Thursday, May 29, 2008

Videos from the Human Rights conference

After our "Reframing the Death Penalty" panel at the U.S. Human Rights Network conference last month, we filmed several short statements from victims' family members who were at the conference. These videos are posted at The Hub, a site through which human rights activists can share video and audio material.

You can see Jeanne Bishop challenge the conventional wisdom about closure, Debra Fifer talk about losing her son to gun violence, Natalie Philips describe how her aunt Debra's words and the experience of attending the conference changed her from a death penalty supporter to an opponent, Renny Cushing talk about his father's murder and his view of the death penalty as a human rights violation, and Delia Flores talk about why working against the death penalty is so important.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mental Healthcare, or the Death Penalty?

Kristin Houle's Prevention Not Punishment blog aims to educate the public about the intersection of the death penalty and severe mental illness, and we're grateful to Kristin for posting information about MVFHR's new collaborative effort with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. We announced the project a couple of weeks ago, and it will continue to be a primary focus of our work over the next several months.

I'm sending you over to Kristin's blog for the latest information about the project today, rather than re-posting it here, so that you can have a chance to check out the other valuable material there as well. For example, Kristin offers this notable fact: "The State of Texas ranks 47th nationally in terms of per capita spending on mental healthcare, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It ranks 1st in executions (more than 400 since 1982)."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Causes He Would Have Wanted Her to Support

An article published yesterday in the online journal Campus Progress, about people who correspond with prisoners on death row, has this section about MVFHR member Bonnita Spikes:

Bonnita Spikes, the field organizer for Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, considers the prisoners on Maryland’s death row to be her personal friends. She attended Wesley Baker’s execution in 2005 and keeps in touch with his mother. Spikes is a mother of four boys and a grandmother of ten; she has traveled across the country, from Miami to Atlanta to College Park, Md., to advocate against executions. However, Spikes, 54, is also an active member of another organization—Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

In 1994, Spikes’s husband Michael was shot to death. His killers were never found. Spikes’ son attempted suicide after his father’s death. But rather than seeking vengeance for her husband’s death, Spikes turned to causes she thought Michael would have wanted her to support. She worked with those in hospices and those suffering from homelessness, eventually turning to working against the death penalty. She believes forgiveness is essential to breaking cycles of hate and crime, cycles that won’t be broken by just locking people in the Supermax to await lethal injection. “I understand. I really understand because I lost my husband,” she said. “But I just don’t think that executions are the way to go.”

When dealing with other victims’ families, Spikes acknowledges that not everyone can forgive the way she did. “I say to anybody, I’m not trying to tell you how you should feel about this,” she said. “I’m just saying if you knew the way it’s handled, it’s not handled right. It’s flawed,” she said. “The list of exonerated alone that should let you know there’s something wrong with our system.”

The families of the offenders are also victims and deserve help and support, said Spikes, who plans to write her master’s thesis on helping the families of both murder victims and offenders. “Once people hear how some have actually lived, it gives them food for thought and starts the process of, ‘Okay, maybe I need to change my mind about this,’” Spikes said.

After working with death row inmates, Spikes says she has seen the humanity of the offenders she once hated. She says her relationship with death row inmates has freed her to love her family and her life. “I wanted to find the killers that killed my husband and wanted them to be [imprisoned] and really suffer,” Spikes said.

She believes that holding onto a lust for revenge kept her, and her family, from healing. “Letting go,” she said, “I just wish more people could know that feeling because it’s just not fun living with hate, waking up to hate every morning.”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More So Now Than Ever Before

I've been interested to follow some of the articles about the recent violence in the Philippines and the calls to reinstate the death penalty there, after the country had, two years ago, become the first Asian nation to abolish capital punishment. This article quotes the Filipino Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and this one describes the varying views among lawmakers.

It seems a good time to reprint an article we published in our newsletter two years ago about victim opposition to the death penalty in the Philippines:

In June [2006], the Philippines became the first Asian nation to abolish the death penalty. One of the lawmakers voting in favor of abolition was Senator Richard Gordon, whose father, James Gordon, was murdered by an escaped inmate in 1967, and whose niece was murdered by a houseboy many years later. Senator Gordon said in his co-sponsorship speech that he was voting in favor of abolition “not just to be merciful but to be just. It is so easy to kill a person to bring him to justice, but the lifetime suffering of a nation when it finds out that it has made a mistake is indelible.” The Senator emphasized the need to focus on crime prevention in addition to abolishing the death penalty. “We cannot just sit idly by and abolish the death penalty while at the same time be inattentive to the fact that there are constant killings here in our country and the government does not seem to have the capability to properly investigate these crimes, as well as to stop these killings on the streets,” he said.

Another family member of a murder victim who openly opposed the death penalty in the Philippines was Raydean Salvosa, whose brother was brutally murdered during a robbery. Mr. Salvosa told us that fear and frustration has fueled strong public support for the death penalty in the Philippines. “Because people are afraid of the high crime rates and frustrated by the inefficiency of law enforcement, the death penalty is seen as the answer to their problems,” he explained.
For many years a professor of political theory, Mr. Salvosa had always opposed the death penalty for both philosophical and practical reasons. His brother’s murder challenged those beliefs.
“But in the end, I am still against the death penalty – more so now than ever before,” Mr. Salvosa told Article 3. “If executing those men would bring back my brother, I would be all for it. But it doesn’t – it just makes us guilty of the same crime.” Mr. Salvosa is now the Managing Director of the Consuelo Foundation, which supports programs that help abused and street children and juvenile offenders. He asks, “Why not rechannel our efforts into destroying the conditions of poverty, injustice, abuse, and neglect that breed men like those who murdered my brother?”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

All We Have is Two Dead People

If you didn't catch Reverend Carroll Pickett on NPR's Fresh Air last night, you can listen to the show here. Reverend Pickett served for fifteen years as Texas's death house chaplain, and a documentary has recently been made about him called At the Death House Door. Many abolition groups are taking the opportunity to screen the film publicly, and it will have its television premiere on May 29.

During yesterday's NPR interview, Reverend Pickett told about speaking with the family of the victim after one of the executions he had witnessed: "Afterward, I went over and talked to [the family of the victim], and they said, 'This didn't bring closure; this didn't help us. Our children will never know the loving arms and kisses of a grandmother, and all we have is two dead people. This is just a waste.' They didn't want him executed."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

It Took My Son Being Killed ...

The current issue of Peacework magazine has a great article about Tina Chery, whose 15-year-old son Louis was killed in Boston in 2003. Here's an excerpt:

As survivors, if we can bring ourselves to tell our stories in public, people listen to us in a way that they don't listen to many others. I talk about my personal journey. I'm finding a way of dealing with the trauma. We need to learn how to celebrate and develop our resilience. When we can do that, we bring life back into our lives and into the lives of our communities.

We create peacemaking circles for survivors to focus on the principles of peace. How do we begin to live life for our living children? How do we honor the memory of those we have lost while celebrating the living? How do you want to choose to work with the police and the criminal justice system? How are you taking care of yourself? These circles give us the tools to live again, like someone recovering from an accident re-learning how to walk.

I try to channel my anger at losing Louis into motivation to work for peace. Before Louis was killed, I was in favor of the death penalty. It took my son being killed before I could oppose any more killing. Those of us survivors who share these views show that peace is possible. We are not working for vengeance.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

We're Left to Wonder

In the current issue of our newsletter, there's a story titled "We're Left to Wonder: How Unsolved Murders Affect Victims' Families." Here's an excerpt:

The problem of unsolved murders isn’t much discussed in anti-death penalty literature, perhaps because in such cases the fate of the offender is not yet in question. But an unsolved case is the reality for many victims’ families, and failing to consider their experience leads to an incomplete understanding of what victims’ families may go through in the aftermath of a murder.

U.S. Department of Justice statistics report that in 2005, 62.1% of murders nationwide were “cleared” (that is, resulted in an arrest). Although the Department notes that homicide has the highest clearance rate of all serious crimes, it’s obvious from this statistic that a lot of families are left with the wondering, the fear, and the anger that an unsolved murder engenders.

Several MVFHR members who are active in their opposition to the death penalty have relatives whose murders remain unsolved. Here, we look at how they have been affected by that experience and how they see intersections between the issue of unsolved murders and the death penalty.

One of the victim's family members quoted in the story is Judy Kerr, whose brother's murder is still unsolved. Judy is the Victim Outreach Liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV). Check out the material on CCV's site, including their powerful booklet of testimonials.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Feelings Have Been Challenged

Friday's Chicago Tribune had this letter to the editor:

Murder and the death penalty

In this last week my feelings on the death penalty have been challenged.

About a week ago, my 77-year-old sister was murdered and her 78-year-old husband was wounded as they made their 13th and last stop as Meals on Wheels volunteers. A day later a suspect was captured in Norfolk, Va. When I was a youth, I was very much pro-death penalty. Four different levels of academia saw me write term papers on this topic.

But in recent years, I have seen the behavior of prosecutors here in Illinois (particularly in DuPage County).

They have rushed to judgment, been guilty of withholding exculpatory evidence and failed to show remorse when DNA evidence has cleared those on Death Row (some hours away from execution).

So I've gradually come to oppose the death penalty in most cases (the exception being for the crime of incompetence for high school and college administrators).

So now that my sweet sister has met an untimely death, has this again changed my mind? No.

The death penalty option has been abused so often by ambitious prosecutors anxious to put another notch on their belts as they prepare to run for higher office that they must be denied this punishment option—even for the obviously guilty.

—John Anderson

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Children of Both Victim and Offender

Today in Boston, photojournalist Scott Langley is screening the film Love Lived on Death Row at the Lucy Parsons Bookstore; MVFHR is co-sponsoring the event. We write about the film, and the family whose story it portrays, in the current issue of our newsletter. Here are the opening paragraphs of that story:

The four Syriani siblings were children when their father was sentenced to death for the murder of their mother. Ten-year-old John had witnessed the crime, and he and his older sisters testified against their father during the trial. They were afraid, and angry, and for years they didn’t even refer to their father by name. “I hated my father for what he did, for taking our mother away from us,” recalls Sarah, the second oldest.

The years passed; the children grew up without a mother and with a father whom they never saw. Then in 2004, fourteen years after their mother’s murder, the grown Syriani children decided to visit their father on North Carolina’s death row, hoping to confront him, get some answers, and maybe begin to come to terms with who he was and what had happened. To their surprise, they found that that visit was their first step toward reconciling with their father and fighting to stop his execution.

A new film by Linda Booker, Love Lived on Death Row, tells this family’s story and, in doing so, introduces audiences simultaneously to the idea of victim opposition to the death penalty and to the effect of executions on surviving family members.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about another family facing a similar situation. Here's an excerpt:

Chris Kellett was eight years old the day his Aunt Betty broke the news that his mother and grandfather had been murdered. There's nothing that could have prepared him to hear it. Nothing that could tell him how to make sense of this gash through the heart of his family.

It's impossible to know exactly what happened the night of May 11, 1979, but it is clear that Linda Gilreath, estranged from her husband Fred and about to file for divorce, came back to his house with her father, Gerrit Van Leeuwen, to pick up some of her things. Fred shot them both several times. His brother, to whose house he fled, later described him as "dog drunk" that night. He was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. Chris and his twelve-year-old sister Felicia were sent to live with relatives.

They were never given a chance to beg for their mother's life. Now, more than twenty years later, they intend to beg for their father's, even though some people probably think they're crazy for doing it.

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Most Vexing Questions

Yesterday's Houston Home Journal has an interesting piece by Jim Rockefeller, former Houston County Chief Assistant District Attorney and former Miami Prosecutor. I particularly noted this section:

When I was a prosecutor, I understood that not every murder was a death penalty case. The death penalty was reserved for the particularly brutal psychopaths. Personally, I was involved in three cases where I considered recommending the death penalty be pursued.

In one case, the detective and I are still dedicated to ensuring the killer remains locked up, so there is not another innocent victim – we both firmly believe if this killer is released, she will kill again.

Yet, in none of these cases did I recommend the death penalty. In one of these cases, the victim’s family clearly did not want the death penalty. In the other cases, I carefully explained to the family the costs and the interminable wait for justice. They agreed that the death penalty should not be sought.

Had the families not simplified my decision, I’m not sure what I would have decided to do. Did I want to saddle the county with a multi-million dollar legal tab for a death penalty case? Is the death penalty an appropriate legal remedy? Where is the line drawn between the extraordinary “death” case and the lesser alternative?

These questions are among the most vexing a prosecutor can face ...

It's notable, I think, that in a piece about tough questions and about the difficulty of deciding to pursue the death penalty in any given case, this prosecutor specifically mentions thinking about the victims' families -- but not in the ways that prosecutors are typically assumed to think about victims' families. Instead, this prosecutor not only took the wishes of a clearly anti-death penalty family into account, but also invited two other victims' families to consider the death penalty's costs (not just in the monetary sense) -- and all agreed that it wasn't worth pursuing.

Monday, May 5, 2008

At the Most Painful Intersection

We've met a couple of times in recent weeks with colleagues at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and we are excited to announce now that we will be collaborating with NAMI to produce a report on the intersection between death penalty and mental illness, from a victim perspective. We are in the process of reaching out to relatives of victims killed by persons suffering from severe mental illness, and relatives of persons suffering from severe mental illness who have been executed. If you are, or can put us in touch with, survivors who fit either of these profiles, we welcome the information.

We've been interested in this issue for quite some time, and have been involved in meetings and discussions with Amnesty International, the American Bar Association, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and other groups who have been working in this area. In the spring of 2006 an article in our newsletter on this topic quoted California members Nick and Amanda Wilcox, who have been outspoken and active regarding this issue:

“A severely mentally ill gunman murdered our daughter Laura while she was filling in as receptionist at our local mental health clinic. We have always been opponents of the death penalty; we have not wavered in our conviction because of Laura’s death. ... Laura’s murderer suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia. We came to recognize soon after the shooting that this man was very ill with little or no insight into his condition or the consequence of his actions. In order to protect society,institutionalization of this man is both necessary and appropriate. To execute him for an act he committed while delusional with a severe disease is, to us, simply wrong."

And in our report about families of the executed, also published in 2006, we quoted Tina Duroy, whose brother James Colburn was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 14 and hospitalized repeatedly throughout his teenage years. At 18, he was no longer covered by his family’s health insurance. Tina recalls:

“My grandparents drained their entire retirement, their savings, but when they ran out of money there was no hospital that would take him without insurance. Texas has no state-funded mental facility. ... I don’t understand how they can execute mentally ill people when they don’t try to treat them first."

We are ready now to delve even further into this difficult and important issue. NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick said it well in a public statement a couple of years ago: the death penalty for offenders suffering from mental illness represents “a profound injustice … at the most painful intersection of the mental healthcare and criminal justice systems in America.”