Two years ago, when Aqeela Sherrills’ oldest son Terrell was murdered in Ladera Heights, it would have been easy to want his son’s killer on Death Row.
But instead of revenge, Sherrills asked the harder question of what was going through the 17-year-old killer’s mind and what factors made him kill.
“I believed that this young man was not just a perpetrator of taking my son’s life, but he was also a victim because you kill for two reasons: either out of fear or of a calloused heart,” Sherrills said.
Sherrills was one of several anti-death penalty supporters that gathered outside of the L.A. District Courthouse on Oct. 4 to call on District Attorney Steve Cooley to not pursue the death penalty in future cases.
The demonstration was just one of several court room stops in 15 counties across the state as part of an 800-mile Walk to Stop Executions. At each stop, the walkers gather with local activists to make similar pleas to the local District Attorney
The walk will conclude on November 30 at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
According to information released by the California Department of Corrections on July 1 last year, 36 percent of all Death Row inmates are Black, just three percent below the number of Whites on Death Row
Over the last 30 years, the state has executed only 13 inmates with the most recent having come in January 2006.
As the anti-death penalty supporters gathered, they listened to arguments such as false testimony and the costs of executions better served to provide resources to law enforcement.
One speaker, Gloria Killian, spoke on how she spent 17-1/2 years on death row based on false testimony. She added that being in prison gives inmates a sense of hopelessness and despair, which is more than enough punishment for even the most violent offenders.
“People should care less about revenge and more about rehabilitation,” Killian said.
Rehabilitation is also what Sherrills’ life has been about. For the past 16 years, he has been actively working in Watts to ease gang tensions and reduce violent crimes.
He also founded the Reverence Project three years ago and once of its activities is hosting an open dialogue about “matters of the heart” to reach out the people and explore those difficult issues to talk about.
All of this prepared him for that heart-wrenching moment when he learned that his son, a student at Humboldt State University, was murdered.
“You can’t imagine the amount of pain that created in my life,” he said.
But as his friends wanted to go after the killer, he turned them down saying that’s not what he wants his son’s legacy to be.
Instead Sherrills said that he wanted to know what fear drove his son’s killer to commit murder. He said that he wanted to look at the young man’s home life and environment as possible keys that will unlock his personal demons.
It is this desire to explore the human psyche that makes him not just against the death penalty, but asking people to find “an alternative to the way we think about the death penalty.”
“Life is precious and I don’t think someone has the right to take it,” he said. “We can’t change the system until we first of all change the people’s thinking in the system.”