Friday, November 30, 2007

No Research Can Afford to Ignore Them

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

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

Here’s the excerpt from Margaret Vandiver:

The Effect of the Death Penalty on Families of the Condemned

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pressure to Support the Death Penalty?

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

Influences on the Choice to Support a Particular Penalty

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Do Opinions Change?

Two more research ideas from Margaret Vandiver:

Stability of Opinion Over Time

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

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

The Aftermath of Execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Desiring the Death Penalty or Desiring the Most Severe Punishment?

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

Here’s the first excerpt from Margaret Vandiver:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

It Punishes Victims' Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A History of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Toll it Takes

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

99 Nations in Favor of a Worldwide Moratorium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Horrific and Unacceptable Suffering

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Believe Me, I Understood

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Catch Us On Bill Moyers' Journal

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

We Can Live Without It

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Shift in the Paradigm

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Friday at the United Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2007

Five Million Signatures

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

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

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

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

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

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