Fabiani Duarte and guest host Linsey Addington speak with Professor Sarah Gerwig Moore and Dr. Melissa Browning about the death penalty and ways restorative justice concepts can be used in capital cases.
|ABA Law Student Podcast|
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore’s teaching and scholarship interests center around constitutional criminal law, appellate and post-conviction practice and procedure, and...
Dr. Melissa Browning is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry at Mercer University. Dr. Browning is a community-based...
Fabiani Duarte is the chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division and attends Mercer University’s School of...
When it comes to a capital case, prosecuting or defending an individual whose life rests on the verdict can be a personal struggle. How does a lawyer cope with the loss of a client and what restorative justice options can they seek in lieu of the death penalty?
In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Fabiani Duarte and guest host Linsey Addington speak with Professor Sarah Gerwig Moore and Dr. Melissa Browning about the death penalty and ways restorative justice concepts can be used in capital cases. Sarah and Melissa begin by listing a few concepts and common misconceptions, such as the cost to the taxpayer for executing an inmate, that they believe should be considered when approaching the death penalty debate. Dr. Browning then goes into detail about how she learned about the Kelly Gissendaner case and what inspired her to get involved in seeking parole for Gissendaner. Professor Moore also gives some insight into her experience of being lead counsel seeking clemency for a death row inmate named Josh Bishop and explains the type of relationships lawyers can develop with these clients. The group then considers processes within the criminal justice system where restorative justice concepts can be applied and how these concepts, like seeking life without the possibility of parole, can reduce death row executions and promote communal well being.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore‘s teaching and scholarship interests center around constitutional criminal law, appellate and post-conviction practice and procedure, and experiential public service learning. Since joining the Mercer faculty in 2006, she has created and now teaches the Habeas Project, the only pro bono effort in Georgia to offer representation in non-capital post-conviction cases. She received her BA, summa cum laude, from Mercer University, her Master of Theological Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and her JD from Emory University School of Law.
Dr. Melissa Browning is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry at Mercer University. Dr. Browning is a community-based participatory action researcher and Christian ethicist. Browning’s recent academic work has focused on ethnographic research in East Africa. Browning is also an anti-death penalty activist and the organizer of the Kelly on My Mind Collective. Dr. Browning received her Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Loyola University Chicago (2011). She also holds an M.Div. in Global Missions from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University (2002) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Gardner-Webb University (1999).
ABA Law Student Podcast: Applying Restorative Justice Concepts to Capital Cases
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Fabiani Duarte: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Fabiani Duarte, Chair of the ABA Law Student Division. I am a third year law student at Mercer University’s School of Law in Georgia. Our show today is presented by the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division.
In this monthly podcast we interview guests and cover topics of interest for law and graduate students and recent grads. From finals to graduation and the bar exam, to finding a job, we hope this show is a trusted resource for you, our listeners.
This past year has been a special one for me, as I have explained in the past, because not only have I been able to wrap up my last two semesters of law classes at Mercer Law, but I have also been able to kick off my first year in Seminary at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology. One of the classes I have been able to experience is an intersection between law and theology called Restorative Justice taught by our Professor Melissa Browning.
In this class we have discussed and focused on issues concerning social and restorative justice that relate to the criminal justice system in America, including the Black Lives Matter Movement, the death penalty as it works in America today and mass incarceration as is experienced by US citizens.
I have asked a fellow McAfee seminarian, who is also a colleague in the class to help me co-host this short series. For this episode I have asked my good friend Linsey Addington to join us. Welcome Linsey.
Linsey Addington: Hi Fabi.
Fabiani Duarte: So Linsey, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Linsey Addington: Sure Fabi! I am a second year Christian Ethics student here at McAfee. I work as a minister to the ageing and I am an instructor in the Theological Studies Program at Lee Arrendale Prison.
Fabiani Duarte: Thanks so much Linsey. I am really excited to have you as a co-host for today’s episode.
For today’s show we would like to welcome Professors Sarah Gerwig-Moore of Mercer Law School, also Dr. Melissa Browning from the School of Theology and my professor in the Restorative Justice class.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore’s teaching and scholarship interests center around constitutional criminal law, appellate and post-conviction practice and procedure, and experiential public service learning. Since joining Mercer’s faculty in 2006, she has created and now teaches the Habeas Project, the only pro bono effort in Georgia to offer representation in non-capital post-conviction cases.
That clinic has briefed and argued over 60 cases, including issues of first impression on the State’s Highest Court. Most recently, Professor Gerwig-Moore was the lead counsel for Josh Bishop, a gentleman who was executed this past April 12 by the State of Georgia.
Before joining the Mercer faculty, Sarah was the Senior Appellate Supervising Attorney at the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. She also received her BA from Mercer University, and a Master of Theological Studies from Emory and her JD is also from the Emory School of Law.
Some of Professor Gerwig-Moore’s recent honors and awards include the Shanara Gilbert Emerging Clinician Award from the National Association of Law Schools’ Clinical Legal Education Section. This is an award provided and selected by fellow clinical instructors. And Professor Gerwig-Moore was also named to Georgia Trend’s 40 under 40. We are excited to welcome Professor Gerwig-Moore to today’s interview.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Linsey Addington: We would also like to welcome Dr. Melissa Browning. Dr. Browning is an ordained Baptist Pastor and the Visiting Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry at Mercer University. Dr. Browning is a community-based participatory action researcher and Christian ethicist.
Browning’s recent academic work has focused on ethnographic research in East Africa. Browning is also an anti-death penalty activist and organizer of the Kelly on My Mind Collective.
Fabiani Duarte: Welcome Dr. Browning.
Dr. Melissa Browning: Thank you so much. I am glad to be here.
Fabiani Duarte: Today we would like to talk about restorative justice as it relates to specifically the death penalty. When we talk about restorative justice and this kind of controversial issue for many Americans, especially theologians and lawyers alike, what are some of the most important concepts or even misconceptions that you think our listeners should have clear in their mind as they approach this type of conversation, why don’t we start with you Professor Gerwig-Moore?
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: Well, I think the biggest problem with restorative justice and the conversations around restorative justice is that most people don’t think very much about it. Restorative justice means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
For some people you hear restorative justice and imagine a Kumbaya, sitting around in a circle with community members talking about lower level crimes. For some people, they do think about victim outreach in the context of death penalty cases. But the truth is there are lots of different ways to integrate principles of restorative justice throughout the criminal justice system, from juvenile and misdemeanor cases, on up to capital punishment cases.
And it’s a conversation I am glad that’s present and starting and I would like for that conversation to spread and grow, because I do believe there is a lot of place in our very adversarial and broken criminal justice system for principles of restorative justice, both for defendants and victims and their family members.
Fabiani Duarte: All right. Thank you Professor. How about you Dr. Browning, what do you think?
Dr. Melissa Browning: When we take a really broad look at our criminal justice system, one of the things that we can do is we can kind of step back from a moral lens and ask the question, what are we doing to help restore people to society once they have been convicted of a crime? Do we just lock them up and throw away the key, which in many cases that’s what happens. Do we really have a society? Do we want to have a society where we say that some people are disposable? Do we want to have a society where we say that redemption is not possible?
When we think about our criminal justice system, which is often called — we have Department of Correction, and we talk about rehabilitation, and those are big words, but we sometimes don’t live up to that. In fact, we often don’t live up to that.
When I was working in Kelly Gissendaner’s campaign, Kelly was a model inmate. She was the person who the guards brought other women to. They would put them in the cell next to Kelly, and they would allow Kelly to counsel other women. During the campaign we met about ten women who tried to commit suicide that Kelly prevented them from doing so.
And so, with Kelly, with Josh, with so many recently, we have seen these amazing stories of redemption, where folks in prison have made something amazing of themselves, but because they are on death row, their lives were still seen as absolutely disposable.
So in Kelly’s case, when we tried to do a restorative justice process, and in several recent cases in Georgia there have been attempts to bring the victim’s family into the Parole Board and things like this to advocate, but those have been relatively unsuccessful in the end.
Linsey Addington: Dr Browning, could you tell us a little bit more about Kelly Gissendaner and your work on her campaign?
Dr. Melissa Browning: Sure, I can. Kelly was convicted. She was convicted for killing her husband. She did not actually commit the crime; her boyfriend at the time did. She was not present at the scene. She was not the trigger person, but she did receive life even though the person who actually committed the crime was eligible for parole.
So when Kelly’s case came up, she had been such a model citizen; a graduate from the Theology Program, and everyone was fairly assured that she would get clemency, and that her sentence would be converted to life in prison without parole. We were so convinced of that that there wasn’t even any sort of public action campaign or any real news around her execution date, because everyone was waiting for that so that clemency can be granted, but then at the end the Parole Board did not grant clemency.
We were lucky in that a snow date canceled her first execution date and cloudy drugs canceled her second, and that gave us a window where there was a moratorium in Georgia for a brief period while the state studied the drugs that they were using.
And in Georgia we are under secrecy laws, which means, we can’t know anything about the drugs that are used in our executions. The person who is being executed has no right to know. So we had a brief window but in the end we got — in October — in September actually, we got another Parole Board hearing and parole was again denied, even though in that period of time we had just hundreds of women who were incarcerated with Kelly come and give testimony as to the influence that she played on their lives.
I think what we are seeing in Georgia, in Kelly’s case, in Josh’s case, in so man other cases, is that the claims that we are bringing before the court, before the Parole Board particularly don’t matter. Whether or not there is a strong innocence claim, and there is no DNA connecting the person to the crime, as in several cases recently, whether there is a transformation story, past trauma, past abuse, none of those things seem to matter. It’s almost as if nothing can change the mind of the Parole Board.
We have seen quite a few executions. We are one of six states that actively executes, and we have had more executions than any state so far this year.
Fabiani Duarte: So speaking about Kelly’s story makes me want to ask you, Professor Gerwig Moore, about some of the work that you do with the Habeas Project at Mercer Law. Could you tell us a little bit about how you work with law students through that project and maybe a little bit more about what you worked on this semester?
Professor Sarah Gerwig Moore: Sure. So I came to teach at Mercer as an appellate public defender, and my job was to help create a public service program at the law school to reignite a clinical legal education program, putting law students in a setting where they would be working on public service projects for real clients and learning along the way, hands-on learning.
You can do that through simulation, or you can do that working on real problems, and it has always been my strong preference to teach law students in a way that allows us to help meet the great legal needs, in Georgia in particular.
So generally what we do in the Habeas Project, and we have continued to do that while working on Josh Bishop’s case, is we take all of the pro se, all of the uncounseled, non-capital cases in the Georgia Supreme Court. So if the Georgia Supreme Court accepts a case on cert or appeal; generally these are appeals from habeas petitions, we step in, and offer free legal representation to the person whose case is there before the Supreme Court.
That ends up to be about six cases a year. Those are again generally not capital cases; capital punishment cases have not been my specialty for a number of reasons, and they are all constitutional criminal law cases. They are fascinating. We have had great success; some failure obviously too, but some wonderful successes.
I generally have about 8 students a year in the class, and have just finished my 10th year working with just so many wonderful students and wonderful clients on really fascinating intellectual issues, but we also do our best to offer clients in a representation and visit with our clients, work with them, and find outcomes that they like.
We have seen clients walk out of prison. We have reunited clients with their children. It has been just tremendously rewarding work, and students have learned in a way that you just can’t if you are limited to a law book and a SMART Board.
About four years ago though we took on a capital case, which was different for us, because of a really special client, a really special man on death row, Josh Bishop, and we followed his case. We worked on his case in the Eleventh Circuit, in a final federal habeas appeal. We wrote a cert petition to the United States Supreme Court, which was not successful, although it did get some attention, drew some attention to, I think, an important issue of constitutional law.
And then we were lead counsel through the clemency process that Professor Browning was just discussing. In another different in some ways case for clemency, but also what we thought was a very, very strong case for clemency, also unsuccessful for reasons known only to the Parole Board.
Linsey Addington: Professor Gerwig Moore, when you defend a capital case, what kind of relationship do you develop with the defendant?
Professor Sarah Gerwig Moore: That’s a really — that’s an interesting question, because like I said, I am really not a capital defender; I have a lot of respect for people whose entire careers is in death penalty work, that’s not where I am. I have been on the fringes of the fight against capital punishment and helped out. I interned for the California Appellate Project, doing work on California’s death row about 15 years ago. I was kind of helpful more really in a pastoral role in a death penalty case about five years ago, but Josh’s case was the only case where I have been lead counsel.
And Josh was also, I am not sure whether you know this or not, but Josh was also a childhood friend of mine, so there is really no script for how close you let yourself get to a man who is on death row, who you think is really an object left in grace and redemption, who also stood up for you in sixth grade when you were excluded on the playground.
And so the answer to that really is that we — my students and I were very close with Josh. The death row prison is only about 30 minutes away from Macon, where I live and teach, so we saw him probably weekly for years; toward the end it was more than once a week. We talked on the phone. He sent drawings to my students and to me. We wrote letters.
He was my friend. He was my friend in the 1980s and he was my friend when he was executed. So I don’t think that’s — it’s typical to have an attorney-client relationship that started 30 years ago in sixth grade, but I do think it’s very typical because of how long these cases take for clients and lawyers to become very close, particularly with really thoughtful, kind and loving clients like Josh.
Dr. Melissa Browning: I think one of the things that is really key in this that we don’t talk about much is the trauma the folks who are working these cases experience.
I was able to kind of walk through this with Kelly Gissendaner’s lawyers, and the grief that they experienced in her death, having worked with her for so long. One of her lawyers was present at the execution, the first execution that she had ever been present for, and then we have had so many executions in Georgia recently that folks who do this work; the lawyers, the investigators, the activists, the pastors who are working with these folks on death row, the grief has become overwhelming.
I have friends who do this work, and some of them are losing somebody that they work with every two weeks right now, and that type of grief, we just don’t really expect. We don’t really think about that and we don’t factor that in when we are really talking about the cost of the death penalty.
And that even goes to the prison guards, to wardens, to people who we make do this work. We heard from some people who worked at the prison during Kelly’s execution, through kind of some pastoral channels that they were asking pastors coming in to visit prisoners to pray for them, because they didn’t know how they were going to walk through this, and that happens frequently.
So there is a trauma, there is kind of a societal trauma that we inflict on our state when we ask people to carry out these executions, walking alongside people who are being executed because we are witnessing a murder in that case.
Linsey Addington: You mentioned grief, what do you say to the victims of crimes committed by those who are on death row?
Dr. Melissa Browning: Yeah, that’s a really good question, Linsey. Go ahead, Sarah, go ahead.
Prof. Sarah Gerwig-Moore: I was going to say, I have spent a great deal of time with the victims in Josh’s case and the most remarkable extension of grace and kindness were from members of the victim’s families who wanted to see clemency in Josh’s case. In fact one of the victim’s sisters sent me a gardenia plant this week thanking me for fighting for Joshua. The truth is, there is no script for any of the – there is no script for knocking on a door of someone who has been hurt by someone you are representing because of course for many people the very, very understandable response would be to extend the anger and the pain they feel caused by the loss of their loved one, to extend that to you as the killer’s representative, and clearly in our case, not all of the victim’s family members supported clemency but most of the victim’s family members supported clemency and not just in a kind of neutral way, but in a very powerful way pleading with the Parole Board to grant clemency in Josh’s case for any number of reasons.
I think we have to start from a place although we work for our clients, the people on death row, we have to start from a place of understanding the pain that they have caused and it is naïve and incomplete to ignore that and focus on their pain because of course our clients feel pain, but they have also caused pain unless there is an innocence claim and in my case and in Kelly Gissendaner’s case there weren’t innocence claims and so we had to deal with some really palpable pain that they had caused and our clients had to deal with that as well as part of their kind of moral development and coming to terms with what they have done.
I think that is where restorative justice principles come in and honestly just basic human decency is being able to empathize and care about the pain of other people and then listen. Listening was mostly what I did in those first conversations with family members of the victim’s cases — of the victims in Joshua’s case.
Fabiani Duarte: Dr. Browning.
Dr. Melissa Browning: Yeah, in Kelly’s case, some of the closest victims were Kelly and Doug’s children and Doug was the person who was killed, and when the children came forward and pled for mercy, when they reconciled with their mom through a process of mediation where they really, they did the hard work of reconciliation, where they really asked her to tell the truth about what happened and really came to the point of forgiving their mom.
They were the closest victims to this in my opinion because they lost their father, they had to grow up without a father, but in the end they weren’t seen as victims by the Parole Board because they sided with their mom. So that was a really difficult thing in the entire campaign and in our entire death penalty work. We don’t forget about the victims, all of the victims, but I have also found that it’s not very cut-dry and I have also found that killing the perpetrator is not necessarily going to bring any reprieve to the victims. It often does not do what they think it will do. There have been many who have regretted that they watch the execution, the person who killed their loved one or regretted that they supported it, because in the end they still have that same hole that they thought was going to be fixed and the closure that they thought they were going to have did not actually happen.
And so, I think what victims very badly need is some kind of closure. I think the restorative justice processes can give them closure, so even in absence of those I am more worried about the fact that we think it is okay to be a society who chooses to kill and that we choose to be a society that kills arbitrarily. In these cases we are seeing that a lot of times there are two people who commit the crime and one ends up killed for it and one ends up on death row, and then the other one is eligible for parole.
And so if we are going to have a death penalty, which I don’t think we should have, but if we are going to have one, it needs to be fair. It needs to not be arbitrary. It needs to be for the worst of the worst. But what we have seen across this country is that we don’t have a death penalty that’s for the worst of the worst. We have a death penalty that kills folks who have been redeemed. We have a death penalty that kills folks who are sorry. And so, when we don’t give any regard as a society to those key tenets, I think we are in a real problem, and I think it shows us some of the huge flaws of the death penalty.
Fabiani Duarte: So professors, you talk about the death penalty and some of the impact that it has on victims, on defendants, what are some reasons that you think the death penalty still remains, as your experience places it, if it causes this much consternation?
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: I think folks really if they knew more about what a capital case looks like from start to finish, and it’s generally a 15-20 year process, and if they knew how expensive it is and that they were paying for it, I don’t believe that the majority of voters would support capital punishment.
I think that in the Bible Belt, which is also the Death Belt, most of the states that have and employ capital punishment are former slave states. They are also the states that have the most number of voters that identify as Christian. I think people go to Bible versus like an eye for an eye or thou shalt not kill, and think, gosh, for the worst of the worst, like Professor Browning was saying, we need to reserve the ultimate punishment just in case.
But their analysis really stops there, because they are not confronted with what capital punishment looks like in America, because the truth is, people with funds who commit horrible crimes are able to employ lawyers who are able to secure plea bargains that don’t include capital punishment. So right away, generally speaking, people with influence, with family connections, with support, don’t have to worry in any meaningful way about being charged with the death penalty and neither do their loved ones.
So you think about who is charged or noticed with death in the case of a murder, and you think about who those people know or don’t know, and they are really the unseen folks, they are the poorest of the poor, generally they suffer from mental illness or some mental disability. These are the people who are not on a national radar screen, and they, generally speaking, don’t come to the forefront of the national radar from the depths of death row.
And so I think the truth is that people are really ignorant about this issue, because it doesn’t affect most of us. We have very, very few people on death row, thousands of people serving life sentences for murder, thousands in Georgia, even for multiple homicides. And we looked these stats up in preparation for Josh’s clemency case. There are around 85 people on death row, such a small portion of the population, and again, when you think of these folks as being very marginalized, generally somewhat limited, all very poor, they are just unseen, and so it’s not a major topic at the legislature, in the legislative session, because it affects relatively few people and the people who it does affect are not people with power or influence.
And that’s why I think it’s really apathy and a lack of understanding of what capital punishment entails both from a moral perspective and from attacks and physical perspective. So that’s my longish answer to that question.
Fabiani Duarte: Thank you Professor. Dr. Browning, what are your thoughts on why the death penalty is still active in this country?
Dr. Melissa Browning: Yeah, I agree completely with Professor Gerwig-Moore, the problem that we have is what happens on death row is hidden. We don’t hear stories, we don’t communicate with folks on death row, for the most part. What they are allowed to say, even who they can speak to, is all very controlled, and so when the public hears the story, it’s almost too late, they have got an execution date set, and then it’s really just who is paying attention at that time.
I mean, just last week in Georgia we executed a man with an IQ of 74. He was intellectually disabled. That is unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court. However, they leave it up to the state to decide. And because Georgia uses such a high burden of proof, that it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a person has an intellectual disability, we have one of the worst sentencing schemes with admonition, because we do not allow people to have relief from execution because of intellectual disability.
This same person, Kenneth Fults was called the N word by a juror. They knew the case was going to be racially charged because he killed a White woman, yet because this didn’t come to light in time for him to claim this, the Supreme Court didn’t hear it and didn’t consider it.
And so we see just in this one case that one of the reasons he got the death penalty was the deep racism, as Dr. Gerwig-Moore said, the Death Belt is also a former slave holding state. That’s one reason. We also see that he was poor, that he was intellectually disabled, and he had all these things stacked against him.
And so when we look at those factors, again, we can’t say that we should use the death penalty if it’s being applied so arbitrarily. I think that every example that we have seen in the last seven or eight executions, we have executed two people with intellectual disabilities in the last I think eight executions that we have had in Georgia, two of those folks have intellectual disabilities. There is another about seven folks on death row who have intellectual disabilities and who could be executed despite that.
So when we see that and we see the problems, and again, those problems are largely hidden from the public view, the death penalty looks like kind of a well-oiled machine that is doing its job, its deterring crime. But when we look really deeply at it and we see the problems, and we mainly when we start to listen to stories of those who have been executed, of those who are on death row, we see a completely different picture.
Linsey Addington: We usually hear about restorative approaches applied to misdemeanors and drug related crimes. How could we apply restorative approaches in murder trials and how can you address the needs of victims, defendants and the community in a capital trial?
Dr. Melissa Browning: I can say something about that and then I will let Professor Gerwig-Moore say something as well. One of the things that we can do in terms of restorative justice in a capital trial is we can arrange for conversations to happen between those who are victims and those who committed the crime. These conversations when done in a restorative justice process, this mediation can be very successful. It can give the family of the victim closure, and that’s really what we are trying to do. I mean, what the death penalty is supposed to do is kind of give it some kind of closure, but we often find that it doesn’t.
And so sometimes the family wants to know why it happened, often the family wants closure and they want to know that the person has changed and that’s what a restorative justice process can provide.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: I think also many times the machinery of the state, the investigating officers, the district attorney may assume that victims’ families will equate justice being done in their loved one’s case with seeking the most extreme punishment, the death penalty. And having worked with a number of family members on the other side of things, having worked with family members who have had loved ones murdered, that is not always the case. And I think really again, we talk about restorative justice principles, that’s wonderful, starting with just listening to what victims’ families have to say before assuming that the victims’ families will always want to seek capital punishment.
Also sharing with victims’ family members the long process that comes with the constitutional appeals, again 15-20 years of appeals, 15-20 years of being afraid of a capital sentence being overturned, and their lives being disrupted and coming to court or while watching the news, where a guilty plea that includes an allocution, a statement of guilt, sometimes statement of remorse and life without parole or a life with parole sentence can really do so much more to address what the victim’s actual needs are rather than what are the victim’s perceived or supposed needs are.
I mean, again, I think there are lots of ways to infuse restorative justice principles, but a lot of this just begins with basic human listening and treating victims with the dignity that they deserve in this process.
Generally, they are left out of the process too, in the same way that the defendants and their advocates are, and so that’s when the adversarial system takes over, and the people who are hurt are the defendants and their loved ones, and the victims and their loved ones, and really we find neither one of these sides has much of a voice in the process.
Fabiani Duarte: Thank you professor. So taking victims, defendants, society, all into account, it’s an interesting balance, because we as law students who are going to be future attorneys or theologians who are ministering to make society whole, how do we uphold community standards that won’t tolerate certain actions like murder, while at the same time restoring victims to some sense of justice, how do we hold those intentions correctly?
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: I am just going to reiterate, I really believe that life without the possibility of parole effectuates all of that in a way that gives confidence in the outcome to the victim’s family, that keeps the state out of the business of killing human beings, and the taxpayers out of the business of paying for the state to be in the business of killing human beings, and appropriately punishes defendants for their mistakes, horrible actions, but still recognizes their humanity, allows for redemption, allows for continuation of relationships with their family and loves ones, and acknowledges that good can still come, correction can still come through our Department of Corrections, however rare that may be.
And again, when the legislature adopted life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option, we saw drastic reduction in death penalty sentencing. In fact, there was only one death penalty sentence handed down by a jury last year. So we see jurors are catching on to this and the state is catching on to this. We just can’t get ourselves out of the business of executing the people who were unfortunate enough to be sentenced to death years and years ago.
Fabiani Duarte: Thank you. Dr. Browning.
Dr. Melissa Browning: Yeah, I agree completely. When we are thinking about the role of the community in this, one thing that we quickly realize is that the community doesn’t have much of a voice. Beyond those few people who sit on a jury, we don’t really have a place for the community to be reconciled, and when a crime happens, it doesn’t just shake the family who had a family member who was a victim of that crime, it shakes the entire community.
When a murder happens in my neighborhood, our whole neighborhood is going to be affected by that. So, one of the things that restorative justice teaches us is that there needs to be a process for the community to be represented in the reconciliation as well.
So as we are thinking about this and as we are looking at kind of our broad community, we are seeing support for the death penalty waning, and so we have to ask the question of why are we then in Georgia executing so many people?
We have seen public support for the death penalty decrease. We are still over the 50% mark in terms of who supports the death penalty in Georgia, but I believe that if we have more education around the death penalty, if people really understood how much money they are spending to carry this out, if we really understood the burden that that was placing on corrections officials and on those who we outsource that killing too, I think we would think about this in a different way.
Fabiani Duarte: All right, well, professors, we have come to the end of our time, but before we go I would love to ask you both just some quick takeaways that we always like to request from our guests. And the first one is, what would you say your life’s motto is; in other words, how would you put your calling into words as it relates either to the work that you are doing with this or how you interact with your students and how you hope to continue to live your professional life?
Dr. Melissa Browning: I will start with that, I think.
Fabiani Duarte: Well good. It’s great that you both have an answer to that question, that’s excellent.
Linsey Addington: We do.
Dr. Melissa Browning: You have to tell us how to go.
Fabiani Duarte: All right, well, why don’t we start Professor Gerwig-Moore, all right?
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: Well, Professor Browning I am sure has heard this and this is not of my own making, Frederick Buettner said that “Our vocational calling is where our deep gladness meets the world’s great need”. And that’s really how I think I tried to live my life, I think none of us need to be murderers and I would not be a very happy woman if I were trying to deal with all the contracts problems in the world, I am sure there are very many.
But I have tried to follow my heart and do work that I enjoy, work that I am good at but also serves the public good, and that’s what I encourage my students to do as well. It served me well, it’s heartbreaking, I am actively grieving today guys, but I do think that the world needs folks who care about these issues and I’m glad to be one of them, in general if not today.
Dr. Melissa Browning: I think mine is — it comes from Scripture from Micah 6:8 where it says, “to do justice and love mercy, and walk humbly with God” and the ideas of doing justice and loving mercy are really key to my life’s work. But at the same time, I recognize that for many of us to care about creating change in the world, the idea of doing justice can be overwhelming because there are so many problems in our society that need to be fixed.
I am writing a book right now called “Navigating Dystopia” and I really mean that because a lot of our society feels dystopia and especially when you work on death penalty in Georgia right now.
I think that the other thing I’d want to say is that as people who care about creating change, we need stories. When I started working on Kelly Gissendaner’s campaign, I didn’t know Kelly, I didn’t know her family. I had students who were working at the prison who told me about Kelly and I thought it was a deep injustice and I entered into the campaign by sitting down and reading her clemency petition that was written by lawyers and as I read it, I felt such a deep sense of calling to somehow place my body in the way of this destruction.
And so what I did first was I sat down and I prayed through her clemency petition, which is not something I normally do. I normally get out and do something, I don’t normally sit and pray and meditate on things for long periods of time but I was glad to do that in that case, and just in reading those words her lawyers wrote about her life, I thought like I have been converted by the story, by this deep injustice. And I knew that I needed to do something and respond in some meaningful way which is how I entered into the superb justice seekers who were working on her campaign.
Linsey Addington: Well, professors, thank you for joining us today for a great conversation.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: Thanks for having us.
Dr. Melissa Browning: Thank you so much.
Fabiani Duarte: Those are some real awesome takeaways that help, I think remind all our listeners of the motivations that you take into the work that you do and that are important for us as we walk in this journey, legal or theological or whatever it may be to know that there is a fire that burns within us that is more than sometimes the books or texts or the finals that stares in the face at this time of the year. So thank you for sharing those thoughts with us.
Besides finding you online, do you guys have Twitter handles or webpages that you would like our listeners to refer to? Professor Gerwig-Moore.
Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore: Oh gosh, I had to delete Twitter because of some things I said about the Parole Board, so I don’t have a Twitter anymore. I think the Law School — this is the best way to find me — at the Mercer Law School website.
Fabiani Duarte: All right, great. How about you, Professor Browning?
Dr. Melissa Browning: I still have it, I still have a Twitter, I probably should have deleted it because of things I often say about the Parole Board, but mine is @imaginejustice and you are welcome to follow me there or go to my website, HYPERLINK “http://www.melissabrowning.com” www.melissabrowning.com.
Linsey Addington: We hope you have enjoyed another episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast.
Fabiani Duarte: We would like to encourage all of our listeners to subscribe to our show on iTunes and once you have done that, take a moment to rate and review us as well.
Linsey Addington: You can also tweet to us @abalsd and use #lawstudentpodcast to tell us what’s on your mind.
Fabiani Duarte: I am @fabianiduarte and I would also like to thank my co-host today, Ms. Linsey Addington, for joining me on this episode of Restorative Justice Series that we have had for the Podcast.
Thank you to our guests and thank you everybody for listening.
Work hard, play smart, and until next time podcasters.
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