END THE DEATH PENALTY

‘Broken beyond repair’: 150 executives including Sheryl Sandberg join The Independent to demand an end to the death penalty

Executives, consumers and employees all increasingly want companies to take a stand, and few issues are more urgent than the death penalty. Josh Marcus writes on why The Independent and dozens of leaders are calling for change

Wednesday 13 October 2021 21:02
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<p>Randy Gardner is removed by police while wearing his executed brother's prison jumpsuit during a protest against the death penalty at the US Supreme Court</p>

Randy Gardner is removed by police while wearing his executed brother's prison jumpsuit during a protest against the death penalty at the US Supreme Court

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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.

Why the death penalty isn't working for America

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.

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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.

RBIJ CEO Celia Ouellette and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson discuss abolishing the death penalty, New York City, 6 October 2021

“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.

Sir Richard Branson leads business push to end the death penalty

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.”

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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.

Full list of RBIJ signatories

RICHARD BRANSON

Founder, Virgin Group

ADEEL SAEED

CEO, Adeel Saeed

ALAN JOPE

CEO, Unilever

ALESSANDRO BOGLIOLO

Former CEO, Tiffany & Co

ALEX LOVE

Founder and CEO, Alex Love Consulting, LLC

ALI NIAZ,

Co-Founder, BPureSounds

ALICE DYSON

COO, One Media IP LTD

ALLAN W MOSKOWITZ

CEO, Transformative Wealth Management, LLC

ALPA PATEL

Founder and CEO, 9th House

AMANDA PACQUETTE

Director, Business2Technology

AMIT AMIN

Partner, Amit & Naroop

ANDERS HOLCH POVLSEN

CEO, Bestseller

ANDRÉ HOFFMAN

ANDREW N. LIVERIS

Former Chairman and CEO, Dow Chemical | Founder, Liveris Academy for Leadership and Innovation

ANNE WOJCICKI

Co-Founder and CEO, 23andMe, Inc

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON

Founder and CEO, Thrive Global | Co-founder, The Huffington Post

ATITI SOSIMI

CEO, Eyato London

BEN COHEN

Co-founder, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream

BERT JACOBS

CEO, LIFE IS GOOD

BRAD S. KARP

Chairman, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

BRITTANY DAMICO

Senior Business Development Manager, Change Finance

CASEY J. MULLIGAN

Owner, Mulligan & Mulligan PLLC

CATHERINE KIMMEL

Co-CEO, The Artemis Agency

CHRIS DAW QC

Lawyer, Broadcaster and Author of Justice on Trial

CHRISTINA BROOKS

Founder and CEO, Ruebik

CHRISTOPHER COX

Associate Director, Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment

CHRIS DUTTON

Founder, The CEO Magazine

DAN MEYER

President and CEO, Nehemiah Manufacturing

DANIEL DART

CEO, Dart Capital & Co

DAVID BRONNER

CEO, Dr Bronner’s

DAVID W. CRANE

CEO, Climate Real Impact Solutions | Former CEO and President, NRG

DAVID PACQUETTE

David Pacquette, CEO, Business2Technology

DAVE PHILLIPS

DORRIT LOWSEN

President and COO, Change Finance

Dr. MO IBRAHIM

Founder, Mobile Systems International | Founder, Celtel | Founding Chairman, Satya Capital Limited | Founder and Chair, Mo Ibrahim Foundation

DR. PHILIP TEE

Founder and CEO, Moogsoft Inc

ED FLETCHER

Co-Managing Director, Shape History

ELISSA SHUCK

President and CEO, ES-STRATEGIC, LLC

ELIZABETH CHAMBERS

Operating Partner, Searchlight Capital

ELLIE KANNER

CEO, Forever Sunny Productions | Just To Be Clear Productions | The Game Plan Game LLC

EVE WILDRICK

Founder and President, Executive Interiors Inc.

FELIX PFREUNDTNER

Owner, Xilev UG

FLOYD ALBEE

CEO, Prevalent Projects

FRANCOIS-HENRI PINAULT

GARETH PARKER

CEO, Raphael Rowe Foundation

GEORGE TURNER.

Co-Founder and CEO, Carneys Community

GINA LYNELL SMITH

Founder, BizDesign.digital

GORI YAHAYA

Founder and CEO, UpSkill Digital

GUILHERME LEAL

Co-founder and Co-chair Natura & Co | Co-founder Instituto Ethos

HELENE GAYLE, MD, MPH

President and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust | Former President & CEO CARE USA

HUBERT JOLY

Former Chairman and CEO, Best Buy | Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

HUGH LENON

Private Equity and Prison Charity Chairman

IQRA SHAIKH

Founder and CEO, Tutoring in Teams

ISABELLE KOCHER

JACK D’AURORA

Partner, The Behal Law Group LLC

JAMES FELLOWES

Founder, The Bridge of Hope (Inclusive Talent Portal)

JARED SMITH

Co-founder, Qualtrics

JASON FLOM

CEO, Lava Media

JATIN MAHINDRA

Founder, Jatin Mahindra

JAUME MIQUEL NAUDI

Chairman and CEO, Tendam Global Fashion Retail

JAVIER GARCIA SAZ

CEO and Founder, AnunciaWebs

JEAN OELWANG

President and Founding CEO Virgin Unite | Former Co-CEO Virgin Mobile Australia

JEFFREY SCALES

Managing Principal, JSA Sustainable Wealth Management

JERRY GREENFIELD

Co-founder, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream

JOANNA REES

Managing Partner, West Ventures

JOHN C. HARRINGTON

President and CEO, Harrington Investments, Inc.

JOHN KAY

CEO, Realize Strategies

JOHN O’FARRELL

JOHN REPLOGLE

Founding Partner, One Better Ventures | Former CEO, Seventh Generation Inc

JOHN ROST

Founder and CEO, Ace Oasis Ltd

JOHN RUSH

Founder and CEO, CleanTurn | 180 Demo | Third Way Café

JOHNNY WEBB

CEO, HiddenLight Productions

JON WRIGHT

Co-Founder, Innocent Drinks

JONATHAN OUELLETTE

Co-Founder and Creative Director, KILL 2 BIRDS

JOE DELOSSFounder, Hot Chicken Takeover

JOSH ZINNER

CEO, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

JULIA ALBEE

CFO, Prevalent Projects

JULIO SALINAS LOMBARD

Founder and CEO, Salinas Consultores

KATIE DAVIES

US Editor, The Independent

KETZ HARIA

Ketz Haria, Director, Dey, King, Haria

KRISTINA TOUZENIS

Managing Partner, BST Impact

KRIZ TAN

Co-Owner and Director, Alphavertex Communications Pte Ltd

KYLER CARTER

Professor of Development Disabilities

L. WILLIAMSON

COO, CAA Family Office

LAUREN McCANN

Founder and CEO, Calliope Advisors

LOGAN MARTIN

President, Skyline Strategies, LLC

LUCKY XAZI

Founder, Smart LUX Marketing

MAC BARTINE

CEO, SmartRIA

MAMIE KANFER STEWART

Founder, Meeteor

MARC BENIOFF

Chairman and CEO, Salesforce

MARCUS BULLOCK

CEO, Flikshop

MARISA TENDERO

Non-Executive Chairwoman , NOABRANDS

MARK HAMADE

Co-Founder, CanEth

MARTHA LANE FOX

Chair, WeTransfer | Director, Twitter | Director, Chanel | Chancellor, Open University

MARY-CLAIRE MULLIGAN

Partner and Director, Trial Litigation

MATTHEW STEPKA

Managing Partner, Machina Ventures

MATS GRANRYD

MELISSA FRIESENBOURG

Owner, Balanced Spirit Pilates

MERCK MERCURIADIS

Founder and CEO, Hipgnosis Songs Fund

MICHAEL CONN

Founder, Bigger Than Us

MICHAEL KRAMER

Managing Partner, Natural Investments

MICHELLE CIROCCO

Chief Impact Officer and Executive Director, Televerde | Televerde Foundation

MIKE NOVOGRATZ

Founder and CEO, Galaxy Digital

MILES DALLY

CEO, RCL FOODS

MO CHOUMIL

CEO, Safi Virtual

MORDECHAI GABAI

Head of Studio, Schizotypy Game Development Ltd

NICK McKEOWN

NICOLAS DEBRAY

President, Americas, The Body Shop

NICOLAS GIROTTO

NICOLAS PATRICK

Global Head of Responsible Business, DLA Piper

OSCAR WESTRA VAN HOLTHE

Founder, Teamcoach Zuidas

PAUL GRAHAM

Founder, Y Combinator

PAUL J. FRIBOURG

PAUL POLMAN

Co-founder and Chair, IMAGINE | Former CEO, Unilever

PEDRO HERNANDES

Founder, HBFS

PEDRO PARENTE

Chairman and Former CEO, BRF | Founding Partner, EB Capital | Former CEO, Petrobras

PIERRE DUBUC

Co-Founder and CEO, OpenClassrooms

RAPHAEL ROWE

Founder, Raphael Rowe Foundation

RICCARDO BELLINI

President and CEO, Chloe

RIZVAN RAJA

Founder and CEO, Rizuma Ltd

ROBERT F. SMITH

Founder, Chairman & CEO, Vista Equity Partners

RON CONWAY

Founder, SV Angel

RYAN BALL

Ryan Ball, Director, Ryan Ball Photography

SALLY JEWELL,

Former CEO, REI

SANDRO SALSANO

Chairman, Salsano Family Office | President, Salsano Group

SANJAY AGGARWAL

Founder and CEO, IPS

SATISH AGGARWAL

Founder, S&J Leisure Group

SARA PRICE

Founder, Actually

SARAH ADOLPHSON

Co-CEO, The Artemis Agency

SARAH BEST

CEO, Sarah Best Strategy

SARAI JACOB-WHELAN

SCOTT BUDNICK

CEO, One Community | Founder, The Anti-Recidivism Coalition

SHENALY AMIN

Director, Iconik Ltd

SHERYL SANDBERG

COO, Facebook | Founder, LeanIn.org

SITAL PUNJA

Founder, Threads-London

SONIA KOWAL

President, Zevin Asset Management

STEFANIE REINHOLD

Founder, HorseHaus LLC

STEPHANIE MELODIA

CEO, Bloom Consulting Ltd

STEPHEN LUCKMAN

Partner, Sheridans

STEVE BENNETT

Co-Founder, Health Results

STRIVE MASIYIWA

Founder and Executive Chairman, Econet Group

SUSAN OZAWA PEREZ

Senior Portfolio Manager, Impact Investors

SUSAN WHITMORE

Founder and CEO, Grief Haven

SVEIN TORE HOLSETHER

President and CEO, Yara International

SYLVIA COLEMAN

Co-Founder and Principal, BPureSounds

TERESA HENNING

Director, Moneymasternow

TOM LYTTON-DICKIE

Founder and CEO, Meaningful Business

TONY FERNANDES

Group Chief Executive Officer, AirAsia Group | Chairman and Founder, Tune Group

VANESSA BAKEWELL

Global Client Partner, Facebook

WERNER BAUMANN

CEO, Bayer

WOUTER MURRAT

Founder, Owner & CEO, Vof Mepilan

YINKA SONUBI

CEO, TJR&M

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