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March 21, 2012

Life and death

Individuals impacted by capital punishment push for reform

Shujaa Graham was sentenced to die in San Quentin in 1976, falsely accused and convicted of killing a prison guard while he was serving time for robbery. After three years of appeals, he was acquitted.

He attributes his freedom, in large part, to two middle school students who organized support for a legal defense fund that helped exonerate him.

As if to repay that debt, Graham spends much of his time speaking to students around the country about his struggles with crime as a youth in Los Angeles, turning his life around, and using his story as an indictment of the death penalty.

“No matter if my voice shakes, I have to speak up,” Graham says. “Because people spoke up for me, and I wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t. I just want to make sure that it never happens to anyone else.”

When Graham was released in 1981, he was only the 20th person exonerated from death row in the United States. Due to the work of legal defense teams and the emergence of DNA testing, that number has risen to 140 today.

“What we have to do as Americans is come to terms with the demons of our past and understand that the system has failed us miserably,” says Graham, one of three panelists set to discuss the need for capital punishment reform at the University of Louisville this week. “People are dying that could have been saved, and more will die if we don’t rediscover our own humanity and act against it.”

The forum comes at a time when many in the legal community are calling for reform of the state’s “broken” capital punishment system.

Last December, an American Bar Association panel completed a two-year analysis of Kentucky’s death penalty, finding serious problems with a system that’s seen 50 of its 78 death sentences overturned since 1976. Their report called for a moratorium on the death penalty until reforms are enacted.

However, the General Assembly seems reluctant to act.

Despite a House resolution assigning a task force to assess the death penalty, as well as bipartisan support for a bill prohibiting the execution of the severely mentally ill, both measures ultimately face little chance of coming to a vote as the session nears its end. But activists hope the personal testimony of three people who have witnessed first-hand a deeply flawed system will have an impact on lawmakers.

Bill Babbitt’s brother, Manny, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was executed in California in 1999 for murdering an elderly woman.

Manny suffered a serious head wound in battle at Khe Sanh and was assumed dead, awakening to find himself in a helicopter full of corpses. Despite struggling with severe PTSD and delusions, he was released by a VA hospital in 1980, over the objections of his doctor.

That same year, while living with his brother in Sacramento, Manny was cutting through a neighbor’s yard and could hear a loud war movie playing on her TV. The sounds transported him back into the jungle, and he entered the woman’s house and beat her. During the altercation, the victim suffered a fatal heart attack. Manny left her body under a mattress with her ankle tagged, just as soldiers would leave behind comrades in battle.

Bill came to the disturbing conclusion that his brother might have murdered her and made the agonizing decision to contact police. In turn, prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Bill Babbitt has since crossed the globe to tell his brother’s story.

“Manny forgave me, and I know I’m doing the right thing, what God would want me to do,” he tells LEO. “And the only way to change people’s minds is to engage them in a conversation.”

Three days before Christmas in 1986, SueZann Bosler and her father, the Rev. Billy Bosler, were brutally stabbed by an intruder in their church. SueZann faked death while she listened to her father’s last breaths.

In the end, the killer was spared the death penalty, and the Bosler family was relieved.

Since then, SueZann Bosler has spoken out against capital punishment around the world and helped found Journey of Hope, a nonprofit that assists murder victims’ families.

“I just want people to have an open mind, to listen,” Bosler says. “I want them to be educated about both sides so they can come to a conclusion based on facts and the truth.”

Bosler is encouraged by the progress made in several states over the past two decades, but hopes public officials elsewhere — including Kentucky — will move faster once they come to recognize the inequalities of the justice system and the exorbitant cost of executing people.

“They just keep on letting it continue because they are afraid to change, afraid of not getting re-elected, afraid of being seen as soft on crime,” Bosler says. “The government is telling us that it’s against the law to murder, but it’s legal for the government to murder or execute. That’s another thing that I’m still trying to understand.”

Back in Frankfort, Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, supports both the resolution assigning a task force to review the death penalty (HCR 173) and the bill prohibiting the execution of the severely mentally ill (HB 145), but he predicts political timidness will pose problems.

“There’s a lot of reluctance on the part of some in (Democratic) leadership to place that before the body,” Floyd says. “And I think that reluctance is in part fear of exposing their members to a vote that their constituents won’t like, to a charge of being soft on crime, however unjustified.”

Floyd suspects a lack of education is behind opposition to the assessment team, which does not eliminate the death penalty but examines ways to improve it.

When asked for House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s position on the resolution, his spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, explained Stumbo’s opposition in a way that gave credence to Floyd’s fear. “His position on the death penalty has not changed for years and years: He is a strong supporter of the death penalty.”