Students take stand against death penalty

Matt Pederson
Staff Reporter

Many college and high school students prefer to head somewhere tropical to spend their spring break, but a few came right here to Huntsville on Wednesday, and they came with a purpose.

Students from all over the state, and a few from across the country, flocked to Huntsville to take part in a protest of the execution of Tommie Hughes. The event is part of the 2006 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break, sponsored by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty.

Tommie Hughes, 31, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Foluke Erinkitola. He robbed and then shot Erinkitola and her friend, Roxanne Mendoza, in their car after the women had watched a movie.

Hughes denied he killed the two women or planned the robbery and said his girlfriend at the time, Alina Henry, shot them in a jealous rage when she found him talking to the women.

Josh Tucker, a student at the University of Texas, came with the group Wednesday, because he believes it is time for him to make a difference in the way things are.

“I’ve seen some horrible things happen and seen people hurt, and I’ve been very angry,” Tucker said. “You see these things happen, and I had sort of a moment of pause and said, ‘Well, I can either act from this anger or I can stop and think about what solves the problem. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

“I think that because the death penalty is racist and because it unequally targets poor people, you’re looking at something that doesn’t solve the problem. You’re killing somebody to tell people we don’t kill people.”

During the day Wednesday, students visited the Texas Present Museum and heard a lecture from the Rev. Carroll Pickett, a former death house chaplain at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit. Pickett ministered to 95 men on the final day of their lives and was present in the chamber during their executions. He drew heavily on his own experience in talking to the students about spending time with prisoners during their last days.

Joel Pasley and Angela Martellaro are high school students who came all the way from Shawnee, Kan., to spend their spring break fighting the death penalty.

In attending the lectures and learning about the system, Pasley said he was most shocked to learn about the condition the prisoners live in.

“Some people have letters from pen pals about the conditions,” Pasley said. “For just minor things, their clothes were taken away and their meals were taken away and it really surprised me that in the United States that would go on. It seems like something that would go on in another era in another country.”

Martellaro said her vacation has so far been a learning experience for her in which her beliefs were even more firmly ground.

“We all had a simple understanding of the problems with the death penalty and after coming here, we’ve learned so much in detail about what goes on with capital punishment,” Martellaro said. “It’s just been so educational, because we all are in agreement that it is wrong and there are problems with the system, and this has been so specific, with so much information, that it really strengthened my beliefs.”

By listening, learning and participating, Pasley is hoping to go back home with a better understanding of how to fight what he believes to be an unjust policy.

“I want to learn how to petition to get a moratorium on the death penalty in Kansas,” Pasley said. “Even though it’s suspended right now, why wait until somebody is executed to try and save more lives.”

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