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.

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