Monday, March 31, 2008

Press Coverage in California

Friday's hearing of the Calfornia Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice received some good press coverage, including this local television news story. The clip shows brief interviews with Bill Babbitt of MVFHR, Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Policy Director of the ACLU.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Four Points

Bill Babbitt is testifying before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) on behalf of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights today. Here's an excerpt from the testimony he is giving:

I am speaking to you as the brother of someone who was executed in California, the cousin of someone who was murdered in California, and the board member of an organization that represents survivors from both groups. Speaking from these combined perspectives, I would like to ask the Commission to consider four points:

1. As a citizen trying to do the right thing and help ensure public safety, I was betrayed by a false promise. When I suspected that my brother might have had something to do with the death of Leah Schendel, I made the difficult decision to go to the police. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed, but instead he was executed. I had agonized over what to do, and in the end I turned Manny in to the police because I couldn’t live with the risk that someone else might become a victim of Manny’s war demons. I wanted to prevent another killing, not cause one.

2. You have heard the testimony of Manny’s attorney, Chuck Patterson, and so you have heard how Manny had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and, on top of that, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his two tours of duty in Vietnam. I wish we had been able to get my brother the help we needed, and I wish families like mine could live in a society that properly treated its mentally ill citizens, rather than executing them. Treatment and prevention, rather than execution, should be our state’s response to mental illness and to the tragedy of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the horrors of combat duty.

3. I will always remember the look on my mother’s face on the night of Manny’s execution. She suffers to this day from the effect of losing her son to execution. Manny’s children suffer too. His daughter Desiree testified before the clemency board that she felt as if Manny had raised her from prison. She said if he remained in prison, serving a life sentence, he would still be able to play an important role in her life. Today, Desiree says she wishes people could understand how her father’s execution traumatized her and how she still suffers because of it. My mother, my niece Desiree, other members of my family – these are innocent people who have been harmed by the death penalty.

4. When my cousin Butchie was killed, the police referred to his killing as a murder, but the man responsible for Butchie’s death served less than one year in prison. I am opposed to the death penalty as a family member of a murder victim, too, but it’s hard to make sense of how disproportionate my brother’s punishment was compared to the punishment for the man who killed my cousin.

Read the entire text of Bill's testimony here. On the CCFAJ website, there is a great deal of other testimony that is very much worth reading as well. Take a look at the letter from New Jersey Senator Raymond Lesniak, for example, and the testimony of Judy Kerr, Victim Liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Revisit It, Abolish It

Renny Cushing was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio yesterday, as part of a show on "The Death Penalty Revisited." You can listen to the show here.

Meanwhile, Bud Welch and Walt Everett are among the speakers at a two-day symposium at Susquehanna (Pennsylvania) University's Adams Center for Law and Society, titled "Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished?" The symposium has an interesting line-up of workshops and speakers, and I look forward to getting a report from Bud and Walt.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Speaking Out in Nebraska

Though it's disappointing that the Nebraska repeal effort has not yet been successful, it's good to see two victims' family members quoted as opposing the death penalty in this news story, "State Lawmakers Reject Attempt to Overturn Death Penalty":

Kurt Mesner and Miriam Thimm Kelle, family members of murder victims, spoke at the rally in support of repealing the death penalty.

"Murder victims families want justice, not revenge," Mesner said.

Mesner was 18 in 1980 when Randolph Reeves killed his sister and Victoria Lamm in Lincoln. Kelle's brother, James Thimm, was tortured and killed by cult leader Michael Ryan at a farm near Rulo in 1985.

She listened as senators discussed her brother's death as an example of a case that warrants the death penalty.

"There are people here demanding that the state do what the family of the victim say they do not want to see happen," [Senator Ernie} Chambers said.

The extensive appeals process in a death penalty case puts families on "an emotional roller coaster," Chambers said. "We are using those people."

Voices of Hope

This month, MVFHR board member Walt Everett is speaking at several events around Pennsylvania as part of the Voices of Hope, Agents of Change tour, which is sponsored by the ACLU, Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, and Witness to Innocence. Victims' family members, exonerated death row inmates, and other anti-death penalty activists comprise the tour. Andy Hoover, one of the primary organizers of the tour, is blogging about it here.

So far, the tour has gotten some good press. Here's a CBS story, which quotes Walt as saying, "We're hoping that people will begin to see that violence only breeds more violence and when the state becomes violent it only encourages other people to be violent as well." And here's a newspaper article that describes the tour and two events with Walt and with exonerated death row inmate Harold Wilson.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Trouble with Closure

Capital Defense Weekly quotes from an interesting new paper by law professor Susan Bandes titled "Victims, Closure, and the Sociology of Emotion." The idea of "closure" for a victim's family -- the idea that the death penalty can provide it, and the idea that it is possible at all -- is very much discussed and challenged among our members, and Susan Bandes's thoughts are useful and interesting.

Here's an excerpt from the paper:

The theme of closure has reframed the entire death penalty debate. For many years, support for the death penalty was premised on its deterrent function. More recently, the weight of empirical evidence has rendered the deterrence rationale increasingly tenuous. Retribution, the major alternative rationale, has always been a harder sell. Retribution at one time sounded too close to revenge, and made people uncomfortable.

The language of healing and closure has provided a way to soften the retribution rationale. If the death penalty can help survivors heal, then retribution can be viewed as therapy rather than bloodlust. Thus the notion of closure provides a rationale for our continuing commitment to the capital system. At the same time, the perceived requisites of closure have fueled changes in the structure of capital system, including the victim impact statement, truncated appeals, and broadened categories of death eligibility. In this way the feedback loop perpetuates itself. We have promised survivors that the system can give them closure, and the institution of capital punishment now needs to exist to give survivors the closure we’ve promised them.

Unfortunately, this therapeutic promise has little to do with the actual workings of our capital system: it’s a poster child for the dangers of engrafting the private language of emotion onto a complex, hierarchical and coercive governmental entity.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Better Served

James Gray, a judge in California's Orange County, has been writing about the death penalty in the Daily Pilot. Two relevant excerpts from his latest column:

We are also more frequently seeing the phenomenon of the victims’ families speaking out against the execution of the convicted perpetrator. One of these is a man named Bud Welch, whose daughter died at the hands of Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

As Welch continued to think about the situation, he stated publicly that he had come to two realizations. The first was that even after McVeigh would be dead, he himself would not actually feel better. The second was that he decided that all his rage and hatred against McVeigh in the name of his daughter was hardly a fitting tribute to her memory.

And later in the piece:

Accordingly, I have personally concluded that the families of the victims would be better served by its repeal; the huge amount of tax money would be better spent on improving our roads or paying the salaries of our police and firefighters; both the trial and appellate courts could better devote their resources and energies to address numbers of other issues in our society that are crying out for attention; and our country could rejoin most of the rest of the civilized world by repealing this practice. One way or the other everyone will benefit, because the system we have today is neither swift nor sure.

Read the entire column here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

News Clips

A couple of updates related to recent posts and recent areas in which MVFHR has been active:

Here is a brief news article about the Maryland Senate's passage of a death penalty study bill, and here is an article about Texas Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break.

One event during alternative spring break was a "people's tribunal" against the death penalty. You can see a video, which includes Renny Cushing talking about the death penalty as a human rights issue, here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"We're Willing to Trade Vengeance for Justice"

In our newsletter last year, we wrote about a Colorado bill that would have repealed the state's death penalty and directed those funds toward the solving of unsolved murders. In that newsletter article, we quoted Colorado victim's family member Howard Morton, whose group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), has been working for several years to draw attention to the problem of unsolved murders. The death penalty repeal bill didn't pass, but it did highlight the issue of unsolved murders and demonstrated that even families who support the death penalty were willing to testify in favor of a repeal bill because the solving of their loved one's murder was a greater priority for them.

Last year's bill also paved the way for the recent bill, which did pass, creating a cold case homicide team. We were pleased to see an article in Saturday's Montrose Daily Press describing Howard Morton's and FOHVAMP's efforts. Here's an excerpt:

Prior to HB 1272 was a bill that would have moved millions of dollars spent on death penalty cases to cold cases. Morton, FOHVAMP and the bill’s sponsor argued the resources were basically being wasted in a state where only one person is on death row.

“We wound up saying we’re willing to trade vengeance for justice,” Morton said. “There’s a lot of us who’d like to see the killers of our loved ones get death. But the problem is, we can’t find out who it is, get them convicted or even arrested. The question for us was, which is more important: Keep a death penalty hardly ever used, or take these resources and try to effectively address our unsolved murders?”

Though the bill failed, it paved the way for HB 1272, which Morton said then passed handily.

Morton’s stake in all of this is personal — and tragic.

In 1975, Morton’s son was stabbed and left under a pile of rocks in the Arizona desert. For 12 years, Morton and his wife thought the young man was missing, because his remains were misidentified and cremated by Maricopa County.

The Mortons searched for him for years, using the media and other means. He said a newspaper story eventually jogged the memory of a retired deputy. But though they know what happened to their son, the Mortons do not yet know who is responsible.

“Just sitting around telling our story over and over again didn’t get us what we wanted,” he said.

In 2001, Morton and about 10 other families formed FOHVAMP. He cited the help of a University of Colorado professor, whose students volunteered to help canvas law enforcement agencies throughout the state to see which ones had unsolved murders.

“We now have the names, dates of birth and death and other data on 1,250 victims of unsolved murders in Colorado, except for 28 who are John Does, Jane Does and Baby Does,” Morton said.

In the next MVFHR newsletter, we'll run an article about how unsolved murders affect victims' families, drawing on interviews with six MVFHR members who are relatives of victims of unsolved murders. Watch for that article -- and several others on a variety of subjects -- in April.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reaching Out to Trauma Specialists

I'm at the annual Psychotherapy Networker symposium in Washington, DC today and tomorrow, where I'll be attending several workshops about the effects of trauma and possibilities for treatment, and where I'll be hoping to meet and talk with trauma specialists and other mental health professionals about MVFHR's research on how executions harm surviving family members.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dead Man Walking Play

Next week, MVFHR members Bill Jenkins and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins will play small roles in a staged reading of the play version of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking at Dominican University in Illinois. Here's an excerpt from an article about the play:

[Bill] Jenkins brings a unique perspective to his role in the show because he is the father of a murder victim. "My son was shot and killed in 1997," Jenkins said. "I have been an ardent opponent of the death penalty ever since, and working as an activist ever since."

"I had always had a philosophical and faith-based opposition to the death penalty growing up. My parents had always been opposed to it," he said. His beliefs were tested when his son William was killed while working at a fast food restaurant. "There was no question of guilt here," Jenkins said. They knew who committed the crime.

Jenkins learned from the chief prosecutor that it was a capital offense, punishable by death. "I truly felt that the way to respond to this violence in my life was not with violence," he said. He asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty. The perpetrator received life in prison without parole.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Next Generation

This week is Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break in Austin, Texas. MVFHR has co-sponsored this event for the past three years, and we're happy to be participating again. Renny Cushing will speak as part of panel designed to inform students about victims' experience and victim opposition to the death penalty. In addition to that formal presentation, he'll spend time with the group, join in several of the activities over the next couple of days, and generally help to pass along some wisdom about activism, organizing, and working against the death penalty.

Here's the description put out by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty:

Alternative Spring Breaks are designed to give college and high school students something more meaningful to do during their week off, rather than just spending time at the beach or sitting at home catching up on school work. The specific purpose of this Alternative Spring Break is to bring students to Austin for five days of anti-death penalty activism, education and entertainment. This is the place to be if you want to become a part of the next generation of human rights leaders. Go to the beach to change your state of mind for a week, come here to change the world forever.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Working for Repeal in Maryland

Today's Baltimore Sun article, about yesterday's hearing on a death penalty repeal bill, includes a photo of MVFHR board chair Vicki Schieber and includes the line, "Opponents focused yesterday on the suffering that families of murder victims often endure during the drawn-out court hearings and appeals in capital cases that sometimes stretch several decades."

Other important observations from victims' family members are quoted in this Daily Times article:

"Kathy Garcia, a resident of New Jersey, where the death penalty was repealed in December, said she would have benefited more from support and counseling after her nephew was killed. She called the death penalty system a 'colossal failure' at helping victims' families.

"Bonnita Spikes, a member of the same panel of witnesses, said the money that goes into supporting the death penalty would be better spent helping families recover from losses, like the one she suffered when her husband was killed almost 14 years ago.

"'Instead of wasting tax dollars for a handful of executions we could use that money for survivor support,' she said."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Building Support for New Hampshire Study Commission

MVFHR has been active in New Hampshire lately, meeting with lawmakers and working with our allies to build support for the establishment of a state death penalty study commission. We're pleased to report that a bill that would have expanded the state's death penalty was rejected in a 22-2 vote, and a bill that would create a death penalty study commission passed in the House yesterday and will move on to the Senate; we anticipate a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee within the next few weeks.

Renny Cushing writes:

"High profile former officials with firsthand experience with New Hampshire's death penalty -- including former Attorneys General Phillip McLaughlin, Peter Heed, and Greg Smith, former Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy and former Supreme Court Justice William Batchelder — made the case in recent weeks to lawmakers that now is the time for a thoughtful look at New Hampshire's death penalty.

"Those judges and prosecutors supported an amendment to HB 1180 to create a broad-based commission to study the death penalty. The bipartisan measure garnered support from individuals and organizations who in the past have had very different views on capital punishment. Citizens and lawmakers who supported expanding NH's death penalty and those who supported restricting the death penalty joined with those who have worked to completely abolish the death penalty to support the death penalty study commission legislation.

"The commission will be composed of 15 members, including 2 state senators and 2 state representatives, a designee of the Attorney General, the NH Public Defender, the NH Bar Association, the County Attorneys, the NH Chiefs of Police, and the NH Association of Criminal Defense, and five members of the public representing families of murder victims, religious and ethical organizations, and associations and organizations with concerns and goals related to the death penalty."

Monday, March 3, 2008

If We Truly Care

"The death penalty is not about justice; it is about revenge. If we truly care about the victims of violent crime, their suvivors will be far better served by using public funds to help them pay for funeral expenses, replace lost income, obtain grief counseling, relocate, or provide other resources that will do far more to help them heal than offering up the corpse of the perpetrator on the altar of capital punishment."

That's Aundre Herron, former prosecutor, whose brother was murdered in 1994, testifying before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Thanks to Natasha Minsker of the ACLU of Northern California for sending around a link to the great video of Aundre's testimony; we urge everyone to take a look.

Natasha also sent word of another video of victims' family members testifying against the death penalty at the Commission hearing. What's interesting about this one is that it was created as a visual letter to the editor criticizing the Sacramento Bee for failing to include in its coverage of the hearing any mention of anti-death penalty victim testimony.