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Losing a Fellow Abolitionist: Kathleen Hawk Norman

July 2, 2009

NADP’s friend, supporter and keynote speaker from last year’s annual dinner Kathleen Hawk Norman passed away April 16th, peacefully dying in her sleep at home in New Orleans.

 

As founder of “Jurors for Justice,” an abolitionist support group for jurors on murder cases as secondary trauma victims of the death penalty, Kathleen had become a unique voice for abolition. She spoke so eloquently about how she was called for jury duty in Louisiana and tried to live up to her ideals as an American in agreeing to serve as jury foreperson. The trial resulted in a death sentence for Dan Bright because the only evidence presented clearly seemed to indicate his guilt. But when Bright’s new appeal attorneys came to Kathleen to ask her for just an affidavit stating “If I’d known this other evidence existed, I would have paused before passing sentence,” she didn’t agree to just sign the affidavit: she became mobilized into a tremendous advocate for Bright. She attended every hearing, pursued the matter in the press, and refused to rest until Bright was finally exonerated and set free.

 

Even that was not enough for Kathleen. She went on to help found the Louisiana Innocence Project, became chair of the ACLU of Louisiana Board of Directors and pushed herself to travel nationwide, speaking out about the need to abolish the death penalty. Her public speaking was immensely powerful though it required her to re-live the experience of sending an innocent man to death row. She described how she felt traumatized even when she thought Bright was guilty, and how guilty she felt when she had proof he was an innocent man. “I kept telling Dan’s attorneys how guilty I felt and they would pooh pooh me, saying it wasn’t my fault, it was just the system. But it was my fault, and it is the fault of any citizen called for jury duty–that’s why we have GOT to get rid of this abomination called the death penalty,” she told NADP at our last annual banquet as our keynote speaker.

 

And if you knew Kathleen personally, as we here in Nebraska came to, you know that she was an absolute firebrand. She wouldn’t make plans to do something: she did it. She didn’t let others get discouraged or overwhelmed: she would blink at you behind her gorgeous funky eyeglasses and tell you to get out there and kick up the traces. We’re grieving here in her home-away-from-home state, but as one NADP board members said, “Kathleen wouldn’t want us to be flattened by her loss–she would want us to be feisty that she didn’t get to see the death of capital punishment, so we need to just work harder.”

 

In addition to a large family of siblings and her mother here in Nebraska, Kathleen is survived by her son in New Orleans. At the family’s request, memorials can be sent to NCADP, to Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, or to the Innocence Project.

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