro-death penalty,” says Fonda Shen, a founding member of the organization.

“It just seems ironic to do during a pandemic,” she went on.

The project’s idea sprouted from several formative classes and experiences the founders claim shaped their view of the American justice system. “I was interning at a (Washington) DC prosecutor’s office and every file that came on my desk was a person of color,” recalls Shen.

The group set out with simple goals, initially starting with smaller art projects, but they say their platform snowballed into something much larger.

“What we really wanted this to be is an educational platform. It’s really about humanizing, about how this whole legal process is affecting people,” according to Hanna Agbanrin, another founding member and Columbia student.

Their primary intention is to provide a resource for regular people not already involved in this field of advocacy. “We feel like a lot of other abolitionist websites already out there are directed towards the people doing the work on the ground.…We want to be able to explain it to anyone,” Agbanrin added.

Capital punishment is currently used by 28 states. The US is the only industrialized Western nation to consistently continue the practice. Historically, the common methods to carry out an execution were via hanging and electrocution, but those mechanisms shifted to lethal injection in the early 1980s.

The death penalty has a long history in North America. The first recorded death sentence was in 1608 when a British subject was executed for espionage in the Jamestown Colony, Virginia.

Nearly as old as capital punishment in the US, is its advocacy for abolition.

In the 19th century, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine all abolished the death penalty. Between 1967 and 1977, there wasn’t a single execution that took place in the United States. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled against capital punishment in Furman V. Georgia, forcing state legislatures to rewrite their laws regarding state-sanctioned executions or discard of them altogether.

Many abolition advocates hoped this decision would be the impetus for full prohibition of the practice, but these hopes proved short-lived. A majority of states soon passed new death penalty laws, and the future of capital punishment was assured through the landmark supreme court case, Gregg V. Georgia (1976).

Since this decision, more than 7,800 prisoners have been sentenced to death. More than 1,500 of that number have been executed, 165 of whom were later exonerated,

This final statistic is a primary criticism for the institution cited by death penalty-abolitionists, in addition to a demonstrated bias of death sentencing towards people of color and based on the race of the victim.

According to the United States General Accounting Office, in 82% of the stud­ies, the race of the vic­tim was found to influ­ence the like­li­hood of being charged with cap­i­tal mur­der or receiv­ing the death penal­ty, i.e., those who mur­dered whites were found more like­ly to be sen­tenced to death than those who mur­dered people of color.

Additionally, African Americans make up 42% of the people on death row. 55% of those currently awaiting execution are people of color.

One case The Digital Abolitionist recently worked on was that of Ruben Gutierrez. In 1999, Mr. Gutierrez was convicted of killing an elderly woman during a home robbery in Texas.

For nearly two decades, Gutierrez has been fighting his conviction and petitioning the courts to test the crime scene DNA, which he claims could prove his innocence.

The original controversies with Mr. Gutierrez’s case arise from the initial investigation.

After he was arrested, Gutierrez told the police he was a lookout in a park while his two accomplices robbed and subsequently killed the elderly woman, Escolastica Cuellar Harrison.

Soon after his first confession, Gutierrez admitted he was, in fact, in the house while the murder took place, contradicting his previous story.

Later, Gutierrez claimed he changed his story only because detectives threatened to his arrest his wife and take away his children, according to a local news source.

Forensic evidence at the scene was preserved, including hair, fingernail scrapings, and bloodstains, but prosecutors refuse to test the DNA. They claim, as there were likely multiple killers, finding DNA other than Gutierrez’s would not confirm his innocence.

Via social media advocacy campaigns and working in conjunction with the Gutierrez family, advocates with The Digital Abolitionist have worked for the last several months to postpone his sentence

“As soon as we got his mailing address, I wrote to him and told him that a group of us were doing everything we could to raise awareness and fight for him…It was around this time when I got in touch with his wife, Angie Gutierrez, through Twitter.

She is lovely and so generously responded to my message and we sort of naturally joined forces,” says Kiana Taghavi, a current Columbia student and spearhead of The Digital Abolitionist’s anti-death penalty campaigns.

Taghavi and other volunteers compiled petitions, automated emails, legal documents, and graphics to circulate on social media in an attempt to build a grassroots campaign that could lobby the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole.

Throughout the effort, Kiana maintained contact with Mrs. Gutierrez. “I will say that there is something distinctive about being in contact with a loved one of someone on death row. I did not know what to say at many times — how do you talk to someone whose loved one has a date of their ‘passing’ marked on the calendar?”

This month, Mr. Gutierrez was scheduled to be executed only for his death to be postponed by a court after a religious advisor was not allowed in the death chamber due to COVID-19 concerns, violating his 1st Amendment rights.

“(It was) Such a visceral memory. Angie was very happy — she had a really sweet post on Twitter thanking everyone involved in these efforts — and I cannot begin to even fathom a fraction of the pain, anxiety, and uncertainty she must have felt for so long.”

Now Mr. Gutierrez’s execution has been stayed, those at The Digital Abolitionist have shifted their efforts to assist another man on death row, named Billy Joe Wardlow. He was only 18 when he was sentenced to death. Currently, they’re organizing for petition signatures, email campaigns, and again lobbying Texas officials to postpone or reverse the court’s decision.

Photo courtesy of The Digital Abolitionist website

In addition to their advocacy, The Digital Abolitionist hosts a 3D digital art exhibit, titled Row Art, dedicated to and showcasing the work of those facing execution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Curated by Kharii Turner, a visual artist originally from Milwaukee, WI, visitors of the exhibit can explore the digital space, peering through the dozens of pieces Turner has selected.

“This show was put together with the hopes of creating stories, connecting people in different areas, and allowing the work that has been inside to come outside…,” says Turner.

For Turner and those at The Digital Abolitionist, providing a direct voice for those within the system was paramount.

“The show is made to evaluate, to support, to empathize, to sympathize, and to understand that not everything can and will be peachy, that no news source will be able to express the same ideas that these artists can express for themselves,” Turner explains in a video upon visiting his exhibit.

Agbanrin and Shen say the next step is extending the platform by coming up with new, innovative ways to explain abolition. They hope to establish a more constant communication with those awaiting execution, although they recognize the difficulties in this endeavor, including the limited resources many inmates have access to.

Meanwhile, after a 16-year hiatus the United States Department of Justice announced its plans to resume executions for federal crimes last July. There are currently 62 prisoners on federal death row.

Originally published at Vianewsglobal.

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Jonathan Pezzi

Founder of Via News, a digital platform for underreported stories | University College London


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