Friday, September 28, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 5

See last Friday's post for our announcement of this blog's series featuring MVFHR members' work in the area of violence prevention.

This past Monday marked the fourth anniversary of the day Debra Fifer lost her 22-year-old son, Kirk Bickham, Jr., to gun violence on the streets of Milwaukee. Debra joined with the mothers of the other two young men who were killed along with Kirk that night, and together they founded a group called Mothers Against Gun Violence, which is now the Wisconsin Chapter of the Million Mom March.

Debra and her colleagues have been trying for years to garner support for the “responsible gun ownership bill,” state legislation that would require criminal background checks to be conducted as part of private citizen gun sales. They finally got to testify at a hearing on the bill this past May, and Debra joined Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle at a press conference in August when he announced his support for this bill.

Reducing the chances that people will die from gun violence makes more sense to Debra than the death penalty, and she was one of several victims’ family members speaking out against reinstatement of the death penalty in Wisconsin last spring. “If the death penalty could bring my son back, then sure, I’d be all for it,” Debra says. “But that’s not how it works, and in fact I believe that just as citizens do not have the right to take someone else’s life, the state should not have that right either.”

Debra received the Unsung Hero Award from the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005, and she continues to speak to school, university, and conference audiences all around the state. This article from a couple of years ago describes the public memorial she created for her son that simultaneously honors Kirk’s life and serves as a call for change.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 4

See last Friday's post for our announcement of this blog's series featuring MVFHR members' work in the area of violence prevention.

It’s a cruel irony that 15-year-old Louis Brown was on his way to a Christmas party of the group Teens Against Gang Violence when he was caught in a gun fight and killed fourteen years ago. His parents, Joseph and Tina Chery, founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute the following year to continue their son’s efforts to reduce violence in their urban Massachusetts community.

The Peace Institute’s range of programs offer support for other survivors (including trainings in navigating the criminal justice system) and initiatives to prevent further violence. They’ve developed a peace curriculum and a training for teachers who want to use it. Along with several other groups, the Peace Institute sponsors an event called The National Conference for Survivors of Violence, at which survivors and professionals meet to shape policies that support survivors of violence and violence prevention programs.

It’s particularly interesting to see how the Peace Institute’s work so often involves bringing people together from different experiences and perspectives. “Across the Generations Circles” bring together young men who have participated in violence and their mothers, so they can talk and begin the healing process. “Truth and Reconciliation Circles” bring together survivors of homicide victims with young people and families whose loved ones have been incarcerated or deported as a result of violent actions.

And, in the past couple of years, Tina Chery has gotten involved with the Unity Outreach Group, which is composed of current and former gang members trying to move away from violence and toward more positive action:
"I used to want all people like him dead," Tina Chery says, her gaze set on 27-year-old Mario Rodrigues. "I would have pulled the trigger myself."
Instead, the two have begun working together - she with victims of homicide, he with former and current gang members - to reduce violence by generating dialogue and fostering self-esteem in the community. "Now he is where I find hope," Ms. Chery says.
Their partnership, called the Unity Outreach Group, comes at a time in Boston when the homicide rate is the highest it has been in nearly a decade, with 63 murders reported this year. Police attribute the spike, in part, to gang activity. And from proposing tougher punishments against intimidation to securing more anticrime resources, authorities here have scrambled to stem the wave of violence. But experts also see a key role for programs that focus on the causes of violence and that enlist the community in healing itself. Efforts such as Unity Outreach Group – part of a burgeoning "restorative justice" movement across the country – may help end cycles of gang violence where tougher punishments alone do not.

Read the rest of the Christian Science Monitor article about the Unity Outreach Group here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 3

See Friday's post for our announcement of this blog's series featuring MVFHR members' work in the area of violence prevention.

Tariq Khamisa was 20 years old when he was killed on a January night in 1995. He was shot while out on his pizza delivery route, the job he’d taken to support himself while studying art at San Diego State University.

His father, Azim Khamisa, was as devastated as any parent would be: “I was crushed by the loss of my son. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted my life to continue. I went through an agonizing period of trying to understand what course to chart for myself that could possibly have any meaning.”

Tariq’s killer was a 14-year-old gang recruit named Tony Hicks, who became the first juvenile to be tried as an adult in California. He pled guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in an adult prison. For Azim, the young age of the killer added to the horror of an already devastating tragedy. Eventually, that horror ¬ the idea that someone so young could be responsible for a murder – helped Azim see what course he needed to chart in the aftermath.

Azim founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, which works to end youth violence through a variety of programs, materials, and activities. The Violence Impact Forum is for students in 4th-9th grades; it looks at the consequences of violence and the possibility of non-violent responses to conflict.

What makes this program so especially powerful and effective is that Azim’s partner in the effort is Ples Felix, Tony Hicks’s grandfather. Seeing these two men who have lost children in different ways up on stage working together and talking about alternatives to violence makes an enormous impression on the young people in the audience.

Tony Hicks makes a strong impression, too. His letters from prison, which express his remorse and urge other young people not to go down the path he went down, are a key component of the TKF programs. “Think of how many kids he may save [through his letters],” Azim says. “That’s going to bring me a lot more healing than if he had gotten the death penalty.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 2

See Friday's post for our announcement of this blog's series featuring MVFHR members' work in the area of violence prevention.

MVFHR board members Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins and Bill Jenkins are regular participants in the Cook County Juvenile Justice System’s Victim Impact Panels, through which victims of violence speak to audiences of juvenile offenders. Youth aged 13-17 who have been sentenced to jail time or probation are required by law to attend these panels, and, as Jennifer describes it, “You don’t reach them all, but my unscientific observation is that at least half at each panel have been affected enough that they come up afterwards and say something to us or write it in their evaluation. They say, ‘I didn’t want to be here, but this was good for me, it has really made me think.’”

The goal of the panels is for victims to describe how they’ve been affected by the experience of crime. Jennifer explains it like this: “Hearing us talk about how we’ve been affected allows kids to think, maybe for the first time, about the ripple effects of their actions, and about the connections between themselves and other people.”

Jennifer’s sister and brother-in-law were killed by 16-year-old David Biro, and when speaking on the Victim Impact Panels Jennifer tells the juvenile offenders in the audience, “If this program had been in place when David Biro was in an earlier stage of his criminal career, maybe my sister would be alive today.”

Bill Jenkins’s son was killed in a convenience store robbery, and when Bill speaks on the panels, he talks about the two teenaged accomplices who did not stand up to the 23-year-old who planned the robbery during which his son was killed. He uses the story to illustrate the consequences of not speaking up or refusing to participate at crucial moments when a crime is about to occur.

According to Jennifer, the statistics on those juvenile offenders who have attended these Victim Impact Panels over the years show that recidivism rates have dropped by half since the panels began, so this feels to her and Bill like a meaningful way of preventing future violence. The program has recently expanded to include panels at the adult jail, and Jennifer and Bill have begun participating in those as well.

This news story describes one of the Victim Impact Panels and the participants’ response to it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 1

See Friday's post for our announcement of this blog's series featuring MVFHR members' work in the area of violence prevention.

Gordon and Elaine Rondeau’s daughter Renee was killed on Halloween night, 1994 by a man and woman who followed her home, robbed her, and murdered her in her apartment. (The murder happened in Illinois; Gordon and Elaine live in Georgia.) Explaining their opposition to the death penalty, the Rondeaus have said, “The idea that the threat of punishment would have deterred these two, who were hard-core drug users and whose brains had been burnt out years before on cocaine, is sadly mistaken and does not allow us to understand the complex social issues that lead human beings into lives of crime. Most important, it prevents us from identifying the kinds of things that are necessary to prevent crime.”

The Rondeaus continue to believe that death penalty abolition work needs to be combined with violence prevention work. They wrote to MVFHR recently, “It does not make sense to just end the death penalty if we don’t work simultaneously on stopping the fire before it starts. We need to work on both ends of the spectrum.”

In 1997 Gordon and Elaine established the Renee Olubunmi Rondeau Peace Foundation, which offers a combination of direct service, advocacy, and education. One of its initiatives is a scholarship fund for research into the causes of crime and how it can be prevented. Another of the foundation’s programs is the National Coalition of Victims in Action (NCVIA), whose board members are involved in an impressive array of violence-prevention work throughout the U.S.

“Violence-prevention work” can mean a lot of different kinds of activities. The Rondeaus have worked with Chicago’s innovative community-based crime-fighting program, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). They have initiated and organized public meetings called “Community Cares” events, held in a variety of venues around the city of Atlanta and attended by law enforcement officers, legislators, judges, district attorneys, victims, and leaders from domestic violence and child welfare groups. The Rondeaus have also spoken at a huge assortment events and gatherings over the years, including a conference on adolescence and crime prevention held at The Carter Center.

In 1998, Catholic Social Services in Atlanta held an event at which Sister Helen Prejean publicly recognized Gordon and Elaine Rondeau and their peace foundation with a "Bringing Hope to a Culture of Violence" award. Representatives from several government organizations, including the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, were there that day.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Supporting Virginia Tech Victims' Families

At a ceremony on the campus of Virginia Tech today, a group called the National Coalition of Victims in Action is presenting “A Resolution in Support of the Victims and Families at Virginia Tech” to members of the college community, including the college president and the families of those who were killed on the campus last April. You can read the text of the resolution here.

MVFHR members Gordon and Elaine Rondeau, who are dedicated activists within the victims’ community, came up with the idea for the resolution several months ago and have reached out to a long list of national and local organizations (including MVFHR) who have pledged their support by signing on to the resolution. The intent is for the support to go beyond today’s ceremony; the organizations who signed on to the resolution are working to offer various kinds of concrete and ongoing help to the families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims.

Anti-death penalty activists often make the point that the time, money, and effort spent carrying out the death penalty could be better spent meeting the real needs of victims in the aftermath of violence. Many MVFHR members, in addition to working against the death penalty, devote themselves to providing support, information, and practical assistance to victims and their families.

One crucial way to help victims, and to honor those who have been murdered, is to work to prevent future violence. Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law Penny was murdered in 1972, said years ago, “If we truly cared about victims, we would put all our knowledge and resources into saving them. Crime prevention, not retaliation, should be our number one goal.” Gordon and Elaine Rondeau reminded us of this when they wrote, in a recent email, “We need to emphasize that crime prevention and violence prevention would also be a critical component to elimination of the death penalty.”

Inspired by this comment and by the work that the Rondeaus and their many allies have done to create the resolution they are presenting today, we are going to devote a series of blog posts to the topic of violence prevention and the many innovative ways in which MVFHR members are engaging in that work. The series will start on Monday, September 24th and continue throughout the week, so come back and visit us often to read about these inspiring and valuable efforts.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Calling for a Global Moratorium

This past June, the European Union voted to introduce at the UN General Assembly a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. Amnesty International and the World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have been actively mobilizing support for this resolution, hoping to get as many countries as possible to sign on to it (and not just European countries).

MVFHR serves on the steering committee of the World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, so we have been part of some of these discussions and efforts. We hope to be able to participate in a press event that will take place at the UN on World Day to Abolish the Death Penalty, which is coming up on October 10. We’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, we encourage you to sign the petition calling for a global moratorium and check out the World Coalition’s website. Here’s a good summary, from the Coalition’s site, of the rationale behind the global moratorium effort:
The proposal would save lives and give the population of retentionist states an opportunity to see for themselves that a pause in death sentences does not lead to higher crime rates. A resolution by the UN's highest political body would be an important international milestone in the campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide and would carry considerable moral weight. This initiative has already gathered the support of 5 million people worldwide.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Speaking to Police Officers

Do all members of law enforcement support the death penalty? Interestingly, the National Black Police Association (NBPA) has officially opposed the death penalty since 1986, and for the past three years they’ve invited MVFHR board member Bonnita Spikes to present at their annual conference.

After Bonnita’s first presentation in 2005, NBPA director Ron Hampton told us that they had wanted to have a victim’s family member speak at the conference “to train and educate people about the truth of the death penalty.” He also said that one of the NBPA’s goals is “to evaluate the criminal justice system and its negative impact on communities of color, and we see the death penalty as part of that.” Apparently, the evaluations after Bonnita’s first presentation showed that some members of law enforcement who were in favor of the death penalty coming in to the presentation changed their minds by the time they left.

Bonnita says she’s definitely seen a positive shift in the audience’s responses over the years: “Three years ago I can remember a lot of people saying, basically, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, but you’re crazy. Anyone who commits a heinous crime has to die.’ This year, there weren’t as many angry responses, and people seemed more interested in following up and getting more information.”

Bonnita starts her presentations by explaining that her husband Michael was killed in a convenience store robbery. “I say I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself and what I do, and then I talk about working with Maryland Citizens Against State Executions and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. I say, “We’re not the only family members of murder victims who are opposed to the death penalty, but a lot of people don’t know that there is anyone else, they don’t know that groups exist.’ I tell some of our other members’ stories and say we come from all walks of life.”

Last year, the conference was held in the United Kingdom (the NBPA has affiliate groups in Canada and the U.K.). “Speaking there was a fascinating experience,” says Bonnita. “I think the responses from the U.K. members helped contribute to the shift that I saw among the U.S. members this year. No one from law enforcement in countries outside the U.S. was saying we need the death penalty or the death penalty helps to fight crime. They thought it was wonderful that an organization like MVFHR exists, and they said so publicly.”

This year, the conference was held in Florida, and Bonnita presented together with Shari Silberstein of Equal Justice USA. Bonnita says that the group seemed quite interested to hear from Shari about the moratorium effort in Maryland and nationwide: “The idea of a moratorium gives them something to think about, a kind of middle ground where they can say maybe it’s too flawed to fix.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Walking to Stop Executions in California

California anti-death penalty activists, including several victims’ family members, embarked on a 800-mile Walk to Stop Executions today. Read about it and follow their progress here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Against Our Better Nature

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt is featured in a new documentary film, Against Our Better Nature. Writer and director Kenya Briggs summarizes the film this way: “What parts of ourselves do we turn away from when we kill and call it justice? In this short documentary we listen to the stories of those touched most closely by the death penalty and ask if this ultimate form of punishment is worth the real and figurative blood that it spills.”

In the 20-minute film, we hear from prison superintendents, an attorney who has handled several death penalty cases, a psychotherapist, people outside San Quentin prison protesting for and against an execution, and two people directly affected by the death penalty: Greg Wilhoit, exonerated and released from Oklahoma’s death row after having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, and Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny was executed in California in 1999.

In the film, Greg talks about how he had initially supported the death penalty for all the others on death row – he knew he was innocent, but he believed in the death penalty for people who had actually committed the crime. After spending time on death row and seeing men he knew get executed, he realized that nobody was safer, nobody was better off, after an execution.

The film interweaves Greg’s story with Bill Babbitt’s, as Bill describes his decision to turn his mentally ill brother in to the police: “I watched them load their guns. I told them, ‘I don’t want anybody else to die. I certainly don’t want Manny to die. That’s why I came to you, so nobody else dies.’” The police told Bill that Manny would receive treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (Manny served two tours of duty in Vietnam and witnessed some terrible atrocities during that time), but instead he was sentenced to death. In the film, Bill says that after Manny was executed, “I didn’t want to live. I was so ashamed of myself, I wanted to kill myself.”

Like so many others who have been directly affected by violence and by the death penalty, Bill did find a way to carry on and to join in the struggle for abolition. Filmmaker Kenya Briggs is making the DVD available to activists for a reasonable purchase price, and those who want to rent it for a three-week period need only pay the shipping costs. For details about the rental agreement and public screening policies, contact Kenya at

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Reaching the Students

Virginia MVFHR member Susan Hirsch writes:

On a very hot day in late August, I delivered an address to the incoming freshman class of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. These 250 students were entering a highly selective and innovative program. Over the summer they had all read my book, In the Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief, and a Victim’s Quest for Justice, and mine would be their first college lecture at Ole Miss. They would go on to discuss the book and lecture in their first-year seminar on “self and society.”

In the Moment of Greatest Calamity narrates my experiences as a death penalty opponent trying to participate in a capital terror trial. As a survivor of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the widow of one of its victims, I attended the U.S. federal court trial of four embassy bombings suspects with high hopes for gaining recognition, truth, solace, and whatever else the trial might provide. But I came to feel that the specter of the death penalty hanging over the proceeding risked perverting the justice I’d also hoped for and been promised. As much as I wanted the book’s depiction of my struggle to respond to violence with justice and not vengeance to make an impact on the students, I also worried that my strong views about the death penalty might mean that some would resist the whole assignment.

I thought long and hard about how to reach the students, especially when I knew little about their life experiences and had never visited Mississippi, a death penalty state. I assumed that some would be strong supporters of capital punishment. Rather than focus on capital punishment, I framed my address around a message related to their course: the inevitable transformation of the self. My book includes reflections on how the embassy bombings totally destabilized my self. I drew students’ attention to that example to make the point that trauma can alter one’s sense of self but that the results are not a predictable hardening toward vengeance. I used my own experience as evidence that in the moment of greatest calamity, when an act of violence tears apart one’s life and one’s sense of self, it is possible to find the patience to act with humanity. My lecture included a line I know I’ll use again: “A certain degree of self defense is instinctual, but revenge is not.”

My discussion of trauma’s role in self-transformation provided a segue into the idea that new experiences can also transform one’s self. Even mundane ones like new activities, ideas, and friends can push individuals to rethink basic assumptions about their place in the world. I urged the students to seek out such experiences in college and offered them a challenge: “Use your encounters with new ideas and people to experiment, to reach across differences to test your commitments and to craft yourself. That new self will be stronger, more resilient – maybe because you change some of your current beliefs or maybe because you recommit to some after putting them to the test.” Of course, I hoped that hearing my story would encourage them to test and re-evaluate their views on the death penalty.

To my delight the students asked thought-provoking questions that revealed their serious engagement with my book and with the pressing issues of our time. The very first questioner asked how I could advocate any punishment milder than the death penalty when those who had attacked me and killed my husband were intent on destroying the United States.

An obvious answer would have pointed out the faulty logic in assuming that killing individuals bent on destruction through suicide was, in any estimation, effective punishment. But such an answer would have been too simplistic and would have risked buying into polarized images of extremist others, which emerged in troubling ways in many of the questions that followed. Instead, I used the opportunity to talk about deterrence and the death penalty more generally. In later answers I managed to make the point that “us against extremists” models mask the historical and geopolitical origins of the current violence.

Another student asked whether telling my story in a well-publicized book risked drowning out the stories of others not able to reach a broad public. This important observation reminded me that I needed to be clear about my ability to speak primarily for myself and my disappointment that my book fails to include the perspectives of many other victims, survivors, and family members. I urged them to seek out additional personal stories. Knowing that many of the stories they might encounter will embrace capital punishment, I suggested that the website for the group Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights would be a good place to look!

Other questions gave hints that students held strong opinions, even as they seemed receptive to my suggestion that college will be an appropriate and relatively safe space for seeking out, engaging, and evaluating views different from their own. But it struck me that these students were uncertain about how to do this. Similar to my own students at George Mason University and doubtless many students elsewhere, they are more than ready to express opinions and to have a debate. Facilitated dialogue offers a more productive approach and might lead them to challenge their own deeply held beliefs and assumptions. These students (and my own) are lucky as their Honors College experience will include a course on dialogue and facilitation skills. This year, I’m hoping to do research on dialogue processes on my own college campus. Perspectives on capital punishment would be a great topic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Two Mothers

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, here are excerpts from two recent newspaper articles:

Phyllis Rodriguez of White Plains, whose son Greg, 31, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and died at the World Trade Center, and Aicha El-Wafi of Narbonne, France, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, came to a luncheon discussion yesterday at the WESPAC Foundation, a peace and justice center in White Plains.

"I want something good to come from something horrible," Rodriguez told about 30 peace workers and anti-death-penalty activists.

Since the two mothers met in November 2002, they have visited each other six times in the United States and France. Each visit has strengthened their friendship and their resolve to spread the message that revenge and violence can only lead to more suffering for other innocent people, they said.

"Dialogue has helped us know each other and taught us tolerance," el-Wafi said in French. "We understand each other's suffering. Leaders divide people in order to reign. But through discussion, people, no matter what their religions, can understand each other."

Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001, for an immigration violation and is serving a life sentence for conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks.

Orlando Rodriguez, Greg's father, testified for the defense in Moussaoui's death-penalty trial in Alexandria, Va. Yesterday he said he did so because "to kill someone for what they believe or want to do would be a terrible injustice."

But befriending el-Wafi has come at a price for the Rodriguezes. "There is a good side and a bad side," Orlando Rodriguez said. "There is always the reminder of why we have this friendship."

Read the rest of the Journal News article here

Aicha el-Wafi has been to White Plains before. She came about a year ago to visit with members of the growing interfaith community in our city. She came in the midst of her son’s (Zacarias Moussaoui) trial for his alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. She was accompanied then by family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Tuesday evening at Dorry’s Diner on Mamaroneck Avenue, el-Wafi came again. She had spoken on Sunday at Memorial United Methodist Church and was invited to join members of the White Plains community for their weekly gathering at Dorry’s. el-Wafi was accompanied by Colleen Kelly, whose brother was killed on 9/11, and by Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, who lost their son that day.

Renny Cushing, founder and Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), was also in attendance. Cushing, who said “there is a dominant paradigm of revenge that needs to be addressed,” had brought the group together in November 2002 in response to el-Wafi’s desire to reach out to families of the victims of 9/11. In 2004, MVFHR was launched on International Human Rights Day and has become a growing movement seeking the end of the death penalty around the world.

Read the rest of the White Plains Times article here

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Power of Choice

A segment on tonight's broadcast of the Spanish-language news program Primer Impacto will feature MVFHR member Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha al-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui. The program airs at 5:00 PM EDT; check your local listings. In tomorrow's MVFHR blog post we will talk about the friendship that these two women have forged and the work they do together.

Today, on the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, we post excerpts from a talk that New York MVFHR member Anthony Aversano gave earlier this year at a panel presentation organized by Families and Friends of Homicide Victims.

On Sept 11th, 2001, a day we all will never forget, my dear father Louis F. Aversano, Jr., was killed at the World Trade Center. As you can imagine, I found it one of the biggest challenges of my life to face some of the thoughts, feelings, fears, and whole-life fallout that was before me.

Facing and struggling through some of the very normal responses to the trauma from 9/11 and the murder of my father, I feel blessed to have also been on a path of self-awareness and in the practice of self-reflection during that time. You could say, through the grace of God, I miraculously transformed the grips of anxiety, fear, hatred, and anger into a space of empowerment, clarity, and compassion.

During a quiet moment of looking within, I envisioned a metaphor of an artist working with a chunk of clay. I saw the artist as myself and the clay as my life or any life experience. I recognized that a chunk of clay is nothing until the artist sees in it some kind of image or meaning and then molds the clay into what they envision. In that moment, the light bulb turned on when I realized that this metaphor of the process of creating art out of clay was just like the process of how we deal with the experiences of life.

So, the big question that God delivered to me in that moment was, What am I going to create out of the clay I was given on 9/11?

Well, I immediately recognized that I was being given a magnificent gift through this process. I realized it is a gift I always had and we all have in our lives, but a gift we often don’t use.

It was the reawakening of my gift of conscious choice.

I thought to myself, “Life is always throwing at us, in every experience we have, a new ball of clay. How we choose to mold and interpret that clay is then up to us!”

The realization in that moment was profound. The tears and melting of my heart that followed also melted the walls of my pain. The hatred, anger, and resentment that had been eating away at me all came tumbling down.

I was no longer a prisoner of the death of my Father or the tragedy of 9/11. I was free.

In that freedom and space of clarity that opened in the days after that awakening, this is the realization that I came to me:
How to honor the life of my father was not to seek revenge, but to live my life well.
How to respond to hatred was not with more hatred, but with kindness.
How to respond to an act of violence was not with more violence, but with compassion and understanding.

This place of clarity of heart was life changing and allowed me to find the healing that I sought, and allowed to me to feel like I could fully live again.

But, as life does in all of its grandeur, some time after this revelation I was presented with another enormous challenge and test of my faith.

In early 2005, I read a news report one day that said Zacarias Moussaoui was found guilty for crimes related to 9/11 and that the trial was now proceeding to the sentencing phase. That report also stated that family members of 9/11 were going to be presenting what is called victim impact statements.

Something clicked in that moment for me and it was like God whispered in my ear and said, “That is you, Anthony. This is something you have to do. This is where you must speak your voice and share yourself with the world.”

Well, there I was again, back in a space of self-reflection, facing some of the same fears and feelings I experienced right after 9/11.

And, once again by the grace of God, the light bulb turned on: Here is another ball of clay, Anthony. How do you choose to mold this one? It was a choice! The question again was simply, what was I going to choose? What path was I going to walk in this new situation?

Without getting into the details of the trial and the many other reasons why I learned that the death penalty does not serve our world and is a huge injustice to the true victims it is supposed to be giving satisfaction to, I found my way to realizing that what was true for me in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was true for me in my revelation regarding 9/11: If we respond to violence with violence we still get more violence. If we respond to hatred with hatred, we get more hatred. If we respond to terrorism with war and terror, we get more terror.

On April 20th, 2006, I was one of 15 family members who lost a loved one on 9/11 to testify against the death penalty in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

I testified not for the sake of that one man, but to share some of my story and clearly speak that it is possible to rise above tragedy. I spoke loud and clear that if I responded to that act of terror by giving my life to the anger, hatred, and vengeance that terror breeds, my life might as well be another name on that list of casualties.

I testified to the world that day that I had reclaimed the power of my choice in life and, in the face of all the pain we endured as family members, I chose to live my life in peace.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Reliving the Death

In the extensive coverage of Texas death row inmate Kenneth Foster’s recent commutation, for which many of our colleagues worked incredibly hard, Michael Kroll’s essay “Reliving the Death” is the first we’ve seen that looks at the benefits of the commutation from a victim perspective. Michael is editor of The Beat Within and founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center. From his essay:

“I will mourn my son till I die, but I’m not forced any more to relive his death.” These are the words of a mother grieving for her son, Michael LaHood Jr., murdered in a Texas robbery in 1996 after one of the co-defendants had his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

Her son’s killer, Mauriceo Brown, was executed for the crime in 2006, but co-defendant, Kenneth Foster, Jr., who did not directly participate in the robbery/murder was also sentenced to death for the same crime under a controversial Texas statute called the “law of parties” under which anyone involved in any way in a capital crime is subject to the penalty of death. Foster, who was 19 years old at the time of the crime, was scheduled to be lethally injected on August 30, but received that rarest of interventions at the eleventh hour – a commutation to life in prison by Governor Rick Perry following international protests and a near-unanimous recommendation for clemency by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

While world-wide attention has understandably been focused on what would have been the 403rd execution in Texas in the modern era — by far the country’s most prolific killer of killers (and non-killers like Mr. Foster) — few will recognize the profoundly anti-death penalty significance of Mrs. LaHood’s lament, “I will mourn my son till I die, but I’m not forced any more to relive his death.”

Reliving that death is one of the unintended consequences of the death penalty. At each stage, the wound is reopened and probed by the media (“How do you feel?”) and the prosecutor, who has an interest in keeping the brutal facts before the voters who put him/her in office. (And, can any murder be described as anything other than brutal?) While prosecutors never tire of promoting the death penalty as a means to bring about “closure,” that is a concept that no mother, destroyed by the murder of a child, can truly embrace. In truth, there is no real closure for the kind of wound that murder creates. 

But, though the hole left behind will never be fully closed, the death penalty makes any healing that much more difficult by forcing families of the dead to focus on the brutality of their loss at every legal turning point. And, because the U.S. Supreme Court has rightly declared that, as punishment, “Death is different,” it requires far more legal turning points than any other criminal penalty, including years of state appeals followed by years of federal appeals.

Read the full article here.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Remembering Carolyn Goodman

We were saddened to learn of the death of Carolyn Goodman a couple of weeks ago. Carolyn Goodman’s son Andrew Goodman was one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi by members of the Ku Klux Klan during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Over 40 years later, Edgar Ray Killen was charged with organizing the murders, and at that time Carolyn Goodman said, “I’m totally against capital punishment. Who’s it going to help? But I do believe that the man who organized the murder of three civil rights workers should be incarcerated.”

In honor of Carolyn Goodman’s life as a passionate advocate for social justice, take a moment to read this 2005 interview with her in Jewish Currents magazine.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Can a Politician Be Pro-Victim and Anti-Death Penalty?

From MVFHR’s Executive Director Renny Cushing:

In yesterday’s post, we described the Sacco and Vanzetti commemoration that MVFHR took part in a couple of weeks ago. I enjoyed seeing former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis at that event, and as I listened to him read the proclamation that he had delivered thirty years ago clearing the names of Sacco and Vanzetti, I thought about the role that the death penalty has played in the political arena over the years.

The 1977 proclamation, which Governor Dukakis reread at this year’s commemorative event, concluded with these words: “I … declare that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from the names of their families and descendants, and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and I hereby call upon all the people of Massachusetts to pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.”

Eloquent words, then and now. The other day I came across a 2005 article about the Sacco and Vanzetti case in The (Braintree, Mass.) Patriot Ledger that referred to Dukakis’s proclamation. Interestingly, the focus of the article was on the victims whom Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murdering. In addition to telling the stories of those victims, the piece says:

“Dukakis now acknowledges that his administration erred - not in its decision to clear Sacco and Vanzetti's names - but by not also reaching out to the families of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, the two men who were robbed, shot, and left to die on a Braintree street on April 15, 1920. He said one reason for the oversight was that concerns about victims' rights were not as strong in the 1970s. ‘It was a terrible gap in my judgment; we didn't seem to focus on that,’ said Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University. ‘I think so much of the focus has been on [Sacco and Vanzetti] and the possibility that other people did it that I'm not sure how much time and attention we paid to [Parmenter and Berardelli.]’”

Pretty interesting reflections on his part. The victims’ rights movement was indeed at a more nascent stage in 1977 than it is today, but managing to embrace an awareness of the victims while also focusing on the fate of the offenders remains a challenge for many people, particularly when there are big questions about the fairness of the trial and the possibility of wrongful conviction as there were in Sacco and Vanzetti’s cases.

I also can’t help thinking of Dukakis’s famous gaffe during the 1988 Presidential debates, when he was asked how he would respond if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered. Dukakis expressed his opposition to the death penalty in his response, but he didn’t express enough of the ordinary outrage and agony that any family member feels in that situation. That debate took place only a few months after my father was murdered, and I knew I was against the death penalty, but after Dukakis took such an enormous hit for his response, it seemed as though a politician couldn’t be anti-death penalty and pro-victim.
Four years later, Bill Clinton made a big show of leaving the presidential campaign trail to return to Arkansas and preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a prisoner so brain damaged that he saved the dessert from his last meal to eat after the execution. Clinton had clearly learned from Dukakis’s mistake that you’d better come out “tough on crime” from the start, and supporting the death penalty was the obvious way to do that.

Then in 1995, New York Governor Mario Cuomo was harshly criticized by his opponent George Pataki for being against the death penalty, and the first bill that Pataki signed into law when he took over as governor was one that would reinstate the death penalty in New York.

What I remember so vividly is that at the signing of that bill, Governor Pataki had at his side the brother of a police officer who had been murdered. The message was clear: tough on crime means supporting the death penalty, and supporting the death penalty means supporting victims.

And then in 1998, the shift began to occur. Jan Schakowksy, running for Congress in Illinois, was criticized for her opposition to the death penalty – as Cuomo had been, as so many politicians had been. Her opponent ran ads featuring scenes of the Oklahoma City bombing as a way of condemning Schakowsky’s position on the issue. This time, though, the voice of a victim’s family member entered the debate in a new way. Bud Welch traveled to Chicago to speak at a press conference, during which he expressed his outrage at his daughter Julie Marie’s death being used as part of a political campaign and demanded that the ad be taken off the air. Bud’s public support of Jan Schakowsky, as a family member of a murder victim, allowed her to demonstrate that it was possible for a candidate to be both pro-victim and anti-death penalty. Schakowksy won the election and credited Bud’s speech with neutralizing the attacks on her.

And so, listening to Mike Dukakis a couple of weeks ago, I thought about how, if he had had an understanding of the experience of those of us who were family members of murder victims opposed to the death penalty, he could have responded to the 1988 debate question in a way that was pro-victim and anti-death penalty, and he could have neutralized the argument. I thought about how Jan Schakowsky’s campaign really did represent a kind of turning point, after which the death penalty issue has had less political traction. And, increasingly, politicians cannot assume that having a victim at their side automatically conveys a pro-death penalty message.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How Does a Child Understand?

A couple of weeks ago, on August 23rd, Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty (MCADP) held a ceremony in Boston’s North End commemorating the 80th anniversary of the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Speakers included former Governor Michael Dukakis, Representative Michael Festa, MVFHR’s Robert Meeropol and Renny Cushing, and David Ehrmann, whose grandfather, Herbert Ehrmann, served as a junior counsel for the defense during the last two years of the Sacco and Vanzetti case. David is now the president of MCADP, which was founded shortly after Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions. Although Massachusetts does not currently have the death penalty, MCADP says that “Sacco and Vanzetti continue to symbolize the inherent defect in the death penalty. Sacco and Vanzetti endure as a reminder that the death penalty is always about politics rather than justice.”

In his remarks during the ceremony, Robert Meeropol drew another connection between Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions and the present day:

My name is Robert Meeropol. I am here today as a citizen of our Commonwealth and in my capacities as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and as the Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). In MVFHR we oppose the death penalty and believe state-sponsored executions, the premeditated killings of human beings by the state, are murders. We in MVFHR also believe such judicial killings violate Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus constitute human rights abuses.

I am also here today because I feel a special connection to Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s case. I have a personal relationship with the death penalty. I’m Robert Meeropol now, but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in Sing-Sing prison on June 19th, 1953 when I was six. I feel a special connection to the Sacco and Vanzetti case because my parents’ case and that of Sacco and Vanzetti are often thought of together.

As a child who survived his parents’ execution I have an unusual perspective to share with you. One of the last letters Bartolomeo Vanzetti wrote was to Nicola’s Sacco’s young son, Dante. He wrote:

“My Dear Dante,

I still hope and we will fight until the last moment, to revindicate our right to live and to be free, but all the forces of the State and of the money and reaction are deadly against us because we are libertarian and anarchists. I write little of this because you are now and yet too young to understand these things and other things of which I would like to reason with you.
But if you do well, you will grow and understand your father’s and my case and your father’s and my principles, for which we will soon be put to death.”

Vanzetti finishes the letter with several paragraphs that give Dante a more personal view of his father.

I’ve thought about Dante quite a bit – what he must have gone through during the seven agonizing years between his father’s arrest and execution.

I was three when my parents were arrested and six when they were executed. How does a child who has just turned six understand such events? How does something like that affect a six-year-old?

I don’t remember my parents’ arrests. In fact, my earliest distinct memories of my parents are of visiting them on death row. But I have clear memories of the last week of my parents’ lives. On Monday June 15, 1953, when the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer, my parents were scheduled to die that Thursday. On Tuesday a special petition was presented to Justice Douglas as he left for vacation. On Wednesday Douglas stayed the execution and went on vacation. On Thursday the Supreme Court was recalled into special session. On Friday morning Douglas’ stay was overturned by a 6-3 vote. My parents were executed that evening, Friday June 19, one minute before sundown so as not to “desecrate” the Jewish Sabbath.

Although I couldn’t read the newspapers, I saw this on TV and heard about it on radio. My six year-old’s interpretation of these events was that the Supreme Court Justices asked my parents’ lawyer to give them ten reasons why my parents should not be killed and he did. So the Supreme Court stayed the execution. But then they recalled the court and asked the lawyer for an eleventh reason, and he was unable to provide it. So my parents were killed.

What kind of impact did this have on me? Clearly, I didn’t completely understand what was going on, but I had a sense that “they” were out there, “they” were very powerful, and “they” were attacking “us.” Of course, like Dante I didn’t know exactly who “they” and “we” were and what these groups represented. So I had a generalized sense of anxiety, an incomprehensible sword of Damocles hanging over me.

I imagine Dante must have grown up with similar feelings and memories.

People have just begun to study how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children. There has been an apparent disregard for children who have had a family member executed. There are over 3,000 people on death row in America today, but we don’t even know how many children have an immediate family member there. Worse, we don’t know the effect that having a parent executed will have upon their impressionable lives, and the cost society may pay for that impact. No state legislature, no court, no governmental unit whatsoever has bothered to study this even though these children are all innocent victims of the state’s efforts to kill their loved ones.

On this 80th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution it is past time to realize that every execution creates more victims – the children and family members of those who are executed. It is past time to recognize the damage to Sacco and Vanzetti’s families. And it is past time to realize that such “collateral damage” is yet another powerful reason to keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts, to abolish it nationwide and throughout the world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Wrongful Convictions Hurt Victims' Families, Too

Thanks for checking out MVFHR’s new forum for keeping in touch and spreading the word about the work of our organization and its members. We hope you'll visit often.

Lately, several bloggers have been calling attention to the urgent problem of wrongful conviction. When an innocent person is convicted of a murder, it’s obviously an enormous injustice for that individual and his or her family, and one that needs to be redressed.

An aspect of the problem that has gotten relatively less discussion is that wrongful conviction is an injustice for victims’ families, too. On this subject, here’s an excerpt from the afterword that I wrote for Richard Stack’s very good book Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment, which came out last year:

When the wrong person is convicted of and sentenced for a murder, it is not only the innocent defendant who suffers; the family of the murder victim suffers as well.

Jeanette Popp’s story makes this clear. For years after her 20-year-old daughter Nancy DePriest was raped and murdered during a robbery of the Pizza Hut where she worked, Jeanette Popp believed she knew who was responsible: two men named Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, who were arrested a couple of months after the crime and eventually sentenced to life in prison. Jeanette had no idea that while Ochoa and Danziger were in one Texas prison, an inmate at another prison, Achim Marino, was writing letters to the county district attorney and to then-Governor George W. Bush, saying that he was the one who had robbed the Pizza Hut and killed Nancy DePriest. Marino said that he acted alone and had no idea why two other men had confessed.

Meanwhile, Chris Ochoa was writing to the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explaining that he was serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit and that the police had coerced him into confessing to the crime and implicating his roommate, Richard Danziger, as well.

DNA evidence eventually exonerated Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger and confirmed the truth of Achim Marino’s confession. Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger were released after spending twelve years in prison.

Although Ochoa and Danziger were wrongfully sentenced to life in prison, rather than to death, the death penalty apparently figured prominently in the events that led to the wrongful conviction. It has now come out that Ochoa’s confession followed two grueling days of police questioning, during which police openly threatened Ochoa by telling him that he would receive the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate (and even going so far as to jab his arm with a pen in a gesture mimicking lethal injection.)

Jeanette Popp believes the death penalty should be abolished so that it can no longer be used as a threat to coerce confessions from innocent people. But when she first learned that the two men she had believed were guilty might not be guilty after all, her most pressing question was, has the original story been a lie? Everything she thought she knew about her daughter’s murder was now called into question.

“Survivors of murder victims want to know the truth,” explains Renny Cushing as he reflects on the intersection between the issues of wrongful conviction and victims’ needs. “They want to know what happened, they want to know what their loved one’s last moments were like, they want to try to understand the story of this terrible event. When you learn that the wrong person was being punished all this time, all the facts you thought you had come to understand, the facts that helped you move forward, have all been stripped away. You have to start all over again – it’s as though the murder just took place.”