Seen From Inside: Perspectives on Capital Punishment

Susy Bielak began her talk for the powerful program, “Seen From Inside: Perspectives on Capital Punishment,” with the firm belief that art feeds freedom.

“Art is an entrée to social justice,” she said.

At this event, Northwestern University’s Block Museum, Center for Criminal Defense, and Center on Wrongful Convictions shared insights on the death penalty from a curator, an exoneree, a clinical professor of law, and the sister of a homicide victim.

Elliot Reichert, Curator of Special Programs at the Block, began the evening by speaking about the visual, political perspective offered by The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates.

“It presents us with a very different kind of portrait,” Reichert said. The museumgoer never finds the entire story in Green’s exhibit, let alone the race, gender, and age of the condemned. Instead, one sees food, a final taste. He stressed that these plates—glossy, glazed, and always blue—shift one’s frame of reference.

Robert Owen, clinical professor of law at Northwestern, said that discomfort with the death penalty comes down to one question: do we kill? Owen read from William Anthony Brooks’ hearing, a powerful testament to the role of race in determining legitimate and illegitimate violence. As a black man, Brooks was three-times more likely to receive “society’s ultimate sanction,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Only after his attorney pushed the jury to consider the racism at work in capital punishment did he receive life in prison.

“No case has to be a death penalty,” Owen said. “We must consider the condemned’s position in life.” That doesn’t mean you don’t punish, he said. It means you decide how to punish.

Sarah Sommervold, an intake attorney at the Northwestern School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions, then spoke with exoneree Leroy Orange. Orange spent 19 years on death row.

“You slept inside of a nightmare that you hoped would end, but then the same thing occurs,” Orange said of balancing the chance of freedom with day-to-day reality. When Sommervold asked him about food while incarcerated, he cracked a smile.

“I used to talk about food a lot,” he said. The audience joined in a moment of laughter. He noted that Green’s exhibit shows the plate he feels relieved to have never ordered. To him, The Last Supper creates much-needed visibility for convictions, wrongful or otherwise.

“It’s expressive; it’s artistic; it’s also very sad,” Orange said.

Jeanne Bishop spoke next on the relief she felt when her sister’s murderer did not receive the death penalty. Bishop, public defender and author of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer, is now a leading advocate for gun violence prevention, exoneration of the innocent, and death penalty abolition.

“Killing this young man, deliberately snuffing out his life the way he did my family members, wouldn’t heal me,” she said. “It wouldn’t bring Nancy or Richard back, or their baby. It would bring me further away from who they were, these good and loving people, and closer to who the murderer was.” She knows more work lies ahead. “The journey is not over,” she said.

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