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Amnesty International and Death Row Exoneree Talk Policy Reform

Derrick Jamison, death row exoneree, and Abraham Bonowitz, Ohioans to Stop Executions Representative, speak at the presentation (Northern Review photo/Holly Dyer)

Innocence on death row has become a hot topic in the field of politics and criminal justice.  Derrick Jamison, who was released from death row in 2005, shared his 20 years of experience on death row with students, hoping to encourage young adults to press Congress towards change.

Ohio Northern’s Amnesty International students invited Jamison to speak on campus through a non-profit organization called Ohioans To Stop Executions. Amnesty International fights for the protection of human rights and felt that hosting a public forum on the topic would encourage discussion and amplify the push for congressional reform.

The organization hosts other campaigns, such as “Write for Rights”, where the group gathers individuals to write letters to foreign governments, encouraging them to release prisoners of conscience.

Emma Green, the treasurer of Amnesty International at Ohio Northern, reports that these campaigns have contributed to the release of several prisoners of conscience. She encourages other students to join Amnesty International in their fight to protect human rights, saying that

 “It might just seem like you’re part of a small club here at Ohio Northern, but you’re actually part of a worldwide movement.”

Hannah Ray, the co-chair and student coordinator of Ohio Northern’s Amnesty group encourages students of all perspectives to participate, because

 “The violation of human rights isn’t just a political issue. It’s a human issue."

Even if your views don’t completely align with those of the international organization, Amnesty at Ohio Northern welcomes you. Amnesty International fights for several causes, including the abolition of the death penalty.

Abraham Bonowitz, Ohioans to Stop Executions Representative and State Death Penalty Abolitionist Coordinator, suggests that the death sentence could be replaced with “death in prison”, or life without parole. Furthermore, Bonowitz speaks of the death penalty’s impact on the families of victims, and how he believes life without parole would be a better option for all.  Families of victims often witness inmate executions, made even more painful when the execution is rescheduled or the inmate experiences medical complications.

Rather, these organizations suggest that victims’ families need resources after a homicide. Resources such as grief counseling, assistance with funeral expenses, and court-provided advocates have been beneficial to these families in the past.

The death penalty has punished many innocent individuals, including speaker Derrick Jamison. The sentence took decades of his life away from him and has for many other exonerees.

Jamison and other exonerees, united by an organization called Witness to Innocence, describe the culture shock they experienced upon exoneration in a soon to be released documentary.

Jamison, who shared his personal testimony at the presentation, says false testimony and the withholding of evidence by his prosecutors led to his sentencing.

Exonerees describe being called a monster and spending years in isolation. They describe the ways in which they have been looked at and judged ever since their verdict- even today, as they struggle to find employment. These men and women missed out on years of their family’s lives, what should have been their own lives.They missed their children’s first words, first days of school, the funerals of family members, and years of precious moments with loved ones.

Some seek financial reimbursement, though they say they nothing can replace the time, dignity, self-respect, family and friends that they lost. 

Jamison describes the confidence he had when he walked into his trial, knowing he had nothing to do with the crime. He recalls watching other inmates walking down death row, and smell of burning flesh as they passed away. He is sure that a few of the other inmates he met on death row were also innocent. Jamison says he was released with no sympathy and no compensation.

Upon release, exonerees experience a unique type of culture shock. Some report that they’d never seen a phone or computer. Others had to learn how to use an ATM and how to pump gas. Jamison recalls that the Blackberry mobile phone was the most high-tech smartphone around when he went in.

Despite all they have lost, Jamison and other exonerees in Witness to Innocence are using their stories to share some of the effects the death penalty imposes and to fight for change.  Their presentations at Universities, including Ohio Northern, are placing the issue on the hearts and minds of young Americans.  Amnesty International has provided a way for students to make an impact in reforming the American justice system and continues to promote awareness for a variety of human rights controversies, across campus and around the world.