NEW YORK (AP) – Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson feels the time has come to galvanize business leaders in a movement to eradicate the death penalty, a cause he has ardently supported for years.
A group of 18 business leaders led by the British billionaire launched a campaign Thursday they hope will quickly build, signing a declaration that called on all governments to end executions. Branson said he hoped to get “hundreds, if not thousands” more business leaders on board over the next six months.
“I’m contacting a lot of business leaders that I’ve met over the years. I think a lot of us believe it to be inhumane, to be barbaric, to be flawed,” Branson said in a video interview with The Associated Press before announcing the campaign at the virtual South by Southwest festival.
He appeared with Sabrina Butler-Smith, the first woman in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row. Butler was 18 when she was convicted of killing her baby boy in 1990. In 1995, she was exonerated in a retrial after a medical examiner testified that the baby died of a kidney ailment, and neighbors corroborated Butler-Smith’s account that injuries to the boy were from her attempts to resuscitate him.
Telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim, the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Thrive CEO Arianna Huffington and Jared Smith, co-founder of software vendor Qualtrics, were among the 18 initial signatories.
Business leaders and companies have been more willing to wade into social issues in recent years, pushed in part by a new generation of consumers and employees who want to see their values reflected where they work and spend their money. The shift reached new heights last year after the worldwide Black Lives Matters protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Corporations pledged billions of dollars toward racial equity initiatives and accelerated their internal diversity goals.
The business leaders, who said they were speaking in a personal capacity, called the death penalty emblematic of the systemic racial injustice companies claim to be trying to fight.
“Business leaders need to do more than just say Black Lives Matter. They need to walk the talk and be instrumental in tearing down all the symbols of structural racism in our society,” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, said in a prepared statement.
According to a report by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, Black people remain overrepresented on U.S. death row, and Black people who kill white people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people who kill Black people.
Although support for the death penalty has waned in recent years, the Trump administration carried out an unprecedented run of 13 executions in six months last year, ending a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. President Joe Biden has not said whether he will halt federal executions, though he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use.
Celia Ouellette, CEO of The Responsible Business Initiative for Justice that is coordinating the campaign, said the hurried executions last year added “real urgency” to the issue that helped draw in business leaders. She said the signatories would be participating in various events with anti-death penalty activists groups in the next months.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen business leaders joining forces to call for an end to the death penalty globally,” Ouellette said.
Branson said business leaders see the tide turning, symbolized most recently by the Virginia state legislature’s vote to abolish capital punishment. That vote last month held particular significance for death penalty opponents because Virginia has executed more people than any other state in its long history.
Despite his own longtime advocacy, Branson said the death penalty has not been an issue business leaders have taken up historically.
“So part of our job is, is to find the time to educate them, give them the facts and win and win them over,” Branson said. “It needs patience. It needs education for some. But for, I say the vast majority, it’s a reasonably easy. The doors are open and I think we can get the vast majority of people on board.”