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.
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights