Dr. George Kain traveled a long road to become a leader in the successful campaign to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut which finally came to fruition in 2012. This past November, he journeyed to Rome to join justice ministers and opponents of capital punishment from around the world in celebration of the state’s legislative milestone.
Kain, associate professor of justice and law administration (JLA) at Danbury’s Western Connecticut State University (WestConn), recalled how his views on capital punishment have evolved during his career as a state Judicial Branch administrator, faculty member and Ridgefield police commissioner, from his initial support of the death penalty to his current role as president of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP). Kain was invited to join the CNADP board in 2004 after he appeared at a local forum discussion, at which he quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s opinion that “if people knew the truth about capital punishment, they would never be able to support it.” He repeated that quote during his November 27 talk representing CNADP at the Seventh International Congress of Ministers of Justice in Rome.
“I have been involved in law enforcement for 29 years and, if I thought for a single minute that the death penalty was necessary to keep law enforcement officers safe, I wouldn’t be standing before you today,” he told the congress. “The arguments supporting capital punishment are full of false promises, but the evidence tells us another story.”
In recent years, Kain and associate professor of JLA Terrence Dwyer, a retired New York state police investigator, have collaborated on several research articles exploring capital punishment issues, and in October, earned recognition for best paper presentations at two professional conferences held in Las Vegas. “Our work on capital punishment has become a passion for me,” Kain observed, “and my hope is that it will draw attention to the wonderful research being done by the faculty at Western.”
The CNADP board asked Kain to represent the organization at the Rome conference and the coinciding annual observance of “Cities for Life Week”, culminating in the November 29 lighting of the Roman Colosseum in recognition of Connecticut’s abolition of the death penalty in 2012. Kain was accompanied by fellow CNADP board member and WestConn student Fernando Bermudez, whose 1992 conviction for a New York City murder was overturned in 2009 in a case championed by the Innocence Project.
Within the United States, five states — New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and most recently Connecticut — have abolished capital punishment since 2007, increasing the number of states banning the death penalty to 17.
Kain was recruited as an eleventh-hour replacement for former CNADP Executive Director Ben Jones, who recently resigned to join a death penalty abolition organization in Kansas, and the he found himself thrust to center stage with a surprise invitation to address the opening meeting of the justice ministers congress. His hurriedly drafted speech and subsequent remarks received a warm reception, including an invitation from Zambia’s recently appointed justice minister to visit the southern African nation to advise the government on how to prepare an accurate survey of public opinion on capital punishment.
“Cities for Life” organizers provided a full schedule for Kain and Bermudez to share their experiences with the anti-death penalty movement at informal talks at area churches and schools. One of Kain’s most moving experiences came during a lively exchange with students at a high school in northern Rome. There he learned that the class was currently reading Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” — one of several of Dickens works that Kain and Dwyer have referenced in their articles due to their reflection the 19th century British author’s struggles with the subject of capital punishment — and he framed his classroom talk around the theme of this “Dickensian dilemma.”
“When we took questions and answers afterwards,” Kain recalled, “a girl in the class said, ‘You live in the United States, where more than half of your states have capital punishment, and you claim to be the world leader in human rights. How can you justify that?’ Her question reminded me that you can learn a lot about the United States when you listen to people in other countries and understand what they see in us.”
Kain and Bermudez were introduced as guests of honor at the Colosseum illumination, a traditional symbol during “Cities for Life Week” representing government actions over the past year to end capital punishment. Kain observed that approximately 100 nations worldwide “have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice over the past 10 years.” Within the United States, five states — New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and most recently Connecticut — have abolished capital punishment since 2007, increasing the number of states banning the death penalty to 17.
Kain said the CNADP will continue its work to ensure the Connecticut abolition of capital punishment is preserved, and “to provide assistance to movements in states now in the same position we were in with the campaign to abolish the death penalty.” He said he left Rome with a sense of humility for the opportunity to serve as “a messenger of world peace, a world without hate. It made me very proud to be part of this university and to be an American citizen on this mission.”
“This was a time to pause, reflect and celebrate,” he said, “but our work is far from over.”
For more information on the CNADP, visit cnadp.org.