A few weeks back, Marianne Philbin, the director of the Peace Museum, mentioned to me that Ruth Barrett, the museum’s program director, had given notice. She was going to be taking a position with Amnesty International.
She get a good offer? I asked. Marianne said it was. More money? I guessed. It pretty much had to be, she assured me.
Well, at least it’s all in the same cause, I philosophized.
“I don’t know,” Marianne countered. “The first thing she put in her date book for her new job was an execution.”
Ruth Barrett called me the other day from her office at Amnesty International. She was looking for information about children convicted of murder, and she knew that I’d spent some time investigating the subject. She is organizing opposition to a bill sponsored by State Senator William Marovitz that would expand Illinois’ use of the death penalty. Current state law allows capital punishment when the victim is a peace officer or a fireman; when the murder is committed in conjunction with another felony; when the victim is under 12 and the murder is indicative of “wanton cruelty”; and in a few other specified circumstances. Marovitz’s proposal would expand the list of capital crimes to include murders committed on school property. His proposal, a rider to the Safe Schools Act (which addresses the problem of gang violence in the schools), is largely a reaction to the highly publicized October slaying of a DuSable High School student by a 15-year-old classmate. The judge in that case suggested to Marovitz that he sponsor a bill allowing the death penalty for anyone 15 or over convicted of a murder occurring on or near school property. Marovitz told me he modified the judge’s suggestion because he could not support lowering the state’s current age limit of 18. Amnesty International opposes the measure because it views any use or expansion of the death penalty as a “violation of human rights [which] brutalizes society and is discriminatorily imposed upon minorities and the poor.”
I asked Ruth how her new job was going and what had happened to the guy whose execution she had noted in her date book. The job was going well, she said. As “Group Services Director” of AI’s midwest region, she mostly had been organizing information tables at U2 and R.E.M. concerts. U2 donated the proceeds from their 1986 “Conspiracy for Hope” tour to AI. This time around, they hoped to help AI drum up new supporters. U2’s lead singer, Bono Vox, plugs the organization from the stage and AI volunteers field questions and gather petition signatures at the tables.
“The kids love it,” Barrett said. “Well, first of all, you’ve got to remember that most of the kids that go to U2 concerts are incredibly clean-cut suburban kids, even the ones that are totally punked out. They’re very orderly. As a matter of fact, this one kid approached me and said, ‘What’s all this stuff?’ And I said, ‘That’s a petition to abolish the death penalty.’ And, this kid’s totally punked out, and he said, ‘Well, I think the death penalty’s good. I would never sign anything to abolish it.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ That’s all I said. And he goes, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. I really didn’t mean to say that.’ So, given that the kids there are pretty much nice kids, they like it, they love it. When Bono talks from the stage about it, everybody hoots and screams and holds up their little Amnesty International banners whether they’re members or not.”
A lot of college AI groups have gotten started at U2 concerts, Barrett said. “Campus groups can’t adopt a prisoner of conscience because they are closed down three months a year, but they work with the adoption groups, the ones that do have prisoners of conscience. And they do fund-raisers. Since ‘Conspiracy of Hope’ every campus group wants to do concerts.” Just a couple of weeks ago, a cluster of Chicago AI groups held a benefit concert at the Metro with Dick Holliday and the Bamboo Gang, Barrett said. “And we made a lot of money. Everybody’s doing concerts.”
Besides setting up information tables at concerts, Barrett travels throughout 13 midwestern states, from North Dakota to Kansas to Kentucky to Michigan, recruiting leadership and training trainers. Chicago is the only AI office in the region and it’s her job to keep the member groups informed and active.
Whatever happened to the guy who was going to be executed? I wanted to know.
“Well, we don’t sponsor vigils or anything like that,” Ruth said.
Why did you have to put his execution in your date book? I asked.
“That was even before I started working here and it was just mentioned to me and I put it in because we didn’t know what was going to happen, if it was going to be commuted or if we were going to have to go down there to do some last-minute organizing to put together some opposition for that. I don’t even know what happened on that eventually, but it turned out that I didn’t have to go down there. That was mostly Marianne’s fun joke. She thought it was real funny that I had to put that on my calendar. That was my first week. I put this execution on my calendar, then I planned three R.E.M. concerts, and then all the U2 concerts. It was an exciting first week.”
Do you remember the guy’s name? I asked.
“I can find out for you,” she said.
Do you know if he was executed?
“I can find out for you.”
Later that afternoon Ruth called back. “All right,” she said, “I’ve got his name. His name was Gregory–”
“Was?” I said.
“No, is, is,” she corrected herself, “Gregory Resnover.”
A few days later I spoke with Monica Foster of the Indiana Public Defenders Council about Resnover’s case. He is a black man convicted in the murder of a white police officer who had attempted to arrest him for a bank robbery. If I was looking for a helpless victim to write an anti-death penalty story about, she said, he was not the guy. An Indiana court sentenced Resnover to die on October 26, 1987, the date Ruth Barrett put in her date book, but he was granted a stay of execution. Foster said the stay will expire if the United States Supreme Court refuses to hear his case. “But that will not be a real execution date either,” she said. Resnover will have appeal opportunities at two federal court levels; then he will again be eligible to request a Supreme Court hearing. Foster expects it will be years before the State of Indiana can carry out its sentence, if it can at all.
Ruth Barrett gasped on the other end of the line when I told her the facts of Resnover’s case. She hadn’t really been involved in it, but now it was another of hundreds of impending executions and incidents of torture that she has become familiar with since taking the job at Amnesty. “It can be frightening to work on issues that affect people’s lives in such a dramatic way,” she said.
Until last March, ten-year-olds were eligible for the death penalty in Indiana, Barrett pointed out. The age limit has now been raised to 16. If Marovitz’s rider becomes law, Illinois’ use of the death penalty will be expanded a notch in the other direction. That’s what Amnesty International worries about.