About 50 people gathered Wednesday at the Statehouse for the 14th annual Celebrate Life - Alternatives to the Death Penalty party, an early celebration of the International Death Penalty Abolition Day held on March 1.
The event, sponsored by the local chapter of Amnesty International, celebrated Tom Hinesley, chief deputy of the Public Defender's Capital Division, as the 2013 Abolitionist of the Year for his efforts to get different sentences for those on Indiana's death row.
"After 25 years of standing in this building, this is the first time I've ever faced a friendly audience," Hinesley, a former parole officer, said in his acceptance speech.
Eighteen prisoners have been executed in the state since 1994, and Hinesley has been at every one of them, providing whatever support and help he can.
Since 2003, 11 Indiana inmates have been put to death by lethal injection, with the last one carried out in 2009 when Matthew Eric Wrinkles was executed for the 1994 killing of his estranged wife, Debra Wrinkles, her brother Tony Fulkerson and his wife Natalie Fulkerson.. Though legislative leadership has not rallied around abolition efforts, advocates take heart in a multi-year lull in executions.
"Thirty states have either no death penalty or haven't carried any out in over five years," said Karen Burkhart, Amnesty International's death penalty abolition coordinator in Indiana. She also noted that five states have outlawed it since 2007. "The large number of states no longer carrying out death sentences shows some sort of consensus."
Advocates for alternative sentences said that one of the main reasons they stand against capital punishment is the inhumane and arbitrary nature of the whole process.
"Punishment is supposed to be reserved for the very worst criminals, but the process for deciding who will be sent to death row is arbitrary and discriminatory," Burkhart said. "We are simply unable to do it right."
One of the event's guest speakers had firsthand experience with the process. Randy Steidl was sentenced to death row for the 1986 murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in Illinois. After a long journey that included appeals, a new sentencing hearing, and finally a new investigation, he was exonerated in 2004 after 17 years in prison, mostly on death row.
He now works with Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based organization made up of death row exonerees and their family members who fight to end capital punishment.
"If you really want to punish someone, put them in a cage. At least you don't run the risk of killing an innocent person," Steidl said. "You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can't release him from the grave."
Another guest speaker spoke from the other side of the equation. The vicious murder of Bill Pelke's grandmother in Gary in 1985, and the subsequent trials of the teenage girls who committed the crime, one of whom was initially sentenced to death, inspired him to start Journey of Hope.
The organization travels around the country with murder victim family members who tell of their path from pain to forgiveness rather than to revenge. In October of this year, Journey of Hope will return to Indianapolis for the first time in 20 years.
Abolitionists hope that events like these will bring awareness to the issue and eventually push lawmakers to do away with capital punishment altogether.
During the 2013 General Assembly, State Senator Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, authored a bill to eliminate the death penalty and commute those sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but it did not receive a hearing.
Indiana Abolition Coalition President Doris Parlette, who called the death penalty "state-sanctioned killing," said the support for the movement is there.
"This is happening, the momentum is changing," Parlette said. "Momentum is with us."
For the future of Indiana, Hinesley, her husband, hopes that Parlette is right.
"We cannot be the society we aspire to be as long as this state carries out capital punishment," he said.