HOST a speaking event
Is your group interested in expanding its efforts against the death penalty, or simply helping to raise awareness about this critical human rights issue? Consider organizing an event featuring someone who has personal experience with our fatally flawed criminal justice system. The Witness to Innocence Speakers Bureau features death row survivors — people who were found innocent after having been sentenced to death — who are now sharing their stories with audiences around the country.
Witness to Innocence exposes citizens to the incredibly powerful stories and compelling testimony of individuals who were sentenced to death and lived to tell about it. No one can describe the horror of the death penalty and the reality of life on death row better than someone who has experienced it. Regardless of a person’s position on capital punishment, he or she will learn a great deal from hearing one of these courageous individuals speak. Their stories invariably have a transformative impact on audiences.
Witness to Innocence speakers can transform organizations as well. Listening to these amazing stories will galvanize your members and inspire your group to new levels of action and commitment. In academic settings, professors and teachers report an unprecedented level of engagement and response from their students as a result of Witness to Innocence presentations.
Witness to Innocence speakers are available to give presentations in a variety of settings, including:
- colleges and universities
- high schools
- academic or activist conferences and workshops
- community organizations
- news conferences
- senior centers
- religious congregations
- legislative hearings or lobbying events
- legal conferences
Witness to Innocence can partner with your organization, school, or congregation to craft an event that helps you meet your goals.
To learn more about how Witness to Innocence can help you organize an inspiring educational event featuring an exonerated former death row prisoner, call us at (267)519-4584 or use our online form below to contact us.
"As I see it, nothing is more powerful than the stories of these wrongfully convicted men who take us step by step through our faulty criminal justice system as it crushed their lives. Witness to Innocence's exonerated death row survivor speakers are educational, accessible, and above all inspirational. But most amazing of all is their sheer goodness and integrity that keeps them from bitterness and a desire for revenge. Simply by being in their presence changes your life forever. Regardless of you stand on the death penalty, their unique and powerful stories should be heard by all."
Sister Helen Prejean, Author, Dead Man Walking
"The speaker understood and conveyed the legal aspects of his case very clearly...captivating, moving, and extremely well-organized."
Rebecca Kaiser, Criminal Law Society, University of Chicago Law School
"The speaker was excellent...engaging, moving, balanced, and in touch with the audience. He spoke without a written script directly from the heart of his experience. Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive."
Br. Paul Demers, S.C., Chaplain and Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Rivier College, Nashua, New Hampshire
“Powerful, thought-provoking….It was a quality educational presentation.”
Robin Slocum, Assistant Director of Student Activities, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Dryden, NY
“The speaker was fantastic! He tells a most compelling story in a most effective way.”
Dr. Marla Rita Sandys, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
“Excellent speaker. . . .Compelling, relevant, emotional.”
Lawrence McCurtain, Saint Mary’s College Programs Board
“The speaker was informative, moving, dynamic, and engaging. . . evident by the unanimous standing ovation at the end.”
- Thomas Rogers, Chair of the JUSTICE Committee for the Undergraduate Student Association, Canisius College, Buffalo, NY
“Moving, inspiring, and informative. Very intense and well presented. The personal aspect of his story and his plea for action really drew the audience in.”
Susanna Seibert, Villanovans for Life, Villanova University
“Excellent. The speaker was thought-provoking, powerful, and well-spoken.”
Rohry Flood, Director of Student Activities, Chesapeake College, Wye Mills, MD
This presentation was unlike anything we have had on campus, and it was definitely one of the best events . . . . It is a story that everyone should hear. . . . You could hear the gasps and the ‘wows’ in the crowd.”
Jennifer Drechsel, Association of Campus Events, Kutztown University
“Touching, eye-opening and inspirational. . . .The presentation really touched the students and the faculty present.”
Jessica Lynn Maenner, LEAP, Academic Environment Committee, Penn State Abington
“The speaker was passionate, organized, and very effective in relating his story.”
Rebecca Snead, Amnesty International, George Mason University
“The speaker did an excellent job! His story was riveting, insightful, inspiring. . . . Students said the talk was ‘eye-opening’ and forced them to think critically about something most never thought about.”
Crystal Garcia, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Law & Public Safety, Indiana University Perdue University—Indianapolis
“Moving, inspirational. . . .Over 200 people came to the event, and I feel everyone there was moved by his presentation.”
Brodie Mechuta, Lambda Alpha Epsilon, Indiana State University
“In my humble opinion, more real education took place last night in an hour than occurs sometimes in a semester. When someone who’s spent ten years in prison, including three years on death row, says something, students sit up and take notice."
Don St. John, Professor, Moravian College
“He was one of the finest speakers that I've heard in my life. He spoke plainly and passionately about his experience, inviting the listerner into a conversation. He responded well to questions, engaging each person and giving an informed and in-depth answer. I was most impressed with the way in which the speaker is able to use his very legitimate frustration with the legal system. He does not let his frustration dominate his presentation or cloud his vision, rather, he uses his passion to fuel a very clear explantion of the flaws in the system. Simply put, his anger doesn't scare people away, it draws them in. He wants to be constructive, not destructive, which is a rare quality these days.”
Chaplain Peter Bredlau, Muhlenberg College
From a forum on the death penalty at St. Andrew's Catholic Church, Clemson, S.C.:
“I know that I personally, and a number of others, came tonight precisely because an exonerated prisoner was speaking on the panel."
“This man's story about defending himself made all of his statements credible. He was someone who had personally faced it - personally stood in front of the gallows.
“Inviting a speaker from Witness to Innocence to our campus was an invaluable part of our Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. He brought an often humorous but always human and personal perspective to the topic of the death penalty. My students’ understanding of this issue has been profoundly deepened by the words and experiences of this man.”
Dr. John H. Taylor, Associate Professor Adams State College
“Our Witness to Innocence speaker's talk on the modern death penalty was equally enlightening, heart breaking, and enraging. I was shocked at what had happened to him and to others in the same situation. No one can support capital punishment on any grounds after such a presentation of facts.”
Rob Maas, Students for Leftist Action, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin
“This was truly one of the most compelling guests we’ve brought. He made a stark case against the death penalty, judicial misconduct, and socioeconomic disparity that our campus community needed to hear. It really was a tremendous speech.”
Jules Shen, Amnesty International, University of Pennsylvania
“I have changed my mind about the death penalty."
From event at Respect Life Group, Nassau Community College, Garden City, N.Y.
“Witness to Innocence members helped to change hearts and minds at every level – from the average New Mexican on the street, to power brokers in the legislature, to the final decision maker in the governor’s office.”
Viki Elkey, Executive Director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty
“The decline in death sentences and executions, and the turning away from the death penalty by some states is due in large part to the public’s exposure to people who have been freed from death row. . . . Witness to Innocence provides empowerment and a strong organization to the ever-increasing group of people who have been freed from death row.”
Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center
"The speaker was very engaging. . . easy to follow and accessible, but also went into a level of depth appropriate for our audience. He was inspiring to our volunteers AND to us!"
Rebecca Katz, Death Penalty Representation Project, American Bar Association, Washington, DC
"Riveting, powerful, and inspirational. He did a great job of tying his story to our organization's focus on ethics."
Kathryn Ratino, Ethical Society Mid Rivers, St. Peters, MO
back to top^
Host an event online form
back to top^
Ten Tips for Event Organizers
10 Tips for Organizers of Witness to Innocence Speaking Events
- ESTABLISH A COMMITTEE FOR THE EVENT
Although you have committed to hosting just one event, the preparation required is still best accomplished by a small group of people so that the many tasks and responsibilities don’t fall on just one person. The committee should meet weekly in the period leading up to the event in order to establish the goals for the event, such as what it will accomplish for the sponsoring organization, and how many audience members you are aiming for; to delegate work, such as assigning people to logistics, publicity, and fundraising; to evaluate the event when it is over, and to propose follow-up organizing.
- REACH OUT TO ALLIES
Identify as many organizations and constituencies as you can that might be interested in helping with and/or attending the WTI event. A coalition effort will ease the burden for raising the necessary funds, provide additional volunteers, expand the audience, and increase the impact of the event. Brainstorm a list of allies, clarify exactly what you are asking allies to do in support of the event, assign individuals to make the requests, and continue to follow up with each one until you have a clear answer. Consider delineating different levels of support, from full co-sponsorship to just forwarding announcements to email lists. Remember to give credit to all the cooperating organizations that assist with the event.
As soon as possible, take care of the concrete logistics for the event, including securing an appropriate room (please take into consideration the type of event you have requested and the anticipated size of the audience); arranging ground transportation, lodging, and meals for the speaker; and making sure that payment will be sent in a timely manner. Please use the WTI event contract to make sure you have remembered all the details.
- OUTREACH AND PUBLICITY
A key measure of success for your event will be whether you have attracted the number of people you hoped to attend. Although electronic communication about events is obviously crucial, don’t underestimate the value of printed posters and flyers, telephone invitations to individuals, and personal face-to-face recruitment. Especially on busy campuses and in busy communities, people need multiple exposures to event information – preferably in different modalities – before they put the event on their calendar and commit to attending. Consider keeping a list of people who say they are coming to the event so that you can remind those who said “yes” or “maybe” a few days beforehand.
In signing the contract with WTI, you also have committed to publicizing the event in the news media. News media can be contacted both for pre-event listings and announcements to boost turn-out, and just as importantly, so that they send a reporter to cover the event as a news story. You can boost the impact of the event exponentially by gaining media coverage which will be read or heard by thousands of people who could not personally attend the event. Once again, please do not rely solely on email for communication with the media. There is nothing like a direct phone call to get the attention of someone in the frenetic offices of newspapers and radio and television stations.
- OPENING AND CLOSING THE EVENT
Please take some time to think through the entire event from beginning to end. Ideally, volunteers will greet people as they arrive and draw their attention to outreach tables and to the surveys you have distributed (see below). Be sure to have someone introduce the speaker not only as an exonerated death row survivor but also as a member of Witness to Innocence. Use the introduction as an opportunity to state the goals of the sponsoring organizations and to thank people for taking the time to come to the event. If there has been time allotted for questions and answers after the presentation, please assign someone to gently facilitate the process by calling on people; by firmly limiting unexpected speeches or rambling, if necessary; and by ending the question-and-answer period by the agreed upon time. Finally, please provide a clear ending to the event and use that opportunity to organize. Thank all the sponsoring groups and individuals who helped, and then make a clear, concise invitation to get involved with your effort and with WTI, once again drawing attention to the outreach tables.
The pre- and post-event surveys are absolutely critical to the success of the Witness to Innocence Speakers Bureau. Not only do they help us document the impact of the Speakers Bureau program, which is essential for maintaining our funding support, but they also double as sign-up forms for those individuals who wish to support Witness to Innocence directly. Like all activist organizations, Witness to Innocence builds its base of support one person at a time, but because we are a national organization holding events all over the country, we are counting on you to help us identify those individuals who wish to learn more about our organization. Please take extra care to distribute the surveys (not just have them available), enthusiastically encourage each and every person to complete one, and to collect and return them in a timely fashion. This is not just an afterthought. It is a core element of the event itself. We thank you for your help and cooperation.
- OUTREACH TABLES
Every event should be supported by an outreach table that is attractive and well-stocked with information. It should be staffed before and after the event by at least one enthusiastic volunteer. In addition to providing information about your own organization, please display Witness to Innocence materials and information on your state or local anti-death penalty organization. We rely on this kind of on-the-ground outreach to get new people interested in holding Witness to Innocence events and becoming involved in their state’s anti-death penalty efforts. Keep copies of the survey at the table in addition to the ones that have been distributed, in case anyone missed theirs. If you have made contact with your state’s anti-death penalty organization, this group should be provided with its own outreach table. Despite the state organization’s presence, it is still your responsibility to make Witness to Innocence material available to your audience members. Once again, we thank you for your efforts to let your constituents know about Witness to Innocence, and we appreciate the opportunity to partner with your organization.
- TAKING CARE OF THE SPEAKER
In addition to simply providing for the transportation, accommodations, and meals for the speaker, we request that you be attentive and sensitive to any other needs that may arise. Although the speaker is being paid for this event, it is nonetheless an exhausting process, taken on not for personal gain, but out of a commitment to justice. It is a process that involves not only the ordinary stresses of travel, but also the emotional stress of publicly exploring the trauma of wrongful conviction, incarceration, and the threat of death. Check in with the speaker to make sure he is comfortable with any plans being made, especially if they require additional social interaction. At times, the speaker might love to connect with your warm and supportive community, but at other times he or she might prefer peaceful solitude before or after an event. Thank you for your understanding.
- FRIENDS OF THE EXONERATED
Now that you have agreed to host a WTI speaking event, please consider becoming a Friend of the Exonerated. Friends of the Exonerated is a special group of Witness to Innocence supporters who further the mission of the organization by staying connected, volunteering, and making contributions. Please contact us for more information.
The ultimate goal of Witness to Innocence is to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Hosting a speaking event is just a small step on that journey. Please use the event to further the organizing efforts of the anti-death penalty movement. Even a great event attended by lots of people has very limited value unless there is follow-up. You and the organizing committee should already be thinking: What’s the next step? How can we build on the success of this event to expand the base of the movement? How can we strengthen our organization? How can we inspire audience members to turn their beliefs and values into transformative action in the community – and across the nation?
back to top^
WTI questionnaires for event distribution
Event hosts can download the Witness to Innocence questionnaire here. Please distribute these questionnaires to event attendees and explain that they are intended to assist the speaker and Witness to Innocence. At the end of the event, collect these documents and mail them back to the WTI staff at:
PO Box 34725
Phladelphia, PA 19101
back to top^