Since March, when Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced the launch of the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign at South by Southwest’s virtual festival, the project has been building support among international businesses and now counts nearly 150 signatories from multiple countries, including executives from Facebook and Salesforce, who are calling for the global abolition of capital punishment.
The campaign views abolition through a lens of discrimination, calling it “a critical step in the movement toward racial and social equality.” In the U.S., for example — the lone Western nation that still practices capital punishment — more than 41% of death row inmates are Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, though Black people make up just 13% of the country’s population. Hipgnosis Songs Fund founder and CEO Merck Mercuriadis says music industry leaders have a particular moral obligation to get involved, as the music business has benefited for generations from Black culture. “We have a responsibility to use any leverage the success of our businesses gives us to advocate for the people and communities we make money from and with,” Mercuriadis says.
The Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign was coordinated by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a global organization whose CEO, Celia Ouellette, reached out to Branson last year to discuss crafting “a broader business statement against the death penalty,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Records in 1972. (Branson sold Virgin Records in 1992 and now focuses much of his energy on Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceflight organization he founded under the Virgin Group umbrella in 2004.)
On Oct 10, in recognition of World Day Against the Death Penalty, Virgin Group’s nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite, held a virtual event around a new series of documentary short films called It Could Happen to You that spotlight stories of individuals wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Going forward, Branson says the goal is to mobilize “a critical mass of business leaders,” with targeted efforts to appeal to those who reside in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where capital punishment is still practiced in many countries. The campaign and its network of frontline organizations will also urge business leaders across industries to become involved in “quiet diplomacy or public advocacy” around support for state or country-level abolition campaigns, as well as interventions in individual cases.
“I am convinced we can end the death penalty within a generation,” says Branson, noting that both Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone abolished capital punishment just this year. While support for the death penalty has waned slightly in the U.S. over the past few years and several states — most recently Virginia — have abolished it, most Americans continue to support the practice. In a Pew Research survey conducted this past April, 60% of respondents said they support capital punishment for people convicted of murder.
And yet the risk of executing an innocent person is significant. Since 1973, at least 186 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. were later exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. For Jason Flom, Lava Records founder and campaign member, even one case is too many.
“When I have this debate with people who are in favor of the death penalty,” he says, “what I ask is this: ‘What percentage of innocent people is it okay to execute?’”