‘Road Trip’ speakers promote abolition of death
By Tom Cronin
exonerated death row inmate and a representative of Amnesty
International discussed the flaws of the death penalty and
promoted its abolition last week during the Springfield stop of
the two-week statewide Road Trip for Justice.
Delbert Tibbs described the events
surrounding what is believed to be a wrongful conviction that
landed him on Florida’s death row, while Robert Schultz,
Membership Field Organizer for the Midwest Regional Office of
Amnesty International, reported on recent progress in the campaign
to abolish the death penalty.
Amnesty International and the
Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty co-sponsored the
event, which was held on March 24 at the Heartland Peace Center,
830 S. College.
Schultz said that the abolition of
the death penalty in the United States is one of four domestic
human rights priorities of Amnesty International.
“We’ve really been the leaders in
many senses in the state of Illinois on getting rid of the death
penalty, with the moratorium, the debate that ensued, the reform
legislation, in as much as it recognized that there was a problem
with the Illinois death penalty system,” Schultz said.
Former Gov. George Ryan issued a
statewide moratorium on executions four years ago, and he emptied
death row upon leaving office last year. Gov. Rod Blagojevich
signed a death penalty reform bill in January, and four new
executions have been ordered since he took office. Despite the
changes, Blagojevich has said that he is in no hurry to lift the
“It’s my belief, although I would
like to see it abolished in Illinois tomorrow, that we’re going to
have to continue this ongoing public education, dialogue,
campaigning, figuring out ways to keep the issue alive in our
local communities,” Schultz said. “… It’s not going to be this
year, it might not even be next year, but I’d say that within the
next 10 [to] 15 years, we’ll move
Illinois from an executing state
to an abolitionist state.”
Because more than 25 years of
attempts to fix the death penalty system have been unsuccessful,
it’s unlikely that further attempts will lead to different
results, Schultz said.
“People who are reasonably
reasonable understand that anything human beings do is likely to
turn out with a certain degree of error inherent in it just
because we are who we are,” Tibbs said. So, once we get folks to
appreciate that, then we won’t even talk about how we can fix it
because you can’t fix the goddamn thing.
“The death penalty’s final, and
human beings, they got no business making a decision about
something that’s final because we’re too finite and too flawed.”
Tibbs’ journey to death row began
in the early 1970s after he dropped out of a seminary in Chicago
and set out on foot to explore the United States. He said that he
had seen very little of the country, having only been to Illinois,
Wisconsin, and Mississippi,
which is the state where he was born.
“I started roaming America,” Tibbs
said. “And it wasn’t easy, but it was like I couldn’t stop … ‘til
I got to death row. It was really weird. I think I was headed
Tibbs’ travels took him to Florida,
which shortly thereafter became his winter home. During the next
several years, he left Chicago for Florida every November or
December and returned home in the spring.
After leaving Daytona Beach, Fla.,
to visit relatives in Mississippi in 1974, Tibbs was stopped by
police outside Ocala, Fla., for questioning in a murder case.
Tibbs said that a young black man had been killed, and a young
white woman had allegedly been raped – it was never established
that she was actually raped, though.
According to Tibbs, police were
looking for suspects who met the perpetrator’s description – 5
feet 6 inches tall, 140 to 150 pounds, dark complexion, and a
large Afro. Tibbs said that he obviously didn’t fit the
description because he was 6 feet tall, had a light complexion for
an African American, and never had a large Afro.
Tibbs said that the officer who
stopped him took four Polaroid snapshots of him and wrote him a
note to show to any officers who were to stop him after that
point. The officer wrote that he was satisfied that Tibbs was not
the person wanted in connection with the murder and possible rape.
After staying with relatives in
Mississippi for more than a week, Tibbs left to return to
Chicago. He said that he was
stopped two hours after departing by a local law-enforcement
official who arrested him for the crimes in Florida, even though
he provided the note from the officer that initially stopped him.
Tibbs said that he was taken to a
local jail, where he waived extradition proceedings with the state
of Mississippi. He was then brought to the Lee County Jail in
Florida and was asked to line up alongside several other suspects.
Tibbs said that a lot of people in the town could already identify
him because a local television station had aired footage from when
he arrived at the jail.
“So I go to the lineup … and of
course she identifies me,” Tibbs said. “And the grand jury binds
me over as they put it in legalese, and I’m locked up in Lee
County Jail. For the next two or three weeks, I still think that …
they’re going to find somebody. … They don’t find nobody, though.”
Nine months after Tibbs was taken
to prison, an all-white jury found him guilty of both the murder
and the rape charges. Tibbs said that the judge sentenced him to
be executed. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction
in 1976 by a vote of 4-3, he said.
“There were three justices on the
floor of the Supreme Court who thought I was guilty,” Tibbs said.
“Now, they’re just as intelligent as the other four who thought I
was innocent. Why would they think I’m guilty? It’s because they
were predisposed, they were inclined, for factors that had not a
damn thing to do with the case before the bar.”
Although the Supreme Court
overturned the conviction, they did not order the lower court to
“cease and desist” prosecution, Tibbs said. The state of Florida
immediately proceeded with a retrial, and the case eventually
reached the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
The district attorney dropped the
case in 1982, Tibbs said. He was released from death row, and he’s
been sharing his experience with people from across the country
“It should be
something that I shouldn’t have to talk about,” Tibbs said. “I
should be able to go up into my office someplace with my ladylove,
drink some very decent wine, read some good books, … and holler at
the moon or whatever I want to do. But I can’t as long as they
keep killing people.”
‘living on borrowed time’
By Scott Shelby
Dr. Mercy Montsi, in her
mid-fifties, has already outlived the average woman from
Botswana. “I’m living on borrowed time,” Montsi told an audience
of central Illinois social workers and the UIS community on March
23. Montsi’s traveled to UIS to share the devastation the
HIV/AIDS crisis has caused in her home country.
The life expectancy for children
born today in this southern African country is less than 40
years. As the prevalence of human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV,
the virus responsible for AIDS) infection climbs towards 40
percent nationally, the people and government of Botswana are
desperate for solutions.
Even after the implementation of
measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), HIV
infection rates are expected to remain above 20 percent for at
least the next 50 years.
Montsi provided a regional and
continental context for the crisis, and said “political borders
are really meaningless when we talk about the spread of HIV.”
Over-the-road truckers, a massive and long-term influx of refugees
from neighboring countries, and the multicultural society of
Botswana all complicate efforts to slow and stop the spread of
“There is a movement in Africa
today to be able to move from Cape to Cairo by road,” Montsi
said. Such a contiguous highway would increase already heavy
truck traffic through Botswana. Lonely truckers far from home
spread the virus through sexual contact with “halfway partners”
and prostitutes across the continent.
Botswana is remarkably stable
politically. “Since independence in 1966, we have never had a
war, never had a coup,” Montsi said. This political stability, a
strong economy, and free education from primary school through
university attract refugees from Botwana’s war-torn neighbors.
“We have a very open society, which is a good thing, but we have a
small population and nature abhors a vacuum,” Montsi said.
“The refugees did not cause the
crisis,” Montsi said, “but their presence aggravates a bad
situation.” The refugees’ history of psychological trauma and
their physical dislocation from family, neighborhood and societal
support systems complicate both prevention and treatment efforts.
Most of Botswana’s neighbors have
experienced armed conflict in the recent past. Refugees “moving
in abnormal ways” and working to build new lives in a new place
are more likely to be “living in adverse conditions that
predispose them to adverse behavior, and that puts them at high
risk for HIV infection,” Montsi said.
Psychological trauma also makes it
difficult for many refugees to comply fully with doctors’
instructions. Many of the most powerful anti-retroviral drugs
require complicated regimens to be effective, and meals must be
planned so that the drugs are not taken on an empty stomach.
Refugees who have recently relocated and are dealing with the
psychological aftermath of war may be expected to have difficulty
maintaining such a regimen.
In a multicultural society like
that in Botswana, mixed messages about the best way to prevent and
treat HIV infection complicate the situation and reduce compliance
further. Traditional African religions, Asian and European
religions, spiritual healers, and medical doctors all have
something to say about the HIV/AIDS crisis. A patient may be
advised to use three contradictory treatment options by three
equally sincere advisors from three different traditions.
Dr. Montsi’s presentation was
sponsored by the UIS Speakers Bureau, Student Life, the Office of
International Affairs, the Multicultural Student Center, the UIS Counseling Center, the UIS Health Center, and several
academic programs from a variety of disciplines.
Community sponsors included Planned
Parenthood of Springfield, the Minority Service Department of the
Illinois Department of Public Health, and the National Association
of Social Workers. Dr. Montsi is Professor of Counseling at the
University of Botswana, and the Botswana Ministry of Education Guidance and Counseling
Montsi closed with a warning:
“Learn from our mistakes. Learn from our slowness to respond.
This doesn’t have to happen here.”