Thursday, July 31, 2008

She Might Be Right

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims killed in the recent shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Notably, yesterday's Knoxville News Sentinel has a story with the headline, "Church shooting gives victim pause on the death penalty." Here's an excerpt:

Three days after being shot at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Joe Barnhart's stance on capital punishment has weakened.

Barnhart - struck in the back by at least 20 pellets - had previously been a supporter of the death penalty.

But the injury to three of his family members, and the death of Linda Kraeger, a close friend with whom he co-authored books, has put doubt in his mind.

Kraeger, 61, opposed the death penalty. Now, Barnhart is recalling his friend's moral argument against the death penalty, and he's not sure he can support it.

"She might be right," Barnhart said of Kraeger's opposition to capital punishment. But the gunman "should never see the light of day."

Barnhart - in stable condition and recovering well at University of Tennessee Medical Center - said he was hit in the back Sunday by shotgun pellets while going to the ground to assist Kraeger.

"She was not getting up," he said.

Three of Joe Barnhart's other family members were injured by the gunfire, and co-author Kraeger was killed in the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Please Consider That Harm

Yesterday was the first meeting of Maryland's new death penalty study commission. An article in today's Washington Post, "Panel Hears of Inequities in the Death Penalty," gives a good summary of the testimony, including this mention of MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt and our colleague at New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, David Kaczynski:

The most gripping testimony yesterday was offered by David Kaczynski, brother of the Unabomber, and Bill Babbitt, whose brother also was a convicted killer. Both men turned in their brothers to law enforcement officials.

Kaczynski contrasted the case of his brother, Theodore J. Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated serial killer whose life was spared in a plea deal, with that of Babbitt's brother, Manny Babbitt, a paranoid schizophrenic Vietnam veteran who was executed for his crime.

"The death penalty compounds the tragedy of murder by harming another set of families," Babbitt said. "Please consider that harm when you consider the role of the death penalty in Maryland."

See this Baltimore Sun article, too.

The written testimony that Bill submitted to the commission also included this point:

I want to emphasize that my brother was executed in California. Not Georgia or Texas, where the systems are known to let people like Manny fall through the cracks. Like Maryland, my home state of California is thought to have a good public defender system and more protections for defendants than those states that execute a lot more often. Both states should be proud that our lawyers don’t sleep through trials. And yet even in a state with one of the better systems, things happened that should not have happened. My wife and I scraped together some money for a private attorney, despite California’s good public defender system. Many families do this, because they mistakenly believe that you are better off paying for justice, even if you only have very little to pay. We learned the hard way that is not always the case; Manny’s lawyer quit at the arraignment because he was too busy. The court-appointed attorney had never tried a death penalty case, did not trust blacks as jurors, and was later convicted of stealing $50,000 from the coffers of poor defendants. He admitted in a statement that he had failed Manny.

Monday, July 28, 2008

First Japanese Conference

This past Saturday, MVFHR's Japanese affiliate, Ocean, held its first annual conference, with several victims' family members speaking publicly. We provided a letter from MVFHR that was read aloud at the event:

On the first anniversary of the founding of Ocean, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights would like to salute the group for its courage and dignity in serving as the collective voice of victims' family members who seek alternative responses in the aftermath of tragedy.

The need for this voice is more urgent than ever. The pace of executions in Japan has reached its highest level in over three decades, and there appears to be broad public support for capital punishment. But part of that support comes from the belief that executions are the way to achieve justice for victims' families and the way to help victims' families heal in the aftermath of their loss. We know that not all victims' families feel that way -- not in Japan, not in the U.S., and not in the other countries around the world where Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights has members. The recent increase in executions does not solve the problem of violent crime and does not help the families of victims; indeed, it creates a new set of victims in the families of those executed.

As the Japanese affiliate of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, Ocean is part of a struggle to uphold human rights around the world. We hope for a world that truly honors the lives of those lost to violence.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Better Way to Spend the Money

We continue to follow with interest the efforts of victim's family member Howard Morton and his group Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP); they have been working to repeal Colorado's death penalty and use those funds to solve the state's many unsolved homicides.

Today's Colorado Springs Gazette has a story with the headline "Victims' families meet to hear proposal; group wants to redirect death penalty funding":

Family members of homicide victims with unsolved cases met Thursday night to hear a once-failed proposal to abolish capital punishment in Colorado and redirect money used for that purpose toward solving cold murders.

The proposal is the agenda of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to seeing solved as many of the 1,300 unsolved murders in Colorado as possible.

The group told a room of about 30 people gathered at the East Library, 5550 N. Union Blvd., the most effective way of achieving that is to reallocate the $3 million the state pays annually to "maintain" the death penalty, most of which goes toward the expensive and lengthy appeals process, to a cold case division of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation with an "ample" travel budget.

"We are certain the greatest deterrent to murder is the certainty of apprehension," said Howard Morton, the organization's director, whose own son's 33-year-old murder case remains unsolved in Arizona.

Among the forum's attendees was Cynthia Renkel of Parker, who throughout the meeting held in her lap a picture of her 24-year-old sister Mary Lynn Vialpando, who was raped, stabbed and beaten to death in Old Colorado City in 1988.

Having endured 20 years and a cycle through a dozen detectives without a named suspect in her sister's murder, Renkel supports the group's initiative.

"Although there are tips that police could investigate, they have a lack of resources to do so," she said.

The Colorado Springs Police Department has one cold case investigator assigned to the city's 86 unsolved murders. The El Paso County Sheriff 's Office's volunteer cold case detectives recently disbanded. Fourteen murders remain unsolved in the county.

Legislation that would have achieved Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons' goal was shot down by the state Legislature in 2007. The measure met much organized opposition, including the Colorado District Attorney's Council, which Morton said believes in the death penalty as a deterrent.

No one sponsored similar legislation in this year's session.

Survey results the group published in February found that 70 percent of the population supported catching murderers rather than retrying capital cases with the guarantee that convicted murderers would receive life sentences with no chance of parole.

Morton said Gov. Bill Ritter told him he would consider supporting the establishment of a CBI cold case unit if the group would find another source of funding.

"We want the death penalty abolished, and we want that money put toward cold case investigation in CBI," Morton said. "We're going to ride that horse until it falls dead on the track."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Updates from the Virtual Office

We are immersed in our mental illness and the death penalty project these days, identifying, researching, trying to find, and reaching out to families of victims killed by people with severe mental illness and families of people with severe mental illness who have been executed. We are slowly but steadily developing a group who will gather in San Antonio on October 3rd. They and others around the country will be interviewed for the report that we will release with the National Alliance on Mental Illness next year.

Meanwhile, we're also working on the fall issue of our newsletter, which will feature (among other things) some good challenges to the idea of closure. Here on the blog, we'll soon be posting news and reports from places as geographically diverse as Maryland and Tokyo, so check back often.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Executions barbaric, says victim's dad

That's the headline of a story in an Australian online news journal. The article continues:

A former Adelaide magistrate who lost a son in the 2002 Bali bombings says the death penalty facing his son's killers is a deplorable, barbaric act that should never happen.

Indonesia's Supreme Court has dismissed the final legal challenge by three death-row Bali bombers, clearing the way for their executions.

The decision means Islamic militants Amrozi, his brother Mukhlas and Imam Samudra can now be put before a firing squad at any time.

Brian Deegan, whose son Josh was among the 88 Australians, out of the 202 people, killed in Bali in the October 2002 blasts, said the death penalty should not be used "under any circumstances".

"Well before Joshua died I formed the view that the death penalty was deplorable on any level, for any reason and is in itself a barbaric act that diminishes society, and has no particular positives," Mr Deegan said today.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Do Executions Really Provide Justice?

Amnesty International has published a "campaigning toolkit" called "The Death Penalty: The Ultimate Punishment," which offers information about the death penalty and issues surrounding it and material for those who are working toward abolition. One section, titled "A Life for a Life: An Unacceptable Proposition," asks the question "Do executions really provide justice to victims of crime and their families?" and includes a nice mention of MVFHR:

Many of those who advocate the death penalty do so in the name of “victims’ rights”. They argue that the victims of violent crime and their loved ones have a right to see the life of the perpetrator taken by the state. However, the understandable anger that victims of violent crime and their families feel towards the perpetrators of such acts cannot be used to justify the violation of the human rights of those convicted of these crimes. The finality and cruelty inherent in the death penalty make it incompatible with norms of modern-day, civilized behaviour. It is an inappropriate and unacceptable response to violent crime.

Death penalty advocates who claim to be acting on behalf of victims imply that all those affected by violent crime support the death penalty universally. This is far from true. Many relatives of murder victims object to the death penalty being carried out in the name of their loved ones. In the USA, the campaign group Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has become a powerful voice against executions:

“We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.”

Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was murdered in 1972, states: “After a murder, victims’ families face two things: a death and a crime. At these times, families need help to cope with their grief and loss, and support to heal their hearts and rebuild their lives. From experience, we know that revenge is not the answer. The answer lies in reducing violence, not causing more death. The answer lies in supporting those who grieve for their lost loved ones, not creating more grieving families [by executing their relative]. It is time we break the cycle of violence.”

The same people who justify the death penalty by citing victims’ rights rarely address the suffering caused to others by executions. The trauma to prison officials and guards involved in executions, the emotional pain suffered by the family and loved ones of the individual executed, the defense lawyers who may feel that they have somehow failed their executed client and the numerous other people brutalized by executions are simply ignored by political leaders espousing the “advantages” of executions to the electorate.

“People don’t understand that the death penalty has an impact on families that is so far reaching,” says Jonnie Waner. Her brother, Larry Griffin, was put to death by the state of Missouri, USA, in 1995. “My mother has never gotten over it [the execution of her son]. She has changed so much since it happened. All of the kids have a hard time understanding it. The death penalty creates so many more victims.”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Appointed to the Maryland Study Commission

We're delighted to announce that MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber has just been appointed to Maryland's Capital Punishment Study Commission. Governor O'Malley announced the appointment of the Commission's 22 members earlier today. This article gives information about all the members.

This is the second MVFHR member to serve on a state's death penalty study commission; Charlie Strobel has been serving in Tennessee for the past year.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I Don't Want to Relive It

From today's Los Angeles Times:

The widow of a Metrolink train crash victim told a judge today that she blamed her husband's death on the train company and does not support execution for the man convicted last month on 11 counts of first degree murder for causing the derailment.

"I don't want one more life to be lost innocently," Lien Wiley, whose husband Don Wiley was killed in the crash, told presiding Judge William R. Pounders. "I don't want more people to go through what I had to go through."

Wiley spoke to the judge outside the presence of the jury. Her words today stood in contrast to much of the emotional testimony in the second day of the penalty phase of the trial.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Juan Manuel Alvarez, 29, of Compton, who parked his sport utility vehicle on the train tracks near Glendale on Jan. 26, 2005, setting off a chain-reaction train crash that killed 11 people and injured at least 180.

A jury rejected Alvarez's claim that he had planned to commit suicide but changed his mind and then could not dislodge his vehicle from the tracks.

Wiley told Pounders that she did not want Alvarez to be used as "a scapegoat." She said she believed Metrolink was responsible for the severity of the crash because of its use of a controversial "push-pull" system to operate trains.

"The trains are very dangerous, Your Honor. I did my own investigation," Wiley said. "I don't want to use Mr. Alvarez as a scapegoat so that the train company doesn't do anything to make it safe for thousands of people."

More than 100 victims and their survivors are suing Metrolink for liability. The train company has denied culpability.

Wiley sobbed as she told Pounders that she did not want to testify as a prosecution witness in the trial of Alvarez.

"I don't want to relive it," Wiley said.

Pounders told Wiley that he understood but that she was being asked only to talk about her husband. He warned Wiley not tell jurors that she had forgiven Alvarez or that she believed he should be spared the death penalty.

"If you don't follow my orders, I will sanction you," Pounders said. "I will not hesitate to put you in jail."

The judge had previously cautioned prosecutors not to ask the relatives of victims testifying about the impact of the deaths on their lives whether they thought Alvarez should live or die.

Wiley did take the stand, reluctantly. Shaking and weeping, she told prosecutors that she and her husband were very close.

"We were always together," she said. "He was very loving, romantic, a man with high integrity, very responsible. I miss him very much. My home is cold and empty and my life is cold and empty."

But when prosecutors tried to show family photos of her husband, Wiley said no. Relatives of other victims have viewed photos, including snapshots of Christmas and vacations, and recalled their loved ones for jurors.

Jurors heard from relatives of Leonardo Romero,53.His daughter, Nicole Beniquez, praised him as a good father who "cared about us so much." Crying, she told the court that without the income from her father, an ex-Marine who had worked at a pipe-fitting company, the family had too little money to stay in California and had moved to Florida.

Some jurors and witnesses had tears in their eyes when Livia Kilinski described her life since losing her son Henry Kilinski, 39. He had been an aspiring firefighter who worked in insurance claims. He was devoted to his wife, stepdaughter, parents and sisters, she said.

"I can't deal with it. I can't live with it," Kilinski said. "It's a wound in my heart. I will never heal."

Elaine Parent Siebers stared directly at Alvarez as she spoke of losing her brother William Parent, 53. Parent's family had searched frantically for him after he gave his phone number to a stranger on the day of the crash and asked the man to let his family know he had been hurt.

"The pain and anguish that we're going through, I wish on no one," she said.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Historic Decision in Pakistan

"Pakistan bans the death penalty" is the headline of a 7/4/08 article in the online publication AsiaNews. From that article:

An end to the death penalty in Pakistan: the historic decision, approved by parliament and launched by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, now awaits the signature of President Musharraf before becoming law, but the act should be pure formality.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman announced Parliament's turning over a new leaf yesterday: a ban on capital punishment, and all death row sentences commuted to life in prison. It is a personal success story for the premier who had pushed for the reform to honour the anniversary of the birth of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan’s People’s Party assassinated December 27th last.

"We welcome the decision made by the government of Pakistan”, said Nadeem Anthony of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, adding that "there is still more to be done particularly in the field of prisoner rehabilitation, so that they may one day be reintegrated into society”.

According to Nadeem the number of “sentences” and “executions” in Pakistan is among “the highest in the world: according to HRCP study at the moment in Pakistan there are 7,500 prisoners are on death row, including a few women ". It must also be underlined that “the imposition of capital punishment has not contributed to reduce the crime rate”, that human rights are “fundamental norms” and the death penalty is a “misconception of justice and denial of fundamental right to life”.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Who Gets the Death Penalty and Who Does Not?

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt was quoted yesterday in an article that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, "Death penalty and race: Scales of justice may weigh heavily against blacks":

For Bill Babbitt, a black man, the question comes down to this: Why did Sacramento County condemn his brother Manny to death for killing a white woman but sentence his cousin Butchie's white killer to a year in jail?

"I'm looking at all these murders that have occurred, hundreds, and I'm thinking, how did Manny's name come up?" says Babbitt, who witnessed his brother's execution by lethal injection in 1999.

How did Manuel Babbitt become one of the 827 first-degree murderers chosen for California's ultimate penalty? The same question is being asked, in effect, by a state commission that tried to learn whether race or other inappropriate factors have been determining who gets the death penalty and who does not.

Read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Video Blogging from the World Forum

The U.S. Human Rights Network has posted a report, in text and video, from Renny about the 3rd World Forum on Human Rights, which Renny has been attending this week. See the report here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Reports from All Over

Renny writes that the World Coalition meeting went well yesterday and the World Human Rights Forum is off to a great start. At the World Coalition, Renny gave a report about the work of MVFHR and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and gave several interviews, including one for the University of Nantes. Also, on his way to these meetings in France, Renny had a layover in London, where he was able to meet with MVFHR member Jo Berry, whose father was killed by a bomb planted by an IRA member and who now runs an organization called Building Bridges for Peace.

Last week we wrote about meeting with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions. The Special Rapporteur has released a statement about his findings regarding the U.S. death penalty

And there's news of another important report release: The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has released its report on the state's death penalty. We posted excerpts from Bill Babbitt's, Aba Gayle's, and Aundre Herron's testimony before the Commission a couple of months ago.

California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has issued this press release about the Commission's report:

Survivors of Murder Victims Applaud Report on California's Death Penalty

Commission Report Highlights Many Problems with California's Death Penalty and Encourages Californians to Consider Alternatives

Sacramento-The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued the state's first comprehensive report on California's death penalty today. The 116 page report identifies many problems with the state's death penalty, concluding that it is "dysfunctional" and quoting the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court who said the system may "fall of its own weight" if nothing is done.

During a series of hearings around the state, the Commission heard from a growing segment of advocates who oppose the death penalty: family members of murder victims whose personal experiences with the system have lead them to become ardent, outspoken advocates for alternatives to the death penalty.

Fifteen survivors of murder victims opposed to the death penalty testified at the Commission's three public hearings in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Santa Clara. These witnesses, who are active with the coalition California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV), are also available for comment this week.

Many CCV family members told the Commission that funds now spent on the death penalty would be better used helping victims, solving unsolved murders, and preventing violence. Others emphasized the negative impact of the death penalty appeals process on survivors of murder victims.

Witnesses included:

* Nick and Amanda Wilcox (Grass Valley), who testified on the anniversary of their daughter Amanda's murder. Amanda was working at a mental health clinic when she was killed by a patient. The Wilcoxes have become leading advocates for expanding treatment for the mentally ill to prevent violence.

* Barbara Zerbe Macnab (San Francisco), who testified that, despite her mother's pleas for clemency, two men were executed for the murder of her father when she was just eight years old, causing even more anguish to their family.

* Aba Gayle, who testified that, despite her requests, the Placer County District Attorney continues to pursue lengthy appeals seeking to reinstate the death sentence for the man who killed her daughter Catherine. At the time of the trial, Aba Gayle supported the death penalty. Ten years later, she realized that holding on to the anger and anticipating the execution would not help her heal.

* Vera Ramirez-Crutcher (Ventura), who testified about the anguish she experienced when her son David was murdered trying to protect his girlfriend, but who has always opposed the death penalty on religious grounds.

* Dawn Spears (San Jose), who became the primary caretaker of her three grandchildren when her daughter Tameca was murdered, testified that she is opposed to the death penalty, as was her daughter.

"I am pleased that the Commission reported noted the moving testimony of the people who have personal experience with the system," said Judy Kerr, spokesperson and victim liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV). "Ours is an important voice in this debate." Family members of murder victims were instrumental in the persuading the New Jersey legislature to end the state's death penalty.

Aundré Herron, a former prosecutor who now represents people on death row and whose brother, Danny, was murdered remarked, "The death penalty does not help us heal; rather than honoring my brother, executing his killers would have forever tied his memory to an act of revenge."

"Californians should consider how we can best help the survivors of murder victims rebuild their lives and prevent more murders?" asked Kerr. "I believe the first step is to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment."