When Renaldo Hudson was on the Illinois death row, he spoke with a police officer about the death penalty. The officer told Hudson he once watched the news with his young daughter when a government execution was happening. The officer explained to her that the man was being executed because he killed someone. Then the child asked her father, “Well, who’s gonna kill him?” referring to the executioner.

Hudson told this story to a Zoom audience on Tuesday evening while speaking at a roundtable about the US death penalty hosted by the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He was joined by Meredith Rountree, Senior Lecturer at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, and Rob Owen, capital defense attorney. After serving on death row for 13 years and later being released from prison in 2020, Hudson is now the Education Director for the Illinois Prison Project, an organization that fights against the racist criminal legal system by “advocating for and with thousands of people who are needlessly incarcerated,” according to their mission statement.

Rountree opened the event with a presentation on the modern history of the death penalty. She said the Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws in 1972 because of the way they were administered. However, once states rewrote these statutes and added administrative policies, the death penalty was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976.

“The United States is the only industrialized democracy the retains the death penalty,” Rountree said. “There are 27 states that retain the death penalty in addition to the United States Military and the federal death row. There are about 2500 prisoners currently on death row.”

Rountree also said the most executions occurred in the late 1990s when popular support for the death penalty was high and stated that race can affect who is sentenced to death.

“Most people on death row are not Black, but Black people are on death row at a much higher rate, disproportionate to the population,” she said. “Time and again, what researchers have found is that the best predictor of who gets the death penalty is the race of the victim. In 76% of death penalty cases, the race of the victim is white.”

Owen added that the last year has been a “blood bath” on the federal level with 13 executions in about six months. The first set of executions were five white men and one Native man, and the second group of executions were six Black men and one white woman.

“The government attempted to conceal, to some extent, the racist nature of the federal death penalty by starting off by killing a succession of white prisoners then showing its true colors and executing a string of Black men before Mr. Trump left office,” Owen said.

One of those Black men was Owen’s longtime client, Brandon Bernard. Owen said Bernard was just 18 years and six months old when he was sentenced to death. He was involved in the robbery, abduction and murder of two individuals. While his co-defendant actually killed the victims, Bernard never physically harmed anyone. Owen said Bernard was just the “getaway driver.” Bernard was deemed “too dangerous” for a life sentence in prison, but in his 20 years on the federal death row, he never once received a disciplinary write-up.

“That’s highly unusual. A lot of people have little write-ups for trivial things as they’re adjusting to being in custody,” Owen said. “It just reflects what a bad job our system does of identifying people who cannot live peacefully in custody and condemning them to execution.”

As a lawyer in these cases, Owen is the last person to see his clients before they are executed.

“There’s a bottomlessness at that moment,” he said. “There’s no human conversation that’s made for the moment before someone is going to be killed. You’re trying to tell them that you’re sorry, you love them and you won’t forget them.”

While Owen experienced those lows, he’s also had plenty of victories. He's won 35 to 40 death penalty reversals in Texas in his 30 years defending capital cases.

“Victory is a child with a thousand parents,” Owen added. “The fact that I might have been one of the lawyers at the podium in those cases doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of other folks working on them.”

Hudson, a Black man from Chicago, described his personal experience in the prison system and on the Illinois death row (read more about Hudson’s story here).

“It’s torturous. The criminal legal system as it exists is a sewage,” Hudson said. “I looked at prison as a plantation. I was a slave in my mind. I didn’t become free and happy until I walked out.”

Hudson criticized government officials for seeing the death penalty as a political debate. He mentioned that President Biden signed harsh criminal bills in the 1990s when he was a senator.

“The death penalty is not just a political pawn to kick back and forth,” Hudson said.

Hudson spent his time in prison educating himself and his peers. He said he could not read or write when he entered prison, but he walked out with a Bachelor of Divinity.

“Even beauty can come from ashes,” Hudson said. “No one is the totality of their worst act. No one is above mercy and redemption."

*Article Thumbnail courtesy of the Illinois Prison Project