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Project Hope Fights to End the Death Penalty ... from Death Row

by Bill Barton

The executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, Esther Brown, is a former psychiatric social worker who has been called “the most loyal person I’ve ever met” by a prisoner on Alabama’s death row.

Brown, 85, has been the public face of the organization for 19 years, speaking at conferences, writing grant proposals, maintaining the website and keeping the books. She will soon be stepping down.

Anthony Tyson, the group’s chairman, said in a recent letter: “There are no rich people on death row. If you fit the bill they’re looking for and you are broke, then you receive the death penalty.”

Tyson and other prisoners on death row at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility comprise Project Hope. The non-profit organization’s mission is “to work together with friends and other supporters to educate the public and to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Alabama.”

Tyson teaches a law class, referred to as an “enlightenment group,” that provides information on how to navigate the state and federal appellate processes to a number of death row prisoners. Over the past 11 years, two of Tyson’s students, Montez Spradley and William Ziegler, have been freed, and several have succeeded in having their sentences reduced to life in prison.

Shortly after death-sentenced prisoners arrive at Holman, Project Hope’s members advise them to contact the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization run by attorney Bryan Stevenson, to ask for help in obtaining an appellate lawyer. This step is critical.

“Alabama was the only state in the country that didn’t provide counsel for post-conviction proceedings until 2017 – and, even now, the quality of the representation remains uncertain,” The Nation stated in an April 22, 2019 article. “But perhaps the most egregious feature of Alabama’s death-penalty regime is the anemic trial representation it provides for poor defendants.”

“I think Alabama represents much of what is wrong with the death penalty throughout the United States,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

One example of that wrongness was the September 1993 arrest and subsequent conviction of Gary Drinkard, who was charged with the murder of Dalton Pace. While Drinkard was held at the Morgan County jail, one of his attorneys assured him there was no evidence tying him to the killing, and that he’d be released quickly.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, “Drinkard’s court-appointed lawyers, who had no experience, failed to call two critical witnesses: one who would have testified that Drinkard was at home at the time of the murder, and another who would have said that Drinkard had a back injury that would have made it impossible for him to commit the crime.”

Convicted and sentenced to death in 1995, Drinkard finally won his freedom in May 2001 after he was acquitted at a second trial with the assistance of Project Hope. 



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