Celia Ouellette is the founder and CEO of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), an organization that fights for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
Ahead of the World Day for the Abolition of the Death Penalty on October 10, RBIJ unveils the latest batch of more than 150 signatories of its CEO’s Declaration Against the Death Penalty. Launched in May, the statement saw CEOs of rock stars like Richard Branson of Virgin, Arianna Huffington of HuffPost, Mike Novogratz of Galaxy Digital and many more vow to use their private sector power to influence U.S. lawmakers.
Ouellette, who travels the country to abolish the death penalty, has been working on criminal justice reform since 2006. As a criminal defense lawyer defending prisoners and negotiating plea deals for those on death row , she says she’s had tough conversations with clients facing some very “crappy” options.
Al Jazeera lead producer Radmilla Suleymanova first spoke with Ouelette in May. She caught up with the activist, who was most recently on the road in Columbus, Ohio, to find out what it’s like to work with Branson, why the death penalty is becoming a conservative cause and the dirty stomach of capital punishment .
* This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Radmilla Suleymanova: What’s new? Why are you in Columbus, Ohio?
Celia Ouellette: I’m in Ohio, then I’m heading to Utah because they have two big state campaigns. The two Republican governors have said they will sign abolition bills. Although states with a Republican governor have abolished the death penalty, such as New Hampshire, the governor has always vetoed it. They would therefore be the first Republican governors to sign bills.
RS: It’s interesting. How did the abolition of the death penalty become a conservative cause?
CO: The death penalty is a human issue. Conservatives are humans. And in terms of conservative values, the Pope said the death penalty is contrary to Catholic teaching. The cost of the death penalty and what the government should pay is another question for the Conservatives, and then you add the fact that we have and are putting innocent people on death row.
The conservative movement to support or even lead the abolition of the death penalty has moved from not opposing death penalty bills to supporting death penalty bills to carrying out bills on the death penalty.
RS: How’s it going with Richard Branson?
CO: It’s interesting because someone like Richard Branson, you know he’s kind of that famous hippie CEO, but actually I think he has that overlap with a lot of more conservative-minded CEOs. libertarian. They come together on topics like the death penalty, criminal justice reform, even drug policy – on the reach of the government’s reach. Richard personally worked a lot on this campaign. He’s not just some sort of nominal figurehead. He spent a lot of time talking to people, calling them, telling them about the campaign. He really has his heart in it.
RS: What’s next for RBIJ in the coming year?
CO: I would love to come back in 2022 on October 10 with 250 companies or 300 business leaders registered. And what we’re going to do at the request of business leaders is support them and get involved in campaigns in America and around the world. I think that [US] President [Joe] Biden will hear from business leaders about why he should clear federal death row rather than simply impose a moratorium during his tenure as president.
RS: How is the work carried out with the companies?
CO: We sign them off at the declaration, then we have a one-on-one conversation with each of them, asking them what you want to do, where do you see your role playing – be it more in the press, using your voice on media platforms, or get involved behind the scenes and use that leverage and social capital.
RS: And how does that make a difference on the pitch, exactly?
CO: Well, in addition to the voices of victims, conservative voices, religious leaders, [and] Leaders of communities of color, we are coming to a point where lawmakers considering abolition bills must weigh the fact that executions are not good for business.
RS: Are companies really putting their money where they say it?
CO: Will companies withdraw from investing in states, for example, if they use executions and will they prioritize states that do not use executions? To be fair, leaders want to know which states are the worst offenders in terms of location of executions.
Of course, companies will continue to see their responsibility to those they employ. But they will use their political pressure. They say, “If we can lobby for ourselves, for our own benefit, then we should lobby for the good. I wouldn’t rule out companies making big moves. Investment firms and fund managers want to talk to us now about how to move capital flows in a restorative and non-harmful way.
RS: How could this be harmful?
CO: This is tricky because the states that resort to executions the most and sentence people to death have the longest history of lynchings and marginalization of communities of color. So you can’t penalize individual communities; you need to focus the pressure on government leaders who can create the change. It cannot simply be pressure on a company to pull out of the investment or choose to relocate elsewhere. I don’t think that alone is the measure of success. That’s a question we’re asked a lot, and the answer is, it’s more complicated than just refusing to invest in a particular location.
RS: What was the biggest lesson from the campaign’s first rollout in May?
CO: I think we’ve learned that if you build the platform for businesses to be involved, they will come in droves. The desire to be meaningfully involved in issues of social and racial justice is enormous. And if you provide a clear path for doing it in an authentic way, it’s like pushing open doors.
But we have also learned that as a non-profit organization, we are limited by the capacity of our fundraising capacity. So if you are aiming for the moon you might catch it, but you also need a team of 100 to coordinate the efforts. I’ve worked on death penalty cases in some of the toughest parts of America, so it’s a wonderful problem to have.
RS: What do you remember most from that time?
CO: I remember talking to one of my clients and him saying, ‘Why are my options so crappy? He risked the death penalty. He was the lookout for a drug case that went wrong and was charged with capital murder under a criminal murder rule.
RS: What were his options?
CO: We had negotiated a 20 year plea deal for him, which is honestly the best I have ever done in a death penalty case in my career. It is the dirty belly of the death penalty. We hear about death row inmates, we hear about people exonerated, but what we don’t capture are the thousands of young black men who are charged with death and end up pleading.
RS: What does this conversation look like?
CO: When you’re a defense attorney and you’re sitting down with a client, and the option of the roll of the dice is for it to be executed, that’s a whole different conversation. It’s hard to underestimate how the death penalty is a pump to mass incarceration in America. You put people in jail for their entire lives because you charge them with capital murder. So from the start, if they go on trial, the death penalty is on the table.
RS: Are all those facing the death penalty convicted of murder?
CO: In America, you can only get the death penalty for homicide, but under the criminal murder rule, if there is a crime that takes place like a crime, like theft, and someone is killed during this robbery, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend to kill, attempt to kill anyone, carry the gun or even know someone had a murder weapon on the scene, anyone involved in this crime is liable to the death penalty.
RS: Do you see this changing?
CO: To me, it seems inevitable that the death penalty will be over in the United States. I mean we’ve had almost a state a year for the past 15 years. Virginie was a great victory. Virginia is the first southern state to abolish it. He has the bloodiest history.
RS: What was a great personal moment for you?
CO: I think for me that’s it for now that I talk to my clients and they say “Why are my options so crappy?” and I say, “I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do about it” and now it’s like no, actually I can do something. And that day that all those emails saying Arianna Huffington is here, Sheryl Sandberg (from Facebook) is there, that’s the day I was like, oh my god I do something, it happens. We have 150 of the most visible names in business saying, we don’t push the boundaries, we don’t avoid the problem. And you want to go back to that client and tell you, I did something to make version 2.0 of your options less crappy.