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Kain’s anti-death-penalty journey leads to Rome

WestConn faculty member Dr. George Kain (left) and student Fernando Bermudez (second to left) join “Cities for Life” organizers at the Nov. 29 illumination of the Roman Colosseum marking Connecticut’s abolition of the death penalty during 2012.

Dr. George Kain of Ridgefield traveled a long road to become a leader in the successful campaign to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut during 2012.

In November, he journeyed to Rome to join justice ministers and opponents of capital punishment from around the world in celebration of the state’s legislative milestone.

Dr. Kain, associate professor of justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University, recalled how his views on capital punishment have evolved during his career. He has been a state judicial branch administrator, WestConn faculty member, and Ridgefield police commissioner.

A onetime supporter of the death penalty, he is now president of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. He was invited to join the network’s board in 2004 after he appeared at a local forum discussion at which he quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s opinion that “if people knew the truth about capital punishment, they would never be able to support it.”

He repeated that quote during his Nov. 27 talk representing the network at the Seventh International Congress of Ministers of Justice in Rome.

“I have been involved in law enforcement for 29 years, and if I thought for a single minute that the death penalty was necessary to keep law enforcement officers safe, I wouldn’t be standing before you today,” he told the congress.

“The arguments supporting capital punishment are full of false promises, but the evidence tells us another story.”

In recent years, Dr. Kain and Associate Professor of Justice and Law Administration Terrence Dwyer, a retired New York State Police investigator, have collaborated on several research articles exploring capital punishment issues.

They earned recognition for best paper presentations at two professional conferences held in Las Vegas during October.

“Our work on capital punishment has become a passion for me,” Dr. Kain said, “and my hope is that it will draw attention to the wonderful research being done by the faculty at Western.”

The Connecticut network’s board asked Dr. Kain to represent the organization at the Rome conference and the coinciding annual observance of “Cities for Life Week,” culminating in the Nov. 29 lighting of the Roman Colosseum in recognition of Connecticut’s abolition of the death penalty during 2012. Dr Kain was accompanied by fellow  board member and WestConn student Fernando Bermudez, whose 1992 conviction for a New York City murder was overturned in 2009 in a case championed by the Innocence Project.

Dr. Kain was recruited as an 11th-hour replacement for former network Executive Director Ben Jones, who recently resigned to join a death penalty abolition organization in Kansas, and the WestConn professor found himself thrust to center stage with a surprise invitation to address the opening meeting of the justice ministers’ congress.

His hurriedly drafted speech and subsequent remarks as invited guest at a closed-door session of ministers received a warm reception, including an invitation from Zambia’s recently appointed justice minister to visit the southern African nation to advise the government on how to prepare an accurate survey of public opinion on capital punishment.

“Cities for Life” organizers provided a full schedule for Dr. Kain and Mr. Bermudez to share their experiences with the anti-death penalty movement in informal talks at churches and schools in the area.

One of Dr. Kain’s most moving experiences came during a lively exchange with students at a high school in northern Rome. There he learned that the class was currently reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House — one of several Dickens works that he and Mr. Dwyer have referenced in their articles because they reflect the 19th-Century British author’s struggles with the subject of capital punishment — and he framed his classroom talk around the theme of this “Dickensian dilemma.”

“When we took questions and answers afterwards,” Dr. Kain recalled, “a girl in the class said, ‘You live in the United States, where more than half of your states have capital punishment, and you claim to be the world leader in human rights. How can you justify that?’

“Her question reminded me that you can learn a lot about the United States when you listen to people in other countries and understand what they see in us.”

Dr. Kain and Mr. Bermudez were guests of honor introduced at the Colosseum illumination, a traditional symbol during “Cities for Life Week” representing government actions over the past year to end capital punishment. Dr. Kain said approximately 100 nations worldwide “have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice over the past 10 years.” Within the United States, five states — New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and most recently Connecticut — have abolished capital punishment since 2007, increasing the number of states banning the death penalty to 17.

Dr. Kain said the Connecticut network will continue its work to ensure the state’s abolition of capital punishment is preserved, and “to provide assistance to movements in states now in the same position we were in with the campaign to abolish the death penalty.”

He said he left Rome with a sense of humility for the opportunity to serve as “a messenger of world peace, a world without hate. It made me very proud to be part of this university and to be an American citizen on this mission.”

“This was a time to pause, reflect and celebrate,” he said, “but our work is far from over.”

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at 203-837-8486.

WestConn faculty member Dr. George Kain (left) and student Fernando Bermudez (second to left) join “Cities for Life” organizers at the Nov. 29 illumination of the Roman Colosseum marking Connecticut’s abolition of the death penalty during 2012.

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