Class of 2013 alumna works to abolish the death penalty and defend those on death row

February 3, 2021 — by Apurva Chakravarthy

The outside of Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., where all Louisiana state executions occur.

In the spring of 2011, Class of 2013 alumna Ashwini Velchamy, then a reporter on The Saratoga Falcon, signed up to write an opinion story on the death penalty.

As part of the writing process, Velchamy started researching the arguments for and against capital punishment. Although she wasn’t sure of it then, this research would spark a passion to help abolish the death penalty and lead to her current job in public interest law. (She has also volunteered to be the mock trial team’s attorney coach and has been coaching the team remotely through Zoom this year.)

The death penalty has long been a disputed method of punishment. Critics argue that there are fundamental flaws in the system that cannot be fixed with mere reform. 

She received a dual degree in Computer Science and Economics from American University in 2017 and graduated from Columbia Law School in 2020. Velchamy now works as a legal fellow on death penalty work in New Orleans. 

As a legal fellow and a barred attorney in Louisiana, Velchamy conducts legal research and helps with investigations, which often include going into neighborhoods to interview key witnesses in cases. 

This year has been tumultuous in terms of the death penalty, as the Trump administration and former Attorney General William Barr ended a 17-year federal death penalty hiatus by executing 13 people, the most recent being a man named Dustin Higgs on Jan. 6. 

In recent years, there has been a clear shift in public opinion regarding the death penalty. In the 1980s and 90s, clear majorities favored the death penalty, but results have become less clear in recent years.

Now, according to a Gallup study from October 2019, for the first time in 34 years, more Americans said that life imprisonment with no parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty is. 

Velchamy hopes states and the federal government will eventually abolish the death penalty. 

“It’s a weird thing in that we are trying to make our jobs no longer exist,” Velchamy said. “The goal is to be out of a job, the sooner, the better.”

The U.S. is among the 30 percent of the world’s countries that have not abolished capital punishment in law or practice, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. It is also one of the few developed countries that still maintains this practice.

Velchamy called the death penalty “racist, classist, arbitrary, ineffective and inaccurate.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states three main reasons for opposition to the death penalty: It disporpotionately targets marginalized groups, wastes taxpayer dollars and too often sentences innocent people to death. 

According to prisonpolicy.org, although Black people are 12 percent of the population, they have made up 36 percent of all those executed since 1976. If a defendant is Black, the odds of them receiving a death sentence are nearly four times higher than if they were white.

HG.org also found that it is almost 10 times cheaper to keep someone in prison for life then to execute them. Each state’s death penalty system has a system for appeals, and these appeals cost millions of dollars. HG.org estimates that it costs between $50 to $90 million to execute someone rather than keeping them in prison for life for a far cheaper price tag.

Even more alarming, a 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that 4.1 percent of inmates on death row didn’t commit the crimes they’ve been convicted of doing. Although these inmates may have their sentences reduced to life in prison, a lack of resources means that their cases often aren’t furthered to the point where the inmates would be officially proven innocent and freed. 

Although these reasons have fueled Velchamy’s opposition to the death penalty, she cited a more fundamental moral reason for wanting the death penalty abolished.

“It's the killing of a human being by the state,” Velchamy said. “Even if it weren't all of those things, it would still not be OK for the government to kill its people. We shouldn't need a reason not to execute someone.”

Although it wasn’t until law school that Velchamy decided she officially wanted to work in this field, she realized that she was interested in this work from a very young age. 

After learning more about the death penalty in high school, in college, Velchamy worked at a couple of prisoner's rights organizations such as the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. In law school, she spent her first summer working at the ACLU’s Capital Project in Durham, N.C., an experience that solidified her decision to work in prison litigation and capital work. She spent the rest of law school focusing on that area before working on death penalty in Louisiana after graduating.

A big effect of COVID-19 on Velchamy’s work is not being able to meet her clients, as the Louisiana State Penitentiary is under full lockdown. 

She noted that even during the pandemic, federal executions are not stopping or slowing, even when prisoners already have COVID-19 and severe lung damage.

Velchamy also expressed frustration that the courts are not helping during COVID-19; even if one court might grant a stay of execution, a court above them often overrules it, and order that the execution continues. 

“The death penalty is inhumane and awful in every iteration of it, from the legally codified version, to death by incarceration to locking people up in inhumane, unhygienic, close quarters during a global pandemic, to the day-to-day neglect and health consequences that come with the death sentence that incarceration itself often is,” Velchamy said.

While the Supreme Court has the power to temporarily halt all executions, the fact that the court stands at a 6-3 conservative majority severely reduces the chance of any substantial change.

Another reason for Velchamy’s frustration with the process is that executions act as superspreader events for the virus. According to Time, up to 100 people are involved in any execution, including the family of the one being executed, the victim’s family, reporters, lawyers and religious figures. 

“COVID hasn’t really slowed the desire for death from [the government],” Velchamy said.

According to Velchamy, there are many ways to abolish the death penalty. Either the Supreme Court could rule the death penalty unconstituional, or states and federal government would have to individually outlaw the death penalty in their own area of jurisdiction. Since the likelihood of the Supreme Court ruling the death penalty unconstitutional is slim, even if President-Elect Biden outlawed federal executions his first day in office, it still would not stop every execution.

“That’s why there’s a lot of abolition movements within states, and there’s a federal movement as well,” Velchamy said. “But if the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was unconsitutional, then no one could execute anyone.”

She identified the first step to helping fix the system as envisioning a criminal justice system that is not driven primarily by punishment.

“We can’t imagine a world without prisons because we can’t imagine a world without punishment,” Velchamy said. “This makes it so we’re willing to forgive all of our prisons’ flaws because we can’t see beyond it.”

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