Building Relationships for Human Rights Impact: Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

Mona was one of the attendees at the Maryland House of Delegates when the legislature voted 82-56 in favor of the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Mona was one of the attendees at the Maryland House of Delegates when the legislature voted 82-56 in favor of the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

By Mona Cadena (AIUSA MARO Field Organizer and WRO Deputy Director, 1999-2009)

This blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in Maryland’s historic death penalty repeal campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

I first started working against Maryland’s death penalty as a field organizer for Amnesty International USA’s Mid-Atlantic regional office. I was the AIUSA representative for the Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MDCASE) coalition. At the time we were working on winning a moratorium on executions so the state would have an opportunity to study the impact of the death penalty and ask important questions: was it applied in a racist manner, geographically arbitrary, and/or too expensive?

Between 1999 and 2003, I worked with Amnesty International volunteers who organized around the state, educated the public and contacted their elected officials. I left the Mid-Atlantic for the West and in 2009 had the great pleasure to be the Amnesty International representative on the victorious New Mexico repeal campaign.

Amnesty International is where I learned how much an impact citizens can have at the state level. I learned that state legislators want to hear from their constituents, will make time to sit down with them and will almost always stop to chat when they are out and about in the real world. State-level organizing is as much about the relationships you build as it is about how good your plan is.

Fast-forward a decade from when I left the Mid-Atlantic in 2003: I had 6 legislative victories (both as a supporter and a leader) under my belt ranging from custodial sexual misconduct – the mistreatment of women in prison – to death penalty repeal. Now as a Campaign Strategist for Equal Justice USA, I find myself back in Maryland, and we are on the cusp of repealing its death penalty.

For the last 3 years, I have been working side by side with Jane Henderson of MDCASE and with our coalition of more than 25 state and national organizations to develop and implement our strategic plan. But the lessons from a decade ago haven’t been forgotten. Every day we try to think about those relationships: the 1-1 contact with our elected officials on top of the constituent pressure we drive through email and phone call actions.

Consider Delegate Kumar P. Barve, who was not a supporter of repeal 2 years ago. That is, until Andrea Hall, one of Amnesty International’s Maryland State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinators started reaching out to him. Andrea called his office, met with him, provided information, and even called up the Kojo Nnamdi show to talk to him. Andrea got his vote and she did it with persistence, good information, and respect.

This coalition continues to remind me that even the smallest contribution at the right moment can have a huge impact. And that creating human rights change requires building human relationships.

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