The young man, hardly more than a boy, was facing a mortal choice. Celia Ouellette, his defence lawyer, told the 18-year-old Black teen from Appalachian Kentucky that he didn’t have any good options left: he could accept a plea deal that would keep him in prison until he was middle-aged, or he could risk going to trial and getting the death penalty for a crime in which he was only indirectly involved. The teen, whose identity Ms Ouellette can’t divulge for legal reasons, was part of a group of five involved in a marijuana sale during which someone got killed. Her client wasn’t in the house where it happened. He wasn’t accused of being the killer. His crime was waiting outside the scene of the crime. All five members of the group were potentially facing execution.
“These options are so crappy,” he lamented, as Ms Ouellette remembers. None of the youths had set out to kill anyone. They had thought they were just making a low-level drug deal. Everything went wrong in an instant.
She explained that the best she could do as his lawyer – the best the system offers many young Black men in his position – was to trade a lengthy prison sentence for keeping his life. He took the plea deal, but he left Ms Ouellette with a mission. He told her to go out and make it so that kids like him got a second chance after making mistakes, even deadly ones – not the death penalty.
“You have to change it,” he said. “If you don’t have the power to fix this, you need to find someone who does.” So that’s what she did.
In 2017, Ms Ouellette, a veteran capital defence lawyer, launched the UK-based nonprofit organisation Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ). Its goal is to inspire leaders in business and the media to lend their voices to ending capital punishment for good. People pay attention to those with the biggest platform. RBIJ wanted those already in the spotlight to help illuminate one of the darkest corners of the criminal justice system.
“We as a movement recognised the value that businesses can bring,” she told The Independent. “When I launched RBIJ in 2017, there was a marked increase in interest from business in social justice, racial justice, and human rights issues at the time. We had a theory that, if we hung our shingle and opened our door, they would be there, and that’s been true.”
Soon, the phones were ringing off the hook.
So far, RBIJ’s campaign has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to its Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty declaration, which launched earlier this year at South by Southwest, a major conference held annually in Texas. High-profile executives such as Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson are all now part of the initiative. (The Independent has joined the declaration as well, with a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.)
The death penalty as an institution is nothing if not multi-faceted: the final, irrevocable end result of state and federal crime policies, policing, and numerous interlocking court systems. It’s a punishment that touches on questions of racial justice, ethics, faith – the value of a human life. As such, the growing number of business leaders who’ve come out against capital punishment have done so for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s the fact that the death penalty has been shown time and time again to be applied disproportionately to men of colour; for others, that there’s no proven link between capital punishment and lowering crime.
“The death penalty is broken beyond repair, and plainly fails to deliver justice by every reasonable measure,” Mr Branson has written of his decision to oppose the punishment. “It is marred by cruelty, waste, ineffectiveness, discrimination, and an unacceptable risk of error. By speaking out at this crucial moment, business leaders have an opportunity to help end this inhumane and flawed practice.” He explained his thinking further during an interview with The Independent: “I think, to be a truly civilised country, you must realise that killing people as a way of trying to teach people not to kill people is not the way to do it. It’s inhumane and it’s wrong.”
For other signatories, it’s that in the modern era nearly one person on death row is exonerated for every 8.3 who are executed – a rate of error they consider far too great when lives are on the line.
“Eliminating the death penalty is a moral imperative in its own right,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said of his decision to join RBIJ’s mission. “And when the taking of life is compounded by the knowledge of innocents being handed such a sentence, it is even more horrific.”
The approach is emblematic of a broader shift in business culture in the US, according to Tom CW Lin, a professor at the Temple University law school and author of the forthcoming book The Capitalist and the Activist: Corporate Social Activism and the New Business of Change.
“More and more we’re seeing, particularly from younger consumers, that they want to engage with businesses that they think are good corporate citizens, not just good engines for profits for services and providers of products,” Professor Lin said.
It’s an idea that’s been around for a while in one form or another. Everyone from the International Cricket Conference to financial institutions used the economic bite of boycotts and sanctions to pressure South Africa to end apartheid. Businesses cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars when they pulled out of the state in protest over a law denying transgender people access to bathrooms matching their gender identity, until the state overturned the law in 2017.
“It happened gradually,” Mr Lin added. “There’s no particular inflection point, but I would say that, over the course of the last two decades or so, there’s just been a trend line more and more towards this notion that businesses owe obligations to stakeholders beyond their narrow base of shareholders.”
Things have moved one step further, though, in recent years, with major brands all but required to have social stances on questions like Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis to be seen as legitimate, both inside and outside the company. One survey found that three-quarters of workers expect their employers to take a stand on issues of the day, and nearly as many would consider switching jobs if their companies didn’t.
“I think if you take the generation before mine, business leaders just thought they were there to make money. But we have a voice,” Sir Richard said.
According to RBIJ, those who’ve joined it in its fight against the death penalty are responding to something more than just consumer or employee expectations. Once these businesses understand the death penalty’s most flagrant abuses, they start operating with true moral urgency.
“It’s very hard to unsee it,” Ms Ouelette said. “We are pretty unapologetic that what we want to do is work with business on doing things and creating change. Our measures of success are, ‘Did we do the thing we set out to do?’ If the answer to that question is anything but yes, we need to be doing something else with our time.”
The campaign celebrated a major success earlier this year, when its business supporters in Ohio and beyond helped lobby the state to abolish life sentences without parole for children and juvenile offenders – a kind of living death penalty. It’s the sort of policy that, if applied nationally, could make it so that teenagers no longer have to choose between life in prison and death in prison.
And it’s only the beginning. The organisation is setting its sights on an even more ambitious target: getting the president, Joe Biden, to carry out his campaign promise to seek an end to the death penalty. As president, Mr Biden has significant power to “clear the row”, as some put it – commuting the death sentences of all federal offenders, not to mention a bully pulpit to usher through long-lasting legislation.
Until the United States joins the more than 170 United Nations member states that have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, RBIJ will continue trying to honour the charge it was given by a teenager in Kentucky so long ago: “If you don’t have the power to fix this, you need to find someone who does.” Luckily, now they’ve got some powerful allies on their side.
This article was amended on 13 October, 2021. It previously inaccurately stated that one in nine people on death row were later found to be innocent. The study referred to found that for every 8.3 people executed between 1972 and this year, one person had been exonerated. However, far more people are sentenced to death than are ever executed. Around 2 per cent of people on death row during that period have later been exonerated.
The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to its Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty declaration – with The Independent being the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives such as Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative, and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.
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