Anti-death penalty group: Email proves executions a 'political stunt'

Tribune-Star/Sue LoughlinAbe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action accuses President Trump of using federal executions as a political tool in an election year.

Citing a Trump campaign email blast, the co-director of a group opposing the federal death penalty said Thursday the email provides evidence the executions are a "political stunt." 

Abe Bonowitz, co-director of Death Penalty Action, called a press conference following the executions of Daniel Lewis Lee and Wesley Ira Purkey. He spoke on property across from the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

Death Penalty Action is a national organization mobilizing opposition to federal executions.

Bonowitz pointed to a Trump campaign mass email distributed Wednesday "saying they've executed [Daniel Lewis Lee] and calling out Joe Biden to defend his change of position on the death penalty."

Biden formerly supported the death penalty, but more recently, when his criminal justice proposals came out, "he opposed it," Bonowitz said. 

"The Trump campaign is using these executions to politicize the election campaign and to try to make a point and distinction between the president and his Democratic challenger," he said.

"We just think that's repugnant," Bonowitz said. "You should not be able to use the powers of the presidency — and all the resources of the state and federal government — to create political campaign messages. That's what's been done here. That's outrageous, and we're calling it out."

He added, "We know we can be safe from dangerous offenders and hold them accountable without executions."

In a statement, Bonowitz said, "We can do better for murder victim family members, be safe from dangerous individuals and hold them accountable without wasting taxpayer dollars on a system fraught with disparity and error."

The Trump campaign email distributed Wednesday is titled,  "President Trump ensured total justice for the victims of an evil killer ... Joe Biden would have let this animal live."

It goes on to say, "Joe Biden should explain why he believes Daniel Lewis Lee, an evil monster convicted of torturing and murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, did not deserve the death penalty. 

"Lee’s victims — William Mueller, Nancy Mueller and 8-year-old Sarah Powell — deserved total justice. The Trump administration delivered it."

It later states, "With the Trump administration slated to administer total justice to three more child murderers and rapists in the coming weeks, Biden should explain why they should be protected from paying the ultimate price for their evil, horrific crimes."

Also attending Thursday's news conference was Sylvester Edwards, president of the Greater Terre Haute branch of the NAACP, and Bill Pelke, president of Journey of Hope.

Pelke’s grandmother, Ruth Pelke, was killed in her Gary home in 1985. Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old convicted of killing his grandmother, received the death penalty, which Pelke initially supported. He later worked to get her off Indiana's death row.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for defendants under age 16. 

In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper’s sentence to 60 years. 

As a family member of a murder victim, Pelke said the death penalty does not help those family members heal. "It just continues the cycle of violence," he said. He now lives in Alaska but returned to Terre Haute this week to protest the federal death penalty.

"We have to stop this," Pelke said.

Edwards encouraged people to vote to bring about change. "If we want things to change, we can't wish for it ... The only way you are going to change the condition of America is to vote."

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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