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Episode 4 | On The Death Penalty: The Unexpected Messenger

Over the past decade, support for the death penalty has plummeted. In this episode, we look at why this happened and how one unexpected messenger, Bill Pelke, played a big part in this change.

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Will Coley [00:00:00] Note to the listener, due to the subject matter for this episode, it may not be appropriate for all audiences. Thirty-five years ago in Gary, Indiana, the unthinkable happened to Bill Pelke’s family, his grandmother, Ruth Pelkey, was murdered inside her home. On May 26, 1985, four high school girls went to Ruth’s house saying they wanted to hear a Bible story. They actually wanted to steal money. No one knows why the robbery went horribly wrong, but they ended up stabbing Ruth multiple times. Here’s Bill remembering his grandmother’s death.

Bill Pelke [00:00:31] And Nona died on the dining room floor of her home. My father found Nona’s body the next day. You can imagine what a terrible thing it was for my dad to walk in and find her body in a pool of blood. What a terrible thing it was for our entire family. That somebody we love so much could have died such a terrible way.

Will Coley [00:00:55] The girls were arrested the next day. In court the next year they pleaded guilty. Bill Pelkey was there at the sentencing hearing. The prosecution named Paula Cooper as the leader and worthy of a harsher sentence. The judge told the courtroom that he was personally opposed to the death penalty, but at that moment in the U.S., the majority demanded it. Bill remembered what the judge said,

Bill Pelke [00:01:16] But I’ll never forget the words of the judge that day. He hoped that someday soon the people in this country would wake up and get sick and tired of the death that this penalty brought. But then he said, however, according to the laws of the state of Indiana, he said he had no choice and he sentenced her to death.

Will Coley [00:01:29] Paula Cooper became the youngest person on death row in the United States. She was 16 years old. She was also African-American.

Bill Pelke [00:01:36] A reporter came up to me and asked me what I thought about what had just happened in the courtroom that day. And I told them that I felt like the judge did what he had to do. I really didn’t think a whole lot about the death penalty. I just figured whatever law called for was…was fine with me. If they said somebody should be executed then go ahead and execute him. If they said that they shouldn’t be then that was fine with me also. I didn’t really think too much about it one way or the other. But then fighting back tears, I said, but it won’t bring my…my grandmother back

Will Coley [00:02:10] At the time, most people believed that the death penalty brings closure to the victim’s family. But for Bill, this was not the case. Bill Pelke went on to forgive his grandmother’s killers and he became an outspoken critic of the death penalty and told his story to thousands of people for the last 35 years.

Ellen Buchman [00:02:28] You’re listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series about what it means to shift the dominant narrative around critical social and cultural issues of our time.

Will Coley [00:02:37] I’m Will Coley reporting for The Opportunity Agenda

Ellen Buchman [00:02:40] And I’m Ellen Buchman, President of The Opportunity Agenda. We’re a social justice communication lab that’s working to advance the impact of the social and racial justice community. We do this by shaping compelling narratives and messages and by building the capacity of leaders in the communications, training and resources that we offer. And when we at The Opportunity Agenda say narrative, what we’re referring to is the big story explanation for a topic that we all carry around in our heads, these narratives shape culture and they shape policy and they shape hearts and minds. Over the last three decades, the United States has had a change of heart about the death penalty. In 1995, only one out of every 10 Americans opposed capital punishment, one out of every 10. But today it’s closer to four out of every 10 Americans. In other words, opposition to the death penalty has more than quadrupled in the last 15 years and Bill Pelkey played a major part in this change. His story was just one of many that changed the national narrative. In this episode, we want to find out what contributed to that and why it happened. With that information, we want to figure out how to apply those lessons to other critical issues today, from poverty to gun rights to racial profiling. We at The Opportunity Agenda believe that if racial and social justice leaders have the support that they need to make sure that their stories are told in in the ways that they intend, we will eventually see change in our country and we will do that through moving hearts and minds

Will Coley [00:04:25] In this episode, we’re following the story of Bill Pelke. Over several decades he was an eyewitness to the change in our nation’s narrative about the death penalty. Bill grew up in a religious family in Gary, Indiana. Back in the 1960s, he went to an evangelical Christian college because he wanted to become a pastor, but he dropped out and was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. He was working as a steelworker when Paula Cooper was sentenced to death for the murder of his grandmother. Many people in Indiana still saw the case of the dominant narrative about the death penalty, that Paula deserved to die for what she did. There was a fear that if people weren’t punished, chaos and violence would reign. They thought it was a deterrent to would-be murderers. And so many Americans in the 1980s saw the death penalty as a symbol of being tough on crime. There was also widespread belief that executing people who committed murder also brought closure for the families of the victims.

Ellen Buchman [00:05:18] By the end of 1985, there were fifteen hundred people on death row in this country, but executions were rare. Defense lawyers created procedural delays so that they could stop them, which became an issue for the public. There were newspaper headlines about thwarted executions,

Reading of News Headlines [00:05:40] Gray Execution Blocked Again.

Reading of News Headlines [00:05:41] State High Court Overturns Two More Death Sentences.

Reading of News Headlines [00:05:44] Execution of child killer stayed by US Court Killer Wins Reprieve.

Reading of News Headlines [00:05:49] Convicted Murderer Gets a Stay in Louisiana.

Will Coley [00:05:53] Politicians didn’t want to be seen as, quote, “Soft on Crime”. Soon, lawmakers started the quote “War on Drugs”. Fear of crime intensified. Pundits said the judges were too lenient and prisons were like country clubs. Many thought the death penalty was the only way to maintain order. Bill Pelkey felt the same way. But then, a few months after Paula Cooper was sentenced to death, he had a life-changing epiphany. Bill was working at Bethlehem Steel and one day he was sitting in the cab of the crane he was operating,

Bill Pelke [00:06:23] As I sat in the crane cab, my mind went back to the courtroom and began to reflect on Nona’s life and on Nona’s death. And then I began to picture an image of my grandmother. I envision tears come out of Nona’s eyes and streaming down on Nona’s cheeks. And I knew that they were tears of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. So not knowing what else to do, with tears coming out of my eyes and streaming down my cheeks, I begged my God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper, her family, and do that on behalf of Nona and I begin to realize that prayer of love and compassion had been answered. Because I knew that I no longer wanted her to die.

Will Coley [00:07:13] Bill made two promises to God that night,

Bill Pelke [00:07:16] First promise, any success that come to my life as a result of forgiving Paula Cooper, that I would give God the honor and glory. It was something I couldn’t take credit for because God had touched my heart and made that forgiveness possible. The second promise, if I had any idea what I was promising that night, I’d been too scared to make the promise, but I promised my God I would go through any door that opened up as a result of forgiving Paula Cooper.

Will Coley [00:07:43] Bill wrote a letter to Paula Cooper the very next day forgiving her.

Bill Pelke [00:07:47] And I wrote her a letter the next day, told her I had forgiven her, told her I wanted to help in any way I could. Told her I wanted to help in any way I could. Told I’d like to visit with her.

Will Coley [00:07:53] 10 days later, Bill got a letter from Paula.

Bill Pelke [00:07:56] She told me how to go about procedures to visit her. However, the Department of Corrections in the state of Indiana would not allow us to visit. It actually took eight years before we were able to visit.

Will Coley [00:08:06] Indiana had an unofficial policy that family members of the murder victims couldn’t meet inmates convicted for the killing. So Bill kept writing letters to Paula. He learned that Paula had endured horrific child abuse inflicted by her mother. Forgiving Paula was the first step of Bill’s change of heart about the death penalty. Understanding and explaining that to others would become his life’s work. When Bill Pelkey ran into people he knew in Gary, Indiana, they give their condolences.

Bill Pelke [00:08:35] Well, I had a friend that I ran into that I hadn’t seen for probably over a year and a half who…hadn’t seen him since my grandmother had died. And when he came up to me, he…he just looked at me and he said, Bill, I hope that bitch burns because he’d read in the paper she’d been sentenced to death. And I kind of stepped back. I looked at him. I said, I don’t. And he was like startled. He said, well, what do you mean? And so I told a little bit, you know, about what had happened in the crane, how I’d ask God to give me love and compassion. And when I finished talking to him, he said, you know what? He said, I don’t want her to die either. He said, you ought to write a letter to the local newspaper and tell people how you feel. And so I wrote a short letter for The Voice of the People

Ellen Buchman [00:09:19] At the time, in the late 1980s, there was a growing grassroots movement to oppose the death penalty. They were using similar tactics to influence public opinion. Like Bill, they were trying to appeal to people’s morality and ethics. But talking about the immorality of the death penalty wasn’t enough to sway public opinion. Take the 1988 presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. This was a pivotal moment in shaping the national narrative about the death penalty. Television networks aired the Bush campaign’s ad about Willie Horton to attack Dukakis’s record and to reinforce the idea that the death penalty protected public safety.

Bush Campaign Ad [00:10:03] Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.

Will Coley [00:10:15] During a televised debate, there was this question for Governor Dukakis about his wife.

Audio from Presidential Debate [00:10:20] The first question goes to Governor Dukakis. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

Will Coley [00:10:34] Governor Dukakis responded.

Audio from Presidential Debate [00:10:36] No, I don’t, Bernard and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent.

Ellen Buchman [00:10:45] TIME magazine called it Dukakis’s deadly response. State pundits said the response was the reason Dukakis lost the election.

Will Coley [00:10:54] Bill remembers watching the debate.

Bill Pelke [00:10:55] I was glad that he said he was opposed to the death penalty. But I think the…you know, the way it was said, I think if you were to taken more time of telling how terrible he would feel, you know, if something did happen to his wife, but then go on to how he doesn’t think the state would have a right to take that person’s life. Just the way he answered it kind of was fodder for those that want the death penalty, which a majority of people in this country want the death penalty.

Will Coley [00:11:23] But something unusual was happening in Indiana. Paula Cooper’s case was getting international attention. This was in part because Paula was so young, still a child. Outside of the United States outrage was growing over the use of the death penalty. A few years after Paula was sentenced to death, an Italian journalist in Rome Anna Guaita started working on a story.

Anna Guaita [00:11:45] The death penalty has always been a big issue for Italians that follow the United States. We’ve always been raised with the idea that the United States was the land of freedom and democracy. So it didn’t really get along with the idea of people that would want the death penalty in such a large majority as it was when I started my work as a journalist in the 80s.

Ellen Buchman [00:12:17] Guaita’s reporting exposed the clash of different narratives about the death penalty in two different countries, and this both fascinated and appalled Italians. Guaita interviewed Bill and as a result of her reporting, he was invited to Italy by two priests who started an organization called Don’t Kill. He appeared on an Italian TV show and traveled around the country speaking at high schools, colleges, churches and other media formats, talking about love and compassion.

Anna Guaita [00:12:55] He became well known in Italy as the face of the death penalty story.

Bill Pelke [00:13:02] By the fall of 1989, over two million people had signed petitions to send to the state of Indiana to ask that Paula Cooper not be executed. Pope John Paul the Second asked the governor of Indiana, to have mercy and not executed, and the legislators in the state of Indiana were very embarrassed. All the international attention

Will Coley [00:13:17] Eventually in response to this bad publicity and public pressure. Indiana changed its law on the death penalty for minors. In 1989, Paula’s sentence was reduced to 60 years in prison. This was what Bill had been fighting for four years, stopping one person from being executed. But the death penalty remained in place.

Bill Pelke [00:13:36] Well, Paula Cooper was taken off of death row in 1989. And it was at that point I thought, well, my mission is completed. And then I heard about a march that was taking place in Florida. It was to unite the spiritual consciousness of churches in America about the issue of the death penalty. I thought well, spiritual reasons was why I oppose the death penalty. I want to be part of that march. So I took vacation from my job at Bethlehem Steel, I filled my van with gas and I drove to Florida and I went where the marchers were supposed to meet. And when I went in, there’s a lady sitting behind a table where marchers were supposed to register. And I said, “Hi, my name is Bill Pilkey. I want to register for the march.” And she said, “Oh, I know who you are.” She stood up and gave me a big hug. She said, “I’m Sister Helen Prejean.”

Will Coley [00:14:15] You may have heard of Sister Helen Prejean, the main character in the film Dead Man Walking. At that Florida event, Bill began learning even more about the larger issues that surround capital punishment. Bills understanding was moving from the individual to the systemic.

Bill Pelke [00:14:29] And I got a real education about the death penalty. And I did meet other people that had loved ones who had been killed that didn’t want the death penalty. Learn about how only, you know, poor people get the death penalty, that rich people, you know, they can get good lawyers and don’t have the death penalty. Like they say that capital punishment, if you don’t have the capital, you get the punishment. But it was on that march with Sister Prejean that I dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty.

Will Coley [00:14:55] He had forgiven his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper, and helped get her off death row. But he was realizing that the handling of Paula’s case was part of a much bigger problem, systemic racism and the American justice system.

Bill Pelke [00:15:06] Well, I don’t think there would…they would have sought the death penalty if it had been for white girls killing a black grandmother. There was outrage in the community, which there should be when a terrible crime like that took place. But there was a demand for the death penalty. And I have a feeling that if it’s been white girls, they probably wouldn’t have been a demand. If you kill a white person, the chances of getting the death penalty are much, much greater than if you kill a black person. A lot of times if a black person is murdered, they won’t even seek the death penalty for the person who killed that person. So, I mean, we talk about things like that.

Will Coley [00:15:41] This is well documented in death penalty cases. And the evidence is who is now on death row, which is disproportionately African-American.

Ellen Buchman [00:15:57] By early 1990, just as Bill Pelke was entering wider advocacy against the death penalty, some abolitionists believed that there was a stalemate on the death penalty, that the morality argument wasn’t gaining them any more ground. They feared that the debate had been reduced to confrontations outside prisons on the eve of executions, with one side praying and the other side calling for death.

Will Coley [00:16:22] For many years, criminal defense attorneys and civil rights activists across the US have been fighting for the rights of the accused. And the early 1990s, a small group of them met in New York City to come up with a plan to change the way Americans saw the death penalty. They believe that if Americans knew all the facts, they would be against it. The results of that meeting was the birth of the Death Penalty Information Center. The group had a new strategy and a new message for the public. Instead of focusing on the moral depravity of the death penalty, they decided to focus their messaging on the practical deficiencies of the death penalty. That meant no more stories about execution vigils outside prisons. Here’s Richard Dieter, former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Richard Dieter [00:17:03] We need something new. OK, so here’s a report about the costs of the death penalty, here’s a report about the dangers of executing an innocent person or racial discrimination or quality of representation. A report on the death penalty was something new. So that, you know, that’s the trick with the media. No big discovery here. You’ve got to have something new.

Ellen Buchman [00:17:25] And throughout the 1990s, there was something new about the death penalty all the time, a new angle, a new story which questioned the justifications for the death penalty. There were several influential media stories that drew the public’s attention to the problems with the death penalty, how systemic racism created faulty investigations and biased proceedings. Like in this pivotal story on 60 Minutes, definitely a tipping point in the conversation, when civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson helped to tell “Johnny D’s” story on death row.

60 Minutes Host [00:18:06] “Johnnny D’s” attorney, Bryan Stevenson, has appealed the cases of more than 100 death row inmates.

Bryan Stevenson [00:18:12] I have never had a case where the state’s only evidence of guilt comes from one person where there’s no motive, there’s no physical evidence, there’s no corroborating circumstances. There’s nothing but the word of one person.

Will Coley [00:18:26] There were also stories about death row inmates exonerated as a result of DNA evidence, the first time scientific methods brought into question the fairness of the system.

News Clip [00:18:36] June 28, 1993. I feel fantastic. Bloodsworth walked out of a Jessup prison as the first person in the country to serve time on death row and be exonerated by DNA.

Will Coley [00:18:53] The Chicago Tribune and journalism students at Northwestern University also uncovered new information about death row inmates who were wrongfully convicted. This coverage resulted in their exonerations. In November 1998, national news outlets reported on a conference organized by the Northwestern School of Law.

News Clip [00:19:11] Death penalty opponents gathered in Chicago just this past weekend with dramatic evidence of how close we’ve come to putting a number of innocent people to death.

Will Coley [00:19:22] The conference brought together on one stage, 29 exonerees. A photo of these former death row inmates, the majority of whom were African-American, clearly showed the racial injustice of the system.

Ellen Buchman [00:19:35] Also, part of the media onslaught in the 1990s was a documentary on the Discovery Channel that focused on the stories of murder victims families who had forgiven the people who had taken their loved ones lives. They interviewed Bill Pelke as well as Paula Cooper. As a result of the filming, Bill finally got permission to visit Paula in person. They had been writing letters for years.

Bill Pelke [00:19:58] I went in, I gave her a hug. I step back and I looked in the eyes. I told her I loved her and I forgive her. We talked for about an hour about different things. I never did ask her why she committed a crime, because I’m sure there wasn’t an answer for that. But the thing that stood out most of my mind was a three-hour drive home. The word wonderful, wonderful, wonderful kept crossing my mind because I had just met this girl who had done such a terrible thing to my grandmother, such a terrible thing to our family. And yet I didn’t have the hate and the anger and the desire for revenge that had been so easy to have had. But I had a kind of love for I believe our creator wants us to have for each of his children. And to me that was wonderful.

Will Coley [00:20:43] In the Discovery Special, audiences watched as fellow Americans, whose family members were murdered, actually met their killers face to face in order to forgive them. The concept fundamentally ran counter to the dominant narrative that taking a life for a life would bring closure for family members. Bill’s story and those of murder victim families in the documentary were the first of many that brought into question the idea of just retribution.

Ellen Buchman [00:21:07] Stories like the one Bill Pelke just shared were the beginning of a steady narrative stream that gradually undermined the widespread belief that the death penalty was fair and that the miscarriage of justice was rare. That was huge. But the progress in shifting the narrative did not lead ultimately to policy changes right away. In fact, the abolition cause suffered a major setback after the Oklahoma City bombing in April of 1995.

News Clip [00:21:37] A massive car bomb exploded outside of a large federal building in downtown Oklahoma City, shattering that building, killing children.

Will Coley [00:21:44] President Bill Clinton spoke at a press briefing after the bombing, underlining his tough stance on violent crime.

President Bill Clinton [00:21:51] The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens. It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. Justice will be swift, certain and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers.

Will Coley [00:22:18] At the same press conference, Attorney General Janet Reno stated that the administration would seek the death penalty.

Ellen Buchman [00:22:24] Public Opinion Research found that Americans approved of this response to the bombing, particularly because so many children were victims. The attacks spurred Congress to pass the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. President Clinton signed it into law. The bipartisan act limited the power of the federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus for detainees to challenge their detention, which is a legal right that has existed for hundreds of years. That was often the only legal relief available to people on death row. At the same time, more and more people were being executed. Abolition advocates felt a new sense of urgency. The direction for changing the dominant narrative became clear the anti-death penalty movement had to expose the many ways that the judicial system was failing people and was riddled with error and unfairness. They had to use all the tools that they could to not only litigate, but also communicate those problems to the American public. In other words, to follow Justice Thurgood Marshall’s admonition to shock the conscience of the average American.

Will Coley [00:23:41] At the end of the 1990s, Hollywood played a big role in shocking the conscience of Americans

Ellen Buchman [00:23:46] two award-winning films based on best-selling books, came to movie theaters around the country, thus contributing to what was a cultural awakening.

Clip from Dead Man Walking [00:23:56] Well, Mathew I made it.

Clip from Dead Man Walking [00:23:59] You never done this before?

Clip from Dead Man Walking [00:24:00] No.

Clip from Dead Man Walking [00:24:00] You never been this close to a murderer?

Clip from Dead Man Walking [00:24:03] Not that I know of.

Ellen Buchman [00:24:05] In 1996, there was Dead Man Walking. That film was based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean.

Will Coley [00:24:12] As we mentioned earlier, Bill Pelkey met Sister Helen at an anti-death penalty event and they soon became friends. The film version of her book made a difference.

Bill Pelke [00:24:22] Well, a lot of times people didn’t want to talk about the death penalty, but when Dead Man Walking came out, then suddenly it was something you could talk about. You could talk about in school, you know, did you see the movie? What do you think of it? So it kind of opened up the conversation about the death penalty. The Green Mile is also very powerful. I mean, it was it wasn’t a true story, but it made people think twice and especially about electric chair and that sort of thing.

Ellen Buchman [00:24:47] Both films contributed to growing unease about capital punishment. Both films showed the families of people who’ve been murdered and corrections officers voicing a counternarrative. Sister Helen explained the impact that this had.

Sister Hellen Prejean [00:25:01] More and more victims families are saying the death penalty re-victimizes us. First of all, it put your grief in a public spotlight. Every time there’s a change in the status of the case, the media is at your door. You can’t grieve. You’re in trauma and it doesn’t help us. The other thing that also began was the voice of wardens that had to carry out executions and guards that were part of execution squads. Their voices began to be heard.

Will Coley [00:25:34] Americans were hearing more and more voices of people opposed to the death penalty, people directly affected by it. Bill Pilkey had been realizing the importance of murder victim families in the abolition movement and started organizing them.

Bill Pelke [00:25:47] Back in 1991, I was on a march in Texas and came up with an idea that if murder victim family members would lead an event, I felt that other people would come join us, stand by our sides. And also, family members had loved ones on death row.

Will Coley [00:26:00] Bill joined other family members and formed The Journey of Hope, a nonprofit organization that organizes gatherings every few years.

Ellen Buchman [00:26:16] By the turn of the new millennium, the abolition movement had reached a critical mass and the narrative was starting to shift.

Bill Pelke [00:26:23] They have come to realize in the last few years that the Supreme Court is not the way to get rid of the death penalty at this point. And so they are now trying to make an effort, in certain states where they feel they have a chance to to to make a difference

Ellen Buchman [00:26:36] For the first time with a focus on the state level, policy was finally starting to follow public opinion.

Diann Rust-Tierney [00:26:43] In the communication strategy was the focus on changing the law at the state level, and that was huge. My name is Diann Rust-Tierney and I’m the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. All of us thought our jobs were just keep talking to people and convince them to oppose the death penalty and something will happen. And I think that, you know, linking the communication strategy to an actual policy strategy and focusing it at the state level was critical and why we’re where we are today, because nobody was doing it before.

Ellen Buchman [00:27:13] Efforts to shift the death penalty narrative began to bear fruit, bear fruit from a policy standpoint. And finally, New Jersey became the first state to abolish capital punishment legislatively. Other states followed, in 2019 governors of four states declared moratoriums.

California Governor Gavin Newsom [00:27:32] My ultimate goal is to end the death penalty in California. My right, my constitutional right afforded to me by the people of the state of California is to advance a reprieve, this moratorium today. I have the right to shut down the death chamber at San Quentin.

News Clip [00:27:48] This is not anything but looking at this particular form of punishment. Again, I just want to make sure that this particular form of punishment is appropriate.

Will Coley [00:28:01] Amidst these developments at the state level, Paula Cooper was released from prison for good behavior. She was 43 years old. She had served 26 years in prison. Three of those years were in solitary confinement. Adjusting to life outside was difficult for Paula. And in 2015, she took her own life.

Ellen Buchman [00:28:25] In November 2019, the power of the new narrative on the death penalty was on full display. There was a nationwide campaign to win a stay of execution for Mr. Rodney Reed, an African-American man sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Texas in 1998.

Will Coley [00:28:45] Reed was scheduled to be executed on November 20th, 2019, but nearly three million people signed a petition to stop it. Reed won an indefinite stay of execution so that he could introduce new evidence for prosecutorial misconduct. Members of the Texas House of Representatives and Senate from both sides of the aisle sent a letter to the governor seeking a reprieve to allow for DNA testing. The international campaign to stop Reed’s execution was remarkable for its effectiveness. A new narrative had taken hold.

Ellen Buchman [00:29:17] The funny thing about dominant narratives is that they can change over long periods of time or with fits and starts, and sometimes they even backtrack

Will Coley [00:29:25] After the display of solidarity for Rodney Reed online and in the media, the Trump administration took steps to undermine the abolitionist cause. In 2019, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice announced its plans to resume executions again after an almost two-decade de facto moratorium. In a statement that echoes the age-old pro-death penalty narrative, which is eroding, Attorney General William Barr said we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system. To many, the move was a demonstration of the Trump administration’s law and order rhetoric. Trump himself often called for the death penalty for drug dealers or killers of police officers. In December 2019, I went to Terre Haute, Indiana. It’s where the federal government holds its death row prisoners, and it’s where Bill, along with 100 abolition advocates, planned to gather for a vigil.

Chant [00:30:20] When do we want it? Now! What do we want? No death penalty! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? No death penalty! When do we want it? Now!

Will Coley [00:30:30] Bill and his fellow advocates organized a daylong convocation to oppose the federal executions. We sat in the hall of St. Benedict Catholic Church. It had been a packed day of panels and speeches, relatives of murder victims, formerly incarcerated people, nuns, lawyers and ministers. [background chatter rises] What do you think of it so far?

Bill Pelke [00:30:51] Oh, it’s been great. I wish that this sort of thing was taking place when I first got involved. I pretty much felt alone. And this is the kind of support that would have been great many years ago for me.

Event Announcer [00:31:05] That our next speaker is…probably needs no introduction for most of us. But he is…but he has brought everything he’s got to us. So please welcome Mr. Bill Pelke.

Bill Pelke [00:31:23] Thank you for everybody being here. My name is Bill Pilke. I live in Anchorage, Alaska. I haven’t always lived in Anchorage. I used to live in northwest Indiana. And I’m gonna tell you a story about what happened when I was living there. A few of you had heard my story before.

Will Coley [00:31:37] Bill’s testimony captures the attention of everyone in the room. And for a story that Bill has told for 35 years, he still gets emotional. Afterwards, a young attorney from Indianapolis, Ashley Kincaid Eve, told Bill that he was the reason she became a lawyer to fight the death penalty.

Ashley Kincaid Eve [00:31:53] I’ve heard this story many, many times, and it even still captivated me. It had tears streaming down my face. He’s a great speaker.

Bill Pelke [00:32:01] He asked me how many times have I told my story. And I told him thousands of times,

Ashley Kincaid Eve [00:32:06] Thank you for your strength. And reliving that over and over again. Definitely changes hearts, and that’s the way to get the message out there. It’s changing lives and hearts one at a time.

Bill Pelke [00:32:16] It’s a powerful message. It touched my heart, changed my life so I can touch other people, change their lives too.

Ellen Buchman [00:32:24] Throughout this episode, we’ve seen the narrative shift that happened over a period of almost 35 years. There was a time when the death penalty was widely supported by the American public. And now we’re in a time of growing concern about its application. There’s been a significant drop in support.

Bill Pelke [00:32:44] I have come to learn that the answer is love and compassion for all humanity. And that’s a message that we need to take and share with the world.

Will Coley [00:32:54] Bill Pelkey passed away in November 2020, just a few weeks before he planned to return to Terre Haute, Indiana. He was going to join vigils outside the federal prison to protest the executions. We hope this episode serves as yet another tribute to his decades-long advocacy for love and compassion.

Ellen Buchman [00:33:16] You’ve been listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series from The Opportunity Agenda to see photos of Bill Pelke’s amazing activism, to listen to one of his final speeches and read more, go to Shifting the Narrative Case Studies on our website, You can learn even more about Bill’s legacy on the website Special thanks to Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action and Alex Mar for their generosity and help with this episode. I’m Ellen Buchman, the president of The Opportunity Agenda. Will Coley is our producer. Our research and production team includes Elizabeth Johnson, Julie Fisher-Rowe, Lucy Odigie-Turley, Loren Siegel, Charlie Sherman, Lashaya Howie, Christiaan Perez, Brian Erickson and Rachel Reyes. Our editor is Allison Behringer. And the music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. For more Shifting the Narrative episodes, be sure to follow us or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please rate and comment so that others will find out and hear more about these stories.

Will Coley [00:34:27] Together, we can shift narratives and create greater opportunity for everyone.

Chorus [00:34:35] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.

Special thanks to our headline readers: Tina Shull, Christian Aeschliman, Fiona Tedds and Jennifer Parker Harkey.

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