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The Death Penalty Is the Tip of an Iceberg of Injustice

Years from now we will know that we stood on the right side of history.
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For much of my working, adult life, I have been witness to the consequences of our country's addiction to the death penalty, and to the damage it does even as we loosen its grip.

This week, we at Amnesty International USA and anti-death penalty activists around the country hope to witness a moment we will one day say was another important step towards our collective recovery.

Wednesday, March 12, the New Hampshire House of Representatives will vote on a bill that when signed into law would end the death penalty in the state. Thirty-two states throughout this country have yet to rid themselves of a punishment that is not just cruel, unfair and expensive, but is tainted with human error. To date, 143 people have been exonerated from death row based on new evidence of their wrongful conviction. There are also those whose death sentences were carried out before they had the chance to prove their innocence.

Amnesty's work to end executions in the United States is a central part of our global effort to stop all governments from using the death penalty. For me, it is absolutely essential that we bring human rights home by working for justice in the United States as relentlessly as we work to advance human rights overseas. The death penalty is one of the most acute challenges in our struggle for universal human rights, the tip of an iceberg of injustice that inspired my lifelong commitment to advocacy.

I began to understand the deep roots of this injustice as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where I represented mostly African American men facing the death penalty in the Deep South. I witnessed first hand how the death penalty remained stained with racism and bigotry -- like the "Hang the N******" note found in the jury lunchroom during the trial of Bill Andrews who was ultimately executed in Utah. I saw people die by lethal injection and the electric chair, and individuals killed when I believed they were innocent.

Their stories, and the stories of others like them, remind me of why, more than ever, we must continue the fight to end the death penalty, permanently, in the U.S. and around the world. The progress we make pushes us inexorably onwards, like the milestone moment in 2005 when we abolished the death penalty for juveniles, or the work we did to persuade European manufacturers to discontinue production of drugs used for executions.

Of course, there is also heartbreak at every step. The vote in New Hampshire will likely be followed by another execution in Texas on March 19, marking the 1,370th life to be taken since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Such is the illogic of the criminal justice system in America and the machinery of death in Texas.

What keeps me going is the hard work being done now by activists, organizers and young people in New Hampshire, and the success we hope to achieve there when and if the New Hampshire House and Senate passes the death penalty repeal bill and Governor Maggie Hassan signs it into law. What keeps us going is seeing evidence that proves that winning is not only possible, but inevitable.

I know we are winning every time I hear the stories of family members who have suffered the unimaginable loss of a loved one, and then dedicate themselves to preventing the execution of the person convicted of their murder.

I know we are winning when I see death penalty opponents shivering outside a wintry death house.

I know we are winning when we watch another life taken and yet we muster the energy to keep going. We mourn one day and lead a call for action the next. Our chorus grows louder each day.

We are winning because we are millions strong. We have ended the death penalty in two thirds of the countries around the world and in 18 states in the United States.

We know in our bones that we have to right the wrongs committed against so many people whose human rights are denied because of the color of their skin, or because they grew up poor, or because the iceberg didn't melt in time for them.

Years from now we will know that we stood on the right side of history.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Amnesty International USA in the theme of "Bringing Human Rights Home." Read all posts in the series here. Visit here to learn more about Amnesty International USA's work to abolish the death penalty and here to participate in the New Hampshire campaign. Follow Amnesty International USA on Facebook and @amnesty.

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