We are sad to announce that long-time anti-death penalty activist Rachel King died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Rachel died far too young but accomplished a great deal in her lifetime. As acting director of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, Rachel helped to defeat a death penalty reinstatement bill in 1994. As part of that effort, Rachel and her colleague Barbara Hood had invited Marietta Jaeger, whose 7-year-old daughter had been murdered years before, to speak to Alaskan lawmakers about her opposition to the death penatly. Many of those lawmakers later said that listening to Marietta conviced them to change their minds and vote against the death penalty.
Recognizing the power of victims' voices against the death penalty, Rachel and Barbara collaborated to produce the first edition of Not in Our Name: Murder Victims' Families Speak Out Against the Death Penalty, and Rachel subsequently wrote and published the book Don't Kill in Our Names and its companion volume Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, which was one of the first investigations into the experience of families of the executed.
Rachel worked as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, lobbying on many criminal justice issues including the death penalty, served as chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and taught law school classes. When she attended Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights' founding ceremony on December 10, 2004, Rachel offered these public remarks:
I first learned about the power of murder victims to talk about this issue when I was working in Alaska back in 1994. The leader of the Senate had a bill to introduce the death penalty. He had the votes to pass it, and it looked like it was a foregone conclusion that Alaska, like a lot of other states, was going to have the death penalty. And then we brought some murder victims' families to Alaska. We brought Marietta Jaeger, whose 7-year-old daughter Susie had been kidnapped and murdered, and she changed people’s hearts and minds. Leiglsators told us later that she had changed their position on this issue. I’m proud to say that Alaska does not have the death penalty. We fought it back that year, we fought it back two years after that. We kept bringing back the murder victims' family members, and even got one of them, Bill Pelke, to move up there, and now they just don’t have a prayer of bringing the death penalty back. The momentum has totally shifted.
I’m personally interested in Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights because before I went to law school I was a human rights monitor in Guatemala, and I have a lot of feeling for that country and for the people there who suffered greatly. I got involved in going to Guatemala when I met people in the Sanctuary movement here in the U.S. who were fleeing from political persecution in Guatemala. When I was in Guatemala I worked with a woman named Annette de Garcia who had started a group for families and friends of the disappeared. One time I was in her home watching, guarding, her 4-year-old daughter, and I was looking through this closet, and there were volumes of books, literally dozens of them, and they were all photographs of family members who had been diappeared. Now this is another kind of death penalty; it’s not the kind we think about in the U.S. but it’s state-sponored execution. Really it’s the same issue of the state sponsoring violence, and how we need to move away from that. There really isn’t any other group out there making that kind of linkage between the issues, and I think MVFHR is going to do it. So the ACLU really looks forward to working with you all and I’m really glad to be here.
We remain grateful for all of Rachel's work on behalf of a better world. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.