Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Quick solace?

Sunday's Nashua (NH) Telegraph had an article with the headline, "Group gathers for silent vigil against capital punishment." Here's an excerpt:

State Sen. Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, who's also running for governor, spearheaded a bill earlier this year to add multiple killings to the list of crimes for which capital punishment can be a consequence.

He said the Conway shootings last summer, in which three people were killed at a military surplus store, prompted the bill, which is being studied by a judiciary committee.

"The reason why I brought it forward was to give justice to victims' families," Kenney said. "Often, they're overlooked, as far as the perpetrator is suddenly the focus, and the victims' families . . . they've lost loved ones. No justice is brought to them."

Carol Stamatakis, a former state representative from Lempster who stood outside the Statehouse on Friday, seemed to disagree.

"Too often we hear that the death penalty is a quick way to give solace to victims," she said. "But I think the needs of victims are complex and many."

Stamatakis said her father was shot and killed about 10 years ago while he was manning his furniture shop in Canton, Ohio. Authorities never caught the killer, whom they say intended to rob the store.

Even if they'd caught the killer, Stamatakis said, she wouldn't have favored capital punishment. She said what's needed are more resources and support for victims and investigators.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Victims' Rights are Human Rights

Human Rights Watch has released a new report called “Mixed Results: U.S. Policy and International Standards on the Rights and Interests of Victims of Crime,” which analyzes how well the U.S. is meeting international best practices regarding treatment of crime victims. A recent article in Human Rights news summarizes the report, including this interesting aspect: "Human Rights Watch found that police and prosecutors in some states enjoy very broad discretion over who is to be granted victim status and the extent to which victims are included in the justice process. In some cases, victims who disagree with the punishment being sought in the case – such as the death penalty – have been barred from testifying."

MVFHR's Renny Cushing and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins were interviewed for the report, and are quoted within it. Jennifer and Bill Jenkins will be presenting a workshop on the report's findings, titled "Victims' Rights are Human Rights," at the annual conference of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, which is taking place this week in Louisville, Kentucky. Jennifer and Bill are also leading several other workshops, including one on "What Victims of Traumatic Loss Need to Know Right Away."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Imagine Getting a Phone Call

From today's edition of Southern Maryland online:

ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 24, 2008) -- Kimberly Armstrong's son was murdered almost four years ago.

But as she took her seat in front of Maryland's capital punishment commission this week, she didn't testify in favor of the death penalty. Instead, she asked the commission to spare the lives of those who are on death row.

"My son not being here is no different from the death penalty. The person that you will kill still belongs to someone else," said Armstrong, president of Diamond Development, Inc., a Baltimore consulting firm specializing in grief counseling, self-esteem and other skills. "Imagine getting a phone call saying that your child has been murdered. The thought of someone hurting your child makes you sick."

For two months, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment has listened to testimony from dozens of public and expert witnesses, all desperately trying to persuade the panel to keep or repeal the death penalty.

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Media Advisory: National Project Launch

Media Advisory
September 23, 2008

National Project Launch

Murder Victims’ Families Oppose Death Penalty for
People with Severe Mental Illnesses

Washington, D.C.— Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will launch a national project opposing the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses at a press conference in San Antonio, Texas on October 3.

The initiative builds on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that raise questions about the capacity of individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses sentenced to death to understand why they are being executed or even that they will die. A national report on the issue will be released in June 2009, based in part on testimony from family members at San Antonio event.

WHAT: National project launch—press conference

WHEN: Friday, October 3, 2008 3:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

WHERE: University of the Incarnate Word
Bonilla Science Hall 129
Hildebrande—just west of Broadway intersection
San Antonio, TX 78209

WHO: Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

• Renny Cushing, MVFHR Executive Director
• Ron Honberg, NAMI Policy & Legal Director
• Bill Babbitt, brother of a Vietnam veteran, who was diagnosed with PTSD and schizophrenia, killed a 78-year old woman, and was executed.
• Lois Robison, a mother whose mentally ill son was discharged from a hospital when his insurance ran out. A county hospital could not admit him unless he became violent. He killed five people. Instead of treatment, he got the death penalty.
• Kim Crespi, mother of victims murdered by husband who suffers from mental illness
• Amanda & Nick Wilcox, parents of victim who was murdered by a person with mental illness
• Other family members of murder victims or executed persons from around the United States

MVFHR is a national organization of family members of murder victims and families of the executed. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by mental illnesses.

Susannah Sheffer for MVFHR: 617-512-2010 (cell) or sheffer@aceweb.com
Christine Armstrong for NAMI: 703-312-7893 or christinea@nami.org

# # #

Monday, September 22, 2008

Transforming Loss and Tragedy

An article about victim's family member Bess Klassen-Landis appeared in yesterday's Vermont Sunday Magazine. In it, Bess talks about speaking against the death penalty and about how her mother's unsolved murder affected her and the rest of her family. Here's an excerpt:

Bess Klassen-Landis grew up with her parents and three sisters in a Mennonite neighborhood on a country road south of Elkhart, Ind. "It was as safe as safe can be," she says. But on March 14, 1969, the 13-year-old's life turned upside down.

"My mother was a homemaker. While we were at school an intruder hit her over the head, stripped, raped and shot her five times."

Her father, a psychiatrist, was at his job at a college clinic. There were seven suspects in the murder of Helen Klassen, says her daughter, but no one was charged, and the case remains unsolved.

For 36 years Klassen-Landis, who now lives in Windsor, struggled with the aftermath.

She did the expected things: finished high school, married and bore two children, and continued her education, eventually moving with her family to Vermont so she could get a master's degree in art therapy.

But fear and a sense of failure were her constant companions until 2005, when her sister introduced her to the Journey of Hope, an organization devoted to the abolition of the death penalty.

Since then, Klassen-Landis has transformed her loss and tragedy into activism and action. She is embarking this month on a series of journeys that will take her all over the country in the next nine months to share what she believes, however paradoxical it may seem for a woman with her past: Rage and violence are not the answer to violence. ...

For related reading, see MVFHR's Spring newsletter for an article that quotes from Bess's sister Liv, titled 'We're Left to Wonder: How Unsolved Murders Affect Victims' Families." (Scroll down to p. 6.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Considering Abolition in Illinois

Victims' family members are among those testifying at an Illinois hearing on a bill that would abolish the state's death penalty. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who has taken a lead in organizing testimony for the hearing, writes, "This is a significant occasion because it is the first time in a decade that the Illinois legislature has taken up the question of abolition in an official hearing. Every major newspaper in the state is now supporting abolition, and there is bi-partisan support for abolition legislation." Jeanne Bishop adds that the hearings "come at time when cash-strapped Illinois, facing a budget crisis, is considering whether its staggeringly expensive death penalty is worth the cost."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

We've Got to Find a Better Way

An article in Sunday's Lancaster ((PA) Online newspaper announces MVFHR board member Walt Everett's speaking engagement later this week at a banquet organized by Justice & Mercy, a group that "promotes safer communities through criminal justice reform." Walt will be speaking together with Mike Carlucci, who was convicted of the murder of Walt's son Scott Everett.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Everett is a board member of Massachusetts-based Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which works against the death penalty.

Three months after Scott's death, Everett was attending a support group. One woman argued that anyone who kills should be summarily shot.

"Her son was murdered 14 years earlier," Everett said, "and she was still carrying this intense anger.

"That's when I began to say, 'I don't want to carry this anger the rest of my life.' "

Everett also promotes restorative justice, which calls for holding offenders accountable and restoring, as much as possible, victims' losses. Carlucci shares in that advocacy project, according to Justice & Mercy.

The penal system focuses on retribution, Everett said, but that hasn't done much to change the hearts of offenders — and it doesn't help to change the pain felt by victims, either.

"We've got to find a better way."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Could similar reasoning apply?

This column by Dr. Maria Felix-Ortiz appeared in the 9/10/08 issue of the San Antonio Express-News:

This new millennium has seen substantial review of capital punishment.

In 2002, in Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote that the intellectually disabled can be competent, “but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”

This overturned a 13-year-old decision that had allowed execution of the mentally [disabled].

In 2005, the court opined that a juvenile's “immature and irresponsible behavior,” vulnerability to and lack of control over his environment and the fact that he was still developing his identity indicated diminished culpability. In Roper vs. Simmons, the court ruled that a juvenile's diminished culpability meant that execution couldn't serve as retribution or as deterrence of capital crimes.

Could similar reasoning apply to capital punishment of mentally ill offenders?

Mental illness and capital punishment are the focus of a national meeting co-sponsored by National Alliance for Mental Illness and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights at the University of the Incarnate Word on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. (in BSH 129). Speakers, who will share their perspectives as family members of murder victims and the executed murderers, include:

Bill Babbitt: His brother was executed in California for assaulting and killing a 78-year-old grandmother. Manny was a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Babbitt remarks (see www.mvfhr.org), “The police promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my brother in and that led to his death.”

Lois Robison: Her son became ill with paranoid schizophrenia. Larry was discharged after 30 days, as soon as he turned 21, because he wasn't covered by his parents' insurance. Robison took him to the county hospital, which discharged him and said “not to take him home.” He couldn't be hospitalized unless he was violent. Larry's first episode of violence was to kill five people. Robison remarks, “They told us if he ever got violent they would give him treatment and instead they gave him the death penalty.”

Amanda Wilcox: Her daughter, Laura, a receptionist, was killed by a man who had paranoid schizophrenia.

This event launches a national effort to collect interviews and generate a report to the next NAMI national conference. NAMI and MVFHR hope to educate us about this complex issue.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rethinking "Closure"

Speaking of closure (as we did in Monday's post), our fall newsletter is out, and it's a special issue focusing on the whole idea of closure in the aftermath of a murder -- questioning whether the death penalty provides it for victims' families, but also questioning the concept itself.

The issue contains an interview with law professor Susan Bandes, who talks about how recently the linkage between closure and the death penalty became popular. The issue also contains reflections from victims' family members about what closure means -- or doesn't mean -- to them, and an essay in which a victim's family member explores the taboo against talking about murder and describes what she wanted from others in the aftermath of the murder in her family. You'll also find our usual features, including some snapshots of MVFHR's recent work and a roundup of examples of victim opposition to the death penalty in the news.

Monday, September 8, 2008

More Than Anything Else Has

This article in the 9/2/08 Poughkeepsie (NY) Journal is titled "Victim's Family Finds Closure." When you read the quotes from MVFHR members Marie Verzulli and Marguerite Marsh, you'll see that they describe their experience of meeting with the man responsible for killing their sister/mother in somewhat less absolute terms; the article says that the visit "helped them bring more closure to Cathy's death than anything else has."

That level of subtlety is harder for a newspaper headline to capture: that there is no complete closure after a murder, but that these survivors felt that meeting with the person responsible for the murder brought them closer to closure than an execution would have. It's an important point, though.

Here's the article:

Marguerite Marsh and her daughter sat at a table across from the man who killed Marsh's other daughter.

In a small room in Attica Correctional Facility, for two hours in January, they spoke with Kendall Francois, who is serving a life sentence for the murders of eight women in Poughkeepsie.

"My focus in going there was to tell him that I had forgiven him," Marsh said.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the grisly discovery of eight women hidden in the home Francois shared with his parents and sister. One of the women whom he admitted to killing, Catherine Marsh, was

Marguerite Marsh's daughter.

"He felt that he owed us this visit because of what he had done," Marguerite Marsh said.

The family had initiated contact with Francois and he agreed to speak with them.

Francois told them about growing up and joining the military. He told them about his sex addiction and how he would often get angry when the women he had sex with wanted to leave.

They asked if he remembered Cathy. He said he did.

"Just before we left, he said, 'Tell Cathy's daughters that I'm sorry I killed their mother,' " Marsh said.

Catherine's daughters, now 16 and 14, have been adopted by their foster mother, and see their grandmother often, Marguerite Marsh said.

For the three-hour drive back to their home in Schenectady, Marie Verzulli, Catherine's sister, said she felt the anger and other emotions surrounding her sister's death, emotions she had slowly overcome.

"It really just flooded it all back in ... the whole thing becoming so, so very real and current," she said. "You could have just wiped away the last 10 years for a moment there."

In the years since Francois' arrest and the discovery of what happened to Catherine Marsh and the other seven women, Verzulli and her mother have tried to use her death to teach others.

Marguerite Marsh tells Catherine's story to school groups. She tells them about her daughter's drug addiction, and how she went to Poughkeepsie for rehab, but suffered a relapse.

"The relapse," Marsh said, "put her back on the street - put her into the arms of Kendall."

Verzulli works as a victim's adviser advocate for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, a statewide coalition of organizations and individuals committed to the abolition of capital punishment. She said despite the magnitude of Francois' crimes, execution would solve nothing.

"The only thing the death penalty could have done would be a revenge or vengeance-type of answer," she said. "When you were done with that, you still had to deal with your loss."

Verzulli said the fact Francois has not been executed allowed them to make the three-hour drive to visit him in Attica, which helped them bring more closure to Cathy's death than anything else has.

"My mom had wanted to be able to go there and be able to sit across from him and be able to forgive him," Verzulli said. "She felt she had it in her heart, and she needed to sit across from him to know she could do it.

"And she did it."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Is it Something We Can Live Without?

From a 8/31/08 article in the Massachusetts Eagle Tribune headlined "N.H. capital murder cases bring death penalty to forefront":

... Two capital murder trials have reignited efforts by the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

A new 15-member steering committee is pushing for the study commission in 2009, said Barbara Keshen, legal counsel for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

"The reason we think that's important is that New Hampshire has never really done that kind of hard work, to really appreciate the consequence to be active in death penalty (litigation)," she said. "No one has done the analysis on the emotional toll on victims, on families, on lawyers and the time consumption done by the courts."

Keshen said the group also is working on recruiting new members to broaden its base.

"We're hoping to develop our membership base throughout every county in the state," she said. "We want to host educational forums and get into the communities so they can learn what it means for the state of New Hampshire."

The trial of millionaire businessman John "Jay" Brooks, 56, formerly of Derry, is set to begin next week. A panel of 18 jurors will weigh whether Brooks is responsible for the 2005 murder-for-hire plot against his former mover, Jack Reid, 57, of Derry. A jury of 12 will ultimately be chosen to decide Brooks' guilt or innocence. If he's convicted of capital murder, that same jury will sit on a second trial to determine whether Brooks should be executed.

That case will be followed by the trial of Michael Addison, 27, of Dorchester, Mass., accused of the 2006 fatal shooting of Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs.

Keshen said the group plans to make some kind of public disapproval of the two capital murder cases next month, but would not elaborate.

"We don't see our mission as interfering in the judicial process," Keshen said, "but we do want to make a public expression of grief for the families of victims in those two cases and families of defendants who face the prospect of losing a loved one."

Gov. John Lynch has said he would veto legislation to repeal the death penalty if it reaches his desk. Yet lawmakers have come close in recent years to passing a bill to repeal it.

Splaine's last bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison was defeated in the House, 185-173. The House defeated a similar bill in 2006 by 63 votes.

Critics of the death penalty say the extra litigation and years of automatic appeals are far too costly for New Hampshire and mete out little more in the way of justice.

"The lesson that will come out of these two trials is that the death penalty is going to warrant further examination," said Renny Cushing, executive director for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Cushing, whose father was murdered by a Hampton police officer in 1988, said he may run for state representative in the fall, but not only to push for a bill to abolish capital punishment.

"It's a separate issue," he said. "Certainly, we know there will be an abolition bill that will be introduced. And, based upon the experience earlier this year, where there was support of a death penalty study commission, that will probably be introduced as well."

Cushing said the Legislature planned to study the death penalty in 1973, but nobody ever followed through.

"Here we are 35 years on, and there's never been a thoughtful examination of the death penalty as public policy," Cushing said. "Does it meet the needs of law enforcement? And does it meet the needs of our society as a whole? And is it something we can live without?"

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Happy Anniversary

One year ago today we launched this blog, and so now is a good time to thank everyone who reads "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty," sends material, or offers links or mentions in their own blogs.

Keep your thoughts and comments coming, and when you have occasion to list Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights in your literature or website, we appreciate it if you list the blog's address, too. By now there's a lot of material in the archives that can introduce readers to victim opposition to the death penalty.