Students Promoting Social Unity attended “Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty’s 10th Annual Student Conference” on Saturday. The conference took place in Belmont University’s Wedgewood academic conference room.
The event consisted of public discussions pertaining to issues on the death penalty. There were two discussion panels during the conference.
The first panel addressed how conversations about the death penalty are changing and the second one discussed how wrongful convictions happen.
The purpose of the conference is to further educate students on the negative impact the death penalty has had on those wrongfully convicted and how it impacts the families of victims.
The TADP conference started with an overview and short film to get everyone on the same page about the discussions to follow.
The 2016 student conference keynote speaker was Miriam Kelle. She played a major part in convincing the Nebraska legislature to repeal the state’s death penalty.
Kelle is the sister of James Thimm, a man who was tortured and brutally murdered by Michael Ryan. Ten years ago she started voicing her opinion on the death penalty. She has shared her testimony before various state legislatures in the United States.
Michael Ryan was the leader of a small group that focused on the supremacy of the white race. He also believed that he had the authority to rewrite the Bible, claiming to be in direct contact with God in prison.
Ryan received the death penalty in 1985 and after nearly three decades, he died of natural causes on May 24, 2015 at Tecumseh State Correctional Institutional in southeast Nebraska.
After the tragedy, Miriam became a strong advocate for ending the death penalty. She feels that hearing about what happened to her brother constantly and knowing that Michael Ryan was on death row for years was a constant pain in her family’s life.
“It’s a system that is broken,” she said. “It does a terrible thing for the victim’s family—it is extremely painful.”
Miriam’s turning point that made her strongly against the death penalty was when she saw that the system was telling her something that wasn’t accurate.
Justice is something that was promised, but from Miriam’s point of view it was something that the death penalty did not provide. The system ultimately put a burden on her family.
“After I worked in the prison and saw they were feeding me something that wasn’t legit,” she said, “I decided in my mind that I am going to make sure it does not happen to other families.”
After Kelle shared her story the floor was open to any questions.
The first panel featured speakers such as Amy Lawrence, Radley Balko, Liliano Segura, and Alexis Soler.
The second panel was focused on how wrongful convictions happen. The stories of Ndume Olatushani and Paul House were told.
Ndume Olatushani was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit and spent over 28 years in prison and 20 on death row. Ndume wasted the majority of his life in prison for something he had not done.
Ndume got offered an Alford plea and was released in 2012. What happened to Ndume has happened to multiple people on death row today.
Paul House spent 22 years on death row due to inadequate evidence. In May 2009, all charges were dropped and he was made the 132nd death row exoneree nationwide, and the second in Tennessee.
The TADP conference ended on a call to action. Participants were encouraged to voice their opinion on the death penalty and join in telling the legislators that Tennessee’s death penalty system is broken and in need of a repeal.