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Richard Branson announces anti-death penalty initiative in SXSW panel

Omar L. Gallaga
Special to the American-Statesman

An online South by Southwest panel on Thursday, “Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty,” also served as a launchpad for a new initiative, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Group, spoke on the panel with initiative partner Celia Ouellette, a lawyer who founded the Powell Project and worked on death penalty cases, including some in Texas.

The initiative, which has already been signed by 20 business leaders including Ariana Huffington, Ben and Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and 23andMe CEO Anna Wojcicki, came up at the end of the three-person panel on the injustices of capital punishment and what business leaders can do to help abolish it around the world.

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Richard Branson greets passengers in April 2019 as he arrives in West Palm Beach from Miami, where he kicked off the rebranding of Brightline's passenger trains as Virgin Trains USA. The entrepreneur appeared during SXSW Online on March 18.

In addition to Branson, who called the death penalty “ineffective, wasteful and cruel,” and Ouellette, the panel featured Sabrina Butler-Smith, who was put on death row at 19 for the death of her 9-month old son. Butler-Smith told the harrowing story of her incarceration and eventual exoneration, arguing that her experience showed her that death row, where she sat in a rat-infested 6-by-9 cell, is inherently inhumane. “I don’t understand how this system can take people and put them in a place like that. I just don’t see how they can do it,” she said.

Branson has been outspoken about his opposition to the capital punishment globally for years. He said in the panel, “I’ve always thought the death penalty is barbaric and governments should not be in the business of executing (their) own people.” He’s been working with organizations to help free inmates who’ve been wrongly imprisoned, but the initiative, which will be rolled out with more supporters in October, is a more formal effort.

Branson said that businesses are run by human beings and that “all a successful business is, is to make people’s lives better. We must never be bystanders in the face of (injustice). And the death penalty delivers injustice by the bucketful.”

Ouellette said that with recent successful efforts to end the death penalty in places as disparate as Virginia and Kazakhstan, the movement to abolish capital punishment is not a distant dream. “The movement is just asking for that final gallon of gas. We’re on the final furlough here,” she said.

Branson urged people to sign the initiative on its new website, ResponsibleBusinessInitiative.org.