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.