Friday, August 29, 2008

Video from the 3rd World Congress

Amnesty International not long ago posted on The Hub, a site through which human rights activists can share video and audio material, a three-minute video from the Third World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which was held in Paris last year. MVFHR's Renny Cushing is interviewed briefly in the video, as are many other activists and spokespeople from around the world.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In Memoriam: Rachel King

We are sad to announce that long-time anti-death penalty activist Rachel King died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Rachel died far too young but accomplished a great deal in her lifetime. As acting director of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, Rachel helped to defeat a death penalty reinstatement bill in 1994. As part of that effort, Rachel and her colleague Barbara Hood had invited Marietta Jaeger, whose 7-year-old daughter had been murdered years before, to speak to Alaskan lawmakers about her opposition to the death penatly. Many of those lawmakers later said that listening to Marietta conviced them to change their minds and vote against the death penalty.

Recognizing the power of victims' voices against the death penalty, Rachel and Barbara collaborated to produce the first edition of Not in Our Name: Murder Victims' Families Speak Out Against the Death Penalty, and Rachel subsequently wrote and published the book Don't Kill in Our Names and its companion volume Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, which was one of the first investigations into the experience of families of the executed.

Rachel worked as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, lobbying on many criminal justice issues including the death penalty, served as chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and taught law school classes. When she attended Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights' founding ceremony on December 10, 2004, Rachel offered these public remarks:

I first learned about the power of murder victims to talk about this issue when I was working in Alaska back in 1994. The leader of the Senate had a bill to introduce the death penalty. He had the votes to pass it, and it looked like it was a foregone conclusion that Alaska, like a lot of other states, was going to have the death penalty. And then we brought some murder victims' families to Alaska. We brought Marietta Jaeger, whose 7-year-old daughter Susie had been kidnapped and murdered, and she changed people’s hearts and minds. Leiglsators told us later that she had changed their position on this issue. I’m proud to say that Alaska does not have the death penalty. We fought it back that year, we fought it back two years after that. We kept bringing back the murder victims' family members, and even got one of them, Bill Pelke, to move up there, and now they just don’t have a prayer of bringing the death penalty back. The momentum has totally shifted.

I’m personally interested in Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights because before I went to law school I was a human rights monitor in Guatemala, and I have a lot of feeling for that country and for the people there who suffered greatly. I got involved in going to Guatemala when I met people in the Sanctuary movement here in the U.S. who were fleeing from political persecution in Guatemala. When I was in Guatemala I worked with a woman named Annette de Garcia who had started a group for families and friends of the disappeared. One time I was in her home watching, guarding, her 4-year-old daughter, and I was looking through this closet, and there were volumes of books, literally dozens of them, and they were all photographs of family members who had been diappeared. Now this is another kind of death penalty; it’s not the kind we think about in the U.S. but it’s state-sponored execution. Really it’s the same issue of the state sponsoring violence, and how we need to move away from that. There really isn’t any other group out there making that kind of linkage between the issues, and I think MVFHR is going to do it. So the ACLU really looks forward to working with you all and I’m really glad to be here.

We remain grateful for all of Rachel's work on behalf of a better world. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

49 Maryland Victims' Families Call for Repeal

From today's Baltimore Sun:

Voices against death penalty
Victims' relatives, bishops speak against state executions
By Jennifer McMenamin | Sun reporter

ANNAPOLIS - A group of relatives of murder victims called on state lawmakers yesterday to repeal the death penalty, complaining that the long appeals process that accompanies capital murder prosecutions drags families through painful delays without delivering the justice that the system initially promises.

Standing with their arms around each other's shoulders and holding photos of their loved ones, 10 people delivered a letter signed by dozens more like them to the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which held the third of its four scheduled hearings yesterday in Annapolis. The panel is examining disparities in the application of the death penalty, the cost differential between litigating prolonged capital punishment cases and life imprisonment, and the impact of DNA evidence.

Like many others who spoke at yesterday's five-hour hearing, the victims' family members asked the commission to recommend the replacement of the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. Life without parole, which begins immediately, is both of these; the death penalty is neither," Lisa Delity, a schoolteacher from Bowie, told the commission, reading from the letter signed by 49 Marylanders who have lost relatives to murder. "Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway."

Emphasizing that their request was based not on universal opposition to capital punishment but out of concern that Maryland's use of the ultimate punishment does more harm than good, the letter writers added, "Though we share different perspectives on the death penalty, every one of us agrees that Maryland's capital punishment system doesn't work for victims' families, and that our state is better off without it."

Full article is here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

How It Affects Us

I've been meaning to post a link to this Palm Beach Post video interview with Ron McAndrew, the Florida warden who came to change his mind about the death penalty.

We interviewed Ron, who is also a victim's family member, in our newsletter a few months ago. I was impressed with him then, and the video interview is well worth watching as another powerful reminder of how the death penalty, in its actual reality, affects those who come in contact with it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Organizing in Missouri

Colleen Cunningham of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty writes with a report from a training on victims' issues that the group held this past Saturday:

The meeting was incredible! I say this not as a bragging organizer, but as a witness to the amazing stories and passion shared Saturday. Present were 8 Missouri victims' family members (4 couplings), as well as Jamie Gehrke, a seminary student doing a project on victims' survivors and how the church supports them, MVFHR board member Jeanne Bishop, Equal Justice USA organizer Eunice Timoney-Ravenna, MADP's chair and our host Rita Linhardt, and myself.

Everyone there shared their stories. How their loved one was murdered, what experience they had within their communities and within the social justice system, and how the experience affected their thoughts about the death penalty. One woman present, Linda, lost her brother to murder and also now has a son on death row. The outpouring of support for Linda from the other family members was incredible. I think it was a profound experience for all involved to be able to confront the similarities between their situations and continue to empathize with the families of perpetrators.

The day ended with everyone affirming that they were interested in continuing on with a support group in Missouri that would help murder victims' family members and family members of those executed and on death row. I have everyone's permission to follow up with them to begin continue working toward the creation of this group.

Thank you all very much for your support. I would have been lost without all of your guidance and encouragement. And a special thanks to Jeanne Bishop who led the day with amazing grace.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On the Maryland Commission

Saturday's Frederick (Maryland) News-Post has an article titled "Maryland and the death penalty: Two county residents will help decide the fate of capital punishment in the state" that features MVFHR Board Chair VIcki Schieber. From the article:

She is the parent of a murder victim and he is a former prosecutor, but neither believe capital punishment is the best solution to crime. Vicki Schieber, of New Market, and Matt Campbell, of Braddock Heights, are two Frederick County residents serving on a state panel tasked with examining the future of capital punishment in Maryland.

Schieber and Campbell are attending weekly hearings in Annapolis as members of the 23-member Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. They were appointed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley because of their activism on the issue.

Though both residents are opposed to capital punishment, the commission is composed of people with a mix of different viewpoints and backgrounds. It includes family members of victims, clergy members and even a man once on death row who has since been exonerated.

The commission will write a report on the death penalty, due to state lawmakers by December.


Schieber began speaking out against the death penalty after her daughter was raped and murdered in 1998 while attending graduate school at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

It took police about four years to catch her daughter's killer, and in the meantime Schieber started talking with families of victims in which the death penalty was involved.

She said the long sentencing and appeals process re-victimized those families by dragging out their pain and anger.

"I was very angry at first too, that is a natural process," Schieber said. "You have to work through that in order to have the strength to go on and do good things."

After her daughter's murderer was caught, the Schiebers asked the district attorney not to seek the death penalty.

He was sentenced to life without parole in just five weeks, instead of years of trials, appeals and waiting.

"He's going to pay the price the rest of his life, and we don't want him to ever be out and hurt another family, but now we can go on with our lives," she said.

She believes the death penalty system is flawed and hurts the families of victims.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Societal Disgrace

We have added DC memmber Art Laffin to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories. In addition to being a long-time activist against the death penalty, Art is now participating in the MVFHR/NAMI project on the death penalty and mental illness. Here's the text of Art's Gallery page:

Art Laffin’s brother Paul was stabbed multiple times by a mentally ill homeless man, Dennis Soutar, as he was leaving the shelter where he had worked for ten years. He died shortly thereafter. Dennis was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sentenced to sixty years at a Connecticut prison hospital.

A long-time organizer, speaker, and writer in the faith-based movement for peace, justice, and nonviolence, Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, DC. He has participated in the annual "Starvin' for Justice" fast and vigil to abolish the death penalty at the U.S. Supreme Court, taken part in the Journey of Hope in North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia, spoken in Italy during the "Cities of Life" worldwide campaign to abolish the death penalty, and testified before the Maryland State Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1997 he was arrested as part of the DC-18 for unfurling a 30-foot banner across the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court that said "Stop Executions."

"My family and I and all who knew Paul still grieve his senseless, horrific death. My brother truly gave his life for those he served. What happened to my brother is not uncommon. It is a societal disgrace that some of the mentally ill homeless, who fall through the cracks and are not properly cared for, end up committing violent lethal acts. After Paul's highly publicized death, my mother and I appealed to the public to show mercy toward Dennis and to pray for him. I also asserted that all necessary resources be made available to provide a continuum of care for Dennis, and all other mentally ill people, so that tragedies like what happened to Paul might be averted in the future.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Painfully Personal Question

Sunday's Forth Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram has this op-ed, "Time to end the death penalty's cycle of violence," by victim's family member Ronald Carlson:

June 13, 1983, and Feb. 3, 1998, are two days that will forever be etched in my memory.

On that fateful day in June, I lost my dear sister, Deborah Thornton, senselessly murdered along with her friend Jerry Lynn Dean.

Fifteen years later, I witnessed another senseless act of violence: the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman condemned for the crime.

Before I lost my sister, I had no opinion on the death penalty. But Deborah’s tragic death made the question of capital punishment a painfully personal one. When I learned of the murder of my only sibling, who had helped raise me after our mother died, I was filled with hatred. I would have killed those responsible with my own hands if given the opportunity.

But when I learned that those responsible — Karla Faye and her friend Daniel Garrett — were in fact facing death sentences, I was uncertain that justice was being served.

I’ve since had 25 years — almost half my life — to examine the subject, and the conclusion I’ve come to is a clear one: We as a society should not be involved in the practice of killing people.

Read the rest of the article.