Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Distraction, Not a Solution

Renny Cushing's letter to the editor about New Jersey's vote to repeal the death penalty appeared in the Kansas City Star on December 24th:

End death penalty

New Jersey legislators recently voted to abolish the death penalty and New Jersey’s governor signed the legislation. As someone who has suffered the pain of losing a loved one to murder, I salute the state for its actions — and I wish Missouri would follow suit.

When my father was murdered, my family and I did not feel that an execution would give us peace. We did not believe that another killing would honor our father’s memory or the values he instilled in us. Since that time, I have met and worked closely with hundreds of other murder victims’ family members who agree that responding to one killing with another killing doesn’t help anyone.

The death penalty offers a false promise of closure to victims’ families, who are led to believe that an execution will bring relief. While families wait through the lengthy, roller-coaster appeals process, reliving our original pain again and again, the focus remains on the murderer rather than on the victims or on our own anguish as surviving family members. The death penalty is a distraction from victims’ real needs, not a solution.

Renny Cushing,
Executive director, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
Cambridge, Mass.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

MVFHR in Japan

In our fall newsletter, we told about the new MVFHR affiliate that was founded in Japan this past June. The group’s name is Ocean, which Masaharu Harada, the Japanese victim’s family member who launched the group, says is a symbol of new life and new hope. MVFHR board member Toshi Kazama has given crucial support to the Japanese victims and other anti-death penalty allies who have taken the courageous step of starting this group in a country where it is very difficult to talk about the experience of losing a loved one to murder in the first place and doubly difficult if one also opposes the death penalty. Toshi and Renny Cushing were invited to give several talks and presentations in Japan last spring, and a few weeks ago Toshi traveled to Japan again, this time with MVFHR board president Bud Welch. .

Toshi and Bud traveled to ten different Japanese cities to give talks at colleges, churches, community centers, and a conference room in the Upper House of the Diet (parliament). Toshi tells us that newspaper and television reporters often attended these presentations and that the events got some good press coverage.

Here is a photo of Bud and Toshi with the professor and students at Kobe Gakuin University, after their public presentation there.

Toshi and Bud also had the opportunity to meet with a small group of Ocean members, including some relatives of victims who had been killed in the chemical attack in Tokyo’s subway in 1995. Toshi also met, on his own, with other victims’ family members who are opposed to the death penalty but feel they cannot express that view publicly. Given how difficult it is to publicly voice such views in Japan, building the group Ocean is a slow process, and Mr. Harada has chosen to focus much of the outreach on the idea of bridging the gap between victims and perpetrators, an idea for which there is somewhat more support. At the meeting that Bud and Toshi attended, there were two sets of parents of people on death row in Japan, and Bud observed that “their sense of shame seemed even greater than such families feel in the U.S.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When the Light is Lit

Do keep checking out NCADP's Abolish the Death Penalty blog, which has news stories, photos, and videos about New Jersey's abolition of the death penalty. One photo shows the Roman Colosseum lit up in celebration, and in the video of Sister Helen Prejean's remarks, you can hear her say this about victims' families:

"When that Colosseum is lit tonight, all of you will be there. But in particular, the Colosseum, the oldest temple in the world to state killing, as it is lit in the middle of the winter, and light shines -- it is especially those people who have lost their loved ones and chose to stay here in this state and give witness to their grief and call for life and not for death, and for compassion and dignity and not for revenge; in a very special way, when the light is lit, they are present."

Cities for Life

Bud Welch recently returned from Spain, where he was speaking to high school and university audiences about his daugher Julie, who was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and his opposition to the execution of Timothy McVeigh and to the death penalty in general. This speaking tour was part of the Cities for Life events organized in several countries by the Community of Sant Egidio and other anti-death penalty organizations each year. 741 cities in 55 countries participate in Cities for Life.

They worked Bud hard; he sometimes spoke to as many as four groups in one day, and he said it felt like a productive trip with interested and welcoming audiences. He observed, “The people in Europe of course aren’t as aware of the death penalty as the people in the U.S., because they haven’t had to deal with it, so when you tell them about how it’s used in this country, they’re kind of stunned by it. But they’re also stunned by the amount of murders that we have in the U.S."

Just before going to Spain, Bud traveled with Toshi Kazama to Japan and Taiwan, Province of China for a variety of events and activities, and Toshi went to mainland China, which was an enormously powerful experience. We'll report on this trip in the next few posts.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Videos from New Jersey

NCADP's Abolish the Death Penalty blog has some good reflections on the victory in New Jersey and (scroll down to the December 14th post) a wonderful quick video clip from Abe Bonowitz showing the moment of the vote.

The blogger "BlueJersey" has a video of the press conference just after the vote here.

At that press conference, Celeste Fitzgerald of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Shari Silberstein of Equal Justice USA, two people who have worked very hard for a long time to achieve this victory, offer some remarks that put the New Jersey victory in a broader national context. Senator-elect Kip Bateman, a Republican co-spnosor of the bill, says, "We couldn't have done it without the victims' families coming forward and really just spilling out their hearts to legislators and to members of the [study] commission."

And Eddie Hicks of NJADP, father of a murder victim, who served on the death penalty study commission, says, "I used to hear so many people, particularly after my daughter died, saying, obviously you're for the death penalty because you lost your daughter. And that wasn't true. I found there were a lot of other people out there who felt the same as I do. So I got involved in this effort because I felt it was really necessary to realize that, yeah, there are family members who are in favor of the death penalty, but there are very many of them out there who feel the way I do, for many different reasons -- some morally, some for more practical reasons."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New Jersey Votes for Repeal!

The news is everywhere, but "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty" can't resist making note of today's historic vote repealing New Jersey's death penalty. We add our voices to the chorus of those congratulating everyone who worked so hard for this.

We've noted in previous posts how important victims' voices have been to this effort. I was interested to see Capital Defense Weekly's response to NYU Law Professor Robert Blecker, who had urged New Jersey to "remember the victims" and vote to keep the death penalty.

Speaking at San Quentin

I’ve finally had a chance to catch up with MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt and hear about his talk at San Quentin prison last month. Bill does a lot of public speaking in the course of a year, but it was a new experience for him to be speaking at the California prison where his brother Manny had been executed in 1999.

Former California Senator James Nielsen wrote us an email explaining how this speaking engagement came about and sharing his thoughts about it:

For many years I served as Chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms. One of my many responsibilities was considering inmates’ clemency requests. I also am an alumni fellow of the AgLeadership Fellowship, a two-year leadership training fellowship for California farmers and agriculturalists. For many years I have conducted a two-day seminar on the death penalty at San Quentin State Prison for AgLeadership fellows. The seminar includes speakers supportive of and opposed to the death penalty.

This year we held the seminar in a hotel and Bill Babbitt came along to hear one of the speakers, exonerated inmate Greg Wilhoit, because Bill and Greg are good friends. It was a very moving experience for me to meet Bill at the seminar since I had presided over the clemency consideration of Bill's brother, Manny. Spontaneously, I asked Bill to speak to the group when he showed up with Greg. I believed Bill is also a victim and that he had a unique and compelling story and perspective.

Bill was surprised as he was only planning to accompany Greg. He is a marvelous speaker and he indeed has very personal perspective on how the death penalty has affected him. Bill was so compelling that I asked him to return a month later with Greg for the first ever death penalty seminar I conducted for alumni fellows. This was held at San Quentin prison.

That’s how Bill came to be speaking at San Quentin in November. Here’s his report of the experience:

It was surreal to go back there, right across the roadway from the entrance where I’d gone many times to visit Manny. This time I wasn’t searched before going in. After the presentations, our entire group was given a tour of San Quentin. When we got to the execution chamber, and I was standing in the same area where I had stood to watch Manny die, the prison official who was conducting the tour explained the procedure right before an execution. He explained that they bring the inmate down to a special holding cell, and he can have water, he can make phone calls, and so on. And then, the official continued, “We snag ‘em, we bag ‘em, then we tag ‘em.”

I had to look away, but something in me told me not to respond. It was very difficult to be standing there, reliving my memories of watching Manny be executed, and then to hear that callous remark from a prison official. But several of the others in the group were looking over at me and they seemed to be aware that this might be painful for me.

Even though parts of it were tough, I was glad to make this visit and speak to this group. On the bus leaving the prison, several of the alumni fellows told me that they had never heard anything like my talk and had never looked at the death penalty from the perspective of families like mine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Making History in New Jersey

Abe Bonowitz, Field Manager for New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, just sent us this great photo of MVFHR board member Vicki Schieber testifying before New Jersey lawmakers yesterday.

Vicki was testifying before the Law and Public Safety Committee of the New Jersey Assembly, which shortly afterward held a bi-partisan vote of 5-1 to pass the death penalty repeal bill on to the full chamber. Just two hours later, also in a bi-partisan vote, the New Jersey senate PASSED the repeal bill 21-16. Vicki, whose daughter Shannon was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, has been a leading advocate in the campaign to repeal New Jersey's death penalty.

Pictured behind VIcki are several other victims' family members holding photos of their loved ones and standing up in support of repealing the death penalty. Second from the right is Lorry Post, founder of NJADP and the new director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's blog has more photos and a write-up of yesterday's news, and the Death Penalty Information Center has issued this press release.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Happy Human Rights Day and Happy Birthday MVFHR

Today is International Human Rights Day and the third anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. I’m remembering the ceremony at the United Nations Church Plaza on December 10, 2004, when several victims’ family members spoke powerfully and movingly about their reasons for working against the death penalty and several allies and friends saluted the new organization. All who were present signed a document pledging their commitment to working to end the death penalty.

It’s been a full and busy three years, during which we’ve been moved and energized and enraged and determined and so many other feelings that this work engenders. Now we’re full of plans and hopes for the next three years, but today is a day to pause and thank everyone who makes MVFHR the powerful voice for victims and against the death penalty that it is. If we haven’t heard from you in a while (or even if we have!), take a moment to drop us a line and let us know how you are and what you’ve been up to. (You can send email to sheffer_at_aceweb_dot_com)

In celebration of Human Rights Day, here is an excerpt from Sister Helen Prejean’s book The Death of Innocents:
It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

And here is the U.S. Human Rights Network’s inspiring statement about the importance of focusing on human rights work in the United States:
Underlying all human rights work in the United States is a commitment to challenge the pernicious belief that the United States is inherently superior to other countries of the world, and that neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. rights movements have anything to gain from the domestic application of human rights. Rather, in the view of a growing number of U.S. activists, the U.S. government should no longer be allowed to shield itself from accountability to human rights norms …

Finally, here is a snippet of what Renny Cushing wrote in the first issue of MVFHR’s newsletter, Article 3:
In the human rights community, there is talk about how to integrate respect for universal human rights with recognition of the harm suffered by victims. There is talk of the need to hold accountable those who violate the human rights of others. How do we hold nations – or individuals – accountable? How do we respond to one violation of human rights without involving ourselves in another such violation? How can we apply an ethic of respect for people’s humanity consistently – to those who have committed crimes and to those who have been victimized?
These questions drive our work at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and they will inform the stories we publish in Article 3. … We decided to name this newsletter Article 3 knowing that a lot of people might at first wonder about its meaning. But this name – like our work in general – is an act of faith that people can be invited to look closer, to consider more deeply, to enter into new ways of thinking. We believe people can come to see that the death penalty is a violation of basic human rights and that it is time for nations across the world to abolish it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Victims on Both Sides

An article that appeared yesterday in New Jersey's Asbury Park Press is headlined "State's Death Penalty Debate Puts Families on Both Sides." It quotes victims' family members who support the death penalty and victims' family members who oppose it, including MVFHR's Vicki Schieber, who has been active in the effort to repeal New Jersey's death penalty statute.

While it might seem as though we at MVFHR only consider a news story on this subject useful if it focuses entirely on victims who oppose the death penalty, in fact we consider it a victory when news coverage simply acknowledges that victims have a range of opinions and beliefs (like the New York Times article shortly before Timothy McVeigh's execution that was headlined, "Victims Not of One Voice on the Death Penalty"). Victims do have a range of feelings and beliefs about the death penalty, and our job is to challenge the common assumption that all victims automatically favor it. When lawmakers and other leaders become aware of this diversity of opinion, they recognize that even if they have other reasons for supporting the death penalty, they cannot claim to be doing so "in the name of victims [as one monolithic group]." And if they are opposed to the death penalty, they can recognize that a vote against the death penalty is not automatically a vote against victims.

New Jersey Senator Raymond Lesniak wrote in an online forum:

"... the possibility of killing an innocent person is not the only reason to do away with the death penalty.Think of the families of the victims. While we did hear testimony before the Judiciary Committee in favor of the death penalty from a wife and a mother who had their loved ones murdered, we also heard from dozens of others who were against the death penalty. Most stated that the lengthy appeal process brought extra and unnecessary suffering into their lives."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

In Memoriam: Jane Abramson

We mourn the recent passing of Jane Abramson, who was a passionate advocate of abolition of the death penalty and a loyal supporter of MVFHR. This obituary in the Chicago Tribune gives a good summary of her life and work.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Tough Issues

Today’s excerpt from Margaret Vandiver’s research suggestions – our final excerpt in the series – looks at two particularly tough issues that can arise for victims’ families in capital cases. The first is “Disagreement within Families As to the Desired Sentence.” Margaret Vandiver writes:

Members of the same family often disagree as to the best outcome of the case against their relative’s accused murderer. A related situation arises when a defendant has multiple victims; the various families are likely to have disagreements over punishment. These disagreements raise thorny issues for those who support the right of victims to have determinative input into sentencing. Should one family’s opinion prevail over another’s? How should opinions be weighed within families? Does a mother’s preference outweigh a wife’s? Is a child’s opinion more important than a sibling’s? Researchers should be aware of intrafamilial disagreements over sentencing, which can become a further source of stress, anger, and even estrangement within families.

We have seen the stress that disagreement about the death penalty places on a family, and this is exacerbated when the criminal justice system favors the family members who support the death penalty. In 2003, Lorilei Guillory opposed the death penalty for the man convicted of murdering her 6-year-old son Jeremy. Lorilei’s brother (the victim’s uncle) supported the death penalty, and the district attorney’s office allowed his testimony but sought to bar Lorilei’s. In a statement to the press at that time, Lorilei said, “I resent the fact that because I do not want the death penalty in this case, and wanted the state to accept life without parole, the state has treated me as if I am the enemy and has used my disagreement with the death penalty to divide my family at a time when we need each other to heal. No one can tell another person the right way to heal and the state cannot tell me that the death penalty will heal me.”

Gus and Audrey Lamm faced a similar situation several years ago when they tried to speak at a pardon board hearing regarding the death sentence of Randy Reeves, who had been convicted of murdering Victoria Zessin, Gus’s wife and Audrey’s mother. The Nebraska Pardon Board forbade them from testifying, but allowed a relative who supported the death penalty to present testimony. When the Lamms filed suit to protest this inequitable treatment, they were described in a judge’s ruling as “not victims,” as though opposing the death penalty completely negates one’s relationship to a murdered family member.

Similar kinds of discrimination and emotional pain can exist in the next set of circumstances that Margaret Vandiver describes: “Victim and Offender are Members of the Same Family.” Vandiver writes:

Although most death sentences are imposed upon people convicted of killing strangers or acquaintances, rather than family members, there are cases in which the victim and defendant are members of the same family; a family member’s testimony may even have helped to convict the defendant. The conflicts of loyalty in such situations are perhaps especially strong when victim and offender are related by blood rather than by marriage. Researchers should explore the reactions and sentencing preferences of survivors in various family situations to see if patterns emerge. The reactions of survivors related to both the victim and offender should be compared to reactions of survivors in cases where the murderer and victim were strangers.

A story in our newsletter last year told about two families who faced this situation (when you get to the newsletter, scroll down to page 7) – the Syrianis in North Carolina, who pleaded with the governor to commute the death sentence of their father, who had been convicted of killing their mother, and Marcus Lawrie, who was 7 when his mother was murdered and 14 when his father was executed for that crime. And this story tells about how Felicia Floyd and Chris Kellett begged the state of Georgia not to execute their father for the murder of their mother, and how badly they were treated as a result.

Friday, November 30, 2007

No Research Can Afford to Ignore Them

Today’s excerpt from Margaret Vandiver’s series of research suggestions is about how the death penalty harms families of the executed, which, as many readers know, is a special focus of MVFHR’s, via our No Silence, No Shame project.

I was interested to see Margaret Vandiver call attention to this issue, and also to see that she raises some specific aspects of it, including the point that many families of the executed have experienced a murder in the family as well. We have seen this within the group of No Silence, No Shame participants, but I hadn’t seen a researcher make specific mention of it before. For example, Ida Reid’s cousin was murdered in Virginia in 1991; her brother was executed in 2004. Celia McWee’s daughter was murdered in Florida in 1979; her son was executed in South Carolina in 2004. Jim Fowler’s mother was murdered in Oklahoma in 1986; his son was executed in Oklahoma in 2001.

Here’s the excerpt from Margaret Vandiver:

The Effect of the Death Penalty on Families of the Condemned

Special consideration must be given to one subset of families experiencing violence bereavement: the families of condemned inmates. As a small but growing body of research documents, the death penalty is unrelieved agony for this group. Innocent of any offense, they pay a crushing price. If the death penalty benefits other families of homicide victims, it does so at the expense of these innocent people. No research on the effects of the death penalty on families can afford to ignore them.

Condemned prisoners come from families that are often ethnic or racial minorities and are almost always without financial resources. A substantial number of these families have experienced the murder of a family member themselves, prior to the time that their relative is accused of capital murder. This means they know the trauma of the violent death of a relative and have encountered the criminal justice system as victims’ families. Often their experiences have been very negative: their complaints may include indifference from criminal justice system personnel, lack of information, and a sense of helplessness about influencing the outcome. In addition, they are likely to have experienced the imposition of a relatively light sentence for the offender who killed their family member.

When a relative is charged with a capital crime, these families face the criminal justice system again, but this time as the family of a capital offender. Again their experiences are intensely negative; they are once again likely to suffer from the indifference or even hostility of personnel, from lack of information, and from a feeling of helplessness. They are, however, far more likely to experience the harshness of the criminal justice system, especially if their relative has been accused of murdering a white victim.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pressure to Support the Death Penalty?

In yesterday’s post, we mentioned that a victim’s family member’s position on the death penalty can be influenced by many factors. Margaret Vandiver takes this up specifically in this next excerpt from Wounds That Do Not Bind:

Influences on the Choice to Support a Particular Penalty

The adversarial nature of the American legal system leaves victims’ families vulnerable to pressure from various sources. Research should investigate whether families feel any pressure to support one penalty over another, from whom such pressure comes, and how families react to it. Related to this is the question of how homicide victims’ families who oppose the death penalty are treated by victims’ advocates, police, and prosecutors. Research should further address whether and how religious affiliation, education levels, and demographic variables influence survivors’ preference for certain penalties.

This too seems like very important research to conduct, particularly because of the fact that victims’ advocates, rather than being independent agencies, are under the auspices of the prosecutor’s office, and are thus more likely to favor victims’ families who support the penalty that the prosecution is seeking.

Margaret Vandiver’s mention of the treatment given to victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty is one of several references in Wounds That Do Not Bind to the report Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims’ Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty, which Renny Cushing and I wrote in 2002. We were pleased to see Dignity Denied cited so frequently in this scholarly collection, and would certainly be interested in seeing further research on the issues it raises.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Do Opinions Change?

Two more research ideas from Margaret Vandiver:

Stability of Opinion Over Time

Accounts by survivors indicate that some of those who oppose the death penalty for their family member’s murderer come to that position after an initial period of desiring execution. After the first shock, rage, and turmoil of the period immediately following the murder, people may reassess their opinion and decide against supporting the execution of the offender. (The opposite may also be true, but I have not seen any accounts of relatives who initially wanted a life sentence deciding later that they preferred death.)

Researchers should try to assess the stability of families’ feelings about the proper sentence for the offender in their relatives’ cases. Is it common for families who initially want the death sentence to change their minds over time? Does the opposite occur? If families want a death sentence, but the offender receives LWOP, do they continue to regret his not receiving death?

The Aftermath of Execution

Little is known about how offenders’ executions actually affect families of victims. Media interviews with victims’ family members immediately before and after executions provide a glimpse of their initial reactions to the execution. These interviews present the feelings of selected family members at moments of intense emotional strain, and should not be used as a basis to reach broad conclusions about the effects of executions.

Among the questions researchers need to explore in this area are the following: Does the emotional condition of survivors improve after the execution? If so, is this improvement due to the execution or due to the end of the survivors’ involvement with the criminal justice system? Does any improvement in condition continue over the long term? Do survivors who supported the execution react differently than those who opposed it or were ambivalent? Is there a difference in response between those who did and those who did not witness the execution?

These are all really good questions, and it seems to me that it is useful to raise the questions even as we wait for full-scale research to be conducted in response to them. Simply by raising this series of questions, Vandiver reminds readers that a victim’s family member’s position on the death penalty is a complicated issue, influenced by many factors (as we also saw in yesterday’s post and will see in future posts in this series).

As Vandiver suggests, following up with victim’s family members in the aftermath of an execution would be quite valuable and interesting. Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie Marie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, has remarked publicly on several occasions that other Oklahoma City family members have said, of Timothy McVeigh’s execution, “It didn’t do for me what I thought it would.” Research into that feeling and experience among victims’ family members would be well worth pursuing.

Bud Welch is also an example of Vandiver’s earlier point that some survivors oppose the death penalty after an initial period of supporting it. In his page in our Gallery of Victims’ Stories, Bud says, “When the President and the Attorney General announced that they would seek the death penalty for the perpetrators, that sounded wonderful to me, because here I had been crushed, I had been hurt, and that was the big fix. It took several months, but I came to realize that McVeigh’s execution wouldn’t help me.”

Bill Pelke has also written extensively about his initial support for the execution of the teenage girl convicted of murdering his grandmother, and his subsequent change of heart. And as we recently described here, Robert Curley once led the fight to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts and now testifies against it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Desiring the Death Penalty or Desiring the Most Severe Punishment?

In the book collection Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty, Margaret Vandiver’s essay takes a look at several possibilities for future research. Her essay inspired me to do a series in which we quote some of her suggestions and then offer a couple of additional thoughts and comments.

Here’s the first excerpt from Margaret Vandiver:

“It is natural for families to feel that the most severe punishment best reflects the enormity of the crime against their relative and the depth of their sorrow and pain. Any sentence lighter than the maximum provided by law runs the risk of seeming to indicate that the criminal justice system, or society in general, did not properly value the victim’s life or comprehend the magnitude of the family’s loss.

“This raises the question of whether LWOP would be a more satisfactory punishment if it were the harshest punishment available. In other words, does the death penalty intrinsically offer something no other sentence can, or is it desired by many families simply as the most severe of the available options? A study contrasting the reactions of families to LWOP sentences in death penalty and non-death penalty jurisdictions could be a start to answering this question.”

When I first read this, I immediately thought of occasions on which I’ve heard victims' family members express exactly this feeling: that one wants the sense of the offender’s having gotten the maximum available penalty, not necessarily death per se. In his page in MVFHR’s Gallery of Victims’ Stories, Bill Pelke says:

“As long as the death penalty was an option, I felt that if they didn’t give it to Paula Cooper, they were telling my family that my grandmother wasn’t as important as a victim whose murderer did get the death penalty. I think that families want the maximum penalty allowed by law for the person who killed their loved one, and most are satisfied if that is life without parole or at least long prison sentence.”

Along similar lines, Joy Ehlenfeldt said in our most recent newsletter:

“Ultimately I am still against the death penalty, but I struggle with the feeling that Juan Luna should have received the most severe sentence available. I found myself thinking, if brutally killing seven people doesn’t warrant the death penalty, then what does? My conflicting feelings make me think that the availability of the death penalty as a legal option in a case may add to the internal struggles, anxiety, and confusion that the victims' families are already experiencing, because when you know that the jury has a choice between two sentences and they choose life without parole, it can feel like they have chosen the lesser sentence, and that feels like he is getting a reprieve from having to accept responsibility and pay the consequences of his intentional and brutal actions.”

Monday, November 26, 2007

It Punishes Victims' Families

We'll start our Research Questions series tomorrow. This op-ed piece by victim's family member Jim O'Brien, which was published yesterday in The Daily Record (a New Jersey newspaper), obviously belongs here, and we didn't want to wait to post it. And anyway, this is exactly the kind of thing we'll be looking at in the research series. How many other victims' family members feel about capital trials as Jim O'Brien does? It would be valuable to know. Meanwhile, these are voices that urgently need to be heard.

My daughter Deirdre was 25 when she was murdered. She was an artist, a painter, and was hoping to get a job in an art gallery. Her paintings still hang on the walls around our house. They're damn good. And I don't say that just because my little girl made them.

A bipartisan commission conducted a study of New Jersey's death penalty last year. One of the things it considered was what would best serve people like me, families who have had their lives ripped apart by murder. They sensibly decided that New Jersey should get rid of its death penalty and replace it with life without parole. The Legislature should heed their call.

I say this not because I think these people deserve to live. I don't. But I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill one of them, and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.

If you haven't lived it, you can't know. But I lived it. And I know.

A serial killer ripped Deirdre away from us in 1982. My family had no idea, then, that our ordeal was just beginning. All we knew was that the worst of the worst had happened, and the person who did it should pay the ultimate price -- the death penalty.

From 1982 until 1990 I lived day to day, appeal to appeal, decision to decision. We woke up every day wondering what might happen that day. Will there be another appeal? Another motion? What new decision might come down?

The toll it took on me and my family was horrendous. And my experience was not unique. A Department of Justice study found that 70 percent of husbands and wives in my situation divorce, separate or start abusing drugs or alcohol. Family members have different views on capital punishment, and the process eats away at us and tears us apart.

The last straw for me came in 1990, eight years after the first trial. We were sitting through another retrial of the penalty phase. The judge had asked the jury during jury selection, "Could you be fair and impartial even if you knew that this man had committed another murder in Florida? Even if you knew that he had committed murder 12 days before his first trial? Even if you knew that he had already been convicted of murder in this case?"

I listened to those questions and I thought, my God, of course this man should be put to death. As the trial proceeded, I thought, this is a lock. Soon we'll be done. And my emotion built as my confidence in the outcome solidified. And three hours later the jury came back deadlocked, and the man who killed my daughter was re-sentenced to life without parole. The trauma of that moment was indescribable. It was the first time I cried in a long time.

Eight years of trials and retrials changed my mind about the death penalty. I learned the hard way that the death penalty is an albatross over the heads of victims' families.

I often hear death penalty proponents say that it is needed to bring closure to victims' families. And I hear victims' families who morally oppose the death penalty say there is no such thing as closure.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. When the final appeal, the final retrial is over -- really over-- you come as close to closure as possible. There will always be articles, scenes, experiences that remind you of it. In 2005 alone there were two documentaries made about our case. And your loved one never comes back. So it's never fully over. But it's very different once you're not in the middle of the process.

In that respect, there is some closure, and the death penalty forces that closure further away than any other punishment on the books.

I have no sympathy for killers. I certainly will never forgive the one who took my pretty, compassionate, precious daughter away from me. But the punishment that most promised me a sense of justice only made my pain worse. Much worse.

The state of New Jersey can make sure that not one more surviving family goes through what I had to endure. I learned the hard way. Let the Legislature learn from me, as the commission did -- end the death penalty. Life without parole is effective, swift and sure. And that is what victims' families need more than anything else.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

"For Victims, Against the Death Penalty" will be on vacation until Monday, November 26th, when we'll return with a 5-part series that looks at some interesting and complicated research questions regarding victims and the death penalty.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A History of Violence

Elizabeth Benedict sent us a copy of an op-ed piece, "A History of Violence," that she had published in the New York Times's Connecticut regional edition on November 11th:

Happy families are all alike. Every happy family touched by murder is shattered in its own distinctive way. For me, the news last summer of the savage killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in Cheshire, hurled me back to the infamous murder that has haunted my own Connecticut family for more than 50 years.

Two months before my parents’ wedding in 1950, my mother’s older brother was shot to death in a botched hold-up in the package store he owned in West Hartford, leaving a wife and two daughters. In 1960, Joseph Taborsky, the man who killed him — and later six more people after his release from jail — became the last man executed in Connecticut — and in all of New England, for the next 45 years.

As a child, my father told me a pared-down version of this story that favored capital punishment. All around me were the legacies of Taborsky’s crimes: my mother’s unbearable sadness and my father’s unending outrage at the injustice of what happened. After being sentenced to death for my uncle’s murder, Taborsky was let out of jail on what my father called a “technicality” and went on a killing spree in central Connecticut in late 1956 and early 1957 that left six people dead and a dozen seriously wounded. For my father, the death penalty was not a tool of vengeance but a matter of practicality, an ironclad guarantee that a murderer would murder no more. He knew that had Taborsky been executed in 1951, many lives would have been spared.

Now in the Petit case, members of the family’s politically engaged church are in a bind because of the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty for the two men accused of the killings. The pastor and many congregants are actively opposed to capital punishment — Ms. Hawke-Petit is said to have been herself — but many in the church are understandably reluctant to oppose the prosecutor’s goal in deference to the survivor, Dr. William Petit, who has not spoken publicly about the issue since the killings.

A friend of his reports that Dr. Petit favors executing the men if they are found guilty. And, after so much brutality so close to home, some church members are said to be reconsidering their views on the issue.

I am saddened by this news but not surprised. It’s only in the last few years, after studying the details of my uncle’s murder and talking to legal experts, that I can comfortably oppose the death penalty despite my parents’ experience and perspective.

The “technicality” my father spoke of that freed Joseph Taborsky involved the testimony of his brother, who had driven the getaway car, disposed of it and later testified against Joseph in exchange for a life sentence. While in prison, the brother had a psychotic breakdown and was institutionalized. Taborsky’s lawyer spent years trying to convince the courts to disqualify the testimony of a man now deemed insane. In 1955, the State Supreme Court agreed and overturned lower court decisions. Taborsky was set free. He was not paroled, and he was never tried for the robbery that preceded the murder.

A law professor explained to me the nuanced responsibilities of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, and pointed out that my father’s use of “technicality,” suggesting a trivial detail, wasn’t quite right for a case involving disputed testimony in a murder. Nor was my father’s support of the death penalty the only conclusion he could have reached. Killing Taborsky hadn’t been necessary; keeping him in custody had been. The criminal justice system could have saved those six lives without resorting to the electric chair.

This understanding gave me permission to do what I had known all along was the right thing, to oppose the death penalty. As an atheist, I cannot say that we are all God’s children or that my opposition has anything to do with forgiving people who commit heinous crimes. It has only to do with the fundamental inhumanity of state-sponsored killing.

Connecticut did not have to choose to execute Joseph Taborsky in 1951 or 1960. It would have been sufficient to have locked the door and thrown away the key.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Toll it Takes

Exciting things are happening in New Jersey, and the voices of victims' family members continue to be crucial to the effort to oppose the death penalty there. This recent news story describes a letter that 49 victims' family members signed and sent to state lawmakers, in which they say, "Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway."

Another interesting recent article from New Jersey is written by a former prosecutor who served on New Jersey's death penalty study commission -- which, after extensive review of the issue, recommended that the state get rid of the death penalty. This former prosecutor writes that he still supports the death penalty in theory but that serving on the commission convinced him that the death penalty is "broken beyond repair." He writes, "The costs of maintaining such a failed policy — particularly the toll on victims' families — are simply too great."

Particularly the toll on victims' families. When a supporter of the death penalty recognizes that the death penalty takes a great toll on victims' families, it's an important moment of understanding. Congratulations to all who worked to get that message across in New Jersey.

New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has regular news and updates, as well as the full text of the study commission's report.

Friday, November 16, 2007

99 Nations in Favor of a Worldwide Moratorium

As soon as we got word that the UN passed the resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium, Renny Cushing sent out this email to several listservs:

In an historic vote this afternoon, the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a global "moratorium on executions with a view toward abolishing the death penalty".

The vote was 99 in favor, 53 against, and 33 abstentions. The vote came after two days of debate that included the defeat of 14 proposed amendments that would have wrecked the resolution and an effort to put off a vote on the resolution for 5 years.

Congratulations to all the organizations and individuals who worked so hard for passage of this resolution. Today's vote is another step forward in the global struggle for human rights and a clear signal that the day will come when we live in a world without the death penalty.

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty has this story with more details about the resolution.

And here is the official roll call of the vote on the resolution. It gives an interesting picture of where the nations of the world stand with regard to the death penalty -- and, as always, it's striking to see who the U.S.'s allies are on this issue.

In favor: Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia (Federated States of), Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela.

Against: Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, China, Comoros, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Dominica, Egypt, Ethiopia, Grenada, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman,
Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United States, Yemen,

Abstain: Belarus, Bhutan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Morocco, Nauru, Niger, Palau, Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Swaziland, Togo, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of
Tanzania, Viet Nam, Zambia.

Absent: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Somalia, Tunisia.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Horrific and Unacceptable Suffering

Former South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu published a column in the British newspaper The Guardian a couple of days ago, urging support for a global moratorium on executions. It's interesting that he includes this comment about the effects of the death penalty on families of the executed:
And I have witnessed the victims of the death penalty the authorities never speak of - the families of those put to death. I remember the parents of Napoleon Beazley, a young African-American man put to death in Texas after a trial tainted by racism. Their pain was evident as the killing of their son by the state to which they paid taxes approached. I can only imagine the unbearable emotional pain they went through as they said their final goodbye to their son on the day of his execution.

It is often asked by those favouring the death penalty: "What if your child was murdered?" And it is a natural question. Rage is a common reaction to the homicide of a loved one, and a wish for revenge is understandable. But what if the person condemned to death was your son? No one raises a child to be a murderer, yet many parents suffer the grief of knowing their child is to be killed. In 1988, the parents of those on death row in South Africa wrote to the president, saying: "To be a mother or father and watch your child going through this living hell is a torment more painful than anyone can imagine." We must not put these children to death. It is to inflict horrific and unacceptable suffering upon them, and their mothers and fathers.

Napoleon Beazley, by the way, was executed in Texas in 2002. He and Christopher Simmons, of Missouri, had both committed murders when they were 17 and had -- according to a New York Times article -- "filed identical claims before federal and state courts, arguing that executing an inmate who was younger than 18 at the time of his crime violates the Eighth Amendment's provision against cruel and unusual punishment." On May 29, 2002, the MIssouri Supreme Court issued a stay of Simmons' execution, and in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons made it unconstitutional to execute people for crimes they committed as juveniles.

This was a landmark ruling, but it came too late for many, including Napoleon Beazley and his family. Napoleon was executed on May 28, 2002, just one day before Christopher Simmons received his stay: another example of how arbitrary the death penalty can be. Archbishop Tutu wrote a letter opposing Napoleon's execution at the time; it's good to see that he is now calling for an awareness of the suffering that executions inflict on the families left behind.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Believe Me, I Understood

Many people in the death penalty abolition movement have heard Kerry Max Cook's story of spending two decades on Texas's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Indeed, by now Kerry's story has become widely known outside of the abolition movement, too, because he has been featured in the play The Exonerated and because Kerry is such a powerful public speaker and he tries whenever possible to speak to pro-death penalty audiences, rather than only to those who come in already predisposed to sympathize with him.

Though a growing number of people know Kerry's innocence story, fewer people know that Kerry is also a family member of a murder victim. His brother, Doyle Wayne Cook, was murdered in Texas while Kerry was still in prison. In his new book Chasing Justice, Kerry tells about standing in the prison chaplain's office and hearing the news of his brother's murder. He then writes, "The bullet Ben Franklin Williams fired that night ended my brother's life, but it also shattered something in my own. For the first time, I knew the hatred felt by a victim's family member when they are left to deal with what remains of their loved one after a senseless crime. Believe me, I understood."

Like so many family members of homicide victims, Kerry was overwhelmed by rage and grief. But he was in prison, innocent of the crime for which he had been convicted, experiencing the horrors and humiliations of death row (even if you already think you have a sense of what death row is like, you'll be knocked down by Kerry's descriptions of what the experience does to a person, not just externally but internally).

Kerry knew from his own experience that wrongful convictions are "the collateral damage of the death penalty." He paid an almost impossibly high price for the flaws in the death penalty system, and it's not a price he thinks he or anyone should be willing to pay. So, even as he understands the anguish of a victim's family member, he cannot support the death penalty.

After reading about what Kerry went through, it's hard to imagine how anyone could support it. Chasing Justice is a powerful and important read.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Catch Us On Bill Moyers' Journal

This segment from Bill Moyers' Journal, broadcast on PBS this past weekend, features a quick clip from the UN press conference that we wrote about last week. If you go to the video of the segment, look for the press conference group about one minute and 20 seconds into the program. You'll see Sister Helen Prejean speaking and, to her left, Mario Marazziti of Italy's Commuity of Sant'Egidio, Renny Cushing of MVFHR, Yvonne Terlingen of Amnesty International, and Bill Babbitt and Marie Verzulli of MVFHR. Check your local PBS listings to see if this show has appeared in your area or has yet to appear. (It's a show featuring the writer Thomas Cahill, who is at work on a book about the death penalty.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

We Can Live Without It

Last Wednesday, the Massachusetts House defeated a bill that would have reinstated the death penalty here. The margin was the widest it's been in years: 110-46, compared to 99-53 in 2005, 92-60 in 2001, 80-73 in 1999, and the dramatic tie vote in 1997 that occurred after one member changed his mind (at first the bill had passed 81-79). Ten years ago, we came within a hair's breadth of having the death penalty in Massachusetts again; today, the vote wasn't even close.

Also interesting is the way that families of murder victims were mentioned in the remarks by lawmakers during last week's floor debate before the vote. Although a couple of the legislators speaking in favor of the bill made the customary remarks about doing this for victims' families, other legislators acknowledged that some victims' family members oppose the death penalty -- and even legislators who were arguing in favor of the bill made that public acknowledgment.

There will always be diversity of opinion among victims' families on the subject of the death penalty. What's notable here is that it is no longer automatically assumed that all victims' families support the death penalty, and pro-death penalty lawmakers cannot unilaterally invoke the name of victims to buttress their stance.

Sometimes it can seem that opposing reinstatement in states that don't currently have the death penalty is a low priority. In one sense, it is -- there is understandably a greater feeling of urgency when lives are immediately at stake and when death sentences are being handed down at an alarming rate. But it's important to be able to show that some states -- and many nations -- are able to live without the death penalty. It's important to keep moving toward total abolition of the death penalty, and not reverse that direction by bringing the death penalty back to a state that's been without it for years. That's why we were active in the campaign to block reinstatement of the death penalty in Wisconsin last year, and why we made the effort to organize the panel of victims who would testify at this year's Massachusetts hearings. Each of those victims cared enough, and still felt strongly enough about the issue, to take the time to come down to the State House and testify that day. I think we can all feel it was worth it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Shift in the Paradigm

A recent article by Sandra Babcock, "The Global Debate on the Death Penalty," includes this interesting summary of the "human rights issue" vs. "criminal justice issue" question that we raised in yesterday's post:

The international trend toward abolition reflects a shift in the death penalty paradigm. Whereas the death penalty was once viewed as a matter of domestic penal policy, now it is seen as a human rights issue. There are now three regional human rights treaties concerning the abolition of the death penalty: Protocols 6 and 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by 160 nations (including the United States), restricts the manner in which the death penalty may be imposed and promotes abolition. Many human rights organizations and intergovernmental organizations, such as the European Union, see the death penalty as one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time and accordingly have taken an active role in persuading countries to halt executions.

Sandra's article also includes a useful discussion of the role of international law in U.S. death penalty cases. It's well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Friday at the United Nations

The events at the UN on Friday went very well. The delegation met with the president of the General Assembly for about forty minutes, during which (among other things) Renny Cushing was able to give a brief description of MVFHR's membership and the idea of victim opposition to the death penalty. Mario Marazziti of the Community of Sant'Egidio personally handed over the five million signatures in support of a global moratorium on executions that Sant'Egidio and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty have collected. The GA president said that five million was an impressive number of signatures, and he also commented that personal stories are very important in the discussion of the death penalty.

After the press conference, MVFHR members Bill Babbitt and Marie Verzulli gave interviews to an Italian television station, and Renny and Sister Helen Prejean spoke with someone from the Inter-Press News Service.

Here is a photo of Mario Marazziti, Sister Helen Prejean, and General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim.

And here's an excerpt from an article by the Roman news service Zenit
A global moratorium on the death penalty isn't just an idea of a few countries, but the wish of a large part of the world society, according to a representative of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Mario Marazziti said this Friday as he led a delegation to the United Nations to deliver a petition signed by 5 million people from 154 countries calling for an end to capital punishment. ... Asked about the experience of having collected so many signatures, Marazziti told ZENIT that it was the fruit of nine years of work. He added, "To have and collect five million signatures you need to talk to about 50 million people in the world, in 154 countries."

Marazziti said that he believes that the death penalty lowers the state and civil society to the level of a killer, and that while some defend a culture of life, they wind up legitimating a culture of death.

"For the first time a real moral interfaith and also lay/secular front was created" Marazziti noted in reference to the petition. "The thing is that it is a demonstration of the strong will of the world and not just an idea of human rights that is rooted in the Italian or European tradition."

Friday, November 2, 2007

Five Million Signatures

Today MVFHR is participating in the delegation of anti-death penalty activists from around the world who are meeting with the president of the United Nations General Assembly to deliver a petition containing over five million signatures that urge the General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. Italy’s Community of Sant’Egidio and the the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty collected the signatures from people all over the world.

Mario Marazziti of Sant’Egidio is leading the delegation, which also includes Sister Helen Prejean, Yvonne Terlingen from Amnesty International, Speedy Rice from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Elizabeth Zitrin from Death Penalty Focus, and Renny Cushing, Marie Verzulli, and Bill Babbitt from MVFHR.

After they meet with the General Assembly President this morning, the delegation will hold a press conference at the UN. Renny will read a slightly adapted version of the statement we issued on World Day Against the Death Penalty.

Here’s an excerpt from Marie’s statement:
My sister, Catherine Marsh, was one of eight women murdered by a serial killer in Poughkeepsie a decade ago. It is impossible to overstate the pain that I felt, that my mother felt, that the rest of our family felt as we struggled to make sense of this tragedy.
I had never thought much about the death penalty until the day the District Attorney asked me about it. I told him that I couldn’t imagine what could bring me comfort or lessen my pain and despair, but I knew it wasn’t that. I knew that another killing would not help me in my grief.
I knew for myself, and I have since come to see in the experience of other victims’ families, that the death penalty would keep us frozen in a kind of psychological prison, waiting years for the promise of closure while the focus remained on the murderer rather than on the victim or on our own anguish as surviving family members.
Responding to one killing with another killing does not honor my sister, nor make me feel better, nor create the kind of society I want to live in, where human life and human rights are valued.

And from Bill’s statement:
[The police] promised me that Manny would get the help he needed, but instead he was executed. For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my brother in and that led to his death. I wish we had been able to get my brother the help we needed, and I wish families like mine could live in a society that properly treated its mentally ill citizens, rather than executing them.
Executions create a new set of victims: the families that the execution leaves behind. My mother continues to suffer in the aftermath of my brother’s execution; Manny’s children continue to suffer. I urge the UN General Assembly to pass the resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions so that we can stop the cycle of violence and trauma, stop creating more victims.

It will be interesting to watch what happens as the General Assembly considers the draft resolution. The group of countries who are the primary sponsors of the resolution come from a variety of regions: Angola, Albania, Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, Mexico, the Philippines, Portugal (for the EU), and New Zealand. As of this writing, close to a hundred other countries have signed on as co-sponsors.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Her Grandparents' Legacy

An article in last week's Boston Globe about Rachel Meeropol, daughter of MVFHR board member Robert Meeropol, is headlined "The Legacy: The execution of Rachel Meeropol's grandparents in 1953 resonates in her work as a lawyer today." Here's an excerpt:

Her last year at New York University law school, Rachel Meeropol spent a semester working at a legal clinic in Alabama that represented prisoners on death row. Her client, she says, was typical: poor black man, borderline retarded, convicted of killing a white woman, represented by incompetent trial counsel. With Meeropol's help, the inmate is now serving a life sentence without parole.

"Given my background, it's not surprising I would be anti-death penalty," she says. "When the state executes anyone, it's simply perpetrating another crime. It doesn't create any justice. I think what happened to my grandparents is criminal."

Meeropol is the youngest grandchild of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. Rachel's father, Robert, was 6 when his parents went to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, becoming the first US civilians to be executed in a spy case.

And another excerpt:

Rachel and her sister Jennifer were brought up in a liberal household in Springfield, where as youngsters they accompanied their parents to political demonstrations. Their father runs the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which helps children whose parents have been persecuted for their activism. Jennifer, who wrote her senior thesis at Harvard on Ethel Rosenberg, works for the foundation; Rachel is on the board.

"It's something that's important to the whole family," Rachel says. "I think what my father does is amazing. He's taken the legacy of what happened to his parents and turned it around. He calls it his form of constructive revenge." Her mother, Elli, is a nurse who writes fiction, often about the intersection of politics and family life.

Their daughter attributes her own politics to both her grandparents' legacy and her parents' example. "I think you can say my passion for social justice grew out of a profound sense of injustice," she says.

Read the full article here

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

To Testify or Not to Testify

One of the most difficult tensions that victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty can experience is the tension over whether to deliver a victim impact statement during a capital trial. Charisse Coleman writes about this dilemma in another excerpt from her essay in the book Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty (see yesterday’s post for the first excerpt):

Why did I choose to testify? Why not at least honor my opposition to capital punishment by staying silent, by not participating in a process that could lead to an outcome I found insupportable? It’s a fair question, and not one I can necessarily answer to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all my own. What I can say is that, along with the opportunity to speak my love and sorrow in the public forum of the murder trial, and my decision to embrace that opportunity, came an agreement to enter a sort of devil’s compact.

How else to describe the intensity of the dilemma? Part of the dictionary definition of “testify” is “to bear witness.” If my bearing witness to my love for Russell brought another human being closer to death, then it felt like a terribly selfish thing to do. Yet I desperately wanted to speak. It would be the only chance I had to say even one small, true thing about Russell, my love for him, our loss. The formality of court proceedings would take the act of speaking to the level of public ritual, participated in and acted out, not only by me but by friends and witnesses, by people the community regarded as authorities, and by a representation of the community itself – those twelve people sitting in the jury box.

If Russell had been a soldier, maybe we would have had uniforms and “Taps” and a folded flag to say: The world beyond your family makes note of what another member of society has taken from you. If we’d been more devout, maybe our religion would have given us something to enact. But neither of those scenarios held for me and my family, and no other offer had come along to have our experience recognized, treated seriously, publicly, and with respect. However imperfect the setup, I couldn’t resist the pull of that ritual, even one created by the criminal justice system and played out in a worn, cheerless room of dirt-brown walls and speckled linoleum floors. Here, in a Louisiana courtroom, we would be able to speak in our own voices, and attention would be paid.

Yet I could not escape the obvious: to the extent that I spoke with any eloquence at all, to the degree that the jury felt closer to Russell, closer to our suffering, they might be moved, however slightly, nearer to a choice I found repellent and wrong. I could keep silent and preserve the integrity of my beliefs (which felt remote and abstract compared to the desire to declare my love for my slain brother), or I could swallow my discomfort and take the stand. The fact that my desire to bear witness overpowered some of my deepest beliefs about right and wrong only added to the confusion and suffering of being a murdered man’s sister. There is so much that feels wrong about losing someone you love to murder, so much that makes you feel in the wrong. My decision to speak just became another stone weight tossed onto the pile of wrongness that had been accumulating since the moment of Russell’s death.

Quoted from Wounds That Do Not Bind, edited by James Acker and David Karp (Carolina Academic Press, 2006). Charisse’s essay in this book is adapted from her memoir A Bad Goodbye: Reckoning in the Aftermath of Murder, which is currently seeking publication.

Monday, October 29, 2007

What the World Expects

The interesting new book Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty, from which we will likely be quoting and summarizing in several future posts, opens with an essay by MVFHR member Charisse Coleman. In writing about losing her brother to murder and then going through a capital trial as a family member opposed to the death penalty, Charisse articulates many of the subtle nuances and tensions inherent in these experiences. Here’s one excerpt, about what others seem to expect of victims’ families:

What I’ve found, from my own experience, and from time spent among many other families of murder victims, is that the world generally tries to yank victims’ families around in one of two opposing directions. Most often, we are expected to keep our sense of injury and rage whipped into a constant call for retribution (putting many families who do not seek the execution of their loved one’s killer “in the wrong”), as if the only decent way to honor loss is to take another life, to create more brokenhearted families, more fatherless children (it is mostly men who are executed), and to further assault communities already ravaged by violence, poverty, racism, and other problems. The pressures on victims’ families to demand this dubious and macabre tribute to their loved ones can be tremendous, and not least of all from some of the victims’ rights groups themselves. (Need I point out that if the death penalty were not an option, then all of this pressure and manipulation of people already torn apart by personal tragedy would instantly disappear?)

The other extreme, of course, is the pressure to eradicate any strong feelings as quickly as possible. Our culture’s fixation with looking on the bright side, and sugaring up the bitter acid in all the lemons life sends our way, verges on hysterical, if not outright pathological. Grieving families are leaned on in ways small and large, subtle and overt, to hurry up and get better. We are often coerced – smoothly, and under the guise of concern – by friends, family, clergy, even support groups, to quickly turn the rage and devastation we feel into forgiveness. What would happen if we changed our message to families shattered by violence from: “Here, let me help you get over this,” to: “We are here with you. We offer our presence for the duration of your pain and anger. We honor the strength and truth of those feelings. We are here to help to keep you from losing yourself in sorrow, and we will be here when you are able to step more fully into yourself as the weight of sorrow begins to lift.”

What if the town criers for retribution and punishment changed the question from: “Don’t you want to kill the guy who did this to you?” to: “How can we heal this family, this community?” (A community, by the way, that often includes the killer’s family.)

Quoted from Wounds That Do Not Bind, edited by James Acker and David Karp (Carolina Academic Press, 2006). Charisse’s essay in this book is adapted from her memoir A Bad Goodbye: Reckoning in the Aftermath of Murder, which is currently seeking publication.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Remembering Victims of Homicide

This Sunday, families and friends of murder victims will gather at a Remembrance Service in Brooklyn, New York. This is the ninth annual event of its kind, sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy and Safe Horizon.

Sister Camille D'Arienzo, who helps to organize the event, said that the convent’s Circle of Life, a group of which she is a part, gets involved in anti-death penalty work in various ways, but does not promote that agenda at the Remembrance Service. This is a distinction that it can be helpful for death penalty abolitionists to bear in mind when thinking about how to devote some of their efforts to helping victims’ families and to honoring and remembering victims. This Remembrance Service can serve as a useful model for those who might want to create something similar (or work with other groups to create something similar).

MVFHR member Marie Verzulli attended last year and told us that she found the service extremely valuable. The names of all the victims are read out as candles are lit, and a featured speaker talks about coping with the loss of a loved one. There’s also time for informal sharing of stories. “I haven’t seen a lot of other multi-faith services being done specifically to remember the victims of homicide,” Marie says, “and it’s very helpful to feel that something is being done for the families.”

This year, the featured speaker will be MVFHR member Kelli Cervantes, whose mother Noni was murdered by a serial killer in Oregon in 1987, when Kelli was a child.

If you’re in the New York area and want to attend the event, call in advance to register the name of the victim and the name of the person attending in their memory. Call Vilma Torres at Safe Horizon, Families of Homicide Victims Program, 718-834-6688, extension 22.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Opposing Reinstatement in Massachusetts

Earlier this week, we organized a panel of victims’ family members to testify at a hearing on a bill proposing to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. Such a bill has been introduced at each legislative session here since 1997, and its chances of passing have decreased each time, but it remains important for those who oppose the death penalty to make that known when the issue comes up for a hearing.

This year, the two-hour hearing began with testimony from six victim panelists: Bob Curley and Milton Jones, each of whom had a son who was murdered in Massachusetts, Dick Nethercut, whose daughter was murdered in Seattle, Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered in New Hampshire, and Loretta Filipov and Terry Greene, whose husband and brother, respectively, were killed in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.

An Associated Press story, published in the Boston Globe yesterday, had the headline “Death penalty bill faces a battle; Victims’ relatives added to chorus of opposition.” The story opened with these paragraphs:
The rape and murder of his 10-year-old son Jeffery Curley a decade ago brought Massachusetts to the brink of reinstating the death penalty, but on Tuesday Robert Curley led an impassioned opposition to a capital punishment bill.
After his son's killing in 1997, Curley had initially pushed for the death penalty and lawmakers came within a single vote of approving it. But since then, Curley has changed his mind and opposition has steadily grown in the Legislature.
"I started to see that there were people like me who had suffered the same loss that I had who were opposed to the death penalty and it kind of made me take a step back and take a look at the death penalty itself," he said. In the end, he said, he decided that the death penalty was disproportionately used against those without the means to hire expensive lawyers and "that with my background I'm closer to the innocent guy who gets executed then other way around."

The Real Needs

In his testimony, Milton Jones talked about the need for real efforts and preventing violence and helping victims in the aftermath of murder (Milton works at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute; see our post about this from a few weeks ago). Renny Cushing talked about MVFHR and the state of the death penalty around the U.S., and likewise urged the lawmakers to focus on victim assistance laws.

What Kind of World Do We Want?

Here are excerpts from the September 11th family members’ testimony:

Loretta Filipov:

My husband was murdered by terrorists when the plane he was aboard, American Airlines Flight 11, was crashed into the World Trade Center towers. On September 11, 2001, my life changed forever. The worst thing that could have happened did happen to me and my family. My husband, Alexander Filipov, was a peaceful man. He was on the Human Rights Council in our town and we often talked about the death penalty. We didn’t think that the government should be in the business of killing people.

After Al was killed, some thought we would feel differently and want revenge. My family and I would have liked nothing better than to have Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists from Flight 11 brought to an open trial and given 92 life sentences; one sentence for each person aboard that flight. But they and the other terrorists also killed themselves on that day.

What kind of a world do we want for future generations? For our children and grandchildren? We must stop the cycle of violence. We can see from the present course we are following that violence only begets more violence and killing only leads to more killing. It is possible to have justice without revenge and hate. Revenge is not the answer. The death penalty is not the answer.

Terry Greene:

My brother was a passenger aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers aborted attempts to reach Washington, D.C.. I am extremely proud of my brother. He was a kind, intelligent, strong, caring man. He was a hero to those of us in his family long before 9/11 in the way he lovingly took care of his children, wife, and the rest of his family. He spent his life as an engineer and Vice President of a company which promotes flight safety. He sat on the Board of the Corporate Angels Network (CAN), which flew cancer patients safely, free from infection risks, for free to treatment across the country using volunteered corporate flights.

My brother’s compassionate commitment to saving lives through aviation stands in sharp contrast to those who acted to hijack the planes on 9/11. We do more to honor his memory by acting as individuals, states, and a nation to emulate the model he set in his life. It is not difficult to kill; it takes skill and courage to save lives. My brother’s sacrifice was made for a country that is unique in the world not because of its military strength - although we certainly have that and could destroy the world many times over if we so chose - but because of its principles of ensuring human rights and commitment to protecting human life.

My obligation to my child and my brother’s children is to keep them safe. We cannot afford to enact measures that give the illusion of safety while doing nothing to deter killings as other experts have I’m sure attested today is the result of the death penalty. Instead the death penalty only promotes the acceptability of taking lives for what one perceives as a just cause.

It Lessens Us

Finally, from Richard Nethercut’s testimony:

As a murder victim family member, I oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty, which from my perspective will only add to the suffering of the victim’s family rather than lessen it. My daughter, Jaina Nethercut, was raped and murdered in a Seattle hotel on January 15, 1978 at age nineteen. … The rape and murder of a 19-year-old could carry the death penalty under this bill. This is the last thing my wife and I would have wanted because it would do violence to us and what we stand for to execute our daughter’s killer.

… As a retired Foreign Service Officer, I am sensitive to the adverse impact the widespread use of the death penalty has on U.S. foreign policy interests and on public opinion abroad. The attached reprint of an article from the Foreign Service Journal by two distinguished American diplomats makes the case eloquently and forcefully.

Dick read this excerpt from the article aloud at the hearing:

“Shortly before he retired, the late Justice Harry Blackmun argued that the death penalty should be abolished for the simple reason that the practice of capital punishment “lessens us.” By so saying, he meant that capital punishment diminishes America’s reputation as a human rights leader and its ability to lead internationally on the basis of moral principle. For a country that aspires to be a world leader on human rights, the death penalty has become our Achilles’ heel. As the U.S. Supreme Court has begun to acknowledge, in an increasingly globalized society, the opinions of other nations, and of the world community as a whole, are more relevant than ever.
And now, more than ever, we believe, it is time for those who have served this country as diplomats to be heard speaking out about how the rest of the world sees the aberrant practice of governments putting their own citizens to death.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How Could People Do That?

I've been meaning to post recommendations of books that connect with the two blog series we ran recently. In connection with the series featuring MVFHR members who do various forms of violence prevention work, I want to recommend James Gilligan's book Preventing Violence, which is a wonderful companion to his earlier book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. Dr. Gilligan's work is powerful, insightful, and, for many readers, transformative.

Then, in connection with our series that featured excerpts from our July panel of families of the executed, I want to remind readers about four books that deal directly with this subject: Susan Sharp's Hidden Victims, Rachel King's Capital Consequences, Elizabeth Beck's In the Shadow of Death, and Robert Meeropol's An Execution in the Family.

In her remarks during the July panel, Tamara Chikunova told the audience that she had her son had both been tortured, and in connection with that, I can't recommend Philip Zimbardo's new book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil highly enough. Zimbardo is the researcher best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which mentally healthy students were chosen to replicate prison conditions for two weeks -- some as guards, some as prisoners. The students acting as guards soon behaved so brutally that the experiment had to be stopped after only six days. Zimbardo and his colleagues learned so much about what happens to even the most ordinary and stable individuals under certain kinds of conditions that he was called in as a consultant after the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison came to light. His book discusses all of this in clear and compelling detail and analysis, and it begins to answer the question, "How could people do that?" Valuable reading for any of us whose work puts us up against these issues and questions.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Working for a Moratorium in Pennsylvania

MVFHR board member Walt Everett just finished participating in Faith in Action on the Death Penalty week – 19 events or meetings in five days – organized by Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Walt spoke on radio programs and to university groups, church and synagogue groups, gatherings of church leaders, a meeting of activists, and a private meeting with family members of a murder victim. Walt told his own story, spoke about the work of MVFHR, and encouraged listeners to join the campaign for a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania.

Several times during this series of speaking events, people in the audience introduced themselves to Walt as family members of murder victims. This happens often when one of our members is giving a public presentation; it’s frequently the way we invite new members into the organization. Walt was able to give out MVFHR literature and let these folks know that they can be part of a collective voice and effort to oppose the death penalty.

Also as part of the Pennsylvania moratorium campaign, Walt published this op-ed piece in The Daily Item (a Pennsylvania newspaper) last April:

It is impossible to overstate the pain and rage that I felt when my son Scott was shot to death twenty years ago. Losing a child to murder is a singular horror that I would not wish on anyone. People say all kinds of things to grieving parents in the aftermath of a loss like mine. One of the most misguided is “The death penalty will give you closure.” It’s simply not true. I know it from my own experience and from the experiences of hundreds of family members of murder victims that I’ve come to know over the past twenty years. Having had my son’s life taken from me, I find no sense of peace or healing in the idea of another life being taken, and least of all in the idea of a life being taken in Scott’s name.

Due to our concern that the death penalty hurts victims’ families, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has joined with 14 other organizations to form the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition. This diverse group of faith-based, civil rights, human rights, and legal organizations is calling for a thorough examination of how the death penalty functions in the commonwealth, accompanied by a two-year suspension of executions. The impact of the death penalty on victims’ families is one of multiple issues that could be studied by our state government.

The death penalty holds out a false and misleading promise of closure to family members of murder victims who must wait through years of appeals before an execution takes place. There’s a good reason the process takes so long: legitimate concern about the possibility of executing an innocent person. But throughout that lengthy process, families of victims are told that they will feel better once the convicted murderer is finally put to death.

What if it doesn’t happen that way? After the gurney, the injection, the last gasp of breath, the victim’s family waits for the moment when they will at last experience closure, and it doesn’t come. Almost always, their question is the same: "Why don't I feel better?"
The answer is clear. The execution hasn't changed a thing in their daily lives. It has neither brought back their loved one nor helped them to cope with the loss. They have waited all these years for instant healing, and it hasn't happened. Now, in addition to having that huge emotional vacuum in their lives, they feel as though they have been used.

Healing is not an event; it is a process, and that process could begin sooner if the family did not have to wait for a promised closure that never comes. A life sentence, or even a sentence of very many years, lets a victim’s family put the legal case to rest and begin the long and difficult process of rebuilding their lives.

If we really want to help families of victims, we can do it far more effectively by taking the millions of dollars now spent on the lengthy death penalty process and using it to provide counseling and other assistance. We could use that money to support programs and efforts that prevent violence. The real way to honor victims is not with more killing, but with focused and committed efforts stop creating more victims.

We know by now that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is poor public policy. It is not a deterrent to future crime, it is far more costly than life imprisonment, and it is often imposed unfairly and arbitrarily, not on ”the worst of the worst,” but rather on “the poorest of the poor.” These are all good reasons to reconsider the death penalty in our commonwealth. And helping the families of victims is another benefit.

The death penalty is not what we need. There is a better way, and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in the words of one of our legislators, "needs to take a time out." A moratorium, in which all factors surrounding the death penalty are carefully considered, would help us to discover that better way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bud Welch at Utah symposium on the death penalty

MVFHR board president Bud Welch spoke at a Utah Valley State College death penalty symposium last week, along with several other interesting speakers like scholars Nils Christie, Hugo Bedau, and Margaret Vandiver. Bud, who has spoken in so many different venues about his opposition to the death penalty after his daughter Julie Marie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, said that he felt this symposium was successful because so many of the students in attendance came to the event not having known much about the death penalty, so he didn't feel like he was just telling them things they already knew and agreed with: "Many of them said at the start that they were kind of supportive of the death penalty, but really they didn't know much about it and hadn't given it that much thought."

After two full days of presentations, the students said they had learned a tremendous amount. One of the points that Bud remembers his audience being particularly struck by was the information that less than one percent of convicted murderers receive the death penalty. "We talked about how, if the death penalty is supposed to bring closure to murder victims' families, what are the other 99& supposed to do?"

This article shows some of the coverage that Bud's talk at the symposium received.

Monday, October 15, 2007

MVFHR Member on Tennessee Study Committee

Today, the recently created Special Joint Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty in Tennessee is holding its first meeting.

In addition to recognizing the importance of a study committee's being established in a Southern state, we are pleased that the law creating the committee – which was passed in June – specifies that one of the 16 members should be a representative appointed by Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. In September, MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing officially appointed Charlie Strobel to the committee.

Charlie’s mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, was murdered in 1986. Charlie has been a lifelong advocate for social justice and is known and appreciated by so many people in so many sectors of the community that he was a natural choice for this committee. As Renny says, “I know that Charlie will take this responsibility seriously and be a thoughtful participant in this process of examining the death penalty in Tennessee and, in particular, of considering its effect on victims’ families.”

This 2004 article gives a good overview of Charlie’s life and work on the occasion of his being honored as Nashvillian of the year.

Renny is in Tennessee today and tomorrow attending the first meeting of the study committee and also participating in several meetings with victims’ family members and other allies, organized by the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Making Connections with Tennessee Students

When our members travel somewhere to speak, so much of the work is about making connections with people – in the sense of reaching them with one’s story and one’s message and in the sense of finding common ground. Last weekend, MVFHR board member Vicki Schieber was the keynote speaker at a conference for students organized by the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK). High school and college students from all over the state came together to learn about the death penalty and specifically about how they can organize anti-death penalty initiatives within their own schools and campuses. You can read TCASK Executive Director Stacey Rector’s write-up about the conference and Vicki’s participation in it here.

“My favorite forums involve speaking to students,” Vicki said when describing the event after she’d returned home. “I think our greatest hope is in getting young people involved, interested, and organized about this issue.” The students had a chance to ask questions both during the public presentation and in more personal conversations with Vicki afterwards, and they raised all kinds of issues including how best to explain their anti-death penalty work to parents who aren’t fully comfortable with the idea.

Tennessee State Representative Larry Turner, who has long been supportive of abolition efforts there, was another of the speakers at the conference, and he told the audience that his own brother had been murdered five years ago – something he had not talked about publicly before. Vicki was able to make a connection with him and let him know about MVFHR’s work. Lawmakers who are also family members of murder victims and who are publicly anti-death penalty can be powerful voices, as a story in this issue of our newsletter, published last year, describes in detail.