Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It Would Just Replicate the Violence

Here's a follow-up to our previous post; this story is from the Seacoast online and is headlined "Renny Cushing speaks out against Addison death sentence":

Renny Cushing has been in the news a lot lately but not for his role as one of Hampton's five state representatives.

Cushing, whose father was murdered, has been speaking out against the recent death-penalty verdict handed down to Michael Addison, who was convicted last week of fatally shooting a Manchester police officer two years ago.

The death sentence is the first since 1959 in New Hampshire and the last person actually executed was a man in 1939.

"I just think New Hampshire has been able to live without the death penalty for over 50 years and it can continue to do so," Cushing said. "Most of the world has recognized the death penalty is a human rights violation and I just can't see New Hampshire emulating China."

Cushing is the founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents victims across the country who oppose capital punishment.

Cushing said he understands the emotional case for the death penalty. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer. But rather than fight for capital punishment, Cushing stresses the need for mercy.

"Killing the man who killed my father wasn't going to do anything for me or my family," Cushing said. "It would just replicate the type of violence that brought pain to us to begin with."

Cushing hopes the Legislature will once again try to repeal the death penalty law.

In 2000, the Legislature passed a repeal bill, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. The House failed to override the veto by 34 votes.

Lawmakers rejected repeal attempts in 2001, 2006 and last year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

We're Not Better Off

Yesterday, a New Hampshire jury issued the state's first death sentence in 49 years.

Coverage of the sentence has included some response from Renny Cushing and MVFHR, as in the Union Leader's story, "Addison case highlights deep divide on the death penalty":

Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and a state representative from Hampton, said his heart goes out to the Briggs family.

"Going through any type of homicide trial takes a tremendous toll on you," said Cushing, whose father was murdered by a Hampton police officer and his wife.

But Addison's sentence means public employees will be conducting ritual killings of human beings, he said.

"That is not the New Hampshire tradition of respecting human rights and human dignity," Cushing said. "What we have seen in the past couple of months in New Hampshire is the death penalty in black and white: a jury's reluctance to give the death penalty to a white millionaire, but a willingness to put to death a black kid from Boston. That's unfortunate." ...

And in this Seacoast online story:

Gov. John Lynch said Thursday he will veto any attempt to repeal or scale back New Hampshire's capital murder statute — potentially setting up a showdown with a Legislature that voted to repeal the law eight years ago.

"I think a just verdict has been rendered," Lynch said after a jury issued a death sentence to Michael Addison for murdering Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs two years ago.

Lynch said murdering a police officer "really strikes at the heart and fabric of our society" and the death penalty is appropriate "for such a heinous crime."

Death penalty foes have not decided whether to proceed with legislation to repeal or limit the death penalty law next year, said state Reps. Renny Cushing and Jim Splaine, both longtime opponents.

"I think some of us have been waiting to see the outcome of this trial," said Cushing, D-Hampton.

Cushing understands the emotional case for the death penalty. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer. But rather than fight for capital punishment, Cushing stresses the need for mercy.

"Ultimately, I think the world has come to recognize the death penalty is a human rights violation," he said. "As a society, we're not better off when we have public employees conducting ritual killings of people."

Cushing is the founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents victims across the country who oppose capital punishment. Cushing and Splaine said opponents will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to proceed with a bill. Splaine, Cushing and Rep. Steven Lindsey, D-Keene, have initiated repeal bills, but don't have to decide whether to go forward until next month. Cushing said opponents will get together soon to decide what to do. ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We must not let murderers turn us to murder

Colleagues in the Caribbean have been alerting us to efforts to bring the death penalty back in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and particularly to recent articles in local newspapers emphasizing victims' family members' pro-death penalty cries (see, for example, this article in the Nassau Guardian).

After one paper, the Tribune, ran an article reporting that hundreds of people marched through the streets with three effigies hanging from a gallows calling for the resumption of hanging, MVFHR sent the following letter to the editor, which was published in full today with the headline "We must not let murderers turn us to murder." (Our colleagues tell us that the Tribune, though not yet online, is the largest-circulation newspaper in the Bahamas.)

Twenty years ago, two shotgun blasts took my father's life in the doorway of our family home, right in front of my mother's eyes. That day changed my family forever, and as a result I feel a unique solidarity and kinship with anyone who has suffered the devastating loss of a family member to murder. I share the grief, outrage, and desire for recognition felt by the victims' family members who marched in the streets last month. Where we differ, however, is in regard to whether the death penalty is the best way to address our pain, our loss, and the injustices we have experienced.

Soon after my father's murder, when the two people responsible for the crime had been apprehended and were awaiting trial, a friend said to me, "I hope they fry those people so your family can get some peace." He meant to comfort me, but the fact is that another killing would not have brought me or my family peace. If we let murderers turn us to murder, we give them too much power. They succeed in bringing us to their way of thinking and acting, and we become what we say we abhor.

Since that time, I have worked with hundreds of victims' family members who have come to feel that the death penalty offers only a false promise of closure. It does not truly heal our anguish as surviving family members, and it does not make society safer. Vicki Schieber, whose beautiful 23-year-old daughter Shannon was murdered, has this to say: “Losing a beloved family member to murder is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. There is no such thing as closure when a violent crime rips away the life of someone dear to you. We want the world to remember Shannon and to know what kind of person she was. In fact, we believe that one tragedy of the death penalty is that it turns society’s perspective away from the victim and creates an outpouring of support for those who have perpetuated a crime. For us, the death penalty is not the way to honor our daughter’s life.” Another mother, Theresa Matthews, lost her son in a murder that is still unsolved. She says, “A lot of people thought that I would want the person who did this terrible thing to my son to be executed, but that’s not what I want. We keep our hope that the person willl be found and held accountable, but who are we to say a life for a life? I don’t believe the death penalty would have prevented my son’s murder."

As victims' families, we all have reason to be angry and to work for change. I submit, however, that the death penalty serves as a distraction from victims' real needs, not a solution.

Renny Cushing
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Massachusetts, USA

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Holistic Approach

After the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment released its final report on Friday, recommending abolition of the state's death penalty, there has of course been considerable news coverage of the issue. This Baltimore Sun article has a video of the official announcement, in which you can catch a glimpse of MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber, who serves on the Commission.

If you follow the above link to the online copy of the Commission's report, do take a look at the appendix written by the victims' subcommittee, which includes several recommendations for improving services for victims in the state. After listing several specific recommendations, the subcommittee members write:

We, as victim members of the Commission, believe that the above recommendations are imperative for inclusion in any draft legislation that may follow the report. There needs to be a holistic approach to victims’ interests. Any savings from a [death penalty] repeal action should be targeted to assist the victims of crime, and especially the survivors of homicide. The results of the Commission’s recommendation cannot be a façade to victim/survivor concerns. The Commission’s recommendations must be clearly articulated to ensure that any legislation introduced will be dedicated to the interests of victims.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After 60 Years; After 4 Years

Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It's a good day to visit the U.S. Human Rights Network's site and to read, or re-read, a copy of the Declaration.

At the time of its framing, the UDHR was clearly an aspirational document; it represented a wish, an ideal for which the world's nations should strive. It's interesting to learn that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of that ideal. In her book Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean writes:

It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

Today, unlike 60 years ago, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty. There is so much left to accomplish with respect to human rights in general and the death penalty in particular, but today, on this historic anniversary, we can take a moment to recognize the distance come.

Today is also the fourth anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. In our first public statement, we said

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.
Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.
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.

We are immensely grateful to all the members and allies who have helped to answer that call and who have accomplished so much in these four years. Happy Birthday and Happy Human Rights Day to all of us.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Report from Spain

Here's another report from Cities for Life, this time by MVFHR member Art Laffin:

Last year I was invited to Italy by the Community of SantÉgidio (CSE) to participate in the Cities of Life Campaign to abolish the death penalty, and to speak about my experience as a murder victim family member. This year, from November 29-December 6, I was invited to Spain by the CSE to be part of the same campaign and, like Italy, it has truly been a remarkable experience.

I arrived in Barcelona in mid-afternoon on November 29. David Salas and Manel Alonso, members of the CSE, met me at the airport and gave me a warm welcome. In the evening I attended Mass with the CSE at Saint Just church. This was followed by a dinner where I met many members of the CSE, some of whom would be my escorts and translators during the coming week. Each year on November 30, the Rome-based CSE organizes events worldwide to abolish the death penalty. On November 30, 2008, 970 events were held worldwide in over 70 countries and 52 capitals, calling for an end to the death penalty. At the Cities of Life event held in the historic square in Barcelona, I was honored to be one of the speakers. Other speakers included Jaume Castro, the founder of the CSE in Barcelona, a representative of the mayor, a local news journalist and a respresentative of Amnesty International. Some 300 people attended this outdoor event, which also included a time of remembrance for the executed--1252 people were executed worldwide in 2007--as well as music by a popular jazz band.

Following this program I flew to Madrid for I was asked to speak there the next morning. I spoke to about 50 students who were part of an English class at the Universidad Complutense. After the class CSE member Jesús Romero gave me a tour of special historic sites of Madrid. Jesús and I then had a good visit with Sr. Leonora, a Carmelite sister who knows the Carmelites in Washington, D.C. whom I am good friends with. I then flew back to Barcelona to continue my speaking tour.

During the next three days I spoke to over 700 students and teachers at two universities and five high schools. There were many powerful moments of sharing with the students, including meeting some who experienced the murder of a loved one. On December 3, before speaking at the Escola Joviat in Manresa, which is about one hour from Barcelona, David took me to visit the cave where St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote the famous spiritual exericses. During my time at the cave, which has been converted into a small chapel, I gave thanks to God for the life of St. Ignatius and remembered in a special way all those Jesuits who have helped and inspired me in my faith journey. Before leaving Manresa, I did an interview with the local newspaper.

My final day in Barcelona included doing an interview with Catholic TV program to be aired on Public Television, visiting Barcelona´s beautiful port, and saying goodbye to members of the CSE. I am deeply grateful to the CSE for the countless grace-filled experiences I´ve had during my time in Spain, and for taking such good care of me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Representative Cushing

Earlier this week, Renny Cushing was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives of the 161st New Hampshire legislature. Renny, as many blog readers may know, served two terms in the New Hampshire legislature in the 1990s, during which he sponsored innovative victims' rights legislation and a measure that would have abolished the state's death penalty. Now, after an intervening decade of continued work for victims and against the death penalty, Renny is excited about returning to the legislature while also continuing to serve as Executive Director of MVFHR. We'll post further news as it comes.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Reports from Italy

While in Italy for events associated with the Community of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life - CIties Against the Death Penalty," MVFHR's Renny Cushing spoke to a large crowd at the University of the Sacred Heart in Rome and at a large community meeting in Lucca, which is in Italy's Tuscany region. Tuscany is significant in this context because Cities for Life is celebrated each year on November 30, the anniversary of the day that Tuscany abolished the death penalty in 1786 - thus marking the first time a state decided to do away with capital punishment.

While in Italy Renny also met with town officials, faith leaders, and other death penalty abolitionists, and particularly welcomed the chance to be part of a delegation meeting with the mayor of Rome as he made a public proclamation recognizing Italy's key role in the global abolition movement.

Renny reports that the events got good local and regional press coverage and that listeners were moved by the MVFHR message; some specifically told him that they had never before heard of victim opposition to the death penalty and thought it was an important part of the effort to abolish the death penalty worldwide. In that effort, we were glad to have the opportunity to participate in these events organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, which is one of MVFHR's partners in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Bill Pelke writes about his experiences in Rome here on the Journey of Hope blog.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The closer you look at it

It's always interesting to learn about the variety of factors that influence people who previously supported the death penalty to change their minds. This column in yesterday's Baltimore Examiner from a Maryland law enforcement officer includes the reminder that hearing from victims' families who oppose the death penalty can make a difference. (See the bold sections in particular.)

I spent 10 years as a law enforcement officer, including seven in the Baltimore Police Department. So I am no stranger to violence.

Indeed, my years surrounded by senseless crime filled me with outrage and the desire for revenge — including the death penalty.

But I have learned a lot since then, including the scary fact that a single mistake could be mean the execution of an innocent person.

As someone who has dedicated my life to enforcing the law, I can't live with that. I testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment this fall, sharing my journey from death penalty supporter to a supporter of repeal. And last month the Commission validated my experience by voting for the same - the repeal of Maryland's death penalty. It was a smart decision and I hope the legislature will move quickly to enact it.

As I said, my opposition to the death penalty evolved. During my years in Vietnam and later as a military policeman in Louisiana, I was exposed to violence as a matter of routine. My anger at those who would harm innocent people boiled over. Then, working in some of the poorest and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore only strengthened my feeling that some people were simply beyond redemption. It was a fairly simple conclusion for me to think that the most evil people in our society deserved the death penalty. In my view, those who opposed it were muddleheaded, knee-jerk liberals who were just plain wrong.

I felt that way until about ten years ago. The last decade has seen a broad shift in public opinion on the death penalty, and I was not immune to the new information that was coming out about innocent people being sentenced to death. I was also struck by a talk on the death penalty by then Archbishop of Baltimore, William Cardinal Keeler, when he spoke at a mass at my parish in Towson. I realized then that I had to learn more.

I read about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth — a man sentenced to die in Maryland for a crime he did not commit. I could not begin to imagine the absolute horror of languishing on death row an innocent man. I could not imagine the anticipation of being lifted onto a gurney, strapped down and injected with a combination of lethal drugs by an incompetent nurse's aide — knowing all the time that I had done nothing wrong.

As I read about Mr. Bloodsworth and other innocent people that came close to execution, my doubts about the death penalty grew. Human beings are simply not right 100 percent of the time. No amount of reforms, technological advances, or legal procedures can undo that fact. If the death penalty remains, some state, perhaps even our state, will kill an innocent person. Can we live with that?

Like many people, I have struggled to make sense of this issue. The death penalty seems like a proportionate punishment for a grievous crime. At least it brings justice to victims in the face of evil. But does it? My religion teaches that the path to true peace is through forgiveness. John Paul II traveled to an Italian prison to forgive the man who shot him. The death penalty keeps us from following that noble example. It certainly does not bring back or even honor the dead. It also does not ennoble the living. It does nothing to assuage the sorrow of the victim's loved ones. In fact, as I sat through the commission hearings waiting to testify, I heard from victims' families who said the opposite — that the death penalty's uncertainty only brought them more grief.

The closer you look at it, the less the death penalty makes any sense. As the Maryland commission found, the risk of executing an innocent person is just too high to justify maintaining a punishment that does not deter, costs too much, and harms victims' families.

And as a former police officer, I would add that the death penalty is not needed to protect the public. It is time for Maryland to make the common-sense choice and replace the death penalty with life without parole.
Michael May, of Rodgers Forge, is an attorney and formerly served as a Baltimore City police officer and a military police officer.