At MVFHR's panel at the U.S. Human Rights Network conference earlier this month, the panelists seem to have gotten as much out of the experience as the audience did. Debra Fifer, whose son was killed in Milwaukee and who is active with Mothers Against Gun Violence, was powerfully affected by the chance to participate in a panel specifically of victims' family members who oppose the death penalty. She said the experience made her realize that working against the death penalty would need to be part of her ongoing work in the aftermath of her son's murder. Debra also had the interesting experience of addressing, via the panel, a member of her family who had previously supported the death penalty. She writes, "My niece, who lives in Chicago, was interested in why I was there, and she came along to observe. She was for the death penalty prior to my arrival. After listening to the USHRN panel, she no longer supports the death penalty."
Stan Allridge, who traveled to the conference from Texas, was on the panel both as a family member of murder victims (both his mother's parents were murdered, in separate incidents, and his maternal aunt was murdered as well) and as a family member of the executed (two of his brothers were executed in Texas). Fellow panelist Jeanne Bishop was struck by Stan's story of his experience, and they ended up having a powerful exchange in front of the audience. Jeanne writes, "Stan spoke movingly about what it was like for him, at the age of 18, to say goodbye to his older brother on death row in Texas just before his execution. Stan said that the typical 18-year-old is consumed with things like the prom, graduation, applying to college, etc. Instead, he was in a visiting room with his family saying goodbye to his brother, who literally was in a cage inside another cage. I asked Stan, 'What did you say to him and what did he say to you?' Stan replied that they talked about everything BUT the impending execution. They talked about, remember that fishing trip we took one summer as kids? Things like that. And being so conscious of time ticking down, that in 15 more minutes it would be the end."
Jeanne also notes another valuable part of the panel experience: "One of the people in the audience was a young woman who had a relative who was murdered by another family member. The killer ended up taking his own life while in prison. The young woman talked about the pain the victim's mother has lived with ever since, knowing that she will never have the answers to some of her deepest questions about what happened to her child. She reflected on how the death penalty accomplishes the same result--inflicting more pain on the victims' families by making it impossible for them to ever know the truth about their loved ones' last moments."