Friday, February 29, 2008

Two Lives

We're pleased that 18 pages from MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories are on exhibit in the theatre lobby where the play The Two Lives of Napoleon Beazley is running in New York City through March 16th. Do try to see it if you're in the area.

Napoleon Beazley, who was executed in 2002, was one of the last juvenile offenders executed in the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such executions unconstitutional. His family's story contributed to MVFHR's report Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind.

The Gallery pages on display at the theatre include family members of murder victims and family members of people who have been executed. Here's the introduction that accompanies the exhibit:

Victims and the Death Penalty

Does the death penalty help victims’ families? Does it provide justice and closure to those who have suffered an irreparable loss?

The photographs and statements in this exhibit are taken from the Gallery of Victims’ Stories produced by Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), a national organization of family members of murder victims and family members of the executed who oppose the death penalty in all cases.

Challenging common assumptions about what victims’ families want and need, the stories in this gallery invite us to consider that not all who have suffered the devastation of a family member’s murder support the death penalty. These families, and others like them across the country and the world, reject the idea that another killing will bring relief or healing.

The death penalty, instead, creates a new set of victims: the families that each execution leaves behind. The stories in this gallery also invite us to consider the agony of these families, who are not guilty of any crime but who suffer in the aftermath of the state’s taking the life of their loved one.

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights works to give both of these groups a voice in the death penalty debate though education, policy, and advocacy work, and through the “No Silence, No Shame: Organizing Families of the Executed” project.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

On the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich recently appointed MVFHR member Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins to the state’s Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee (CPRSC), which was created by the Illinois General Assembly in 2003 to monitor the reforms put in place after the governor’s commission’s recommendations were implemented.

Jennifer, currently the only victim's family member on the committee, will serve on the subcommittee that handles post-conviction, DNA, and miscellaneous issues; victims’ issues fall under the miscellaneous category. Jennifer has testified before the committee and was asked questions about discrimination against victims who oppose the death penalty and the problems inherent in victims’ services being part of the prosecutor’s office, so Jennifer anticipates that these will be among the issues about which she will be informing other members of the committee.

In writing to announce this news, Jennifer commented to us, “The governor appointed me because he knows of my work with gun violence victims; we have worked together on victims’ issues. I think this is important, to establish strong political relationships by doing work to help victims across the board. It gives us credibility as advocates when we stand on the death penalty as we do.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shattered Faith

Our very first post on this blog, back in September, was about how wrongful convinctions harm victims' families. We talked about Jeanette Popp, whose daughter Nancy was murdered in 1988; the two men convicted of her murder were found to be innocent, and Jeanette has spoken about how it felt to believe one story about who was responsible for her daughter's murder, only to learn that that story was untrue. She is also outspoken in her opposition to the death penalty.

An article from the February 24th Dallas Morning News, "Mother of '88 murder victim says her faith in justice system shattered after exonerations," features Jeanette's story. Here's an excerpt:

After the trial, [Jeanette] met with jurors.
"I hugged every one of them," she says. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place. ... I couldn't have thanked them any more for the justice they had given my child.
"I wouldn't have questioned the police or the prosecution," she says. And "the evidence was so overwhelming, so overwhelming."
But on the 12th anniversary of her daughter's death, she watched Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle say on TV that Mr. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger might be innocent. Another man, Achim Josef Marino, had confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence appeared to exonerate Mr. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger.
"My legs just gave way," Ms. Popp says.
"I can't do this again," she remembers sobbing. "Please, God, don't make me do this again."
Prosecutors told her they had been trying for four years to tie all three men to the crime. But the Wisconsin Innocence Project showed there was no connection. When she realized Mr. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger were not guilty, her heart went out to their mothers.
"Chris' mother and Richard's mother lost their child for 12 years, as surely as I lost Nancy," she thought.

Monday, February 25, 2008

You Start to See Things Differently

We've added another new page to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories: Robert Curley, whose 10-year-old son Jeffrey was murdered in Massachusetts in 1997. Bob Curley is an example of a victim's family member who initially supported the death penalty and then changed his mind.

Here's an excerpt from his gallery page: “When Jeffrey was murdered, I wanted the men who killed him dead. I led the fight to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts in 1997. But time passes, and you start to see things differently. I started to see that there were people like me who had suffered the same loss that I had who were opposed to the death penalty, and it kind of made me take a step back and take a look at the death penalty itself. I learned more about the death penalty and some of the problems with it, and I changed my mind.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

For Many Years I Believed Him

MVFHR member Aba Gayle's testimony before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice was mentioned in an article in the Los Angeles Times yesterday:

After listening to more than a dozen lawyers, professors and a researcher from the Rand Corp., the commission heard moving testimony from Aba Gayle, whose teenage daughter, Catherine Blount, was murdered in Auburn in 1980. "The district attorney assured me that the execution of the man responsible for Catherine's murder would help me heal, and for many years I believed him."

She said she was consumed with a desire for revenge against Douglas Mickey, who was sentenced to death in 1983. But eight years after the killing, Gayle said, she had "a spiritual epiphany," forgave Mickey and has since visited him at San Quentin.

Two years ago, she said, a federal district judge overturned Mickey's death penalty because of the ineffectiveness of his defense lawyer. Gayle said she called the district attorney and asked him to drop his effort for execution.

"I told him I would be satisfied with a life sentence. I did not want state-sanctioned murder to tarnish the life of my beautiful child." But she said the D.A. ignored her request and asked the state attorney general's office to appeal the ruling. The case is still pending.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Not Such a False Alarm

MVFHR board member Robert Meeropol writes today’s post:

I wrote the following in the epilogue to my book, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, in late 2002:
I was scheduled to give a plenary address at the annual meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Raleigh, North Carolina at the end of October [2001]. Over the summer the meeting’s organizers had asked me to provide attendees with historic perspective and introduce them to another kind of capital case. The abolition movement has been exclusively focused on murder cases and many of its militants did not even realize someone in this country could be executed for conspiracy, as my parents had been.
I realized that my parents’ case was no longer merely of historic or educational interest. Since the mass murderers who flew the planes into the towers were all dead, the government was likely to develop conspiracy cases against their colleagues and ask for the death penalty. My parents’ case was the only capital conspiracy in our country’s history since the civil war. I realized Americans might soon face an unprecedented wave of capital conspiracy cases and that these cases would present anti-capital punishment forces with a major new challenge.

For several years this prediction seemed like a false alarm. But six and a half years later those chickens are coming home to roost. The Bush Administration recently announced that six “top terrorists” held at Guantanamo Bay will face the death penalty if convicted of terrorist conspiracy charges.

In some ways, the case of my birth parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is very different from those facing trial before Military Commissions at Guantanamo. My parents were secular Jewish Communists. Their political perspective was totally unlike that of the Islamic fundamentalists at Guantanamo. But the broader psycho-social context displays many similarities.

In my parents’ case, federal prosecutors, at the height of the McCarthy period, linked the people the public feared the most (Communists) to the thing the public feared the most (the atomic-bomb) while the Korean War was raging. In the Guantanamo Six cases, the current administration has linked the people the public now fears the most (Islamic Terrorists) to the thing the public fears the most (weapons of mass destruction) during the never-ending “war on terror.”

In my parents’ case the trial judge secretly talked with prosecutors, and FBI agents coached chief prosecution witnesses to invent testimony. This was justified because at a time of unprecedented international crisis, national security trumped the constitutional protections provided for criminal defendants. The same national security rationale validates stacking the deck against the defendants during the Military Commissions trials. Even evidence gained through the use of torture (euphemistically termed “coercion”) may be used to obtain a conviction.

In my parents’ case the trial judge justified sentencing my parents to death after they had only been convicted of conspiracy by stating that their crime was “worse than murder,” and that, among other things, they caused upwards of 50,000 casualties in the Korean War. Today administration officials apply similar hyperbole to justify death sentences against the “worst of the worst.” The administration is, in effect, saying these people are so bad that it is OK to torture and kill them. In sum, the same forces that made it impossible for my parents to receive a fair hearing in 1951 present a daunting challenge for anyone attempting to preserve the rights of the Guantanamo defendants today.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 were horrific human rights abuses. They were, in short, crimes against humanity. That makes it imperative to bring these mass murderers to justice and to scrupulously protect their human rights in the process. We must not become human rights abusers in the name of protecting human rights. This will merely perpetuate the cycle of violence. If the Guantanamo Six are guilty, the public must be protected, but we must engage in that protection without violating the most fundamental human right of all, the right to life (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). These rights become meaningless without universal application. We mock them when we only apply them to those we like.

The anti-death penalty movement cannot remain silent because these are hard cases with particularly unsympathetic defendants. Let's all publicly reassert our universal opposition to capital punishment, these defendants included, and ask others in the anti-death penalty movement in United States and around the world to join us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Part of Me Wanted Him to Die

A couple of days ago, the Albany (NY) Times-Union ran an article about a panel on the death penalty at the annual Legislative Conference of the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. One of the panelists was Steven Mollette, father of a murder victim. From the article:

Steven Mollette of Peekskill was forced to face the issue in a Schenectady County courtroom in December 2006.

Mollette's daughter, Unishun Mollette, was 19 when she was killed by bullets meant for someone else as she sat in the back seat of a car in Hamilton Hill in September 2003. Kenneth Portee is serving 50 years to life.

"I sat in that courtroom every day during the trial and there was no question in my mind he was guilty," Mollette told a gathering of about 50 people at the session held in a concourse meeting room. "Part of me wanted him to die, too. But during the sentencing his daughter and mother were there and the compassionate side of me came out. I thought I did not want that man's mother to go through what I went through."

Mollette said he believed less money should go to vengeance and more to preventive measures.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Until It Came Knocking On My Door

Last week, MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt was the keynote speaker at the annual Capital Case Defense Seminar, held in Monterey, California. Bill told several hundred capital defense attorneys about his experience as the brother of someone who was executed in California and about MVFHR's No Silence, No Shame project. Two local television stations covered his talk, and an article appeared in the Monterey County Weekly.

Here's an excerpt from that article:

Today, Bill’s a board member of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. He speaks on college campuses, at conferences and at statehouses. Bill’s often joined by David Kaczynski, who led federal investigators to his brother, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. (David repeatedly has said that if his family hadn’t been able to hire an attorney, his brother, like Manny, likely would have received the death penalty instead of life in prison.)

This week, Bill comes to Monterey, where he’ll give the keynote address at the annual Capital Case Defense Seminar, a national symposium on the death penalty attended by some 1,500 lawyers. The four-day event is sponsored by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and California Public Defenders Association.

Gail Jones, CACJ’s acting director, says the conference is the largest of its kind in the nation. “We bring in expert speakers on specific topics, forensics, all different areas of the law as it pertains to capital crime,” she says.

And while the seminar, dubbed “Death Camp” by attendees, focuses on the legal aspects of the death penalty, this year’s program comes at a time when the politics of the issue are in the news. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the three-chemical cocktail used in nearly all lethal injections in the United States violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court isn’t expected to rule on the issue for months; until it does, executions in California and across the nation have been halted temporarily.

While the high court considers the lethal-injection method, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice debates the state’s enforcement of capital punishment—who receives the death penalty and how long the appeals process takes. At the commission’s first hearing on Jan. 10, judges and law professors said race, ethnicity and geography play a role in determining who is sentenced to die in California.

“It’s disproportionate and capricious,” Bill Babbitt says. “I believed in the death penalty until it came knocking on my door.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

Brief Update

Last week was one of those "too busy for blogging" weeks, but here's a quick hello in the midst of interviewing members for the next issue of the MVFHR newsletter and having planning discussions about our next big research project, which I hope to write more about in the next few weeks.

Check back here soon for upcoming posts about MVFHR's work regarding the death penalty expansion bill in New Hampshire, our perspective on the U.S. government's decision to seek the death penalty for the six Guantanamo detainees, talking about families of the executed to a large audience of lawyers at the Capital Case Defense Seminar in California ... and more.

Meanwhile, our thoughts are with the families of the victims of the shooting at Northern Illinois University. MVFHR member Jennifer Bishop has been quoted in several news stories in connection with her work to reduce gun violence. Here's one of the articles.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Collapse in the Heart and Soul

Probably the worst charge leveled at family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty is that they must not have loved their family member all that much, or be all that devastated by the murder, if they don't want to see the killer executed. I challenge these critics to pay real attention to the voices of victims' family members who oppose the death penalty, to hear how they talk about their experience and their feelings.

Here's one vivid example. Antoinette Bosco's son and daughter-in-law were murdered in their Montana home in 1993. In the introduction to her book Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty, Antoinette Bosco writes:

I got the news of the brutal murders on August 19, and that day I learned a new definition of torment. I had had to accept much death in recent years -- my father, my sister-in-law, my son Peter. Death from almost any cause, even from accident, can somehow be dealt with rationally. But if the death is caused by murder, there is a collapse in the heart and soul that cannot be described.

For murder is the entrance of the worst imaginable evil into your home, into all the safe places of your life, forever shattering any illusion you might ahve had that good can protect you from evil. Evil becomes all too real to you and never again can you even for an instant question its power. My beloved son and his beautiful wife were dead at the hand of someone I could only believe to be, at that moment, an agent of Satan.

I found myself screaming, sometimes aloud, sometimes with silent cries tearing at my insides. I tormented myself, wanting to know who was the faceless monster that had brought such permanent unrelenting pain into my family. I wanted to kill him with my own hands. I wanted him dead.

But that feeling also tormented me, for I had always been opposed to the death penalty. I felt now I was being tested on whether my values were permanent, or primarily based on human feelings and expediency. With God's help, I was able to grasp the truth again, that unnatural death at the hands of another is always wrong, except in a case of clear self-defense. The state is no more justified in taking a life than is an individual. And so armed, I found myself speaking out on a national platform, pleading against the death penalty for anyone.

Friday, February 8, 2008

But Not Like This

"We'd known death, but not like this. I'd never been in favor of the death penalty, but I wanted that man to hurt, the way he'd hurt her. I wanted him to hurt the way I was hurting. But after a while I wanted to know who it was, what kind of a monster would do a thing like this."

MVFHR member Hector Black is featured on StoryCorps today, talking about the murder of his daughter, his initial rage at the man responsible for the murder, his gradual desire to understand that man as a human being, and his opposition to the death penalty. The story is airing on NPR this morning as well; check your local listings. You can hear Hector on StoryCorps's site here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Spanish, French, Italian

For the Third World Congress Against the Death Penalty last year, we developed versions of the MVFHR brochure in Spanish, French, and Italian. It was useful to have those translations available at the World Congress, and we hope it can be useful to have them available for other occasions and situations. Think about ways you might get these translated brochures into the hands of people who speak those languages, and let us know if you have the ability to translate our brochure into other languages, too.

Keep us posted! If you distribute our brochure at, say, a gathering of Spanish-speakers in the U.S., we would love to hear about it.

Monday, February 4, 2008

End Injustice, Not Lives

I've meant to post this for the past couple of weeks but haven't gotten to it until now: MVFHR members Derrel Meyers and Naomi White had a great op-ed piece published in the San Jose Mercury News on January 18, the first day of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference. The piece is titled "We should be devoted to ending injustice, not ending more lives":

Twelve years ago, our 23-year-old son was murdered. Today, we are attending a national gathering with other family members of murder victims working to end a different kind of killing: the death penalty. We can think of no better way to honor our son's life.

On the evening of Jan. 19, 1996, our only child, Joshua "JoJo" White, was driving home from work at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco where he counseled and tutored troubled adolescents. At 16th and Carolina streets, an agitated youth confronted JoJo and his three friends. JoJo and his friends tried to reassure the young man, but he pulled a gun from his coat and fired into the car. JoJo's last words before the fatal shot was fired were, "Peace brother, one love." The bullet pierced his heart and he died within seconds in the arms of his friend Equipto.

During his life, JoJo had developed an empathy with troubled youngsters. It grew from his own experiences in the playgrounds and classrooms of San Francisco. At age 12 he was diagnosed with dyslexia and was placed in special education classes with other "problem" children. Being a typically competitive adolescent he was at first angered and shamed to be considered part of society's lesser achievers. But it was in those classrooms that his most important education began. He learned from the inside how it felt to be looked down upon by others. Over the following years, JoJo saw how devastating poverty, inequality and violence can be to young hearts and tender egos. He saw that many of these children were being tracked into a wasteland of disrespect, despair, drugs, violence and prison. He saw these problems and wanted to be part of the solution. But sadly, he became one of the many victims of this system.

We don't know who killed our son; there's no name, no fingerprints, not even a clear description since it happened so fast in the dim light of evening. But we do know why he died. And we do know that the young man who killed him was as much a product of our society as the gun he used. Having lost our only child to murder and having lived with that horror for 12 years, we deeply understand the heartbreak and even the rage of others who have experienced similar loss. We hear their cries for justice. We, too, want justice, but a justice that excludes vengeance, more killing - and more injustice.

On Jan. 10, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which is charged with making recommendations on how we can improve our criminal justice system, began a three-hearing investigation into the death penalty. The hearing exposed deep racial and ethnic inequalities in the death penalty system that will take millions of dollars to address - on top of the millions it already costs to maintain the broken process. How much better would it be to use that money to help at-risk youth, to solve the countless murders that go unsolved, to provide grief counseling for the loved ones of murder victims? The millions of dollars that are wasted on the death penalty each year could be better spent on programs that actually help prevent crime and offer positive alternatives to youth. We seek a justice that changes the social and economic conditions that foster violence.

Today, in San Jose, we are attending the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. We are meeting with other parents who have buried children, other survivors of murder victims. We have different stories and come from different walks of life, but we are united by a common goal: ending the killing, in the name of justice.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Last Statement

Today, at the Texas Prison Museum, a photography exhibit called Last Statement will open and run indefinitely. It features photographs of families of victims, including MVFHR member Bud Welch, and photos of family members of the executed, including MVFHR members Rena and Ireland Beazley, Bill Vaught, Lois Robison, and Melanie Hebert (all of whose relatives were executed in Texas) and MVFHR member Tamara Chikunova, whose son was executed in Uzbekistan.

An article in The Huntsville Item describes the exhibit:

A photography exhibit featuring individuals directly affected by capital crimes or capital punishment will open at the Texas Prison Museum on Feb. 1.

The exhibit, produced by photographer Barbara Sloan, features pieces that chronicle executed inmates’ final statements and pieces of individual case history.

“The name of the exhibit is ‘Last Statement,’ and I’ve labeled it as a continuing study of the families of victims and offenders executed on death row,” Sloan said “It’s a black and white photography fine art presentation. Nothing is done by a computer and there is nothing digital involved.”

Sloan said the exhibit features 16 photographs, divided evenly between the families of victims and the families of the executed.

The photographs are paired with paragraphs of text which provide the basic crime data from each case and a portion of the last statement of the person executed.

“I would try to pick something that related to the statement of the person in the photo,” she said. “The largest part of the text was the statement of the person in the photo. The photo may include the mother of a child who was murdered or the mother of an offender who was executed.”

Sloan said she felt her work on “Last Statement” was an incredible experience in her career.

“I’ve found this to be an incredible, sensitive project,” she said. “It is not about the death penalty — that was not the purpose of the project. The purpose was to show compassion for the families who are victims of a capital crime and the families of those suffering the loss of a person executed for a capital crime.”