Thursday, October 30, 2008

Worth Noting

Didn't mean to go a full week without posting at all; my only excuse is that I'd been expecting a couple of different reports from members to come in earlier in the week and they've been a bit delayed. Here are a couple of items worth noting in the meantme, however:

A lot of good coverage of victim opposition to the death penalty can be found within these articles about the Montana Journey of Hope speaking tour, which took place earlier this month.

Then, not specifically about victim opposition but most certainly connected to our interest in the worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty today has a very interesting article, "Activists Oppose the Death Penalty Across Asia." The piece describes the various anti-death penalty activities that took place in Asian countries in connection with World Day Against the Death Penalty this year, including events in 23 different Indian cities. It's both inspiring and illuminating to be reminded that the death penalty abolition movement really is a global one.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not Even a Remote Thought

MVFHR member Bonnita Spikes has this letter published in today's Gazette (a Maryland newspaper):

I read "Panel weighs death penalty" with a heavy heart. I lost my husband, Michael Spikes, to murder in 1994. I was one of several murder victims' family members to testify for repeal of the death penalty at the hearings of the Commission on Capital Punishment. And I joined 48 other Marylanders who are homicide survivors in signing a letter, presented to the commission, that also urged replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

Why is [Baltimore County] State's Attorney [Scott] Shellenberger so intent on keeping a death penalty despite racial disparities and so many other flaws with it here in our state?

I work with homicide survivors, particularly within black communities in Maryland where nearly 80 percent of state murders occur. The notion of a death sentence for their loved one's murderer isn't even a remote thought for these families. They are struggling to hold their low-income households together, to help their families grieve and survive the trauma one day at a time. Most have no insurance and are [in] dire need of support and traumatic grief counseling.

Even Mr. Shellenberger agrees the death penalty costs more than life in prison. Our state's scarce resources should be redirected to help these families.

Speaking at Manhattanville College Tonight

This evening, MVFHR Executive DIrector Renny Cushing will be delivering the 10th Annual Henry Schwarzschild Memorial Lecture against the Death Penalty at Manhatthanville College in Purchase, NY. The event is co-sponsored by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Connie Hogarth Center For Social Action.

Renny will be introduced by MVFHR member Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son Greg was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Prevention, Not Execution" Video excerpts

Some video excerpts from the "Prevention, Not Execution" event can be viewed here at The Hub, a site through which human rights activists can share video and audio material. This is not a video of the entire press conference and remembrance ceremony, but it does show a substantial chunk of it and is well worth checking out. Browse through some of the other material available on this human rights site while you're there!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lighting Candles

After placing roses in a vase to commemorate their losses (see yesterday's post), participants in the "Prevention, Not Execution" remembrance ceremony lit candles both to honor their losses and to express hope for the future.

Here, Billie Jean Mayberry and Bonnie Skawski light a candle for their brother Robert Coe, who suffered from mental illness and was executed in Tennessee.

And here, Art Laffin, from Washington, DC, lights a candle for his brother Paul Laffin. Art said that Paul, who had worked as associate director of Mercy Housing and Shelter in Hartford, Connecticut, "was murdered by one of the men who frequented the shelter, Dennis Soutar, who suffered from mental illness and fell through the cracks of our system."

With Art in the photo are Nick and Amanda Wilcox (see their press statement).

Photos are by Scott Langley.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Photos from "Prevention, Not Execution" launch

And now for some photos from San Antonio! After the press conference, the statements from which you've read in previous posts, we held a remembrance ceremony, in which participants placed roses in a vase in memory of the losses represented at this gathering.

Linda Gregory starts off the ceremony by placing a rose in memory of her husband, Deputy Sheriff Eugene Gregory, who was shot and killed in Florida by a man who had a mental illness. Linda also placed a rose for Alan Singletary, the man who killed her husband and who was then also killed during the police standoff.

Here, Charlie Strobel places a rose in memory of his mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, who was killed in Tennessee. Charlie also placed roses in memory of the 5 other victims killed throughout the Southwest by the same person who suffered from a mental illness.

And here, Julie Nelson, from Massachusetts, places a rose in memory of her father, George Arthur Nelson, who was shot to death in California by a Vetnam veteran who had chronic schizophrenia. Also visible in this photo are, from left to right, Linda Gregory (see above); Joe Bruce, from Maine, whose wife Amy Bruce was killed by their mentally ill son William; Tina Duroy and Nichole Eddings, sister and niece of James Colburn, who was executed in Texas; Kim Crespi (see press statement); Pat Seaborn, whose cousin Ron Spivey was executed in Georgia; BJ Mayberry and Bonnie Skawski, sisters of Robert Coe, who was executed in Tennessee; Lois and Carol Robison (see press statement).

All photos are by Scott Langley. More to come tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This is the Project That Hits Home

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Bill Babbitt delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio on October 3. Other posts from that event began last week.

Execution of people with mental illness is an issue very close to my heart, so it means a lot to me to be part of a project that is lifting up this issue and asking others to pay attention. I have served on the board of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights since the organization’s founding in 2004. It’s always meant a lot to me to be part of an organization of victims’ families that welcomed me and others whose loved ones were killed by state execution. I’ve been proud of all the work we’ve done, but this is the project that really hits home for me.

My brother Manny served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps. He fought in five major battles. During the siege at Khe Sanh, Manny picked up severed arms, heads, and legs of his fellow Marines. Then he got wounded and medevacked out in a helicopter on a pile of dead bodies. Ever since he returned home, he suffered from post-traumatic symptoms. It was like he never really left Viet Nam. He would hallucinate; he would act as if he was still on the battlefield.

Manny was sent to a state hospital in Massachusetts, where he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. After he was released, he came to live with my wife Linda and me in California. We gave him money and tried to help him get work. But I was worried. He was acting strange. I saw that his demons were coming to the surface.

Then something terrible happened. A 78-year-old woman died during an intrusion into her home. When I began to suspect that Manny was responsible for that woman’s death, I agonized over what to do. Finally I couldn’t live with the risk that there was someone else out there who might become a victim of my brother and his war-induced demons. I went to the police and told them what I suspected. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed, and I agreed to help lead them to Manny. After they arrested Manny, an officer said to him, “You’re not going to go to the gas chamber or anything like that.’

I believed that. My mother believed it. We never really thought he would be executed, right up until the last half hour when I watched my brother be put to death at San Quentin Prison on May 4, 1999.

I wish we had been able to get Manny the help he needed. I wish that as a society we would devote our resources to treating people like Manny instead of imposing the death penalty and creating more funerals, more grief, more tears.

Today I am here with others whose loved ones suffered from mental illness and were executed. I am here with families whose loved ones were killed by people suffering from mental illness. As an MVFHR board member I want to thank the National Alliance on Mental Illness for joining with us and I want to thank all of you for showing that you care about the tragedies that all of assembled here today have gone through.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Nothing Could Have Prepared Us

Returning to our series, here is the statement that Kim Crespi delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio on October 3. Other posts from that event began last week.

On January 19, 2006, the Crespi family was a happy group of 7. Jessica was a high school senior, Dylan an eighth grader, Joshua a fourth grader, and 5-year-old Tessara and Samantha were happy, active, loving identical twin girls in preschool. Their father, David, was a responsible and loving husband and father who had been dealing with recurring episodes of severe insomnia that that each time led to anxiety and then depression. Each time, we sought help, listened to advice, went to therapy, and followed the prescribed medication. We were not warned about potential side effects of medication, particularly the possibility of mania and psychosis.

Nothing could have prepared us for what happened the next day. After yet another night of inadequate sleep, David stayed home from work. The twins were home that day as well. I left the house for an hour and fifteen minutes and returned to a police barricade and the horror that David, while in a psychotic state, had killed the girls, called 911, and was already in custody.

The criminal justice system took over. David’s defense attorneys advised him to accept a plea rather than go to trial. They explained that his actions did not fit the legal definition of insanity, and said that a trial would be hard for all of us. We knew a trial would be grueling, but we would have considered going through with it if the state had not made it clear that they were seeking the death penalty for David. If we went to trial, we would be risking David’s life too. The threat of the death penalty convinced us to accept the plea that the state was offering, even though we knew that meant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and no opportunity to look more deeply into what might have caused this tragedy to happen.

I miss the twins every day. Obviously, my other children and I are forever changed by this terrible loss. But it is devastating enough to cope with the fact that David was responsible for the twins’ deaths and that he is now in prison with back-to-back life sentences. Adding to this list of losses by executing David would only make things worse for me and for our children. It is hard enough for them to understand that their loving father, in an uncontrolled psychotic state, killed their baby sisters. Trying to understand how reasonable, non-psychotic people would now choose to take their father’s life would create another layer of distrust and tragedy that certainly would do nothing to aid in their healing.

I am here today with other family members of murder victims, feeling our shared losses. I am here today with family members of people who have been executed, deeply aware of how close our family came to suffering that additional loss too. And I am here with others who are family members of both the victim and the person responsible for the crime, saying that the death penalty is not the way to respond to tragedies like ours.

Friday, October 10, 2008

World Day Against the Death Penalty

Our series of posts from October 3rd's mental illness and the death penalty event will continue next week. Today, we want to wish everyone a happy World Day Against the Death Penalty. Take a look at this impressive list of actions and events taking place around the world today.

This year, attention is especially focused on ending executions in Asian countries. Our colleagues in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty explain:

Responding to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's appeal, citizens, national and international institutions and NGOs rally together every year on 10 October to oppose the use of the death penalty and to recall that its abolition is a universal struggle.

This year, they have decided to turn their eyes on Asia. According to Amnesty International, at least 664 executions have been reported in Asia in 2007. The real figures are believed to be much higher. A recent study by Franklin Zimring and David Johnson estimates that 85 to 95% of the world's executions take place in Asia.

A growing number of countries in the region, however, have committed to the abolition of the death penalty. This Sixth World Day is an opportunity to publicly oppose the use of this inhuman, cruel and degrading punishment and to support those in the Asian region who are fighting for its abolition.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I've Been Waiting 25 Years

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Lois Robison delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio last Friday:

I am a retired third grade teacher, and my husband Ken is a college instructor. We have 8 children (his, mine, and ours), 18 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. We are just an average American family except that three of our children were mentally ill. Ken’s oldest son, David, was bi-polar and was hospitalized several times. He died of a heart attack when he was 45 years old. Our youngest daughter, Carol, is bi-polar and lives in an assisted living facility in Fort Worth. My oldest son, Larry, was paranoid schizophrenic and was executed by the state of Texas.

Larry was the kind of boy that every mother dreams of having. He was a good student, active in his church youth group, played Little League ball, was on the swim team, played drums in the school band, had a paper route, and would have made Eagle Scout if he hadn’t become ill. By the time he was in Junior High we knew that something was wrong. We tried to get help from the University Medical Center in Kansas, where we lived at the time. Unfortunately, we did not know then of the family history of mental illness (it had been kept a deep dark secret). Larry was not given a correct diagnosis until several years later.

Larry had his first mental breakdown while serving in the Air Force. They sent him home with an Honorable Discharge and no explanation. He was first diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth when he was 21 years old. Because our insurance no longer covered him, he was discharged. We were told to take him to the JPS County Hospital, where he was kept for 30 days and then discharged because he was “not violent “ and they “needed the bed.” We were told that we should not take him home under any circumstances. I said, “He has no job, no money, no car, and no place to live. You can’t put him out on the street.” They said, “We do it every day.”

We took Larry to the Veteran’s Hospital in Waco, where they kept him for 30 days and discharged him. We were told that he was not well and would get worse without treatment, but they couldn’t keep him any longer because – again -- he was “not violent” and they “needed the bed.” If he became violent, we were told, he could get the long-term treatment that everyone agreed he needed. The VA doctors forgot to have Larry sign a medical release before he left, so we were not able to get medication for him at the Fort Worth Mental Health/Mental Retardation office. Because of the Privacy Act, none of the doctors or hospitals informed us that he needed his medication every day in order to cope. No one would tell us what to do to help Larry. Consequently, he went without medication or treatment for four years.

The first and only violence he was ever accused of was killing five people. We were horrified, and terribly distressed for the victims and their families. We thought Larry would finally be committed to a mental institution, probably for life. We were wrong. Despite his medical history, he was found sane, guilty and sentenced to death. The Appeals Court declared that Larry did not get a fair trial because of the sanity issue, and ordered a new one.

At the second trial we showed his medical records. His aunt came to testify about the history of the mental illness Larry’s natural father’s family, but the DA objected because we did not have the medical records of these relatives. So the jury was not allowed to hear that Larry’s uncle, great uncle, and great-grandfather were all hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia. Our psychiatrist testified that Larry was paranoid schizophrenic. The DA’s psychiatrist (called “Dr. Death” because he testified for the prosecution in insanity trials all over Texas) said that he was not mentally ill. Larry was again found sane, guilty, and sentenced to die. He was executed on January 21, 2000.

How can a modern, civilized society choose to exterminate its mentally ill citizens rather than treat them? Texas is near the bottom of the 50 states in resources for the mentally ill and at the very top in the number of mentally ill imprisoned and executed. There is something wrong with this picture.

When I was invited by MVFHR and NAMI to participate in the project that we are embarking on today, I said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for this.” I have been waiting for people to come together and say that the death penalty is not the answer to the problem of untreated mental illness in our country.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We Can Choose How We Respond

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Amanda and Nick Wilcox of California delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio last Friday:


On January 10, 2001, our only daughter, Laura, was murdered while home on winter break from college. Laura was filling in as a receptionist at a Behavioral Health clinic in our home state of California when, without warning, a patient suffering from paranoid schizophrenia opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun and shot Laura four times at point blank range. Laura was killed instantly. When the rampage at the clinic and at a nearby restaurant ended, three people lay dead, three were severely injured, a community was shaken, and the world was diminished by the loss of an incredible young woman.

Many call the death of a child the worst loss. As a mother outliving her daughter, I no longer have the future I envisioned. To me, Laura will always be a teenager, full of plans for a busy, happy, and meaningful life.

Laura had extraordinary capabilities, kindness and spirit. She was an outstanding student, graduating as high school valedictorian, and was at the time of her death a college sophomore and in the midst of her campaign for the student body presidency. Laura was extremely organized, disciplined, and motivated, and with her positive energy, she was a natural leader. At age nineteen, Laura was already living a full life of service; she wanted to make a positive difference in the world; she had unlimited possibilities and the brightest of prospects.

It made no sense that someone as good and innocent as Laura could be murdered. After her death, life seemed meaningless. I felt great despair. I felt I had seen humanity at its worst. In the following months my husband and I heard comments such as “fry the bastard” or “I hope he gets what he deserves.” These statements did nothing to restore our faith in the goodness in people. Those who expressed hatred and revenge did not comfort us. Those who thought execution would bring justice did not realize that there is no justice. Justice would be to have Laura alive again.


As it turned out in this case, the man responsible for Laura’s murder was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. We believe the man who killed our daughter must be held fully accountable. He cannot be trusted to be free in society again. In order to protect society, institutionalization of Laura’s murderer is both necessary and appropriate.

But to execute him for an act he committed while delusional with a severe disease is, to us, simply wrong. Our prisons are now filled with the mentally ill and in many instances the only way a person can receive proper mental health care is by committing a crime. The financial resources now spent on implementing the death penalty would be better spent if redirected to treatment of those with serious mental illness, thereby preventing future acts of violence.

We had no control over what happened to our daughter, but we can choose how we respond. For us, part of that response involves speaking out for violence prevention and against the death penalty for people with mental illness. As the father of a daughter murdered by a mentally ill man, I am here today as witness to this project. My wife and I are joining other families whose loved ones have been killed. We are standing together to say that prevention, not execution, is how we honor our loved ones’ lives.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Speaking from Experience

Interrupting our series of posts from last week's mental illness and the death penalty event to note that several MVFHR members are participating in the Montana Journey of Hope this week, speaking out all around the state. They're getting some good press coverage. Here's an article that came out in Sunday's Montana Standard, "Death Penalty Opponents Speak from Experience."

If a Person Can Get It

Ron Honberg, Legal and Policy Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has been our partner in organizing the "Prevention, Not Execution" project. Here's the statement he delivered at the event in San Antonio last Friday:

It is perhaps ironic that I am standing here, because NAMI is known to be an organization that fights very hard against the stigma of perceived violence that often surrounds severe mental illnesses.

It is important to say right up front that most people with severe mental illnesses are not violent. In actuality, they are far more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.

However, acts of violence do occur. Because the crimes often appear senseless, the individuals who commit them are often portrayed and perceived as monsters – people with no redeeming qualities who deserve their fates.

In fact, even though state laws list mental disease and defects as a factor that should mitigate against the death penalty, there is evidence that defendants with serious mental illnesses are more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of similar crimes without mental illnesses.

When you closely examine these cases, you often realize that the individuals who committed them were not monsters at all. In many of these cases, their actions were responses to overwhelming delusions and hallucinations – such as voices that they were powerless to resist, commanding them to act in ways they never would have had they been in their right minds.

Mental illness is a medical illness. It is a disease of the brain. It requires medical treatment. Treatment is the best way to minimize or eliminate terrifying symptoms that are the root of many tragic cases.

Treatment works—if a person can get it. But sadly, treatment is frequently not available when people need it the most.

In 2003, President Bush appointed a mental health commission that called the nation’s mental health care system a fragmented “system in shambles.”

In 2006, NAMI conducted the first comprehensive assessment of publicly-funded state mental health services in 15 years. What we found shocked us. The national average grade was a D. Eight states got Fs.

The sad but undeniable truth is that in many parts of the country, there is no mental health system at all. NAMI in no way minimizes or excuses the horrendous crimes that can lead to the death penalty, but we believe the answer lies not in executing people who struggle with illnesses that are no fault of their own, but rather, in taking steps to prevent crimes from ever occurring.

Today’s meeting is extraordinary because families of people with severe mental illnesses who have been executed and families of victims killed by people with severe mental illnesses will stand before you united in the belief that executing people with severe mental illness is wrong.

I cannot adequately express the gratitude that we feel towards these remarkable people for gathering today to tell their stories. And, I particularly want to thank Renny Cushing, Susannah Sheffer, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights for convening this meeting and for allowing NAMI to share in this momentous event.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Inspiring and Devastating

We're back from the tremendously powerful gathering and public event in San Antonio, launching the "Prevention, Not Execution" project that we have undertaken in collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Victims' families and families of the executed, all of whom had been affected by mental illness, murder, and the death penalty, traveled from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in Texas. In the morning we met for two and a half hours during which each participant had a chance to talk about their experience and how it had affected them. Afterwards Renny asked the participants to sum up those two and a half hours, and in response we heard "inspiring," "devastating," "healing," "brutal," which gives a sense of the range of emotion and exchange that took place. It was particularly powerful to witness some of the exchanges that occurred between victims' families and families of the executed.

The press conference and public remembrance ceremony that followed that afternoon was also successful, and I'll be posting material from that event here over the next several days. Since today's post is about the private conversation that took place in the morning, though, I want to say that I had the feeling afterward that even if we had not held any public event at all but had only brought people together for that morning's conversation, it would have been worth the effort because of the value of what went on. That said, I look forward to posting statements and photos from the press conference and remembrance ceremony throughout this week. For now, here's one of Scott Langley's photos of the whole group:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Off to San Antonio

The MVFHR staff is flying to San Antonio today for the official launch of our "Prevention, Not Execution," project, which focuses on opposing death sentences for people with mental illness and which we are undertaking in collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Families of victims killed by someone suffering from mental illness and families of people with mental illness who have been executed will be arriving from around the country tomorrow, and on Friday we'll all have a private gathering and then a public event and remembrance ceremony.

Thanks to our colleagues and friends at the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Texas After Violence Project, Amnesty International Group 205, and University of the Incarnate Word for all the local support that has made it possible to organize this event from afar. We look forward to blogging about it all when we return.