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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

1998 Christmas March, Rome Italy

On Christmas Day, Bill Pelke, National Coalition Against the Death Penalty board member and Kathy Harris, Treasurer of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, represented The Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, Inc.TM in a march to Vatican City. Abolitionists, human rights activists, members of the clergy, mayors, representatives of local governments, and citizens from many countries gathered to launch the 1999 campaign for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The march, organized by Hands Off Cain, began in Campo di Fiori, the square in which Giordano Bruno, a philosopher, was burned at the stake in 1600 as a heretic. At the pre-march rally the marchers were warmed up by a female quintet, Voci In Transito, and welcomed by Emma Bonino, the European Commissioner. Barbara Bacci, an interpreter, and Kathy Harris read some of the names of the 180 inmates from Texas’ Death Row who had sent letters to the Pope asking to be remembered in his prayers on Christmas Day. Bill Pelke spoke of the symbolism of marching on the day the world is celebrating the birthday of the world’s most famous victim of the death penalty.

Pelke says, "The attitudes in Europe are very different. All of the political parties in Italy agree on the need to abolish the death penalty and most of them were represented in the march. Over 110 different city councils came with their city banners to participate. Can you imagine getting 7,000 people out on Christmas Day to march against the death penalty in the United States?"

"It helps to have the support of the community of Rome and the mayor’s office," said Allesandra Filigrano, press secretary and chief organizer of the march for Hands Off Cain, after Bill commented on the number of posters seen around the city advertising the march. The mayors of Rome and other cities participated in the march. It was the lead news story on many local and national television stations.   Joining the Journey in ROME on Christmas Day, Sam Reese Sheppard and Attorney Rev. Melodee Smith, dubbed "Madre" Melodee by the Italian Press, spent Christmas week speaking to interested media about wrongful convictions, executions and recent death penalty cases.

The Italians have been involved in the Paula Cooper case since the late eighties, when they learned she was the youngest female on death row in the U.S., and were instrumental in encouraging Bill Pelke to talk about forgiving Paula Cooper for murdering his grandmother. They gathered over two million signatures on petitions presented to the governor of Indiana protesting the law that allowed juveniles as young as age ten to be convicted of capital crimes. "The international attention and embarrassment they brought to Indiana helped get the law changed and the minimum age increased to sixteen. That change saved Paula Cooper’s life." Pelke says.

Pelke spent the week before the march in Rome, helping with publicity by doing interviews for television, radio and print journalists. In those interviews he said "I want to thank the Italians for taking a leadership role in working for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty and I want to ask the Pope to make a clear statement that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty."

The marchers joined those gathered in Vatican Square on Christmas Day, swelling the crowd gathered to over 40,000 people. In his Christmas message, the Pope acknowledged those who participated in the march and called for a worldwide ban on the death penalty.