Hawkins, Steven 1962–
Steven Hawkins 1962–
Devoting his legal expertise to the campaign against the death penalty—which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1972, but declared constitutional several years later—Steven Hawkins has established a high profile in the fight against capital punishment as executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) based in Washington, D.C. Most of his legal career has focused on this crusade, as well as on issues related to unfair treatment of minorities and the poor by the United States justice system.
Hawkins believes that the death penalty has never been a deterrent to violent crime. He also feels that race and class are critical factors as to determining whether a person receives the death sentence. As Hawkins told Victoria Valentine when interviewed for Emerge!, “There is a saying about capital punishment, that those without the capital get the punishment.” He also believes that the death penalty inevitably leads to the execution of innocent people, as a result of corrupt prosecutors, witnesses who lie, and defendants who haven’t the funds or knowledge to get the legal defense that they need in court.
Interest in the plight of criminals began for Hawkins when he was a child growing up in impoverished conditions near the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. Often, he heard inmates talking from behind the prison walls as he passed by. By the time he was in high school, Hawkins was getting in trouble with the police himself. Many of the black men he knew as a teenager ended up “either on drugs, dead, or locked up,” as Hawkins was quoted as saying by Karen Dillon in American Lawyer.
A turning point in Hawkins’s life occurred when he joined a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) youth program in 1978. As part of the program, he went on a field trip to Sing Sing and met some of the prisoners. He was especially impressed by black prisoners who had improved their lives while behind bars, despite being incarcerated for life. “It got me to really look at my life and to have a deeper understanding of the civil rights struggle, and a deeper understanding of our society that landed so many people in prison,” Hawkins told American Lawyer. “I got all that from Sing Sing.” In the same article, Hawkins referred to the prisoners he met as his “mentors.” Following his visit to Sing Sing, Hawkins became a diligent student and avoided trouble. His conscientiousness paid off, earning him a college scholarship from his high school and placement in Harvard University. Four years later he qualified for entry at New York University of Law, focusing on a future career in law serving the public interest.
For one year, Hawkins was a clerk for Chief Judge Emeritus A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., of the U.S. Court
At a Glance …
Born Steven Wayne Hawkins, July 10, 1962, in Peekskill, NY; son of Thomas Peter Hawkins and Ida Marie Boyd Hawkins. Education : Harvard University, B.S., Economics, 1984; New York University School of Law, J.D., 1988; University of Zimbabwe, 1985–86.
Joined NAACP youth program, 1978; served as law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals, 1988–89; became associate counsel on capital punishment/criminal justice project for NAACP, 1989; became staff attorney for NAACP Legal Defense Fund, New York, NY, 1989; taught at the Legal Education Centre of the Black Lawyers Association, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1994; served as faculty instructor at National Judicial College, Reno, NV; became Executive Director of National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Washington, D.C., 1995.
Memberships and affiliations : Board of Trustees, New York University, Center for International Studies, 1989–; Board of Directors, New York State Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 1990–; Board of Directors, Death Penalty Information Center; Criminal Justice Committee, National Conference of Black Lawyers; American Bar Association Commission on Over-Representation of Minorities in the Criminal Justice System; Bars of: U.S. Courts of Appeal (Second, Third, Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits); Supreme Court.
Awards and honors : Ames Award, Harvard University, 1984; Rockefeller Fellowship, Harvard University, University of Zimbabwe, 1985; American Jurisprudence Award, New York University Law School, 1987; Skadden Arps Public Interest Fellowship, Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, 1989-91; Civil Rights Advocacy Awards; NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Public Interest Advocacy Award; New York University Public Interest Law Foundation Outstanding Graduate Award; Ossining High School Cooperative Scholarship Fund.
Addresses : Home –429 North Street, Southwest, Apartment S-104, Washington, D.C. 20024; Business –National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, 918 F. Street, Northwest, Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20004.
of Appeals, where he handled legal research and prepared bench memoranda on cases covering a wide range of federal appellate matters. Hawkins wanted to pursue a degree in public interest law, but was concerned about his financial status because he was helping to support his mother and a young nephew. Although he had received the Root-Tilden-Snow scholarship from New York University, which was awarded to students who had shown commitment to public interest work, Hawkins was burdened by nearly $40,000 in outstanding school loans.
Fortunately, Hawkins received a public interest fellowship from the New York City law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom. The fellowship gave him an annual salary of $32,500 and covered his loan payments. Hawkins credits this opportunity with putting him on the right career path. “I’ve ended up finding what is my life’s work,” he said in American Lawyer. “That probably would not have happened if not for Skadden.”
During the fellowship period, Hawkins began working on death penalty cases as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. His position against capital punishment became more vehement during this period. “It’s a horrible feeling,” he told American Lawyer about losing his first death-penalty case. “One that leaves you incredibly empty inside….It shook me to the foundations. I didn’t know where there could be any relief in the courts for someone who had been sentenced to death.” As associate counsel for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Hawkins represented impoverished individuals on death row and lectured frequently on the issue of race discrimination within the criminal justice system. He also tracked and monitored capital cases that came before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hawkins’s battle against capital punishment has not been limited to the United States. In 1994, he became an instructor at the Legal Education Centre of the Black Lawyers Association in Johannesburg, South Africa. While there, he filed a brief in the South African Constitutional Court when that country was about to abolish its death penalty. After returning to the U.S. he was appointed to his current position as executive director of the NCADP, an organization founded in 1976 as a project of the American Civil Liberties Union. The NCADP became an independent non-profit organization in 1982. As executive director, Hawkins focuses on changing public opinion concerning capital punishment in the U.S., rather than working on individual death penalty cases.
Race has always been a major focus in Hawkins’s opposition to capital punishment, and he has often cited statistics showing the disproportionate number of African Americans who receive the death penalty. He also stresses that capital punishment has no impact on curbing violence in U.S. society. “We have almost 25,000 homicides a year, and putting about 250 of those persons, that 1 percent, on death row is not going to change the violent nature of culture,” he noted in Emerge!.
Perhaps Hawkins’s greatest challenge has concerned public officials who often use a hard stance against criminals for political advantage. According to Hawkins, it is not unusual for prosecutors to prevent vindicating evidence from being used to save someone who has already been convicted of a crime. “People use these cases to become governors or congressmen, and they aren’t about to let their name be smeared in an investigation that shows that there was a cover-up of evidence,” he claimed in Emerge!. In addition to the potential risk of innocent people losing their lives, Hawkins believes that convicted murderers can help educate society about the causes and prevention of homicidal behavior.
Having been present at many executions, Hawkins sympathizes with those who face execution and laments the fate of those defendants he was unable to save. He remains pessimistic that the death penalty will be abolished soon. Hawkins summed up his position in Emerge!, “If we want security in our communities, it is not going to come through the taking of life, whether it is on the street or in an execution chamber….The only sensible approach to the death penalty is to recognize that it has no place in our society.”
“Commentary: The Death Penalty Revisited,” (with M. Welch and R. Burr), Mental & Physical Disability Law Reporter, 1992.
“Justice in the International System” (with T. Franck), Michigan Journal of International Law, 1989.
American Lawyer, January/February, 1996, pp. 5-6.
Emerge!, Spring 1996, pp. 27–32.
New York Times, December 1, 1996, Section 1, p. 28; January 14, 1996, Section 1, p. 16.
Other information for this profile was obtained from materials supplied by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, as well as the Center for Civil Society International website on the Internet.
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