Death Penalty, Death Penalty and Race

TJ Riggs: “It’s difficult to watch Alabama continue to kill people and to do it so mercilessly and so often”

May 31, 2024 |USA

TJ Riggs and AIUSA death penalty protesters
(Amnesty International)

Twenty-year-old TJ Riggs is a student at Samford University and Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for the State of Alabama. He talks about his passion for fighting on behalf of those on death row, racial justice in the US state and how the simple act of writing a letter can make a difference to someone who has been sentenced to death.

How did your journey into activism come about?

In my freshman year of college at Samford University, I was tasked with taking over our chapter of Amnesty International. It had mostly died out during the pandemic and I spent my year as president increasing membership and engaging in different youth campaigns. That was my first foray into Amnesty.

Student groups do all sorts of different activism. I really got involved and plugged into the Alabama death penalty network. After that initial year of being president of the student chapter, I was asked to apply and serve in the role of Amnesty’s Alabama State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator. Now, I lead all of AIUSA’s death penalty work in the State of Alabama, and work with a national network of other state leaders and Amnesty staff to advance our cause both locally and nationally.

Why is activism to end the death penalty important and what difference can it make?

Change doesn’t happen without the public calling for it, and without people pushing for it. Especially in a state like Alabama, which has such an intense history of racial oppression and marginalization, but also played such a prominent role in the fight for civil rights in the USA. I think that given the history of our State, it is clear that activism is key to informing and driving public opinion. And I think that driving public opinion is key to creating real change.

What is House Bill 27 and why did you organize a rally to support it?

House Bill 27 was a piece of legislation that, if passed, would have made Alabama’s 2017 ban on judicial override retroactive. Judicial override is the process through which a judge can give a death sentence even when the jury has voted for life without parole. It was banned in 2017 but the new law was not applied to those who were already under sentence of death. House Bill 27 would have made the ban retroactive, and 33 people who are currently sitting on death row would have their sentences changed to life without parole, which is what the juries in their trials had voted for.

I, along with an incredible team of Amnesty staff members, organized the rally in partnership with the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in support of House Bill 27. The point of the rally was to support House Bill 27 and deliver the petition signatures and actions from around the world to urge clemency for Rocky Myers, which was an Alabama-specific case in the Write for Rights campaign. We had speakers from the State House and other local activist groups present for the delivery, and the Write for Rights petitions were handed over to the Governor’s office by Rocky’s son.

Unfortunately, House Bill 27 failed a couple weeks later. It was voted down in the subcommittee, directly along party lines. With that being said, I think that we definitely made some strides making the people of Alabama aware, active, and mobilized on the issue.

What’s it been like to witness the recent spike in executions?

It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I think it’s important to continue to be cognizant of the fact that people’s lives are at stake and that when an execution happens, it’s not just a political event that happens in a vacuum. It comes at the expense of someone’s life and of the people around them; their families, their brothers and sisters on death row itself. We hear so many stories of family members of victims and jurors on cases living with deep regret about how these executions turned out.

It’s definitely pretty upsetting to see on an individual level.

How has Rocky Myers’ family been involved in your campaigning work?

I talk to his son on the phone maybe about once a month, just to keep up with him and see that he’s doing well.I mean, his father’s been in jail at this point for 30 years.I think everyone who was at the rally  would agree that hearing him speak was really powerful. He called Rocky, his father, his hero. He said he stays hopeful and that Rocky stays hopeful for himself and for his family.

Why are you so passionate about this area of work?

For a year I worked on a smorgasbord of Amnesty International policies that student groups tend to work on. And I found that the death penalty action really resonated with me. I think specifically in Alabama too, we really are in a uniquely bad state for executions, especially recently in terms of both legislation and in terms of process. There are things happening in this state that weren’t happening in other states, and Alabama is changing the norm on capital punishment in a way that unfortunately is being modelled by other state governments.

It’s just really, really, really critical to act because every two months the state will kill someone else this year. So I think that that’s probably where I found my passion – in the fact that it’s a pressing matter. It’s especially urgent here in Alabama. It’s an issue of life and death.

What’s it like to be part of the larger anti-death penalty movement in Alabama?

I think one of the parts I enjoy the most is how well connected and organized Alabama death penalty activism is. There are a lot of legal, activist, and religious organizations working in the state that are really dedicated to fighting the death penalty and to fighting Alabama’s long history of racial injustice, specifically when it comes to how the justice system operates and especially how it operates in terms of the death penalty. I really enjoy being a part of it and being able to work with many people who have been doing this work for decades. I mean some of them have spent over half a century working on Alabama death penalty reform. It’s just great to be there to learn from them.

How does Amnesty’s work fit within the historical struggle for civil liberties and against racism?

It’s no secret that the death penalty is just absolutely rife with racial injustice issues, especially in Alabama. Over 50% or pretty close to 50%t of our death row is made up of Black men, which is just a staggering number given that they make up less than a quarter of the State’s overall population. A lot of these men have stories and histories of small town 20th century Alabama racial politics, filled with inconsistent legal representation and unfair prosecutions that resulted in the death sentences that they are facing today.

What steps does Alabama need to take to put an end to the death penalty?

In a world in which I could wave a magic wand, the Alabama State House would pass a law against it. Realistically, what needs to happen is people need to vote… and people need to vote for people that they believe align with their moral values. In Alabama, it’s increasingly clear that representatives are willing to vote on party lines, to strike down reasonable, fair and legitimate legislation surrounding the death penalty. And so, I think the only way that Alabama can move forward is to make our views known to them, put pressure on them to uphold their responsibility to protect human rights as people in a position of authority. It is about redesigning the society we live in to reflect the values that we want to live by.

What are your hopes personally and professionally?

I hope when I graduate to go to law school and then come back to Alabama, assuming I leave Alabama. I hope to use my legal degree to provide legal representation to clients facing the death penalty and use that knowledge to continue with further policymaking and activism. My personal hopes are that Alabama comes to its senses for sure. It’s difficult to watch the state continue to kill people and to do it so mercilessly and so often.

What’s the one action that Amnesty supporters can take to support Alabama activists like you?

I would tell people to write a letter to someone on death row. Write a letter to our government. I’ve written countless letters at this point, and I think a lot of people in this state have. If you really want to spend your time wisely and do something that will make a difference for somebody, write a letter to someone on death row. Every year for Rocky Myers’ birthday, we do birthday cards as solidarity actions We do Christmas cards for him and that’s all run through Amnesty’s Rocky Myers page. It makes such an incredible difference in their lives when they receive a birthday card or a Christmas card from someone that they’ve never met, just wishing them well and hoping things work out for the best.

So if I could encourage people to do one thing, it would probably be that.

Learn more about AIUSA’s work to abolish the death penalty.