ND ASK: Student coalition targets Indiana’s death row

Author: Laura Vilim ’07

When Catholics discuss their Church’s commitment to the protection of human life in all its forms, many focus on beginning-of-life issues and neglect the end-of-life ones.

Notre Dame senior Will McAuliffe and junior Andrea Laidman are seeking to bridge this divide through the creation of a student campaign against the death penalty in Indiana. The pair founded Notre Dame Against State Killing (NDASK) in April 2006 after conducting what McAuliffe jokingly refers to as “market research” to gain a better sense of what the student body knows about the death penalty. Their preliminary answer: Not much.

Nonetheless, several campus groups representing the breadth of the political spectrum quickly expressed interest in joining the new coalition, which demonstrated the possibility of widespread student cooperation on a significant political issue. Notably, Notre Dame Right to Life and the Progressive Student Alliance, known to espouse opposing views on many issues, both support NDASK’s campaign. The effort has been recognized by the Center for Progressive Leadership, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that has awarded McAuliffe and Laidman a substantial grant to produce a documentary on their campaign.

Early conversations McAuliffe and Laidman had with students helped shape NDASK’s structure and format. During the fall, the group educated students about the death penalty through a series of weekly lectures by such experts as former Indiana Governor Joseph Kernan ’68, Indiana State Senator John Broden ’87 and Notre Dame Professor Vittorio Hösle.
In the spring semester, the group began active campaigning for a moratorium on executions in Indiana, which would give state leaders time to study the issue. The transition from hosting lectures to mobilization efforts started quickly in January because of the scheduled execution of Norman Timberlake, sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Indiana State Trooper Michael Greene. Sixty Notre Dame students signed up for an NDASK-sponsored vigil in Michigan City, where the execution was to take place. When the Indiana Supreme Court stayed Timberlake’s execution pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a potentially relevant case, the group kept vigil at the Grotto in memory of Trooper Greene.

During February, NDASK began scheduling meetings between student members and Indiana lawmakers to discuss the campaign’s proposal to reallocate resources currently used to fund capital punishment toward crime prevention. Strengthened by an American Bar Association report recommending a moratorium, the group also devoted time in March to lobbying in Indianapolis for a halt to executions.

McAuliffe and Laidman learned that lobbying at the state level is a slow process that must start locally, gathering enough signatures on a petition that can then be presented to the governor and state legislature. They take their credibility seriously.

“We really believe that in order to be effective in trying to actually accomplish change on a state level, we have to have students who are committed because they are educated about it, not just because they have an emotional or religious stance on why [capital punishment] is wrong,” Laidman says.

Their education efforts continue. With the help of the documentary film producers, NDASK has built relationships with Indiana churches and other community leaders, and it plans additional lectures. The group is hosting a conference of national experts on the death penalty the second week of April. Organizers know the setting of Notre Dame as a Catholic university adds an extra dimension to the policy debate, especially in light of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. The encyclical declared that capital punishment should not be used “except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Though Laidman and McAuliffe could have focused solely on Catholic issues surrounding the death penalty, they have chosen to tackle the debate from as many angles as possible, so that students with different reasons to denounce—or support—the death penalty join the discussion. Laidman says the group is developing reform proposals in such diverse areas as juvenile justice, education, crime prevention funding, child protective services and law enforcement. “I think it’s important that this is an issue that can be unifying for the campus and for the student groups, rather than divisive,” she says.

It is this convocation of people with shared concerns that is most important to Laidman and McAuliffe. Though Illinois and New Jersey each have a formal moratorium in place and the New York Supreme Court declared its capital punishment statutes unconstitutional, they realize their goal of a moratorium in Indiana is still, in McAuliffe’s words, “incredibly lofty.” They also realize it is well within their reach to promote an educated campus discussion about the death penalty.

“We want to make people understand the tremendous power of advocacy and citizenship,” McAuliffe says. “I don’t know . . . that people realize how much individual power they have just in talking to someone else. That is where it starts.”