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.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Help us spread the word about families of the executed

We’re always interested to hear about ways that people are making use of our report, Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind. Margaret Vandiver recently told us that she used it in her class on the death penalty at the University of Memphis, for example.

These days, we are especially focused on trying to get the report into the hands of professionals who might be coming into direct contact with family members of people the executed: mental health professionals, child welfare advocates, and educators. Our list of recommendations at the back of the report includes these three:
To educators, we recommend the development of trainings and materials for teachers and school counselors about the impact of the death penalty on children in families of the accused. Such trainings and materials would aim to raise awareness about this issue and better prepare those who encounter children suffering in the aftermath of a family member’s death sentence or execution.

To child welfare advocates, particularly those who are developing services to address the needs of children of incarcerated parents and children who have suffered a violent loss in their family, we recommend that trainings and literature include specific information and guidance about children in families of the executed, whose needs and concerns are in many ways distinct.

To mental health professionals, we recommend that the short- and long-term psychological effects of an execution in the family be included in literature and training directed at social workers, clinical psychologists, trauma specialists, and others who might come in contact with such families. We also recommend that witnessing executions be recognized as a “gateway” criterion for post-traumatic stress disorder.

We are continually on the lookout for leaders in these fields to whom we might send the report, conferences where we might be able to offer a presentation, and other opportunities to carry out this aspect of MVFHR’s No Silence, No Shame project. If you have ideas, thoughts, connections, possibilities, by all means let us know.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

World Day Against the Death Penalty

Here's MVFHR's public statement released on this World Day Against the Death Penalty:

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now, almost sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. We call for a moratorium on the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

Today, on World Day Against the Death Penalty, the United Nations General Assembly is considering a resolution that will take us one step closer to fulfilling the aspiration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As victims, we urge the members of the General Assembly to adopt the UN resolution for a universal moratorium on executions.

Read more about anti-death penalty events going on around the world today on the website of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Voices of Families of the Executed - Part 5

Here is the final installment in our series of excerpts from the MVFHR panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas this past July. See the original post announcing this series, the current issue of our newsletter with more about the peace conference panel, and MVFHR's report about families of the executed.

Remarks from Tamara Chikunova:

I am the mother of a son who was arrested and sentenced to death [in Uzbekistan] against all justice and human rights. My son was tortured, but he refused to sign a confession saying he killed somebody, because he had not. When the police then arrested me and started to torture me, my son heard this and said, “All right, I’ll sign whatever you want, but please don’t hurt my mother.” In this way, my son signed his own death warrant, to save my life.

The trial lasted six months and in all that time I had no chance to see him. Afterward, I learned that during those six months he had been tortured in all kinds of cruel ways, from gas to electric shock.

The lawyer that I had hired for my son was denied access to the court. Instead, my son was given a court-appointed lawyer, but she actually acted against him: she brought evidence from the prosecution against him. At the beginning of the trial, my son stood up and said that he is not guilty and that he signed the confession only because he was tortured and believed he was doing it to save his mother’s life. The judge said, “People like you should be killed right here in the courtroom.”

The trial lasted only three days, and on November 11, 1999 my son was sentenced to death. Seven months later, on July 10, 2000, I was allowed to visit him. I arrived at Tashkent prison but I was told there were no visits allowed. Shortly before this I had received a letter from my son in which he wrote that he missed me very much and looked forward to the visit on July 10.

That day, July 10, he did leave his cell, but not for a visit with me; instead, it was for a visit with death. He was shot in the head that morning. It is incredibly cruel when a mother stands behind the prison’s wall and her son is waiting for her visit. We could have had even just ten minutes, but no, that was not allowed; the law in Uzbekistan does not require that families be given a last visit, and families are not told about the execution date ahead of time. The body is not released to the relatives to be buried, and the place of burial is a state secret. After seven years, I still do not know where my only child is buried.

After the execution, I didn’t want to live, because my son was all my life. I received a letter that he had written to me:

“My dear mother, If it is not our fate to see each other again, remember that I am innocent. I have not spilled blood! I would rather die than let anyone hurt you. I love you very much, you are the only person dear to me. Please remember me. I send you a kiss. Your son, Dmitri”

My son wrote to me please remember me, and for his memory I established my organization, Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, that fights for life and against the death penalty in Uzbekistan and in the world. Our work has led to the overturning of 22 death sentences.

Our work is very difficult, but it’s not fruitless. This year, on June 29, official legislation was passed saying that on January 1, 2008 the death penalty in Uzbekistan will be abolished.

This is a great victory, but we still have work to do. There are still hundreds of people in Uzbekistan who don’t know when their children were executed or where they are buried. Five months ago, a UN resolution was issued saying that there were several human rights violations in my son’s case and demanding that reparation be paid to my family and that such violations cease in the future. The Uzbekistan government has not responded to the resolution. What’s the price for human life? What’s the reparation if my only child was killed? I asked the UN not to give me the reparation but to give me my son’s body so I can bury him myself.

Thanks to Elena Misheneva and Natalia Glebova for translating these remarks from the Russian. Read more about Tamara Chikunova and her work here, here, and here.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Voices of Families of the Executed - Part 4

We continue our series of excerpts from the MVFHR panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas this past July. See the original post announcing this series, the current issue of our newsletter with more about the peace conference panel, and MVFHR's report about families of the executed.

More from Melanie Hebert (see Friday's post for the first excerpt from Melanie):

When my uncle was sentenced to death, I was just entering high school. For a young girl who is not dealing with any kind of issue, the transition to high school is still difficult, so you can imagine how it was compounded by the fact that I was from the same town and shared the last name with my uncle who had just been sentenced to death, and it was a very big news story. I was really taunted at school, and I went into a deep depression for the first two years of high school. I had a very tough time going to school every day. There’s so much shame attached to it.

Of course now, as a competent adult, I look back and say why didn’t I stand up and say yes, he did do that, but I didn’t do anything wrong, I shouldn’t feel any shame. But I was young and na├»ve and embarrassed and I felt like nobody would want to be friends with me because my uncle had done something terrible.

Certainly I wish that the adults at my high school had had more knowledge and awareness about how to help a young person in my situation, and I also wish that they had been more proactive in coming to me. I didn’t know what resources were available to me, I didn’t know to go to the counselor or if this was something it would be appropriate to go to her about. I wish that people in the school system had come to me and offered more support.

When he was executed, I was grown up, I had been through college, I thought I had put all this behind me, but it kind of all came up again. By this time I had an entirely different circle of friends and peers, and people weren’t as direct in their shaming of me, but I still definitely felt it.

One of the most difficult aspects was taking time off from work. I knew that I would be visiting with Spencer and essentially what I felt forced to do was to lie. I said I had had a death in the family and I needed time off to mourn. In fact that death had not yet occurred, but I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing that. When I returned to work I remember seeing my boss with the newspaper opened to the story and I thought well, she does know now.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Voices of Families of the Executed - Part 3

We continue our series of excerpts from the MVFHR panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas this past July. See the original post announcing this series, the current issue of our newsletter with more about the peace conference panel, and MVFHR's report about families of the executed.

Remarks from Melanie Hebert:

My uncle Spencer Corey Goodman was executed here in Texas in 2000. He had been adopted by my paternal grandparents, and he was much younger than their natural children. He and I had a very close relationship and he felt much more like a brother to me than an uncle. We were just seven years apart in age and we spent a lot of time together during my childhood. He became estranged from the family when I was in elementary school and the next thing I heard about him was after he had committed a murder and my grandfather was called to testify at the trial.

My family wanted us to have nothing to do with him, and they didn’t speak about him much. I kind of just put it out of my mind and went about my life until shortly before he was executed. My sister had been visiting him and he requested that I come and visit before his execution. She asked me if I would, and I agreed. When I went to visit him, I was really surprised that he wasn’t the monster that I had been led to believe he was. My heart was really changed as I spent the next couple of days with him before his execution.

I was reluctant to get involved with any kind of political activity regarding the death penalty. I wasn’t sure where I stood and I was so young, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with it. But I woke up the next morning and I had such a hollow feeling. I felt compelled at that point to speak out against the atrocity that is the death penalty and let people know what my family went through.

We didn’t have a lot of support from our friends or from our church; people didn’t know what to do or say, so they left us to deal with it on our own. In any other circumstance when you know someone who has had a loss, the neighbors and friends and church pull together to support that person.

A surreal aspect of it was that while we were mourning the loss of our loved one, people were cheering about it and saying that justice had been served, and that’s something I don’t think people experience with any other death.

It would have helped if we had been treated with more compassion by the judicial system. One of the most difficult parts of dealing with Spencer’s execution was that we had to learn the information from the television. That’s a really difficult way to learn about your loved one’s fate. We learned about the death sentence from the TV on a night that happened to be my father’s birthday. It was very hard. Later, I asked every single person at the prison to please call our family to let us know when the execution was complete. No one called us. Finally we turned on the television and learned that he had died. It’s a really cruel way for families to be treated.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Voices of Families of the Executed - Part 2

We continue our series of excerpts from the MVFHR panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas this past July. See the original post announcing this series, the current issue of our newsletter with more about the peace conference panel, and MVFHR's report about families of the executed.

More from Lois Robison (see yesterday's post for the first excerpt from Lois):

One of the things that always worried me was that I knew they would set Larry’s execution date 30 days in advance, and I wondered how I was going to go into my classroom and teach my little third graders while the clock kept ticking and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

It was very difficult for all our family. Our daughter, who was 12 years old when this happened, was teased at school. It affected her terribly and affects her to this day. As a matter of fact, she too is mentally ill. I know she had the genes for it, but I think that this precipitated her breakdown, because she began to have trouble from that point on and was finally diagnosed as bipolar and schizoaffective when she was 19. Many of our family members have had depression. I have been taking medication for depression for years.

Some people were very kind to us when this happened and others were not. My principal told me just before I retired that every year there were parents who came to him and told him they did not want their child in my classroom because they knew my son was a murderer. He always told them that he would not honor their request, but if they came back at midterm and still wanted their child transferred to another classroom, he would do it. He said in every case they came back and apologized.

The church where we were attending was very kind when Larry was arrested, they came and brought us food, they were there when it hit the television. But later on when we became involved in groups working to abolish the death penalty, they were not as supportive. We finally ended up going to another church, where we were asked to speak about the death penalty.

Larry’s execution date was set once before and it came within three hours of his execution and then he got a stay. We had tried to get ourselves prepared for it and then he got the stay, and we had to go through it all again. Two of our children got hysterical and said I can’t go through this again. But we did; we had to.

I would like for our country to be educated about the nature of mental illness because it is an organic brain disease, and it is treatable, but there is very little available treatment for it, especially in Texas. Texas is right at the bottom of the heap in treating the mentally ill and it’s right at the top in executing the mentally ill and there’s something wrong with that picture. If we would use just one tenth of the money that’s spent on imprisonment and execution to have some prevention, if we had mental health treatment for anybody who needs it, these horrible, horrible crimes like Larry committed would not happen. But instead our state and our federal governments are cutting the benefits for the mentally ill.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Voices of Families of the Executed - Part 1

Today we begin our series of excerpts from the MVFHR panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference in Dallas this past July. See the original post announcing this series, the current issue of our newsletter with more about the peace conference panel, and MVFHR's report about families of the executed.

Remarks from Lois Robison:

We’re just an average family, except we have a son who was executed by the state of Texas. Larry was every mother’s dream: he was in the band, he was a good student, he did church work, had a paper route, he would have made Eagle Scout if he hadn’t got sick.

We realized he had a problem and took him to the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, where we lived at the time, but he wasn’t diagnosed until after he got out of the Air Force when he was 21. Unfortunate timing: we took him to the hospital, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but our insurance didn’t cover him because he had just turned 21, so they discharged him and told us to take him to the county hospital. We took him there, and they kept him for 30 days and then told us they were discharging him and not to take him home. I said, “He has no job, no place to stay, no car, you can’t just put him on the street.” They said, “You’d be surprised, we do it every day.”

We got him into the veterans’ hospital; they kept him for 30 days and then told us the same thing: “We don’t have the money, we don’t have the beds, and he’s never been violent so we can’t keep him for more than 30 days.” They told us to take him to the county MHMR (Mental Health and Mental Retardation) for treatment, but they forgot to have him sign a release of records, so MHMR would not treat him or give him his medications. Consequently he disappeared and he ended up not getting treatment for four years.

The first violent thing he ever did was to kill five people, very brutally. We were horrified, and we felt terribly for the families that lost their family members. We thought that Larry would probably be sent to a mental hospital for life. We were wrong: he was jailed for a year, tried, and given the death penalty – found sane, by the way, despite his record. I collapsed outside the courtroom and was hauled to the hospital in an ambulance, screaming all the way, “They’re going to kill my son.”

I was in the hospital for four days. When I came up out of it, I got angry and I said, “This is not right. They told us if he ever got violent they would give him treatment, and instead they gave him the death penalty.” I determined that I was going to tell this story to everyone in the United States. I haven’t told them all, but I’ve told quite a few of them! Larry was on death row for 17 years and was executed on January 21, 2000. The day that he died I promised him I would spend the rest of my life working to help the mentally ill and people on death row.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Panel of Families of the Executed

In the current issue of our newsletter, there’s a story titled “Families of the Executed Come Together at Women’s Peace Conference,” about the panel presentation at which MVFHR members Lois Robison and Melanie Hebert from Texas were joined by Tamara Chikunova, who traveled from Uzbekistan to the U.S. for the first time to participate in this Dallas, Texas conference. In the newsletter story, you can read Lois’s and Melanie’s reflections about what a powerful experience it was to meet and connect with someone who has suffered a similar tragedy to theirs, in a country halfway across the world.

As organizer and moderator of the panel, I also found the experience powerful in ways I haven’t fully been able to articulate, except that it has something to do with an awareness that whatever it is within human beings that we’re fighting when we’re fighting the death penalty, it isn’t unique to any one country. I knew that before the peace conference, of course, but there are different kinds of knowing, and the experience of bringing these three women together and listening to them listen to each other will stay with me for a long time.

Beginning tomorrow, our next series of blog posts will feature excerpts from the women’s peace conference panel presentation. As you visit us here over the next several days, you’ll be able to read Lois’s, Melanie’s, and Tamara’s heartbreaking accounts, which remind us that each execution creates a new set of victims. You’ll read, too, about the courage of these survivors who continue to fight so that others don’t have to experience what they experienced – very much like the survivors we featured in the Preventing Violence series.

And for more on the subject, read MVFHR’s report on families of the executed, Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind. Read about the Third International Women’s Peace Conference here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Preventing Violence - Part 6

We wrap up our Preventing Violence series where it began. Last Friday’s post, which inspired the series, described the “Resolution in Support of the Victims and Families at Virginia Tech” that was to be presented on the college’s campus that day. Now MVFHR member Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins gives a report on the ceremony:

A group of victims and victim advocates made up the resolution’s “presentation team,” and we were joined by John Gillis, the head of the federal Office for Victims of Crime; Will Marling, the interim Executive Director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance; some of Maryland's leading victim advocates; leaders of Virginia's chapters of Parents of Murdered Children. I was there representing not only MVFHR but also the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for whom I work as victim outreach staff.

The ceremony, in which we presented a lovely large framed copy of the resolution, was accompanied by much more than just words on paper. Each organization that signed on to the resolution has promised specific kinds of support, ranging from donations of MVFHR board member Bill Jenkins' book What To Do When The Police Leave: A Guide To The First Days of Traumatic Loss for each family to trainings in trauma and crisis support and counseling sessions for all in the Virginia Tech community who wish to have them. The university will be considering these offers of help and working with us to provide them.

At the ceremony, we each spoke about our shared stories, our grief, and our determination to make some good come out of this tragedy. We then went as a group and laid a wreath at the memorial in the drill field at the center of campus.


We were all struck by the graciousness of Virginia Tech’s President Charles Steger and the university leadership who took us to lunch and thanked us profusely for this outpouring of support. They are so focused on finding out what went wrong and making sure that they do all they can to help it never happen again. It was a powerful and indescribable feeling being present in the conference room with all of us together.

I was changed by this visit – being close to Norris Hall, seeing the signs all over Blacksburg in support, hugging President Steger and knowing how broken his heart was, yet how he has persevered with such dignity. It made me more focused than ever on making the personal connections with the victims of crimes, just being there in the moment of need with some kind of aid. I had never been this close to such a mass tragedy; the scope is too big for us even to imagine the full impact. I bought a shirt that said "We Are All Virginia Tech" – because we are. I invite everyone to make stopping this kind of violence a priority in our lives.