Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It Would Just Replicate the Violence

Here's a follow-up to our previous post; this story is from the Seacoast online and is headlined "Renny Cushing speaks out against Addison death sentence":

Renny Cushing has been in the news a lot lately but not for his role as one of Hampton's five state representatives.

Cushing, whose father was murdered, has been speaking out against the recent death-penalty verdict handed down to Michael Addison, who was convicted last week of fatally shooting a Manchester police officer two years ago.

The death sentence is the first since 1959 in New Hampshire and the last person actually executed was a man in 1939.

"I just think New Hampshire has been able to live without the death penalty for over 50 years and it can continue to do so," Cushing said. "Most of the world has recognized the death penalty is a human rights violation and I just can't see New Hampshire emulating China."

Cushing is the founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents victims across the country who oppose capital punishment.

Cushing said he understands the emotional case for the death penalty. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer. But rather than fight for capital punishment, Cushing stresses the need for mercy.

"Killing the man who killed my father wasn't going to do anything for me or my family," Cushing said. "It would just replicate the type of violence that brought pain to us to begin with."

Cushing hopes the Legislature will once again try to repeal the death penalty law.

In 2000, the Legislature passed a repeal bill, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. The House failed to override the veto by 34 votes.

Lawmakers rejected repeal attempts in 2001, 2006 and last year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

We're Not Better Off

Yesterday, a New Hampshire jury issued the state's first death sentence in 49 years.

Coverage of the sentence has included some response from Renny Cushing and MVFHR, as in the Union Leader's story, "Addison case highlights deep divide on the death penalty":

Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and a state representative from Hampton, said his heart goes out to the Briggs family.

"Going through any type of homicide trial takes a tremendous toll on you," said Cushing, whose father was murdered by a Hampton police officer and his wife.

But Addison's sentence means public employees will be conducting ritual killings of human beings, he said.

"That is not the New Hampshire tradition of respecting human rights and human dignity," Cushing said. "What we have seen in the past couple of months in New Hampshire is the death penalty in black and white: a jury's reluctance to give the death penalty to a white millionaire, but a willingness to put to death a black kid from Boston. That's unfortunate." ...

And in this Seacoast online story:

Gov. John Lynch said Thursday he will veto any attempt to repeal or scale back New Hampshire's capital murder statute — potentially setting up a showdown with a Legislature that voted to repeal the law eight years ago.

"I think a just verdict has been rendered," Lynch said after a jury issued a death sentence to Michael Addison for murdering Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs two years ago.

Lynch said murdering a police officer "really strikes at the heart and fabric of our society" and the death penalty is appropriate "for such a heinous crime."

Death penalty foes have not decided whether to proceed with legislation to repeal or limit the death penalty law next year, said state Reps. Renny Cushing and Jim Splaine, both longtime opponents.

"I think some of us have been waiting to see the outcome of this trial," said Cushing, D-Hampton.

Cushing understands the emotional case for the death penalty. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer. But rather than fight for capital punishment, Cushing stresses the need for mercy.

"Ultimately, I think the world has come to recognize the death penalty is a human rights violation," he said. "As a society, we're not better off when we have public employees conducting ritual killings of people."

Cushing is the founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents victims across the country who oppose capital punishment. Cushing and Splaine said opponents will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to proceed with a bill. Splaine, Cushing and Rep. Steven Lindsey, D-Keene, have initiated repeal bills, but don't have to decide whether to go forward until next month. Cushing said opponents will get together soon to decide what to do. ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We must not let murderers turn us to murder

Colleagues in the Caribbean have been alerting us to efforts to bring the death penalty back in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and particularly to recent articles in local newspapers emphasizing victims' family members' pro-death penalty cries (see, for example, this article in the Nassau Guardian).

After one paper, the Tribune, ran an article reporting that hundreds of people marched through the streets with three effigies hanging from a gallows calling for the resumption of hanging, MVFHR sent the following letter to the editor, which was published in full today with the headline "We must not let murderers turn us to murder." (Our colleagues tell us that the Tribune, though not yet online, is the largest-circulation newspaper in the Bahamas.)

Twenty years ago, two shotgun blasts took my father's life in the doorway of our family home, right in front of my mother's eyes. That day changed my family forever, and as a result I feel a unique solidarity and kinship with anyone who has suffered the devastating loss of a family member to murder. I share the grief, outrage, and desire for recognition felt by the victims' family members who marched in the streets last month. Where we differ, however, is in regard to whether the death penalty is the best way to address our pain, our loss, and the injustices we have experienced.

Soon after my father's murder, when the two people responsible for the crime had been apprehended and were awaiting trial, a friend said to me, "I hope they fry those people so your family can get some peace." He meant to comfort me, but the fact is that another killing would not have brought me or my family peace. If we let murderers turn us to murder, we give them too much power. They succeed in bringing us to their way of thinking and acting, and we become what we say we abhor.

Since that time, I have worked with hundreds of victims' family members who have come to feel that the death penalty offers only a false promise of closure. It does not truly heal our anguish as surviving family members, and it does not make society safer. Vicki Schieber, whose beautiful 23-year-old daughter Shannon was murdered, has this to say: “Losing a beloved family member to murder is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. There is no such thing as closure when a violent crime rips away the life of someone dear to you. We want the world to remember Shannon and to know what kind of person she was. In fact, we believe that one tragedy of the death penalty is that it turns society’s perspective away from the victim and creates an outpouring of support for those who have perpetuated a crime. For us, the death penalty is not the way to honor our daughter’s life.” Another mother, Theresa Matthews, lost her son in a murder that is still unsolved. She says, “A lot of people thought that I would want the person who did this terrible thing to my son to be executed, but that’s not what I want. We keep our hope that the person willl be found and held accountable, but who are we to say a life for a life? I don’t believe the death penalty would have prevented my son’s murder."

As victims' families, we all have reason to be angry and to work for change. I submit, however, that the death penalty serves as a distraction from victims' real needs, not a solution.

Renny Cushing
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Massachusetts, USA

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Holistic Approach

After the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment released its final report on Friday, recommending abolition of the state's death penalty, there has of course been considerable news coverage of the issue. This Baltimore Sun article has a video of the official announcement, in which you can catch a glimpse of MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber, who serves on the Commission.

If you follow the above link to the online copy of the Commission's report, do take a look at the appendix written by the victims' subcommittee, which includes several recommendations for improving services for victims in the state. After listing several specific recommendations, the subcommittee members write:

We, as victim members of the Commission, believe that the above recommendations are imperative for inclusion in any draft legislation that may follow the report. There needs to be a holistic approach to victims’ interests. Any savings from a [death penalty] repeal action should be targeted to assist the victims of crime, and especially the survivors of homicide. The results of the Commission’s recommendation cannot be a façade to victim/survivor concerns. The Commission’s recommendations must be clearly articulated to ensure that any legislation introduced will be dedicated to the interests of victims.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After 60 Years; After 4 Years

Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It's a good day to visit the U.S. Human Rights Network's site and to read, or re-read, a copy of the Declaration.

At the time of its framing, the UDHR was clearly an aspirational document; it represented a wish, an ideal for which the world's nations should strive. It's interesting to learn that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of that ideal. In her book Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean writes:

It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

Today, unlike 60 years ago, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty. There is so much left to accomplish with respect to human rights in general and the death penalty in particular, but today, on this historic anniversary, we can take a moment to recognize the distance come.

Today is also the fourth anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. In our first public statement, we said

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, 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 these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.
Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.
We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.

We are immensely grateful to all the members and allies who have helped to answer that call and who have accomplished so much in these four years. Happy Birthday and Happy Human Rights Day to all of us.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Report from Spain

Here's another report from Cities for Life, this time by MVFHR member Art Laffin:

Last year I was invited to Italy by the Community of SantÉgidio (CSE) to participate in the Cities of Life Campaign to abolish the death penalty, and to speak about my experience as a murder victim family member. This year, from November 29-December 6, I was invited to Spain by the CSE to be part of the same campaign and, like Italy, it has truly been a remarkable experience.

I arrived in Barcelona in mid-afternoon on November 29. David Salas and Manel Alonso, members of the CSE, met me at the airport and gave me a warm welcome. In the evening I attended Mass with the CSE at Saint Just church. This was followed by a dinner where I met many members of the CSE, some of whom would be my escorts and translators during the coming week. Each year on November 30, the Rome-based CSE organizes events worldwide to abolish the death penalty. On November 30, 2008, 970 events were held worldwide in over 70 countries and 52 capitals, calling for an end to the death penalty. At the Cities of Life event held in the historic square in Barcelona, I was honored to be one of the speakers. Other speakers included Jaume Castro, the founder of the CSE in Barcelona, a representative of the mayor, a local news journalist and a respresentative of Amnesty International. Some 300 people attended this outdoor event, which also included a time of remembrance for the executed--1252 people were executed worldwide in 2007--as well as music by a popular jazz band.

Following this program I flew to Madrid for I was asked to speak there the next morning. I spoke to about 50 students who were part of an English class at the Universidad Complutense. After the class CSE member Jesús Romero gave me a tour of special historic sites of Madrid. Jesús and I then had a good visit with Sr. Leonora, a Carmelite sister who knows the Carmelites in Washington, D.C. whom I am good friends with. I then flew back to Barcelona to continue my speaking tour.

During the next three days I spoke to over 700 students and teachers at two universities and five high schools. There were many powerful moments of sharing with the students, including meeting some who experienced the murder of a loved one. On December 3, before speaking at the Escola Joviat in Manresa, which is about one hour from Barcelona, David took me to visit the cave where St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote the famous spiritual exericses. During my time at the cave, which has been converted into a small chapel, I gave thanks to God for the life of St. Ignatius and remembered in a special way all those Jesuits who have helped and inspired me in my faith journey. Before leaving Manresa, I did an interview with the local newspaper.

My final day in Barcelona included doing an interview with Catholic TV program to be aired on Public Television, visiting Barcelona´s beautiful port, and saying goodbye to members of the CSE. I am deeply grateful to the CSE for the countless grace-filled experiences I´ve had during my time in Spain, and for taking such good care of me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Representative Cushing

Earlier this week, Renny Cushing was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives of the 161st New Hampshire legislature. Renny, as many blog readers may know, served two terms in the New Hampshire legislature in the 1990s, during which he sponsored innovative victims' rights legislation and a measure that would have abolished the state's death penalty. Now, after an intervening decade of continued work for victims and against the death penalty, Renny is excited about returning to the legislature while also continuing to serve as Executive Director of MVFHR. We'll post further news as it comes.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Reports from Italy

While in Italy for events associated with the Community of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life - CIties Against the Death Penalty," MVFHR's Renny Cushing spoke to a large crowd at the University of the Sacred Heart in Rome and at a large community meeting in Lucca, which is in Italy's Tuscany region. Tuscany is significant in this context because Cities for Life is celebrated each year on November 30, the anniversary of the day that Tuscany abolished the death penalty in 1786 - thus marking the first time a state decided to do away with capital punishment.

While in Italy Renny also met with town officials, faith leaders, and other death penalty abolitionists, and particularly welcomed the chance to be part of a delegation meeting with the mayor of Rome as he made a public proclamation recognizing Italy's key role in the global abolition movement.

Renny reports that the events got good local and regional press coverage and that listeners were moved by the MVFHR message; some specifically told him that they had never before heard of victim opposition to the death penalty and thought it was an important part of the effort to abolish the death penalty worldwide. In that effort, we were glad to have the opportunity to participate in these events organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, which is one of MVFHR's partners in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Bill Pelke writes about his experiences in Rome here on the Journey of Hope blog.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The closer you look at it

It's always interesting to learn about the variety of factors that influence people who previously supported the death penalty to change their minds. This column in yesterday's Baltimore Examiner from a Maryland law enforcement officer includes the reminder that hearing from victims' families who oppose the death penalty can make a difference. (See the bold sections in particular.)

I spent 10 years as a law enforcement officer, including seven in the Baltimore Police Department. So I am no stranger to violence.

Indeed, my years surrounded by senseless crime filled me with outrage and the desire for revenge — including the death penalty.

But I have learned a lot since then, including the scary fact that a single mistake could be mean the execution of an innocent person.

As someone who has dedicated my life to enforcing the law, I can't live with that. I testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment this fall, sharing my journey from death penalty supporter to a supporter of repeal. And last month the Commission validated my experience by voting for the same - the repeal of Maryland's death penalty. It was a smart decision and I hope the legislature will move quickly to enact it.

As I said, my opposition to the death penalty evolved. During my years in Vietnam and later as a military policeman in Louisiana, I was exposed to violence as a matter of routine. My anger at those who would harm innocent people boiled over. Then, working in some of the poorest and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore only strengthened my feeling that some people were simply beyond redemption. It was a fairly simple conclusion for me to think that the most evil people in our society deserved the death penalty. In my view, those who opposed it were muddleheaded, knee-jerk liberals who were just plain wrong.

I felt that way until about ten years ago. The last decade has seen a broad shift in public opinion on the death penalty, and I was not immune to the new information that was coming out about innocent people being sentenced to death. I was also struck by a talk on the death penalty by then Archbishop of Baltimore, William Cardinal Keeler, when he spoke at a mass at my parish in Towson. I realized then that I had to learn more.

I read about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth — a man sentenced to die in Maryland for a crime he did not commit. I could not begin to imagine the absolute horror of languishing on death row an innocent man. I could not imagine the anticipation of being lifted onto a gurney, strapped down and injected with a combination of lethal drugs by an incompetent nurse's aide — knowing all the time that I had done nothing wrong.

As I read about Mr. Bloodsworth and other innocent people that came close to execution, my doubts about the death penalty grew. Human beings are simply not right 100 percent of the time. No amount of reforms, technological advances, or legal procedures can undo that fact. If the death penalty remains, some state, perhaps even our state, will kill an innocent person. Can we live with that?

Like many people, I have struggled to make sense of this issue. The death penalty seems like a proportionate punishment for a grievous crime. At least it brings justice to victims in the face of evil. But does it? My religion teaches that the path to true peace is through forgiveness. John Paul II traveled to an Italian prison to forgive the man who shot him. The death penalty keeps us from following that noble example. It certainly does not bring back or even honor the dead. It also does not ennoble the living. It does nothing to assuage the sorrow of the victim's loved ones. In fact, as I sat through the commission hearings waiting to testify, I heard from victims' families who said the opposite — that the death penalty's uncertainty only brought them more grief.

The closer you look at it, the less the death penalty makes any sense. As the Maryland commission found, the risk of executing an innocent person is just too high to justify maintaining a punishment that does not deter, costs too much, and harms victims' families.

And as a former police officer, I would add that the death penalty is not needed to protect the public. It is time for Maryland to make the common-sense choice and replace the death penalty with life without parole.
Michael May, of Rodgers Forge, is an attorney and formerly served as a Baltimore City police officer and a military police officer.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lit Up for Life

According to the Community of Sant'Egidio, 964 cities are participating in " Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty" today. As I mentioned last week, MVFHR's Art Laffin, Bud Welch, Renny Cushing, and Bill Pelke are in Italy and Spain giving talks in connection with these events, and we'll report on their experiences as soon as they're back home and ready to answer my questions about how it all went. In the meantime, here's a photo of the Roman Coliseum lit up for the occasion.

Monday, November 24, 2008

At the French Embassy

Last Wednesday the French government, in its role as current president of the European Union, held a seminar on the death penalty at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. It was the first seminar of its kind, during which several people familiar with the death penalty in the U.S. briefed delegates from European nations about the U.S. death penalty abolition movement. Renny Cushing represented MVFHR; the other participants were Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn from Amnesty International USA, Dick Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center, Ginny Sloan from the Constitution Project, Mike Farrell and Elizabeth Zitrin from Death Penalty Focus.

In his presentation, Renny talked about victim opposition to the death penalty and MVFHR's two projects, "No Silence, No Shame," which focuses on families of the executed, and "Prevention, Not Execution," which focuses on mental illness and the death penalty. He urged the European Union delegates to become involved in both these projects, and at their request he is preparing a series of recommendations for them to consider at their next meeting, which will be held in a couple of weeks.

Renny reports that the delegates were interested in learning about how members of the European Union can be more effective in advancing the cause of abolition in the U.S. and worldwide, and many had not been aware of victim opposition to the death penalty until this briefing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Once Again: UN Calls for a Moratorium

A year ago, we posted news of the UN General Assembly's resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Now the UN General Assembly's Human Rights committee has again voted for such a resolution. Here's the Associated Press story:

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee voted Thursday for the second year in a row to urge a global moratorium on the death penalty.
The United States sided with countries such as Iran, China and Syria in opposing the resolution.
The 105-48 vote marked a slight change from the 104-54 vote in the full General Assembly last December. About 30 nations abstained.
Supporters of the ban argue there's no conclusive evidence that the death penalty serves as a meaningful deterrent to crime and the risk of injustice is too high. Nations opposing the ban say the death penalty is effective in discouraging most serious crimes and remains legal under international law.
The vote in the human rights committee, though it includes all U.N. members, is not the final vote. Next month, the General Assembly will hold a final vote on the measure and the committee's vote is almost certain to be closely replicated there.
Though not legally binding, the voting does carry moral weight coming from the 192-nation world body that serves as a unique forum for debate and barometer of international opinion.
Amnesty International, which has been campaigning for the resolution, noted rising acceptance of a moratorium. In the 1990s, it was voted on twice in the General Assembly and failed.
On Thursday, the committee vote picked up one more nation than last year and six fewer opponents.
As of November, some 137 nations had abolished the death penalty in law or practice, compared with about 80 in 1988, according to Amnesty International figures.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been encouraged by the trend in many areas of the world toward ultimately abolishing the death penalty, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
Last year there were at least 1,252 people put to death by 24 nations and 3,347 others sentenced to death in 51 countries, according to Amnesty International.
Terlingen urged nations such as Japan that increased the rate of executions in the past year to "take immediate steps to implement the resolution."
The resolution has been spearheaded by Italy and supported by the Vatican, a leading opponent of capital punishment. Also leading the campaign has been the European Union, which requires its 27 members to outlaw capital punishment.

Speaking of campaigns spearheaded by the Italians, several MVFHR members, including Art Laffin, Bud Welch, Bill Pelke, and Renny Cushing, have been invited to participate in events connected with Cities for Life-Cities Against the Death Penalty, which is organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio. Here's a brief description from The World Coalition's site:

On November 30, monuments in nearly 800 cities across the globe will light up to celebrate “Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty”.
The international day “Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty” is organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio and supported by the World Coalition and the European Union. It takes place every year on the anniversary of the day Tuscany abolished the death penalty in 1786. It was the first time a state decided to do away with capital punishment.

Check out the list of cities that are participating. We will post a report about the various speaking events when our members return.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

His Life Changed

An article in yesterday's Pennsylvania Daily Item features MVFHR Board member Walt Everett, who spoke at Bucknell University earlier this week and was honored by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for his work against the death penalty. From the article:

He could have been angry, or bitter or vengeful. Instead, after losing a life to violence 20 years ago, the Rev. Walter Everett responded by saving one.

It was the first step on a path toward forgiveness that led to his speaking, alongside the man who killed his eldest son, at a social justice course at Bucknell University Monday.

After Scott Everett was gunned down in a Connecticut apartment complex in July 1987, the pastor “went through the next few months with a tremendous amount of anger at what had happened.”

He prayed, and prayed, and prayed, waiting for an answer from God. Why had this happened? What should I do? he asked. The spiritual silence only fueled his growing rage and frustration.

But Everett, of Lewisburg, told the Bucknell class on Monday he quickly realized “my anger was killing me. Emotionally, spiritually and even physically.”

Then at the sentencing of his son’s murderer, Mike Carlucci, Everett heard something he didn’t expect.

Carlucci told Everett, and Everett’s wife, Nancy, he was sorry.

That’s when he felt something, Everett said. “It was as though I felt the prodding of God saying, ‘This is what I’ve asked you to wait for.’”

His life changed when he wrote a letter to Carlucci and forgave him for the crime, leading to an improbable friendship that lasts to this day.

“If he didn’t send me that letter, I can’t see the future,” said Carlucci, a career criminal and rampant drug user prior to his arrest for Scott Everett’s murder. “But that letter put one foot in front of the other for me.”

Carlucci has been free for the last 15-plus years after serving a reduced sentence — three years — for the murder. He now lives in Huntington, Conn., and visited with Everett recently. The two spent part of their time together telling their story across the Valley, including their visit to Bucknell.

Since their relationship began, both men have dedicated themselves to sharing their stories to change others’ lives. Carlucci speaks at prisons, colleges — “wherever I’m asked to go” — and shares his journey of addiction, recovery and redemption, while Everett uses his story to speak out against the death penalty and promote “restorative justice.”

Read the rest of the article.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Next Frontier

We were interested to see, on the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)'s website, a law review article suggesting that severe mental illness is the next frontier in death penalty jurisprudence. DPIC summarizes:

Professor Bruce Winick of the Miami School of Law has written an article arguing that the Supreme Court should extend the protection it presently offers to those with mental retardation and juveniles to offenders with severe mental illness, as well. In "The Supreme Court’s Emerging Death Penalty Jurisprudence: Severe Mental Illness as the Next Frontier," Winick reviews the High Court’s analysis of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment with a focus on when the Court has found the death penalty disproportionate to the crime or for the offender. While Winick argues that the Supreme Court is not prepared to render the death penalty itself as cruel and unusual, he concludes that, “At least some (although by no means all) offenders suffering from severe mental illness, like those with mental retardation and juveniles, will have sufficiently diminished culpability and deterability at the time of the offense to render capital punishment a disproportionate penalty under the Eighth Amendment.”

Read more.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Abolition Recommendation

We were excited to see "Panel recommends abolishing death penalty in Md." in yesterday's Baltimore Sun, about the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment's recent vote. MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber sits on this Commission. From the article:

A commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to review state executions recommended tonight abolishing capital punishment in Maryland, prompting hope among death penalty opponents that the General Assembly could end the 30-year practice when it convenes in January.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted 13-7 to make the recommendation and also found that the death penalty carries the "real possibility" of executing innocents and may be biased against blacks.

The commission's final report provides additional ammunition to O'Malley and other death penalty opponents in their uphill fight to stop state executions. Previous repeal efforts have narrowly failed despite high-profile campaigns by O'Malley, a Catholic and ardent opponent of capital punishment.

An O'Malley spokesman said tonight that the Democratic governor looks forward to reading the final report, which is due next month.

Tonight's decision "now places a burden on those who would like to defend the system," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and panel member who voted with the majority.

Death penalty proponents took comfort in what they characterized as a close vote, considering that some members of the commission were appointed by an ardent anti-death penalty governor. "Tonight was a night to really figure out where people actually stood," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a panel member who plans to write the minority's opinion to be included in the final commission report. "The vote is a testament to how close this issue is in the state of Maryland."

Despite the panel's recommendation and O'Malley's view, the final decision rests with the General Assembly, where a key Senate panel has repeatedly voted down a death penalty repeal, preventing it from reaching the chamber's floor.

While executions in Maryland are infrequent, the issue is being debated here as state executions are being scrutinized nationwide because of high-profile exonerations of death-row inmates who were wrongly convicted.

The governor has lobbied for a death-penalty repeal in the General Assembly and vowed to sign such a bill if the legislature passes it.

Maryland has had an effective ban on use of its death chamber since December 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that execution protocols that detail the steps to put a condemned prisoner to death were improperly developed.

In May, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection procedures such as those used in Maryland were acceptable, O'Malley reluctantly took the first step toward ending Maryland's moratorium. He ordered the drafting of new lethal injection procedures, but also asked the commission to study the practice and investigate whether it was justified.

The 23-member commission voted down a proposed amendment to keep the death penalty for people who kill correctional officers or police officers. The panel voiced unanimous or strong support for seven of eight findings it was charged with exploring. Among these:

*Racial and geographic disparities exist in how the death penalty is applied

*Death penalty cases are more costly than non-death penalty cases and take a harder toll on the survivors of murder victims." ...

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Truth, Justice, and Healing

Today's Portsmouth (NH) Herald has an editorial titled "NH Should Repeal Death Penalty Now." Here's an excerpt that mentions MVFHR and victim opposition to the death penalty:

In our view, New Hampshire needs to repeal its death penalty law. In 2006, a bill to remove "the death sentence from the capital murder statute and replace it with life imprisonment, until death, without the possibility of parole," sponsored by Portsmouth state Reps. Jim Splaine and Paul McEachern, failed by 12 votes.

Splaine intends to file a new bill this session and he will have a powerful new ally in the fight with the return of Hampton's Renny Cushing to the House.

Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1988, is the executive director of the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. He speaks with the greatest power in opposition to the death penalty. In a speech, "Not in our name: Homicide survivors speak out against the death penalty," given to the Kennedy School of Government in 1999, Cushing said survivors of homicide victims want three things: the truth, justice and healing. Cushing argues that execution is not justice and does not help survivors heal. In seeking death, we "take the focus off the good works of the individual we've lost, and we become very offender oriented. Very murder fixated. That's what the death penalty is all about, it's not about the victim, it's about the murderer."

New Hampshire should redirect the energy it expends trying to kill criminals toward helping victims' families heal.

"The Death Penalty Should Not Be"

From yesterday's Montgomery (AL) Advertiser, "Death Penalty Opponents Share Stories":

Shirley Cochran fought back tears as she made her way to the podium.

She was the last of four panelists to speak out against the death penalty, but as she said, certainly not the least.

Before a quiet audience Cochran recalled the day she found out her first husband was murdered. She remembers wanting his killer to die.

But years later she would marry her new husband, James Bo Cochran. Her new husband spent 19 years and four months on death row before being exonerated for the murder that sent him there.

She remembers wanting him to live.

"The death penalty should not be," Cochran said shaking her head. "I know that if it was someone in your family, you wouldn't want it to happen."

Cochran and a group of death penalty opponents spoke out last week at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Alabama. It was an open forum, where members of the panel took questions from the audience. The speakers included Cochran's husband and former Tuskegee Police Chief Leon Frazier, a one-time supporter of the death penalty who now opposes it.

Eliminating the death penalty does not mean criminals should not pay for the crimes they commit, just that they do not have to die for it, Cochran said.

" I can understand how people can feel that way. All I could think of was my husband was murdered and that my children don't have a father," she said. ...

Monday, November 10, 2008

I Stick to What I Believe In

The coverage of the recent executions of the men responsible for the 2002 Bali bomb blast included some anti-death penalty victims' voices, such as this article posted this past Friday on a Western Australia online news site, "Bali Victim's Father Doesn't Want the Death Penalty":

He lost his son in the Bali atrocities six years ago, but David Hancock does not think the three men responsible for the bombings should lose their lives as a consequence.

As Indonesian authorities prepare to execute Imam Samudra, 38, Amrozi, 47, and his brother Mukhlas, 48 - with the wooden stakes they will be tied to before the firing squads reportedly now in place - the families of victims yet again have to live through their loss and pain.

Mr Hancock was one of those victims, with his son Byron among the seven members of the Kingsley Football Club killed by the bombs in Paddy's Bar and the Sari club, where Byron was enjoying his end-of-season trip.

And while his father describes the renewed coverage and interest in the days leading up to the scheduled executions as a kind of torture, he still does not believe the right thing is being done in killing the perpetrators.

"Nothing tests your position on something until something like this happens to you," Mr Hancock said.

"I have seriously examined my issues and I stick to what I believe in.

"I think it degrades human life to take the life of another, and I just do not believe it is in the interest of the community to do so.

"It destroys people and I put myself in the position of those people in Indonesia who might be called on to execute these people and what it does to them.

"I respect the Indonesians to establish their own laws and deal with these things how they think - but I am of a view, regardless of what has happened to our family, that it is an improper thing and should not be done."

In July, we posted a story about another family member of the Bali bombing who spoke out against the death penalty.

Friday, November 7, 2008

No Death Sentence in NH

From yesterday's AP story:

Man spared in 1st NH death penalty case in 49 yrs

A millionnaire businessman has been spared the death penalty in what would have been New Hampshire's first execution since 1939.
The decision by a jury in Brentwood means an automatic sentence of life without parole for John Brooks. He was convicted of hiring three men to kidnap and kill a man he believed had stolen from him. Jack Reid was beaten to death with a sledgehammer in 2005.
Brooks — who is 56 — lives in Las Vegas.
New Hampshire last sentenced someone to die in 1959; its last execution was in 1939.

More coverage is in the Union Leader and The Boston Herald.

MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing comments on the decision:

"This decision is significant in many respects. Parts of this case were argued before the jury by New Hampshire's Attorney General, Kelly Ayotte, which in itself is unprecedented in recent memory -- to have the state's highest law enforcement arguing at a trial level. Then, this is the first time in 49 years that a New Hampshire jury has convicted someone charged with capital murder, and it's a great relief that the jury then refused to send that person to death row. It's further proof that our death penalty is not something New Hampshire wants or needs, and that the money spent on this prosecution would have been better spent meeting needs of victims of crime."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Acknowledgment

David Kaczynski, director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty (NYADP), writes:

Many of us know Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny was executed in 1999, 18 years after Bill turned him into the the Sacramento police department in the murder of Leah Shendel. Bill - an NYADP friend - is a passionate abolitionist and a founding board member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Manny - one of thirteen people executed by the state of California in the modern era - had a serious mental illness aggravated by PTSD acquired through his military service in Vietnam.

The Babbitt family was treated horrendously by a system that promised Manny help for his mental illness. Instead Manny got an incompetent defense attorney, an all-white jury, and an execution date. Bill went to San Quentin prison on May 3, 1999 - Manny's 50th birthday - and watched him be put to death by lethal injection.

This summer, Bill was given some vindication in a report by a commission of the California State Senate on the fair admission of justice. The full report can be found here. But in the excerpt below from Page 70 of the report, the Commission acknowledges that in a rational and just system, Manny would not have been executed.

This report cannot undo the injustice of Manny Babbitt's execution, but at least it acknowledges that injustice, which is something.

[from the report:]

"If California’s death penalty law were narrowed, it would be unwise to proceed with the execution of defendants whose death judgment was not based upon one of the identified special circumstances. With respect to the thirteen executions conducted by California since 1978, ten of them would have met the recommended special circumstance for multiple murders… the executions of Thomas M. Thompson, Manuel Babbitt and Stephen Wayne Anderson would not have resulted in a death sentence using the Mandatory Justice factors."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Opposing the Death Penalty in Jamaica

A few weeks ago, Amnesty International in London contacted us about an upcoming press conference and series of educational events that their Caribbean Team was organizing in Jamaica, for which they hoped to find someone who could speak about losing a family member to execution. MVFHR member Stanley Allridge traveled to Jamaica from Texas for these events, and James Burke, from Amnesty's Caribbean Team, now writes with this report:

The last execution in Jamaica was carried out in 1988. However, death sentences continue to be passed and the Jamaican authorities continually complain about judicial decisions and processes which in their eyes prevent executions being carried out. Recent opinion polls have shown that public support for the death penalty appears to be very high. This is linked with concerns with the increase of violent crime and the seeming inability of the Jamaican authorities to combat it. 2008 could be a record year for total number of homicides.

With a parliamentary debate on the death penalty imminent in Jamaica, the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) and Amnesty International were looking for a speaker to travel to the country in order to campaign on this issue at events coinciding with the World Day Against the Death Penalty. We were fortunate that Stanley Allridge from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and MVFHR was available and willing to travel to Jamaica for such an undertaking.

Stanley spoke at several public events and carried out a number of media interviews. On Thursday 8 October there was press conference held by the IJCHR, AI Jamaica, and members of the Jamaican Catholic Church, where Stanley spoke. Later that day Stanley spoke at a high school in Kingston. The students were aged 14-18 and at the outset the students were overwhelmingly in favour of the death penalty. Stanley was very impressed by the interaction he saw among the students. As he was recounting his experiences and explaining how frequently innocent people are executed he said he saw “lightbulbs go on” in the children and could see that many were reevaluating their beliefs. Following the meeting some of the students asked how they could get involved in campaigning against the death penalty and on other human rights issues.

On Friday 9 October there was a debate at the Law School of the University of West Indies, which was very well attended and quite a heated debate ensued. The majority of attendees were law students who once again were overwhelmingly in support of the death penalty. Although these students were less open to persuasion than the high school students, Stanley believed he was able to successfully challenge their assumptions on the issue, and several audience members were openly moved by the stories he had to tell.

On Saturday 10 October Stanley travelled to speak at a public forum in Montego Bay, on the other side of the island, which was attended by the members of local groups such as Montego Bay Citizen Association, Catholic mothers and the Private Sector association.

Throughout his time in Jamaica Stanley carried out several media interviews. The majority of these were with Jamaican radio stations. Radio is Jamaicans' principal source of information. Stanley was interviewed in debate with other guests and fielded calls from the general public, and would have reached a great amount of the Jamaican population in these interviews.

Although Stanley recognized that campaigning on this issue in Jamaica is difficult given the general support for the death penalty in Jamaica and the escalating rate of violent crime, he believed that education campaigns, especially for schoolchildren, could have a huge impact.

Members of the IJCHR and AI Jamaica have said that Stanley was a very charismatic and effective speaker and that it was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him. Amnesty International Secretariat would like to echo those comments and it is our hope that we will be able to work with Stanley again in the future.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Worth Noting

Didn't mean to go a full week without posting at all; my only excuse is that I'd been expecting a couple of different reports from members to come in earlier in the week and they've been a bit delayed. Here are a couple of items worth noting in the meantme, however:

A lot of good coverage of victim opposition to the death penalty can be found within these articles about the Montana Journey of Hope speaking tour, which took place earlier this month.

Then, not specifically about victim opposition but most certainly connected to our interest in the worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty today has a very interesting article, "Activists Oppose the Death Penalty Across Asia." The piece describes the various anti-death penalty activities that took place in Asian countries in connection with World Day Against the Death Penalty this year, including events in 23 different Indian cities. It's both inspiring and illuminating to be reminded that the death penalty abolition movement really is a global one.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not Even a Remote Thought

MVFHR member Bonnita Spikes has this letter published in today's Gazette (a Maryland newspaper):

I read "Panel weighs death penalty" with a heavy heart. I lost my husband, Michael Spikes, to murder in 1994. I was one of several murder victims' family members to testify for repeal of the death penalty at the hearings of the Commission on Capital Punishment. And I joined 48 other Marylanders who are homicide survivors in signing a letter, presented to the commission, that also urged replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

Why is [Baltimore County] State's Attorney [Scott] Shellenberger so intent on keeping a death penalty despite racial disparities and so many other flaws with it here in our state?

I work with homicide survivors, particularly within black communities in Maryland where nearly 80 percent of state murders occur. The notion of a death sentence for their loved one's murderer isn't even a remote thought for these families. They are struggling to hold their low-income households together, to help their families grieve and survive the trauma one day at a time. Most have no insurance and are [in] dire need of support and traumatic grief counseling.

Even Mr. Shellenberger agrees the death penalty costs more than life in prison. Our state's scarce resources should be redirected to help these families.

Speaking at Manhattanville College Tonight

This evening, MVFHR Executive DIrector Renny Cushing will be delivering the 10th Annual Henry Schwarzschild Memorial Lecture against the Death Penalty at Manhatthanville College in Purchase, NY. The event is co-sponsored by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Connie Hogarth Center For Social Action.

Renny will be introduced by MVFHR member Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son Greg was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Prevention, Not Execution" Video excerpts

Some video excerpts from the "Prevention, Not Execution" event can be viewed here at The Hub, a site through which human rights activists can share video and audio material. This is not a video of the entire press conference and remembrance ceremony, but it does show a substantial chunk of it and is well worth checking out. Browse through some of the other material available on this human rights site while you're there!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lighting Candles

After placing roses in a vase to commemorate their losses (see yesterday's post), participants in the "Prevention, Not Execution" remembrance ceremony lit candles both to honor their losses and to express hope for the future.

Here, Billie Jean Mayberry and Bonnie Skawski light a candle for their brother Robert Coe, who suffered from mental illness and was executed in Tennessee.

And here, Art Laffin, from Washington, DC, lights a candle for his brother Paul Laffin. Art said that Paul, who had worked as associate director of Mercy Housing and Shelter in Hartford, Connecticut, "was murdered by one of the men who frequented the shelter, Dennis Soutar, who suffered from mental illness and fell through the cracks of our system."

With Art in the photo are Nick and Amanda Wilcox (see their press statement).

Photos are by Scott Langley.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Photos from "Prevention, Not Execution" launch

And now for some photos from San Antonio! After the press conference, the statements from which you've read in previous posts, we held a remembrance ceremony, in which participants placed roses in a vase in memory of the losses represented at this gathering.

Linda Gregory starts off the ceremony by placing a rose in memory of her husband, Deputy Sheriff Eugene Gregory, who was shot and killed in Florida by a man who had a mental illness. Linda also placed a rose for Alan Singletary, the man who killed her husband and who was then also killed during the police standoff.

Here, Charlie Strobel places a rose in memory of his mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, who was killed in Tennessee. Charlie also placed roses in memory of the 5 other victims killed throughout the Southwest by the same person who suffered from a mental illness.

And here, Julie Nelson, from Massachusetts, places a rose in memory of her father, George Arthur Nelson, who was shot to death in California by a Vetnam veteran who had chronic schizophrenia. Also visible in this photo are, from left to right, Linda Gregory (see above); Joe Bruce, from Maine, whose wife Amy Bruce was killed by their mentally ill son William; Tina Duroy and Nichole Eddings, sister and niece of James Colburn, who was executed in Texas; Kim Crespi (see press statement); Pat Seaborn, whose cousin Ron Spivey was executed in Georgia; BJ Mayberry and Bonnie Skawski, sisters of Robert Coe, who was executed in Tennessee; Lois and Carol Robison (see press statement).

All photos are by Scott Langley. More to come tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This is the Project That Hits Home

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Bill Babbitt delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio on October 3. Other posts from that event began last week.

Execution of people with mental illness is an issue very close to my heart, so it means a lot to me to be part of a project that is lifting up this issue and asking others to pay attention. I have served on the board of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights since the organization’s founding in 2004. It’s always meant a lot to me to be part of an organization of victims’ families that welcomed me and others whose loved ones were killed by state execution. I’ve been proud of all the work we’ve done, but this is the project that really hits home for me.

My brother Manny served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps. He fought in five major battles. During the siege at Khe Sanh, Manny picked up severed arms, heads, and legs of his fellow Marines. Then he got wounded and medevacked out in a helicopter on a pile of dead bodies. Ever since he returned home, he suffered from post-traumatic symptoms. It was like he never really left Viet Nam. He would hallucinate; he would act as if he was still on the battlefield.

Manny was sent to a state hospital in Massachusetts, where he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. After he was released, he came to live with my wife Linda and me in California. We gave him money and tried to help him get work. But I was worried. He was acting strange. I saw that his demons were coming to the surface.

Then something terrible happened. A 78-year-old woman died during an intrusion into her home. When I began to suspect that Manny was responsible for that woman’s death, I agonized over what to do. Finally I couldn’t live with the risk that there was someone else out there who might become a victim of my brother and his war-induced demons. I went to the police and told them what I suspected. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed, and I agreed to help lead them to Manny. After they arrested Manny, an officer said to him, “You’re not going to go to the gas chamber or anything like that.’

I believed that. My mother believed it. We never really thought he would be executed, right up until the last half hour when I watched my brother be put to death at San Quentin Prison on May 4, 1999.

I wish we had been able to get Manny the help he needed. I wish that as a society we would devote our resources to treating people like Manny instead of imposing the death penalty and creating more funerals, more grief, more tears.

Today I am here with others whose loved ones suffered from mental illness and were executed. I am here with families whose loved ones were killed by people suffering from mental illness. As an MVFHR board member I want to thank the National Alliance on Mental Illness for joining with us and I want to thank all of you for showing that you care about the tragedies that all of assembled here today have gone through.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Nothing Could Have Prepared Us

Returning to our series, here is the statement that Kim Crespi delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio on October 3. Other posts from that event began last week.

On January 19, 2006, the Crespi family was a happy group of 7. Jessica was a high school senior, Dylan an eighth grader, Joshua a fourth grader, and 5-year-old Tessara and Samantha were happy, active, loving identical twin girls in preschool. Their father, David, was a responsible and loving husband and father who had been dealing with recurring episodes of severe insomnia that that each time led to anxiety and then depression. Each time, we sought help, listened to advice, went to therapy, and followed the prescribed medication. We were not warned about potential side effects of medication, particularly the possibility of mania and psychosis.

Nothing could have prepared us for what happened the next day. After yet another night of inadequate sleep, David stayed home from work. The twins were home that day as well. I left the house for an hour and fifteen minutes and returned to a police barricade and the horror that David, while in a psychotic state, had killed the girls, called 911, and was already in custody.

The criminal justice system took over. David’s defense attorneys advised him to accept a plea rather than go to trial. They explained that his actions did not fit the legal definition of insanity, and said that a trial would be hard for all of us. We knew a trial would be grueling, but we would have considered going through with it if the state had not made it clear that they were seeking the death penalty for David. If we went to trial, we would be risking David’s life too. The threat of the death penalty convinced us to accept the plea that the state was offering, even though we knew that meant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and no opportunity to look more deeply into what might have caused this tragedy to happen.

I miss the twins every day. Obviously, my other children and I are forever changed by this terrible loss. But it is devastating enough to cope with the fact that David was responsible for the twins’ deaths and that he is now in prison with back-to-back life sentences. Adding to this list of losses by executing David would only make things worse for me and for our children. It is hard enough for them to understand that their loving father, in an uncontrolled psychotic state, killed their baby sisters. Trying to understand how reasonable, non-psychotic people would now choose to take their father’s life would create another layer of distrust and tragedy that certainly would do nothing to aid in their healing.

I am here today with other family members of murder victims, feeling our shared losses. I am here today with family members of people who have been executed, deeply aware of how close our family came to suffering that additional loss too. And I am here with others who are family members of both the victim and the person responsible for the crime, saying that the death penalty is not the way to respond to tragedies like ours.

Friday, October 10, 2008

World Day Against the Death Penalty

Our series of posts from October 3rd's mental illness and the death penalty event will continue next week. Today, we want to wish everyone a happy World Day Against the Death Penalty. Take a look at this impressive list of actions and events taking place around the world today.

This year, attention is especially focused on ending executions in Asian countries. Our colleagues in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty explain:

Responding to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's appeal, citizens, national and international institutions and NGOs rally together every year on 10 October to oppose the use of the death penalty and to recall that its abolition is a universal struggle.

This year, they have decided to turn their eyes on Asia. According to Amnesty International, at least 664 executions have been reported in Asia in 2007. The real figures are believed to be much higher. A recent study by Franklin Zimring and David Johnson estimates that 85 to 95% of the world's executions take place in Asia.

A growing number of countries in the region, however, have committed to the abolition of the death penalty. This Sixth World Day is an opportunity to publicly oppose the use of this inhuman, cruel and degrading punishment and to support those in the Asian region who are fighting for its abolition.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I've Been Waiting 25 Years

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Lois Robison delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio last Friday:

I am a retired third grade teacher, and my husband Ken is a college instructor. We have 8 children (his, mine, and ours), 18 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. We are just an average American family except that three of our children were mentally ill. Ken’s oldest son, David, was bi-polar and was hospitalized several times. He died of a heart attack when he was 45 years old. Our youngest daughter, Carol, is bi-polar and lives in an assisted living facility in Fort Worth. My oldest son, Larry, was paranoid schizophrenic and was executed by the state of Texas.

Larry was the kind of boy that every mother dreams of having. He was a good student, active in his church youth group, played Little League ball, was on the swim team, played drums in the school band, had a paper route, and would have made Eagle Scout if he hadn’t become ill. By the time he was in Junior High we knew that something was wrong. We tried to get help from the University Medical Center in Kansas, where we lived at the time. Unfortunately, we did not know then of the family history of mental illness (it had been kept a deep dark secret). Larry was not given a correct diagnosis until several years later.

Larry had his first mental breakdown while serving in the Air Force. They sent him home with an Honorable Discharge and no explanation. He was first diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth when he was 21 years old. Because our insurance no longer covered him, he was discharged. We were told to take him to the JPS County Hospital, where he was kept for 30 days and then discharged because he was “not violent “ and they “needed the bed.” We were told that we should not take him home under any circumstances. I said, “He has no job, no money, no car, and no place to live. You can’t put him out on the street.” They said, “We do it every day.”

We took Larry to the Veteran’s Hospital in Waco, where they kept him for 30 days and discharged him. We were told that he was not well and would get worse without treatment, but they couldn’t keep him any longer because – again -- he was “not violent” and they “needed the bed.” If he became violent, we were told, he could get the long-term treatment that everyone agreed he needed. The VA doctors forgot to have Larry sign a medical release before he left, so we were not able to get medication for him at the Fort Worth Mental Health/Mental Retardation office. Because of the Privacy Act, none of the doctors or hospitals informed us that he needed his medication every day in order to cope. No one would tell us what to do to help Larry. Consequently, he went without medication or treatment for four years.

The first and only violence he was ever accused of was killing five people. We were horrified, and terribly distressed for the victims and their families. We thought Larry would finally be committed to a mental institution, probably for life. We were wrong. Despite his medical history, he was found sane, guilty and sentenced to death. The Appeals Court declared that Larry did not get a fair trial because of the sanity issue, and ordered a new one.

At the second trial we showed his medical records. His aunt came to testify about the history of the mental illness Larry’s natural father’s family, but the DA objected because we did not have the medical records of these relatives. So the jury was not allowed to hear that Larry’s uncle, great uncle, and great-grandfather were all hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia. Our psychiatrist testified that Larry was paranoid schizophrenic. The DA’s psychiatrist (called “Dr. Death” because he testified for the prosecution in insanity trials all over Texas) said that he was not mentally ill. Larry was again found sane, guilty, and sentenced to die. He was executed on January 21, 2000.

How can a modern, civilized society choose to exterminate its mentally ill citizens rather than treat them? Texas is near the bottom of the 50 states in resources for the mentally ill and at the very top in the number of mentally ill imprisoned and executed. There is something wrong with this picture.

When I was invited by MVFHR and NAMI to participate in the project that we are embarking on today, I said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for this.” I have been waiting for people to come together and say that the death penalty is not the answer to the problem of untreated mental illness in our country.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We Can Choose How We Respond

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Amanda and Nick Wilcox of California delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio last Friday:


On January 10, 2001, our only daughter, Laura, was murdered while home on winter break from college. Laura was filling in as a receptionist at a Behavioral Health clinic in our home state of California when, without warning, a patient suffering from paranoid schizophrenia opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun and shot Laura four times at point blank range. Laura was killed instantly. When the rampage at the clinic and at a nearby restaurant ended, three people lay dead, three were severely injured, a community was shaken, and the world was diminished by the loss of an incredible young woman.

Many call the death of a child the worst loss. As a mother outliving her daughter, I no longer have the future I envisioned. To me, Laura will always be a teenager, full of plans for a busy, happy, and meaningful life.

Laura had extraordinary capabilities, kindness and spirit. She was an outstanding student, graduating as high school valedictorian, and was at the time of her death a college sophomore and in the midst of her campaign for the student body presidency. Laura was extremely organized, disciplined, and motivated, and with her positive energy, she was a natural leader. At age nineteen, Laura was already living a full life of service; she wanted to make a positive difference in the world; she had unlimited possibilities and the brightest of prospects.

It made no sense that someone as good and innocent as Laura could be murdered. After her death, life seemed meaningless. I felt great despair. I felt I had seen humanity at its worst. In the following months my husband and I heard comments such as “fry the bastard” or “I hope he gets what he deserves.” These statements did nothing to restore our faith in the goodness in people. Those who expressed hatred and revenge did not comfort us. Those who thought execution would bring justice did not realize that there is no justice. Justice would be to have Laura alive again.


As it turned out in this case, the man responsible for Laura’s murder was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. We believe the man who killed our daughter must be held fully accountable. He cannot be trusted to be free in society again. In order to protect society, institutionalization of Laura’s murderer is both necessary and appropriate.

But to execute him for an act he committed while delusional with a severe disease is, to us, simply wrong. Our prisons are now filled with the mentally ill and in many instances the only way a person can receive proper mental health care is by committing a crime. The financial resources now spent on implementing the death penalty would be better spent if redirected to treatment of those with serious mental illness, thereby preventing future acts of violence.

We had no control over what happened to our daughter, but we can choose how we respond. For us, part of that response involves speaking out for violence prevention and against the death penalty for people with mental illness. As the father of a daughter murdered by a mentally ill man, I am here today as witness to this project. My wife and I are joining other families whose loved ones have been killed. We are standing together to say that prevention, not execution, is how we honor our loved ones’ lives.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Speaking from Experience

Interrupting our series of posts from last week's mental illness and the death penalty event to note that several MVFHR members are participating in the Montana Journey of Hope this week, speaking out all around the state. They're getting some good press coverage. Here's an article that came out in Sunday's Montana Standard, "Death Penalty Opponents Speak from Experience."

If a Person Can Get It

Ron Honberg, Legal and Policy Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has been our partner in organizing the "Prevention, Not Execution" project. Here's the statement he delivered at the event in San Antonio last Friday:

It is perhaps ironic that I am standing here, because NAMI is known to be an organization that fights very hard against the stigma of perceived violence that often surrounds severe mental illnesses.

It is important to say right up front that most people with severe mental illnesses are not violent. In actuality, they are far more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.

However, acts of violence do occur. Because the crimes often appear senseless, the individuals who commit them are often portrayed and perceived as monsters – people with no redeeming qualities who deserve their fates.

In fact, even though state laws list mental disease and defects as a factor that should mitigate against the death penalty, there is evidence that defendants with serious mental illnesses are more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of similar crimes without mental illnesses.

When you closely examine these cases, you often realize that the individuals who committed them were not monsters at all. In many of these cases, their actions were responses to overwhelming delusions and hallucinations – such as voices that they were powerless to resist, commanding them to act in ways they never would have had they been in their right minds.

Mental illness is a medical illness. It is a disease of the brain. It requires medical treatment. Treatment is the best way to minimize or eliminate terrifying symptoms that are the root of many tragic cases.

Treatment works—if a person can get it. But sadly, treatment is frequently not available when people need it the most.

In 2003, President Bush appointed a mental health commission that called the nation’s mental health care system a fragmented “system in shambles.”

In 2006, NAMI conducted the first comprehensive assessment of publicly-funded state mental health services in 15 years. What we found shocked us. The national average grade was a D. Eight states got Fs.

The sad but undeniable truth is that in many parts of the country, there is no mental health system at all. NAMI in no way minimizes or excuses the horrendous crimes that can lead to the death penalty, but we believe the answer lies not in executing people who struggle with illnesses that are no fault of their own, but rather, in taking steps to prevent crimes from ever occurring.

Today’s meeting is extraordinary because families of people with severe mental illnesses who have been executed and families of victims killed by people with severe mental illnesses will stand before you united in the belief that executing people with severe mental illness is wrong.

I cannot adequately express the gratitude that we feel towards these remarkable people for gathering today to tell their stories. And, I particularly want to thank Renny Cushing, Susannah Sheffer, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights for convening this meeting and for allowing NAMI to share in this momentous event.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Inspiring and Devastating

We're back from the tremendously powerful gathering and public event in San Antonio, launching the "Prevention, Not Execution" project that we have undertaken in collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Victims' families and families of the executed, all of whom had been affected by mental illness, murder, and the death penalty, traveled from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in Texas. In the morning we met for two and a half hours during which each participant had a chance to talk about their experience and how it had affected them. Afterwards Renny asked the participants to sum up those two and a half hours, and in response we heard "inspiring," "devastating," "healing," "brutal," which gives a sense of the range of emotion and exchange that took place. It was particularly powerful to witness some of the exchanges that occurred between victims' families and families of the executed.

The press conference and public remembrance ceremony that followed that afternoon was also successful, and I'll be posting material from that event here over the next several days. Since today's post is about the private conversation that took place in the morning, though, I want to say that I had the feeling afterward that even if we had not held any public event at all but had only brought people together for that morning's conversation, it would have been worth the effort because of the value of what went on. That said, I look forward to posting statements and photos from the press conference and remembrance ceremony throughout this week. For now, here's one of Scott Langley's photos of the whole group:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Off to San Antonio

The MVFHR staff is flying to San Antonio today for the official launch of our "Prevention, Not Execution," project, which focuses on opposing death sentences for people with mental illness and which we are undertaking in collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Families of victims killed by someone suffering from mental illness and families of people with mental illness who have been executed will be arriving from around the country tomorrow, and on Friday we'll all have a private gathering and then a public event and remembrance ceremony.

Thanks to our colleagues and friends at the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Texas After Violence Project, Amnesty International Group 205, and University of the Incarnate Word for all the local support that has made it possible to organize this event from afar. We look forward to blogging about it all when we return.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Quick solace?

Sunday's Nashua (NH) Telegraph had an article with the headline, "Group gathers for silent vigil against capital punishment." Here's an excerpt:

State Sen. Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, who's also running for governor, spearheaded a bill earlier this year to add multiple killings to the list of crimes for which capital punishment can be a consequence.

He said the Conway shootings last summer, in which three people were killed at a military surplus store, prompted the bill, which is being studied by a judiciary committee.

"The reason why I brought it forward was to give justice to victims' families," Kenney said. "Often, they're overlooked, as far as the perpetrator is suddenly the focus, and the victims' families . . . they've lost loved ones. No justice is brought to them."

Carol Stamatakis, a former state representative from Lempster who stood outside the Statehouse on Friday, seemed to disagree.

"Too often we hear that the death penalty is a quick way to give solace to victims," she said. "But I think the needs of victims are complex and many."

Stamatakis said her father was shot and killed about 10 years ago while he was manning his furniture shop in Canton, Ohio. Authorities never caught the killer, whom they say intended to rob the store.

Even if they'd caught the killer, Stamatakis said, she wouldn't have favored capital punishment. She said what's needed are more resources and support for victims and investigators.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Victims' Rights are Human Rights

Human Rights Watch has released a new report called “Mixed Results: U.S. Policy and International Standards on the Rights and Interests of Victims of Crime,” which analyzes how well the U.S. is meeting international best practices regarding treatment of crime victims. A recent article in Human Rights news summarizes the report, including this interesting aspect: "Human Rights Watch found that police and prosecutors in some states enjoy very broad discretion over who is to be granted victim status and the extent to which victims are included in the justice process. In some cases, victims who disagree with the punishment being sought in the case – such as the death penalty – have been barred from testifying."

MVFHR's Renny Cushing and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins were interviewed for the report, and are quoted within it. Jennifer and Bill Jenkins will be presenting a workshop on the report's findings, titled "Victims' Rights are Human Rights," at the annual conference of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, which is taking place this week in Louisville, Kentucky. Jennifer and Bill are also leading several other workshops, including one on "What Victims of Traumatic Loss Need to Know Right Away."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Imagine Getting a Phone Call

From today's edition of Southern Maryland online:

ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 24, 2008) -- Kimberly Armstrong's son was murdered almost four years ago.

But as she took her seat in front of Maryland's capital punishment commission this week, she didn't testify in favor of the death penalty. Instead, she asked the commission to spare the lives of those who are on death row.

"My son not being here is no different from the death penalty. The person that you will kill still belongs to someone else," said Armstrong, president of Diamond Development, Inc., a Baltimore consulting firm specializing in grief counseling, self-esteem and other skills. "Imagine getting a phone call saying that your child has been murdered. The thought of someone hurting your child makes you sick."

For two months, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment has listened to testimony from dozens of public and expert witnesses, all desperately trying to persuade the panel to keep or repeal the death penalty.

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Media Advisory: National Project Launch

Media Advisory
September 23, 2008

National Project Launch

Murder Victims’ Families Oppose Death Penalty for
People with Severe Mental Illnesses

Washington, D.C.— Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will launch a national project opposing the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses at a press conference in San Antonio, Texas on October 3.

The initiative builds on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that raise questions about the capacity of individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses sentenced to death to understand why they are being executed or even that they will die. A national report on the issue will be released in June 2009, based in part on testimony from family members at San Antonio event.

WHAT: National project launch—press conference

WHEN: Friday, October 3, 2008 3:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

WHERE: University of the Incarnate Word
Bonilla Science Hall 129
Hildebrande—just west of Broadway intersection
San Antonio, TX 78209

WHO: Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

• Renny Cushing, MVFHR Executive Director
• Ron Honberg, NAMI Policy & Legal Director
• Bill Babbitt, brother of a Vietnam veteran, who was diagnosed with PTSD and schizophrenia, killed a 78-year old woman, and was executed.
• Lois Robison, a mother whose mentally ill son was discharged from a hospital when his insurance ran out. A county hospital could not admit him unless he became violent. He killed five people. Instead of treatment, he got the death penalty.
• Kim Crespi, mother of victims murdered by husband who suffers from mental illness
• Amanda & Nick Wilcox, parents of victim who was murdered by a person with mental illness
• Other family members of murder victims or executed persons from around the United States

MVFHR is a national organization of family members of murder victims and families of the executed. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by mental illnesses.

Susannah Sheffer for MVFHR: 617-512-2010 (cell) or
Christine Armstrong for NAMI: 703-312-7893 or

# # #

Monday, September 22, 2008

Transforming Loss and Tragedy

An article about victim's family member Bess Klassen-Landis appeared in yesterday's Vermont Sunday Magazine. In it, Bess talks about speaking against the death penalty and about how her mother's unsolved murder affected her and the rest of her family. Here's an excerpt:

Bess Klassen-Landis grew up with her parents and three sisters in a Mennonite neighborhood on a country road south of Elkhart, Ind. "It was as safe as safe can be," she says. But on March 14, 1969, the 13-year-old's life turned upside down.

"My mother was a homemaker. While we were at school an intruder hit her over the head, stripped, raped and shot her five times."

Her father, a psychiatrist, was at his job at a college clinic. There were seven suspects in the murder of Helen Klassen, says her daughter, but no one was charged, and the case remains unsolved.

For 36 years Klassen-Landis, who now lives in Windsor, struggled with the aftermath.

She did the expected things: finished high school, married and bore two children, and continued her education, eventually moving with her family to Vermont so she could get a master's degree in art therapy.

But fear and a sense of failure were her constant companions until 2005, when her sister introduced her to the Journey of Hope, an organization devoted to the abolition of the death penalty.

Since then, Klassen-Landis has transformed her loss and tragedy into activism and action. She is embarking this month on a series of journeys that will take her all over the country in the next nine months to share what she believes, however paradoxical it may seem for a woman with her past: Rage and violence are not the answer to violence. ...

For related reading, see MVFHR's Spring newsletter for an article that quotes from Bess's sister Liv, titled 'We're Left to Wonder: How Unsolved Murders Affect Victims' Families." (Scroll down to p. 6.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Considering Abolition in Illinois

Victims' family members are among those testifying at an Illinois hearing on a bill that would abolish the state's death penalty. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who has taken a lead in organizing testimony for the hearing, writes, "This is a significant occasion because it is the first time in a decade that the Illinois legislature has taken up the question of abolition in an official hearing. Every major newspaper in the state is now supporting abolition, and there is bi-partisan support for abolition legislation." Jeanne Bishop adds that the hearings "come at time when cash-strapped Illinois, facing a budget crisis, is considering whether its staggeringly expensive death penalty is worth the cost."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

We've Got to Find a Better Way

An article in Sunday's Lancaster ((PA) Online newspaper announces MVFHR board member Walt Everett's speaking engagement later this week at a banquet organized by Justice & Mercy, a group that "promotes safer communities through criminal justice reform." Walt will be speaking together with Mike Carlucci, who was convicted of the murder of Walt's son Scott Everett.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Everett is a board member of Massachusetts-based Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which works against the death penalty.

Three months after Scott's death, Everett was attending a support group. One woman argued that anyone who kills should be summarily shot.

"Her son was murdered 14 years earlier," Everett said, "and she was still carrying this intense anger.

"That's when I began to say, 'I don't want to carry this anger the rest of my life.' "

Everett also promotes restorative justice, which calls for holding offenders accountable and restoring, as much as possible, victims' losses. Carlucci shares in that advocacy project, according to Justice & Mercy.

The penal system focuses on retribution, Everett said, but that hasn't done much to change the hearts of offenders — and it doesn't help to change the pain felt by victims, either.

"We've got to find a better way."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Could similar reasoning apply?

This column by Dr. Maria Felix-Ortiz appeared in the 9/10/08 issue of the San Antonio Express-News:

This new millennium has seen substantial review of capital punishment.

In 2002, in Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote that the intellectually disabled can be competent, “but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”

This overturned a 13-year-old decision that had allowed execution of the mentally [disabled].

In 2005, the court opined that a juvenile's “immature and irresponsible behavior,” vulnerability to and lack of control over his environment and the fact that he was still developing his identity indicated diminished culpability. In Roper vs. Simmons, the court ruled that a juvenile's diminished culpability meant that execution couldn't serve as retribution or as deterrence of capital crimes.

Could similar reasoning apply to capital punishment of mentally ill offenders?

Mental illness and capital punishment are the focus of a national meeting co-sponsored by National Alliance for Mental Illness and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights at the University of the Incarnate Word on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. (in BSH 129). Speakers, who will share their perspectives as family members of murder victims and the executed murderers, include:

Bill Babbitt: His brother was executed in California for assaulting and killing a 78-year-old grandmother. Manny was a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Babbitt remarks (see, “The police promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. 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.”

Lois Robison: Her son became ill with paranoid schizophrenia. Larry was discharged after 30 days, as soon as he turned 21, because he wasn't covered by his parents' insurance. Robison took him to the county hospital, which discharged him and said “not to take him home.” He couldn't be hospitalized unless he was violent. Larry's first episode of violence was to kill five people. Robison remarks, “They told us if he ever got violent they would give him treatment and instead they gave him the death penalty.”

Amanda Wilcox: Her daughter, Laura, a receptionist, was killed by a man who had paranoid schizophrenia.

This event launches a national effort to collect interviews and generate a report to the next NAMI national conference. NAMI and MVFHR hope to educate us about this complex issue.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rethinking "Closure"

Speaking of closure (as we did in Monday's post), our fall newsletter is out, and it's a special issue focusing on the whole idea of closure in the aftermath of a murder -- questioning whether the death penalty provides it for victims' families, but also questioning the concept itself.

The issue contains an interview with law professor Susan Bandes, who talks about how recently the linkage between closure and the death penalty became popular. The issue also contains reflections from victims' family members about what closure means -- or doesn't mean -- to them, and an essay in which a victim's family member explores the taboo against talking about murder and describes what she wanted from others in the aftermath of the murder in her family. You'll also find our usual features, including some snapshots of MVFHR's recent work and a roundup of examples of victim opposition to the death penalty in the news.

Monday, September 8, 2008

More Than Anything Else Has

This article in the 9/2/08 Poughkeepsie (NY) Journal is titled "Victim's Family Finds Closure." When you read the quotes from MVFHR members Marie Verzulli and Marguerite Marsh, you'll see that they describe their experience of meeting with the man responsible for killing their sister/mother in somewhat less absolute terms; the article says that the visit "helped them bring more closure to Cathy's death than anything else has."

That level of subtlety is harder for a newspaper headline to capture: that there is no complete closure after a murder, but that these survivors felt that meeting with the person responsible for the murder brought them closer to closure than an execution would have. It's an important point, though.

Here's the article:

Marguerite Marsh and her daughter sat at a table across from the man who killed Marsh's other daughter.

In a small room in Attica Correctional Facility, for two hours in January, they spoke with Kendall Francois, who is serving a life sentence for the murders of eight women in Poughkeepsie.

"My focus in going there was to tell him that I had forgiven him," Marsh said.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the grisly discovery of eight women hidden in the home Francois shared with his parents and sister. One of the women whom he admitted to killing, Catherine Marsh, was

Marguerite Marsh's daughter.

"He felt that he owed us this visit because of what he had done," Marguerite Marsh said.

The family had initiated contact with Francois and he agreed to speak with them.

Francois told them about growing up and joining the military. He told them about his sex addiction and how he would often get angry when the women he had sex with wanted to leave.

They asked if he remembered Cathy. He said he did.

"Just before we left, he said, 'Tell Cathy's daughters that I'm sorry I killed their mother,' " Marsh said.

Catherine's daughters, now 16 and 14, have been adopted by their foster mother, and see their grandmother often, Marguerite Marsh said.

For the three-hour drive back to their home in Schenectady, Marie Verzulli, Catherine's sister, said she felt the anger and other emotions surrounding her sister's death, emotions she had slowly overcome.

"It really just flooded it all back in ... the whole thing becoming so, so very real and current," she said. "You could have just wiped away the last 10 years for a moment there."

In the years since Francois' arrest and the discovery of what happened to Catherine Marsh and the other seven women, Verzulli and her mother have tried to use her death to teach others.

Marguerite Marsh tells Catherine's story to school groups. She tells them about her daughter's drug addiction, and how she went to Poughkeepsie for rehab, but suffered a relapse.

"The relapse," Marsh said, "put her back on the street - put her into the arms of Kendall."

Verzulli works as a victim's adviser advocate for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, a statewide coalition of organizations and individuals committed to the abolition of capital punishment. She said despite the magnitude of Francois' crimes, execution would solve nothing.

"The only thing the death penalty could have done would be a revenge or vengeance-type of answer," she said. "When you were done with that, you still had to deal with your loss."

Verzulli said the fact Francois has not been executed allowed them to make the three-hour drive to visit him in Attica, which helped them bring more closure to Cathy's death than anything else has.

"My mom had wanted to be able to go there and be able to sit across from him and be able to forgive him," Verzulli said. "She felt she had it in her heart, and she needed to sit across from him to know she could do it.

"And she did it."