Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Affecting Each Other

At MVFHR's panel at the U.S. Human Rights Network conference earlier this month, the panelists seem to have gotten as much out of the experience as the audience did. Debra Fifer, whose son was killed in Milwaukee and who is active with Mothers Against Gun Violence, was powerfully affected by the chance to participate in a panel specifically of victims' family members who oppose the death penalty. She said the experience made her realize that working against the death penalty would need to be part of her ongoing work in the aftermath of her son's murder. Debra also had the interesting experience of addressing, via the panel, a member of her family who had previously supported the death penalty. She writes, "My niece, who lives in Chicago, was interested in why I was there, and she came along to observe. She was for the death penalty prior to my arrival. After listening to the USHRN panel, she no longer supports the death penalty."

Stan Allridge, who traveled to the conference from Texas, was on the panel both as a family member of murder victims (both his mother's parents were murdered, in separate incidents, and his maternal aunt was murdered as well) and as a family member of the executed (two of his brothers were executed in Texas). Fellow panelist Jeanne Bishop was struck by Stan's story of his experience, and they ended up having a powerful exchange in front of the audience. Jeanne writes, "Stan spoke movingly about what it was like for him, at the age of 18, to say goodbye to his older brother on death row in Texas just before his execution. Stan said that the typical 18-year-old is consumed with things like the prom, graduation, applying to college, etc. Instead, he was in a visiting room with his family saying goodbye to his brother, who literally was in a cage inside another cage. I asked Stan, 'What did you say to him and what did he say to you?' Stan replied that they talked about everything BUT the impending execution. They talked about, remember that fishing trip we took one summer as kids? Things like that. And being so conscious of time ticking down, that in 15 more minutes it would be the end."

Jeanne also notes another valuable part of the panel experience: "One of the people in the audience was a young woman who had a relative who was murdered by another family member. The killer ended up taking his own life while in prison. The young woman talked about the pain the victim's mother has lived with ever since, knowing that she will never have the answers to some of her deepest questions about what happened to her child. She reflected on how the death penalty accomplishes the same result--inflicting more pain on the victims' families by making it impossible for them to ever know the truth about their loved ones' last moments."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Things I Wish I Didn't Know

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt was one of several contributors to a forum on capital punishment in yesterday's Sacramento Bee. Here's Bill's letter:

In 1978, without knowing much about the issue, I voted for the Briggs Initiative that expanded the state's death penalty. Two years later, the death penalty became more than an abstract issue to me. I suspected that my brother Manny, who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam, was responsible for a woman's death. I had to make the hardest decision of my life: turn him in or not?

When I did go to the police, they assured me that Manny would not get the death penalty. I believed them. I didn't know then that the death penalty works against the poor who cannot afford dream-team lawyers. …

My brother was sentenced to death, and meanwhile other defendants in Sacramento County, convicted of all sorts of murders, got life in prison. I learned that death sentences are often arbitrary and illogical, resulting from politicians' whims or attorneys' inexperience, rather than any sense of proportionality.

I have learned things about the death penalty that I wish I didn't know, including how families of the executed continue to suffer in the aftermath. It's time to act on this knowledge and reconsider California's death penalty.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Witness to an Execution

MVFHR materials, including parts of our Gallery of Victims' Stories, will be on display in the lobby where the play Witness to an Execution is being performed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina this week. The play was inspired by National Public Radio interviews with people involved in Texas's death row and specifically those involved with carrying out executions. See more info here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Victims' Families Testify in New Hampshire

Two MVFHR members testified before New Hampshire's Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday in support of a bill that would create a death penalty study commission in that state (the bill has already passed in the House). Carol Stamatakis, a former State Representative from Lempster, New Hampshire, whose father was murdered 11 years ago in Ohio in a crime that is still unsolved, spoke about her family's experience with the criminal justice system, the rising number of unsolved murder cases, and the need for the commission and the legislature to understand the reality of victims' families' experience and to look at which resources are given priority.

Renny Cushing, Executive Director of MVFHR and also a former New Hampshire State Representative, whose father was murdered in New Hampshire in 1988, told the committee about the work he had done as a lawmaker on behalf of victims' compensation and victims' advocacy legislation, and he urged the committee to examine the death penalty in the context of victims' families' full range of needs in the aftermath of a homicide. He also stressed the need for the study commission to include victims who both support and oppose the death penalty.

Others who testified in favor of the study commission yesterday included the Roman Catholic Bishop John McCormick and former Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I Was Shocked at My Impulse

This great column by Aundre Herron appeared in Sunday's Sacremento Bee:

I am no stranger to murder. Not that I have ever killed anyone, but I have lost several members of my family to homicide. What makes me different from most people who share my experience is that I have worked as a lawyer on both sides of the criminal justice system.

I began my career as a district attorney. I filed criminal charges that made defendants eligible for execution and, through trials or pleas, put people in jail for everything from bad checks to murder. I was just doing my job, almost oblivious to the gravity of the role I played. In 1991, I went to "the other side" and began doing appeals for California prisoners sentenced to death, fighting against the very system I once served. But nothing prepared me for the challenge I soon had to face in my own life.

In 1994, three years into my work on behalf of people sentenced to die for murder, my brother, Danny "Deuce," was killed in Kansas City, Mo. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran who, after the war, found employment as a redcap at Amtrak. Eventually, he worked his way up to engineer and commanded the route from Chicago to Los Angeles. I couldn't believe my big brother actually "drove" the train. He was an amazing guy and a fantastic big brother. His murder was a devastating blow to my family and to everyone who knew him.

Even though I was working as a death penalty defense lawyer at the time, I was shocked at my impulse to hunt down and kill the perpetrators myself. Eventually, they were caught, but legal technicalities led to dismissal of the case. The cold, cruel reality I had to face was that no one was going to be held responsible for my brother's murder. But even if the case could have gone forward, nothing could replace what my family had lost. Nothing – not the death penalty, not the worse punishment I could imagine for his killers – would ever bring him back. There was no "closure" to be had.

Having served on both sides of the criminal justice system, the experience of losing my brother in this unforgettably tragic way, without recourse or retribution, forced me to re-examine the way "execution" and "closure" are joined in contrived alliance, recited by death penalty advocates to justify their point of view. But having survived my brother's murder without the "benefit" of the death penalty, it is clear to me that the death penalty cannot do what its proponents claim.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Reframing the Death Penalty

MVFHR is at the annual conference of the U.S. Human Rights Network in Chicago today and throughout the weekend, and will be presenting a panel on Sunday called "Reframing the Death Penalty." With Renny Cushing as moderator, the panelists are Debra Fifer, whose son was murdered in Wisconsin, Jeanne Bishop, whose sister was murdered in Illinois, and Stan Allridge, whose two brothers were executed in Texas. We are looking forward to this opportunity to introduce other human rights activists to the issues surrounding the death penalty.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Verstehen: To Understand

I always think that victims' family members' testimony against the death penalty is especially powerful when they have the opportunity to talk first about the experience of losing someone to murder: the distinct horror of it, the rage and incomprehension and helplessness, the encounters with others in supermarkets, support groups, courtrooms, and what kinds of responses are helpful and not so helpful.

Andy Hoover of the ACLU of Pennsylvania called our attention to a video of one of MVFHR member Walt Everett's talks during the recent Voices of Hope, Agents of Change tour. Walt's segment is part of a death penalty video being created by The Verstehen Video Project; other clips are being added regularly. This video of Walt is a wonderful chance to hear a victim's family member tell his story in some depth, covering the shock of hearing the news of his son's murder, the depth of his and his other children's rage, his frustrations with the criminal justice system, and finally his opposition to the death penalty.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Walking and Talking

This evening, Renny Cushing will be participating in a panel discussion on the death penalty held at New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce Law Center. The Concord Monitor has this article about the event.

Also, check out The Journey of Hope blog to read about MVFHR board member Bill Pelke's work with the Walk 4 Life. Andre Latallade, also known as the rapper Capital X, is in the midst of a walk from New Jersey to Texas; his goal is to raise awareness about the death penalty. Bill and other Journey of Hope members have been blogging about the walk and the interesting and encouraging stops along the way.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Last Word

Here are excerpts from Jeanne Bishop's award acceptance speech at Northwestern University School of Law last night. (See yesterday's post for information about the event.)

First, I want to pay tribute to the amazing law students assembled here. You are so far ahead of where I was when I was your age. When I was a student here, my mission was to make good grades, get on law review and land a high-paying job at a big law firm, all of which I did.

That came to a halt on April 7, 1990, when my younger sister Nancy—who was just about your age and pregnant with her first child--walked into her house with her husband and saw a teenager pointing a gun at them. He shot my brother-in-law in the head execution style, then fired two shots into my sister’s pregnant belly and left her to die. As her life was ebbing away, Nancy dragged herself over to her husband’s body and wrote in her own blood a heart and the letter u. Love you.

What I learned from Nancy’s brief, shining life and her benediction on this world was this: love is stronger than evil. The killer didn’t have the last word—she did, and that word was love. Nancy’s message taught me what you have already figured out, so far ahead of me: that love is the greatest power on earth, and we should never do a job just for money, or out of fear, but for love. That nothing done from love is ever, ever wasted, and in that doing you will find your life and your greatest fulfillment.

Second, I want to pay tribute to this extraordinary law school, Northwestern University. When I studied here with giants like Ian MacNeil and worked as a research assistant to the trailblazing Dawn Clark Netsch, I had no idea that the privilege of my association with this institution would continue to this day, and would allow me to be an eyewitness to history.

Northwestern was the place that allowed me to speak publicly against the death penalty for the first time since my sister’s murder, at an event calling for the release of Rolando Cruz, wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old and sentenced to death. At Northwesetern I got to see 75 wrongfully convicted men and women exonterated from death row, the largest ever gathering of such a group, stand in Thorne Auditorium and by their very presence strike what I believe will ultimately be a fatal blow to the death penalty in this country. I got to sit in Lincoln Hall and hear Gov. George Ryan announce his pardon of my former client Paula Gray, a woman convicted of perjury and sent to prison when she recanted her false testimony which sent two men to death row, and returned to witness Ryan’s historic blanket commutation of death sentences for all inmates on Illinois’ death row, including another client, Andrew Uridales.

... Former prosecutor Sam Millsap said at the Third World Conference Against the Death Penalty that the death penalty in America will only be abolished by a movement that is not only joined, but led, by victims and prosecutors. We have seen that in New Jersey, the first state in modern times to legislatively abolish its death penalty. It did so in large part because victims came forward to say that the long and expensive death penalty process was bad for them. No less than five murder victins’ family members served on the NJ commission that recommended life without parole instead of death, with any cost savings to be devoted to services for victims. You cannot reform the criminal justice system without putting victims and their families at the heart of those reforms.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Passionate Advocate

MVFHR board member Jeanne Bishop is one of three alumni being honored today at Northwestern University School of Law for outstanding contributions to public service and the legal community. Renny Cushing is there to introduce Jeanne and tell a bit about her work with MVFHR.

Here's the way the invitation to the awards ceremony describes Jeanne's work:

Jeanne Bishop graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Journalism in 1981 and from Northwestern University School of Law in 1984. She was an associate at Mayer, Brown and Platt (now Mayer Brown LLP) until 1990 when she became a public defender for Cook County following the handgun murders of her sister and brother-in-law and their unborn child. Since the murders, she has been a passionate advocate against the death penalty, for human rights, for common sense gun laws, and for the needs of crime victims. Ms. Bishop is a member of the board of directors of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an organization of murder victims' family members who oppose the death penalty, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions. She has served on the board of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and volunteers for the gun violence prevention organizations Million Mom March and the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. She has spoken frequently, nationally and internationally, against the death penalty, and as part of the Amnesty International Speaker's Bureau.

Ms. Bishop has testified before governmental bodies including the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment and in death penalty clemency hearings before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. She has also testified before several state legislative committees on the issue of gun violence. Ms. Bishop appears in the death penalty documentaries The Innocent and Too Flawed To Fix and, along with her sister, Jennifer, was the subject of a Chicago Tribune Magazine cover story in May 2001, To Forgive, Divine? Ms. Bishop has been recognized by Concern Worldwide with the Brigid Award for her reconciliation work with MVFHR.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

More Time Than Anyone Should Spend

Yesterday's Columbia (Missouri) Tribune has this story, titled "Victim's widow testifies for bill on moratorium":

Ginger Masters said she had just an hour of sleep the night before testifying yesterday in front of the House Crime Prevention & Public Safety Committee.

Her late husband, former Macon County Prosecuting Attorney David Masters, was found dead in 2005 with a cocaine dosage that was some 40 times a lethal dose. Prosecutors have sought the death penalty for at least two people accused in the murder in southwest Missouri.

Masters of Columbia said her decision whether to support or oppose the death penalty was not easily made. But she said her husband was a Buddhist who didn’t believe the death penalty was a fair application of justice. She favors enacting a two-year moratorium to study capital punishment in Missouri.

"After having spent more time, according to my children, than anyone should spend in studying the death penalty and the way that’s adjudicated across the country and in the state of Missouri, it seems to me that it’s not fair," Masters said. "In cases, you have jurors being struck for the color of their skin. You have jurors being struck because they don’t favor the death penalty."

Read the rest of the story here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My View Has Not Changed

There's a great piece today in Britain's newspaper, The Independent, by Susanna Miller, whose brother Dan was killed in the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. The three men convicted of those bombings are appealing their death sentences this week. Susanna Miller writes:

...The world may even think that somehow the death penalty will help people such as my parents and I to achieve "closure".

The world will be wrong. Up until the Bali bombings, I had always thought that capital punishment was an impossibly primitive, clumsy and flawed answer to the question of how to punish those convicted of the most serious crimes. I felt that there were clear moral and practical problems that should consign it to history. I associated its proponents with deeply vindictive and reactionary mindsets. I could not understand how people could advocate such an absolute and irreversible sanction, when the shortcomings of the judicial system meant that a conviction could never be said to be infallible, and when the point of the trial is to demonstrate that the taking of a life is a crime.

Before Dan was killed, I had always believed that capital punishment was an ineffective deterrent to murder. I believed that the convicted murderer should instead be put through some moral journey, to see the error of their actions, and with luck be rehabilitated. If repentance and rehabilitation is too much for some individuals, then so be it, I thought – they can at least provide a resource for understanding the criminal mind. I agreed with the premise that the death penalty violates a fundamental human right to life, and is therefore morally unjustified.

My view has not changed. One of my strongest memories is of standing beside that bomb crater in Bali, with my eyes closed, trying to block out the destruction and sense Dan in it all. Although I could not block out the smell of murder, and the sheer enormity of the carnage, I did feel his presence there, just beyond living reach.

My brother was a lawyer, deeply versed in the moral and practical arguments surrounding law and its role in society. As we grew up, Dan and I sparred happily over numerous family suppers. As far as I remember, Dan also thought that the arguments, both moral and practical, against capital punishment were compelling and conclusive.

That day was one of the saddest moments of my life, and one that reinforced to me the sanctity of human life, and the appalling effects of taking it. Yet capital punishment seemed even more inappropriate then than before. I felt, and still strongly feel, that there is never justification for another human being to wilfully end another's life.

Read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Facing the Death Penalty

This past Sunday, in my neck of the woods (Western Massachusetts), MVFHR co-sponsored an event called "Facing the Death Penalty," which was organized by a local high school's Amnesty International group. The event included talks by exonerated death row inmate (he is also a victim's family member) Shujaa Graham and death penalty photojournalist Scott Langley. Both were moving and inspiring, and I encourage readers to check out each of their websites.

Here are a couple of excerpts from an article in the local newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette (it's not available online unless you have a subscription):

Shujaa Graham's voice cracks when he speaks of young people. He credits them for getting him off San Quentin Prison's death row, for getting him a new trial, and for his eventual exoneration from a murder he did not commit. And all this happened, he said, 'in spite of the system.'


He calls the death sentence a psychological torture one never recovers from, and capital punishment a stacked and racist deck. 'Whether or not you go to death row is directly determined by who you killed,' said Graham.

'Two of my mom's sons were murdered by the Crips and Bloods,' said Graham. 'My uncle, a policeman, was murdered. But at no time did my family ever talk about the death penalty.'

In a voice filled with hope, but racked by pain, Graham speaks of a world where his children will enjoy the fruits of a struggle that he may never see.

'My total faith is in the power of youth,' said Graham. 'But the power is in organizing. You have to be willing to exercise that power. Try to participate, not for yourselves, but for humanity.'