Speakers bring personal touch to death penalty presentation

Via the Billings Gazette:

Two people with very different stories to tell talked about why they are opposed to the death penalty during an appearance in Billings Sunday morning.

Diane “Weezee” Cote and Delbert Tibbs spoke to a pre-worship adult education class at the Central Christian Church, 1221 16th St. W.

Cote, of Arlee, told of how her teenage daughter, Tasheena Craft, was brutally raped and murdered in 2007. She wanted her daughter’s killer sentenced to life in prison without parole, she said, but she did not want him to be executed.

“We’re talking about human beings,” she said. “It’s on our consciences. We’re all citizens.”

Tibbs has more personal reasons for opposing the death penalty. He spent two years on death row in Florida after being wrongly accused and convicted of rape and murder.

He called the death penalty a blight on society that is used only because people don’t know what else to do and which serves no purpose except to satisfy a “blood lust.”

Tibbs and Cote are speaking around the state this week, sponsored by the Montana Abolition Coalition, which seeks to end the death penalty in Montana.

After her daughter was murdered, Cote said, she did considerable research into the life of the man who killed her. He was 19 at the time, an acquaintance of the family who had been at their house before the murder.

Cote said the young man, Kelly Birmingham, came from a violent, dysfunctional family. Birmingham was regularly beaten by his stepfather, who also beat his mother in front of Birmingham, she said. His stepfather also taught him to hate Indians, blacks and women, she said.

“My daughter, on the other hand, lived in a home where love abounded,” Cote said.

In the aftermath of the murder, Cote said, she often felt that her family, which belongs to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, had done something wrong, and that Birmingham, who is white, was viewed with sympathy by some criminal justice authorities.

She said the prosecutor originally intended to seek a 40-year sentence in the case, but after Cote obtained her own lawyer and she and other supporters repeatedly picketed at the courthouse, Birmingham was sentenced to 100 years in prison as the result of a plea bargain.

All she ever wanted was for him to be imprisoned, not killed.

“This murderer sitting there needs time to think about what he did and get right with his creator,” she said.

But she is not a murderer, Cote said, “so I’m not going to do what he did.”

Tibbs told how he left Chicago in the early 1970s to “see my country.” A lot of young people were doing the same thing in those days, he said, but it was more unusual, and more dangerous, for a young black man to do so.

He was hitchhiking back to Chicago, after visiting relatives in Mississippi, in the winter of 1974, when he was arrested in Mississippi and extradited to Florida to stand trial in the murder of a 34-year-old man and the rape of the man’s 19-year-old girlfriend.

Tibbs said the woman’s initial description of her assailant bore no resemblance to him, except that they were both African Americans. But when a Mississippi police officer stopped him to ask what he was doing on the road, Tibbs said, the officer also took four Polaroid photos of him — after assuring him that he wasn’t a suspect in the Florida murders.

But the officer sent the photos to police in Fort Meyers, Fla., who showed them to the rape victim, and she identified Tibbs as her attacker.

Though there was hardly another scrap of evidence, Tibbs said, he was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Tibbs spent nine months in jail before the trial and two years on death row before the Florida Supreme Court, in 1976, reversed the conviction and sent the case back for a new trial.

Tibbs was released on $90,000 bond in 1977, and charges against him were finally dropped in 1982. He now lives in Chicago, where he is a published author.

Tibbs said that nations, like individuals, have souls. He said he has dedicated himself to opposing the death penalty because he wants to “save this country’s soul.”