Capital Against Capital Punishment: Who's Fighting the Death Penalty?

This year’s election results don’t bode too well for opponents of the death penalty. A year after they abolished it, Nebraska voters decided to reinstate capital punishment. Oklahoma voters approved “any method of execution” not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. And California, the nation’s most populous state, struck down a repeal measure, instead approving a measure to make executions easier.

But will this capital punishment comeback last? A cadre of dedicated funders, including Atlantic Philanthropies, Open Society Foundations, the Proteus Fund and others wants to make sure it doesn’t. These death penalty opponents are playing a long game and some have been at it for years. Angry populist elections come and go, but progress against the death penalty has been ongoing. Death sentences handed out in the U.S. have dropped almost tenfold since 1996, and actual executions per year have declined by about 75 percent. A full 42 percent of the American public opposes the death penalty, a 44-year high.

While capital punishment enjoys its day in the sun (and in approving comments from President-elect Donald Trump), several big funders are working behind the scenes to chip away at the penalty’s long-standing popular support. One major player (if not the major player) is Atlantic Philanthropies, which recently granted $3.25 million to Cornell Law School to establish the Cornell Center on Death Penalty Worldwide.

The first center of its kind in the U.S., the Cornell Center will work on the policy, research and advocacy side to advance international human rights norms that favor abolition. Indeed, most executions occur in a small number of countries: the United States, and top human rights violators like China, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Those fighting the death penalty have three main strategic goals. The first involves changing public perception of executions from a necessary measure to a cruel and unusual punishment. Second, advocates focus on the states, supporting grassroots efforts to repeal. Finally, the end goal for many advocates is a nationwide ban handed down from the Supreme Court. Often, this work involves direct political appeals and lobbying, backed through 501(c)(4) organizations.While appeals to human rights are effective to a point, philanthropic efforts against the death penalty are also now quite focused on the practical problems of this punishment: why executions aren’t just wrong, but ineffective and costly to boot. 

Leading the charge are groups like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Equal Justice USA, both recipients of large Atlantic grants in the years since 2006. While fighting the death penalty isn’t one of its major funding priorities, the Ford Foundation has also contributed at least $500,000 to the National Coalition.

All told, Atlantic Philanthropies has invested $60 million over the past decade to end the American death penalty. And although the foundation plans to discontinue its grantmaking this year (no doubt a worrisome fact for the abolition movement), it has already fertilized a whole bunch of anti-execution organizations that will continue raising funds. Among Atlantic’s biggest beneficiaries on this issue, besides the two mentioned above, are the Proteus Action League, the Advocacy Fund, Texas Defender Service, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

In addition to its regular grantmaking, Atlantic Philanthropies backs direct lobbying, ballot initiatives and voter mobilization efforts against the penalty through its 501(c)(4), the Atlantic Advocacy Fund. But Atlantic’s greatest contribution to the fight (at least in terms of dollar support) has been its support for the Proteus Fund, via the 501(c)(4) Proteus Action League.

A longtime supporter of progressive policy efforts, the Proteus Fund channels money from donors to organizations where it can make the most impact. Proteus’s Themis Fund is dedicated solely to combating the death penalty. Aside from Atlantic Philanthropies, additional supporters include the Open Society Foundations, Tides Foundation, Butler Family Fund, Fund for Nonviolence, and the Wallace Global Fund.

On a related note, Proteus has also fought profiling, discrimination, and xenophobia (including Islamophobia) through its Security & Rights Collaborative. With both Proteus and the Cornell Center, the idea is to apply international norms favoring abolition to American popular sentiment, which has generally favored capital punishment.

The Proteus Fund isn’t the only funding intermediary taking on capital punishment. Through its Death Penalty Mobilization Fund, the Tides Foundation has awarded over $6 million in grants since 2000.

Besides Atlantic Philanthropies, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations is another regular source of money for those fighting the penalty. Since the early 2000s, Open Society has granted regular sums ranging from five to six figures to prominent anti-penalty organizations. Those grantees include the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Tides Foundation, the Death Penalty Information Center, Death penalty Focus, and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

The Fund for Nonviolence, true to its name, is another anti-penalty stalwart. Through its Justice With Dignity grants program, it has disbursed modest but regular funding to many of the organizations we’ve already named. As elsewhere, many of this funder’s grants are region-specific, supporting local efforts to push back against the penalty.

The Wallace Global Fund is another progressive funder with a hand in anti-death penalty work. Its funds several big-name advocacy organizations like the National Coalition, Themis at the Proteus Fund, and the Equal Justice Initiative. The numbers here are modest as well, in the high five figures.

Rounding out our list, we have the Oak Foundation, whose contributions to the fight have been substantial. While Oak has offices in the U.S., it is an international funder and its death penalty work is also international, through a commonwealth nations initiative called the Death Penalty Project.

Many prominent individuals have also supported an end to the death penalty in recent years. Among them, figures from the entertainment industry make a strong showing. Individual donors include Norman Lear, Susan Sarandon, Frank Quattrone, Alec Baldwin, and J.J. Abrams.

As we reported this year, Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama recently received a $1 million gift from Boston-area couple Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine via their Crimson Lion Foundation. Stevens has been a leading opponent of the death penalty for years. 

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