Friday, April 11, 2008

The Last Word

Here are excerpts from Jeanne Bishop's award acceptance speech at Northwestern University School of Law last night. (See yesterday's post for information about the event.)

First, I want to pay tribute to the amazing law students assembled here. You are so far ahead of where I was when I was your age. When I was a student here, my mission was to make good grades, get on law review and land a high-paying job at a big law firm, all of which I did.

That came to a halt on April 7, 1990, when my younger sister Nancy—who was just about your age and pregnant with her first child--walked into her house with her husband and saw a teenager pointing a gun at them. He shot my brother-in-law in the head execution style, then fired two shots into my sister’s pregnant belly and left her to die. As her life was ebbing away, Nancy dragged herself over to her husband’s body and wrote in her own blood a heart and the letter u. Love you.

What I learned from Nancy’s brief, shining life and her benediction on this world was this: love is stronger than evil. The killer didn’t have the last word—she did, and that word was love. Nancy’s message taught me what you have already figured out, so far ahead of me: that love is the greatest power on earth, and we should never do a job just for money, or out of fear, but for love. That nothing done from love is ever, ever wasted, and in that doing you will find your life and your greatest fulfillment.

Second, I want to pay tribute to this extraordinary law school, Northwestern University. When I studied here with giants like Ian MacNeil and worked as a research assistant to the trailblazing Dawn Clark Netsch, I had no idea that the privilege of my association with this institution would continue to this day, and would allow me to be an eyewitness to history.

Northwestern was the place that allowed me to speak publicly against the death penalty for the first time since my sister’s murder, at an event calling for the release of Rolando Cruz, wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old and sentenced to death. At Northwesetern I got to see 75 wrongfully convicted men and women exonterated from death row, the largest ever gathering of such a group, stand in Thorne Auditorium and by their very presence strike what I believe will ultimately be a fatal blow to the death penalty in this country. I got to sit in Lincoln Hall and hear Gov. George Ryan announce his pardon of my former client Paula Gray, a woman convicted of perjury and sent to prison when she recanted her false testimony which sent two men to death row, and returned to witness Ryan’s historic blanket commutation of death sentences for all inmates on Illinois’ death row, including another client, Andrew Uridales.

... Former prosecutor Sam Millsap said at the Third World Conference Against the Death Penalty that the death penalty in America will only be abolished by a movement that is not only joined, but led, by victims and prosecutors. We have seen that in New Jersey, the first state in modern times to legislatively abolish its death penalty. It did so in large part because victims came forward to say that the long and expensive death penalty process was bad for them. No less than five murder victins’ family members served on the NJ commission that recommended life without parole instead of death, with any cost savings to be devoted to services for victims. You cannot reform the criminal justice system without putting victims and their families at the heart of those reforms.

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