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Three for Justice

Three for Justice

Published: July 12, 2010
AFSC staff and volunteers lobby for a death penalty moratorium.

From left: Faheemah Thabit, AFSC St. Louis Program Coordinator; AFSC volunteers Ponchita Argieard and Rita Mauchenheimer

Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg

The following is a March 17, 2010 interview with AFSC St. Louis staff and volunteers at the Death Penalty Moratorium Lobby Day at the State Capitol in Jefferson City, MO. AFSC is one of 400 organizations in Missouri that are working for a two-year halt in executions while a study is done.

Jon Krieg: What brought you to today’s lobby day for a death penalty moratorium?

Rita Mauchenheimer: I’m here today because the death penalty is a big issue. I’ve collected signatures for Reggie Clemons’ case. Through AFSC, I’ve stayed involved with the death penalty. It’s a human rights and justice issue. When Faheemah let me know when lobby day was, I came. I’ve been to lobby days in the past, also through AFSC. So as long as I find out--“What bus? When am I supposed to be there?”--then I make it.

Ponchita Argieard: What’s important to me, and what really makes me motivated – because I asked Faheemah a long time ago, “When are we going to have lobby day?” – is that I participated with the interviews with the African American community about their feelings about the death penalty. That was very critical for me, the kinds of issues that interface with the death penalty process, that make it an unjust system. The system itself is unjust, and so the results have to be devastating to the community on both sides. Because it’s the morally wrong way to do it.

And I heard someone observe in the interviews, that people say “They killed Marlin Gray.” [Editor’s note: Marlin Gray of St. Louis was executed in 2005.] She said, “They murdered Marlin Gray.” And I didn’t forget that. The first is euphemistic language: “They killed him.” No, the state murdered him, they took his life. So I collected signatures and I know that AFSC has changed it from what they talked about as an issue of justice to “healing justice.”

So there’s another whole component that comes into the death penalty, where there’s a revictimization of both families. Many of the people put to death had been victimized over and over again in many other kinds of ways. So the issue has gotten larger and encompasses more than just the person on death row. It impacts the community on so many levels and touches on so many different issues.

It’s hard not to embrace that issue [of the death penalty] because it’s tied to so many other issues, of class, gender, personal resources, intellectual abilities, prosecutorial misconduct. I mean, there are so many, we could go on and on. I think that’s why I’m here because it reflects a very critical issue about human existence and human life, and the quality of life and the preciousness of life.

There are people [here at the Capitol] who say they are “pro-life,” but they don’t stand over here [with us], they stand down there. So, I’ve evolved in my understanding and I’ve evolved in my ability to reflect on how powerful an issue this is and why it needs to be addressed. We need to have a lot more people here [for lobby day] – we need five buses. So that’s why I’m here.

Jon Krieg: So being an interviewer with AFSC’s African American Listening Project on the Death Penalty really changed you.

Ponchita Argieard: It pushed me to another level. Because I was asking people, “What do you think? Why do you think the way you do? What pushed you, was it Scripture, was it personal experience? Why do you think the way you do?” That pushed me to ask myself why I think the way I do. It was very powerful for me, and a very important thing for AFSC to participate in.

And we did another [listening project] prior to that, which was “What is terrorism?” And I heard Black people responding to the question, “Have you ever experienced terrorism?” And they said, “Yes, with the police in my community.” Everyone else is talking about terrorism in Iraq and Timothy McVeigh and domestic terrorism. And they said, “Yeah, but we have that in our community.”

That made me reflect and pushed me to another level. It was almost like a personal confrontation that happened for me. Where do you stand, what do you think, who are you? Those kinds of questions. So I meditated. It was a personal pilgrimage in a way. Very powerful.

Jon Krieg: Faheemah, what brings you back again for another death penalty moratorium lobby day?

Faheemah Thabit: I guess mainly because we’re still here again for the moratorium bill, which has been reassigned again because there’s not enough support for it. So I’m here because the legislators need to know that this is serious, they need to support it, and I think the only way they’re going to get it is if you’re in their face.

And yes, we should have more than a couple buses. We should have five or ten buses on this issue. But hopefully if you do enough outreach and educate people enough about how the death penalty actually impacts and affects the community, then maybe next time, if the moratorium bill is reassigned again, then we’ll have more people here.

I’ve noticed that the Reggie Clemons case has changed a lot of people’s views on the death penalty. You had some people who didn’t consider the death penalty, didn’t think about, people in the community, even people in my family, people who now are paying attention. Because it could happen to their family one day. It could have been one of my family members that could end up on death row.

And so I hope the moratorium bill passes out of committee this time, I really do, but I don’t know. We have Republican and Democratic support. We still have some folks who want to have the death penalty study without the moratorium, but we’re saying you can’t have one without the other. You need to have the moratorium because if it’s worth studying, it’s worth holding off from taking a life.

Jon Krieg: And the moratorium is a first step toward abolishing the death penalty?

Faheemah Thabit: Well, you have some people who may support the moratorium but not support abolishing the death penalty. But oftentimes, in most states that have abolished the death penalty, once they get the study done, they see that there’s no way to fix the death penalty. There are human beings who oversee a system, so there are going to be flaws.

And so if they’re taking a person’s life, and you have other people responsible for carrying out that whole process, before the final end, someone’s going to make a mistake somewhere. So when it comes to life, you can’t play around with it. Because once you’re gone, you’re gone. You can’t bring ‘em back. I think that’s why many states decided, after they did the death penalty study, that there was no way to correct it.

Jon Krieg: Did AFSC’s African American Listening Project on the Death Penalty change your thoughts on the matter?

Faheemah Thabit: Some of the information I heard didn’t surprise me too much. And probably because I surveyed most of my family members before the project even took place, and surveyed some of my friends just to get their feelings about it. Because I knew that this was a project we were thinking about bringing to St. Louis, so I thought I’d ask around to get different folks’ feelings and views. I didn’t get into a deep discussion, but I wanted to find out what they thought about the death penalty.

A lot of my family and friends didn’t talk about it at all. Many of them hadn’t even considered it. I even had a family member, my uncle actually, who said that he was for the death penalty. I had to explain several scenarios to him, situations that actually had happened in our family. One involved a family member who had done a lot of time in prison; given the amount of time he was sentenced for, he possibly could have received the death penalty. Who knows?

Because my uncle couldn’t understand why I was against the death penalty, I had to remind him of the members of our family we had lost and that we were victims’ family members. And that if I can get over losing my brother and my father and my step-father, then I think  anybody else who hadn’t lost someone so close can get over it too. That’s just my feeling.

And I had to remind him: Do you recall how we felt when my brother passed, when my brother was killed. And he said, “Yeah, that was a very hurtful.” So just imagine if they’d given the death penalty to the person who’d killed my brother. How do you think his family would have felt? Do you want that pain passed on? Do you want that family to feel the same feeling? And he kind of paused, and he said, “You know, niece, I hadn’t even thought about it that way.”

And so the Listening Project was useful. I wish more groups and organizations would use that material since it’s available on our website [at]. It’s concrete information. You’re hearing it straight from the people. So you don’t have to wonder why they’re not here, why they’re not participating. If you want to know what the African American community is thinking, it’s right there, there’s no excuse. So either you don’t really want to know, or you’re ignoring it, or it just doesn’t matter to you.

The listening project was very worthwhile. Every now and then I go back and look at that information to remind myself why I’m here and why I’m doing this work.

Jon Krieg: Thanks to all of you for doing this important work.