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.