Sir Richard Branson used his time at SXSW this month to talk about his new initiative to abolish the death penalty. All business founders, owners, and leaders are invited to take part in the campaign, and many have already signed on, among them Arianna Huffington, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry's, and Life Is Good founder Bert Jacobs.
SXSW 2021 boasted a who's who of iconic business founders among its speakers, but most were there to talk about their own companies, or the business lessons they'd learned while running them. Why did Branson choose to focus on a topic so far removed from the travel and entertainment empire he oversees? More important, why does he believe other business leaders should do the same?
For one thing, he said, customers increasingly want and expect the companies they buy from to take a stand on social justice issues, so it makes sense to support causes you believe in. And, from a practical perspective, he and legal experts agree, the death penalty doesn't make much sense. "It doesn't make communities safer because it doesn't work as a deterrent to crime," he said. "And it's far more expensive to send someone to death [because of the legal appeals involved] than keeping them in prison for life. So it's a waste of public funding that could be spent on things like schools."
But perhaps the biggest problem with the death penalty, and biggest reason to oppose it, is the startlingly high incidence of people getting sentenced to death who later are found to be innocent, he argued. "For every nine people executed, one innocent person is freed from death row," he said. Because getting someone off death row is difficult and takes a lot of legal work, he said, it's impossible to know how many of those who've been executed might have been innocent as well.
Found innocent after three years on death row.
Branson was joined on the SXSW panel by Celia Ouellette, founder of Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, which is coordinating the campaign--and by a former death row inmate who spent years awaiting execution before she was found to be innocent. Sabrina Butler was a 17-year-old single mother in 1989 when her infant son stopped breathing in his crib. She didn't have a phone, so she knocked on her neighbors' doors, asking for help. One explained how to do CPR--neither the neighbor nor Butler knew that the CPR treatment that might save an adult is not appropriate for an infant. When she got to the hospital with her baby, he was declared dead and he had bruises on his chest.
The police concluded that the baby had died as a result of abuse. "They started yelling and screaming, they jumped in my face like they were fixing to fight," she recalls. After four hours of this, she signed a confession. "I just wanted it to be over," she said. "I knew I didn't commit a crime, but I was scared."
Butler said she met her lawyers for the first time two days before her trial. They told her that she wouldn't be found guilty and by testifying she might screw things up. So she stayed off the stand, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death.
She wrote letters from prison to anyone who might be able to help her. Eventually, a pair of pro bono lawyers took up her case and got her a new trial. They were able to show that the baby had died of a rare and congenital kidney disease, and that his bruising was consistent with applying CPR. This time, the jury found her not guilty and she was freed. By then, she had spent five years in prison and almost three years on death row. She now works with Witness to Innocence with other death row exonerees--and there are more of them than you might think. Since 1972, 185 people on death row in the U.S. have been cleared of all charges, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Butler and her colleagues speak to groups around the nation.
"Business people are human beings."
When Ouellette talks to business leaders, she often tells them about the economic drawbacks of the death penalty and how it deprives communities of funds that could be better used elsewhere. But, she finds, it's most often stories like Butler's that bring them on board. That's how it was for Branson. Meeting innocent people who'd been on death row and getting involved in some cases has fueled his determination to help put an end to capital punishment.
"Business people are human beings," he said. "We're fathers and grandfathers. We're brothers, we're sisters." A successful business should focus on making people's lives better, he added--otherwise it won't survive. "While much of that relates to how we run our business and how we deliver goods and services, I also think this is why leaders must be a force for good in society." Not only that, he said, but "consumers, employees, and investors demand companies take stands on causes they believe in if they want to earn or keep their trust" as well.
Momentum is building, Branson and Ouellette agreed, with the death penalty having been abolished in 23 U.S. states and 142 nations. In three other states, the governors have imposed a moratorium on executions. And polls show that support for the death penalty in the U.S. is at an all-time low. This makes now a good time to take action, Branson said.
As a start, all he's asking business leaders to do is add their names to the business declaration against the death penalty. The invitation is for anyone who owns or leads a business of any size, he added. Signing a declaration may not seem like a big deal, but death penalty opponents around the world can use it to show they have business leaders on their side, he said.
Business leaders are particularly well positioned to make a difference, Branson said. "When entrepreneurs and investors speak up, I think policymakers will listen," he said. "We have massive platforms and we should use them to protect rights."
You may or may not agree with Branson about abolishing the death penalty. But either way, he's right: As a business leader, your voice makes a difference. What will you use it to say?