Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lit Up for Life

According to the Community of Sant'Egidio, 964 cities are participating in " Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty" today. As I mentioned last week, MVFHR's Art Laffin, Bud Welch, Renny Cushing, and Bill Pelke are in Italy and Spain giving talks in connection with these events, and we'll report on their experiences as soon as they're back home and ready to answer my questions about how it all went. In the meantime, here's a photo of the Roman Coliseum lit up for the occasion.

Monday, November 24, 2008

At the French Embassy

Last Wednesday the French government, in its role as current president of the European Union, held a seminar on the death penalty at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. It was the first seminar of its kind, during which several people familiar with the death penalty in the U.S. briefed delegates from European nations about the U.S. death penalty abolition movement. Renny Cushing represented MVFHR; the other participants were Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn from Amnesty International USA, Dick Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center, Ginny Sloan from the Constitution Project, Mike Farrell and Elizabeth Zitrin from Death Penalty Focus.

In his presentation, Renny talked about victim opposition to the death penalty and MVFHR's two projects, "No Silence, No Shame," which focuses on families of the executed, and "Prevention, Not Execution," which focuses on mental illness and the death penalty. He urged the European Union delegates to become involved in both these projects, and at their request he is preparing a series of recommendations for them to consider at their next meeting, which will be held in a couple of weeks.

Renny reports that the delegates were interested in learning about how members of the European Union can be more effective in advancing the cause of abolition in the U.S. and worldwide, and many had not been aware of victim opposition to the death penalty until this briefing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Once Again: UN Calls for a Moratorium

A year ago, we posted news of the UN General Assembly's resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Now the UN General Assembly's Human Rights committee has again voted for such a resolution. Here's the Associated Press story:

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee voted Thursday for the second year in a row to urge a global moratorium on the death penalty.
The United States sided with countries such as Iran, China and Syria in opposing the resolution.
The 105-48 vote marked a slight change from the 104-54 vote in the full General Assembly last December. About 30 nations abstained.
Supporters of the ban argue there's no conclusive evidence that the death penalty serves as a meaningful deterrent to crime and the risk of injustice is too high. Nations opposing the ban say the death penalty is effective in discouraging most serious crimes and remains legal under international law.
The vote in the human rights committee, though it includes all U.N. members, is not the final vote. Next month, the General Assembly will hold a final vote on the measure and the committee's vote is almost certain to be closely replicated there.
Though not legally binding, the voting does carry moral weight coming from the 192-nation world body that serves as a unique forum for debate and barometer of international opinion.
Amnesty International, which has been campaigning for the resolution, noted rising acceptance of a moratorium. In the 1990s, it was voted on twice in the General Assembly and failed.
On Thursday, the committee vote picked up one more nation than last year and six fewer opponents.
As of November, some 137 nations had abolished the death penalty in law or practice, compared with about 80 in 1988, according to Amnesty International figures.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been encouraged by the trend in many areas of the world toward ultimately abolishing the death penalty, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
Last year there were at least 1,252 people put to death by 24 nations and 3,347 others sentenced to death in 51 countries, according to Amnesty International.
Terlingen urged nations such as Japan that increased the rate of executions in the past year to "take immediate steps to implement the resolution."
The resolution has been spearheaded by Italy and supported by the Vatican, a leading opponent of capital punishment. Also leading the campaign has been the European Union, which requires its 27 members to outlaw capital punishment.

Speaking of campaigns spearheaded by the Italians, several MVFHR members, including Art Laffin, Bud Welch, Bill Pelke, and Renny Cushing, have been invited to participate in events connected with Cities for Life-Cities Against the Death Penalty, which is organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio. Here's a brief description from The World Coalition's site:

On November 30, monuments in nearly 800 cities across the globe will light up to celebrate “Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty”.
The international day “Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty” is organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio and supported by the World Coalition and the European Union. It takes place every year on the anniversary of the day Tuscany abolished the death penalty in 1786. It was the first time a state decided to do away with capital punishment.

Check out the list of cities that are participating. We will post a report about the various speaking events when our members return.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

His Life Changed

An article in yesterday's Pennsylvania Daily Item features MVFHR Board member Walt Everett, who spoke at Bucknell University earlier this week and was honored by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for his work against the death penalty. From the article:

He could have been angry, or bitter or vengeful. Instead, after losing a life to violence 20 years ago, the Rev. Walter Everett responded by saving one.

It was the first step on a path toward forgiveness that led to his speaking, alongside the man who killed his eldest son, at a social justice course at Bucknell University Monday.

After Scott Everett was gunned down in a Connecticut apartment complex in July 1987, the pastor “went through the next few months with a tremendous amount of anger at what had happened.”

He prayed, and prayed, and prayed, waiting for an answer from God. Why had this happened? What should I do? he asked. The spiritual silence only fueled his growing rage and frustration.

But Everett, of Lewisburg, told the Bucknell class on Monday he quickly realized “my anger was killing me. Emotionally, spiritually and even physically.”

Then at the sentencing of his son’s murderer, Mike Carlucci, Everett heard something he didn’t expect.

Carlucci told Everett, and Everett’s wife, Nancy, he was sorry.

That’s when he felt something, Everett said. “It was as though I felt the prodding of God saying, ‘This is what I’ve asked you to wait for.’”

His life changed when he wrote a letter to Carlucci and forgave him for the crime, leading to an improbable friendship that lasts to this day.

“If he didn’t send me that letter, I can’t see the future,” said Carlucci, a career criminal and rampant drug user prior to his arrest for Scott Everett’s murder. “But that letter put one foot in front of the other for me.”

Carlucci has been free for the last 15-plus years after serving a reduced sentence — three years — for the murder. He now lives in Huntington, Conn., and visited with Everett recently. The two spent part of their time together telling their story across the Valley, including their visit to Bucknell.

Since their relationship began, both men have dedicated themselves to sharing their stories to change others’ lives. Carlucci speaks at prisons, colleges — “wherever I’m asked to go” — and shares his journey of addiction, recovery and redemption, while Everett uses his story to speak out against the death penalty and promote “restorative justice.”

Read the rest of the article.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Next Frontier

We were interested to see, on the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)'s website, a law review article suggesting that severe mental illness is the next frontier in death penalty jurisprudence. DPIC summarizes:

Professor Bruce Winick of the Miami School of Law has written an article arguing that the Supreme Court should extend the protection it presently offers to those with mental retardation and juveniles to offenders with severe mental illness, as well. In "The Supreme Court’s Emerging Death Penalty Jurisprudence: Severe Mental Illness as the Next Frontier," Winick reviews the High Court’s analysis of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment with a focus on when the Court has found the death penalty disproportionate to the crime or for the offender. While Winick argues that the Supreme Court is not prepared to render the death penalty itself as cruel and unusual, he concludes that, “At least some (although by no means all) offenders suffering from severe mental illness, like those with mental retardation and juveniles, will have sufficiently diminished culpability and deterability at the time of the offense to render capital punishment a disproportionate penalty under the Eighth Amendment.”

Read more.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Abolition Recommendation

We were excited to see "Panel recommends abolishing death penalty in Md." in yesterday's Baltimore Sun, about the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment's recent vote. MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber sits on this Commission. From the article:

A commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to review state executions recommended tonight abolishing capital punishment in Maryland, prompting hope among death penalty opponents that the General Assembly could end the 30-year practice when it convenes in January.

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted 13-7 to make the recommendation and also found that the death penalty carries the "real possibility" of executing innocents and may be biased against blacks.

The commission's final report provides additional ammunition to O'Malley and other death penalty opponents in their uphill fight to stop state executions. Previous repeal efforts have narrowly failed despite high-profile campaigns by O'Malley, a Catholic and ardent opponent of capital punishment.

An O'Malley spokesman said tonight that the Democratic governor looks forward to reading the final report, which is due next month.

Tonight's decision "now places a burden on those who would like to defend the system," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and panel member who voted with the majority.

Death penalty proponents took comfort in what they characterized as a close vote, considering that some members of the commission were appointed by an ardent anti-death penalty governor. "Tonight was a night to really figure out where people actually stood," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a panel member who plans to write the minority's opinion to be included in the final commission report. "The vote is a testament to how close this issue is in the state of Maryland."

Despite the panel's recommendation and O'Malley's view, the final decision rests with the General Assembly, where a key Senate panel has repeatedly voted down a death penalty repeal, preventing it from reaching the chamber's floor.

While executions in Maryland are infrequent, the issue is being debated here as state executions are being scrutinized nationwide because of high-profile exonerations of death-row inmates who were wrongly convicted.

The governor has lobbied for a death-penalty repeal in the General Assembly and vowed to sign such a bill if the legislature passes it.

Maryland has had an effective ban on use of its death chamber since December 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that execution protocols that detail the steps to put a condemned prisoner to death were improperly developed.

In May, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection procedures such as those used in Maryland were acceptable, O'Malley reluctantly took the first step toward ending Maryland's moratorium. He ordered the drafting of new lethal injection procedures, but also asked the commission to study the practice and investigate whether it was justified.

The 23-member commission voted down a proposed amendment to keep the death penalty for people who kill correctional officers or police officers. The panel voiced unanimous or strong support for seven of eight findings it was charged with exploring. Among these:

*Racial and geographic disparities exist in how the death penalty is applied

*Death penalty cases are more costly than non-death penalty cases and take a harder toll on the survivors of murder victims." ...

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Truth, Justice, and Healing

Today's Portsmouth (NH) Herald has an editorial titled "NH Should Repeal Death Penalty Now." Here's an excerpt that mentions MVFHR and victim opposition to the death penalty:

In our view, New Hampshire needs to repeal its death penalty law. In 2006, a bill to remove "the death sentence from the capital murder statute and replace it with life imprisonment, until death, without the possibility of parole," sponsored by Portsmouth state Reps. Jim Splaine and Paul McEachern, failed by 12 votes.

Splaine intends to file a new bill this session and he will have a powerful new ally in the fight with the return of Hampton's Renny Cushing to the House.

Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1988, is the executive director of the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. He speaks with the greatest power in opposition to the death penalty. In a speech, "Not in our name: Homicide survivors speak out against the death penalty," given to the Kennedy School of Government in 1999, Cushing said survivors of homicide victims want three things: the truth, justice and healing. Cushing argues that execution is not justice and does not help survivors heal. In seeking death, we "take the focus off the good works of the individual we've lost, and we become very offender oriented. Very murder fixated. That's what the death penalty is all about, it's not about the victim, it's about the murderer."

New Hampshire should redirect the energy it expends trying to kill criminals toward helping victims' families heal.

"The Death Penalty Should Not Be"

From yesterday's Montgomery (AL) Advertiser, "Death Penalty Opponents Share Stories":

Shirley Cochran fought back tears as she made her way to the podium.

She was the last of four panelists to speak out against the death penalty, but as she said, certainly not the least.

Before a quiet audience Cochran recalled the day she found out her first husband was murdered. She remembers wanting his killer to die.

But years later she would marry her new husband, James Bo Cochran. Her new husband spent 19 years and four months on death row before being exonerated for the murder that sent him there.

She remembers wanting him to live.

"The death penalty should not be," Cochran said shaking her head. "I know that if it was someone in your family, you wouldn't want it to happen."

Cochran and a group of death penalty opponents spoke out last week at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Alabama. It was an open forum, where members of the panel took questions from the audience. The speakers included Cochran's husband and former Tuskegee Police Chief Leon Frazier, a one-time supporter of the death penalty who now opposes it.

Eliminating the death penalty does not mean criminals should not pay for the crimes they commit, just that they do not have to die for it, Cochran said.

" I can understand how people can feel that way. All I could think of was my husband was murdered and that my children don't have a father," she said. ...

Monday, November 10, 2008

I Stick to What I Believe In

The coverage of the recent executions of the men responsible for the 2002 Bali bomb blast included some anti-death penalty victims' voices, such as this article posted this past Friday on a Western Australia online news site, "Bali Victim's Father Doesn't Want the Death Penalty":

He lost his son in the Bali atrocities six years ago, but David Hancock does not think the three men responsible for the bombings should lose their lives as a consequence.

As Indonesian authorities prepare to execute Imam Samudra, 38, Amrozi, 47, and his brother Mukhlas, 48 - with the wooden stakes they will be tied to before the firing squads reportedly now in place - the families of victims yet again have to live through their loss and pain.

Mr Hancock was one of those victims, with his son Byron among the seven members of the Kingsley Football Club killed by the bombs in Paddy's Bar and the Sari club, where Byron was enjoying his end-of-season trip.

And while his father describes the renewed coverage and interest in the days leading up to the scheduled executions as a kind of torture, he still does not believe the right thing is being done in killing the perpetrators.

"Nothing tests your position on something until something like this happens to you," Mr Hancock said.

"I have seriously examined my issues and I stick to what I believe in.

"I think it degrades human life to take the life of another, and I just do not believe it is in the interest of the community to do so.

"It destroys people and I put myself in the position of those people in Indonesia who might be called on to execute these people and what it does to them.

"I respect the Indonesians to establish their own laws and deal with these things how they think - but I am of a view, regardless of what has happened to our family, that it is an improper thing and should not be done."

In July, we posted a story about another family member of the Bali bombing who spoke out against the death penalty.

Friday, November 7, 2008

No Death Sentence in NH

From yesterday's AP story:

Man spared in 1st NH death penalty case in 49 yrs

A millionnaire businessman has been spared the death penalty in what would have been New Hampshire's first execution since 1939.
The decision by a jury in Brentwood means an automatic sentence of life without parole for John Brooks. He was convicted of hiring three men to kidnap and kill a man he believed had stolen from him. Jack Reid was beaten to death with a sledgehammer in 2005.
Brooks — who is 56 — lives in Las Vegas.
New Hampshire last sentenced someone to die in 1959; its last execution was in 1939.

More coverage is in the Union Leader and The Boston Herald.

MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing comments on the decision:

"This decision is significant in many respects. Parts of this case were argued before the jury by New Hampshire's Attorney General, Kelly Ayotte, which in itself is unprecedented in recent memory -- to have the state's highest law enforcement arguing at a trial level. Then, this is the first time in 49 years that a New Hampshire jury has convicted someone charged with capital murder, and it's a great relief that the jury then refused to send that person to death row. It's further proof that our death penalty is not something New Hampshire wants or needs, and that the money spent on this prosecution would have been better spent meeting needs of victims of crime."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Acknowledgment

David Kaczynski, director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty (NYADP), writes:

Many of us know Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny was executed in 1999, 18 years after Bill turned him into the the Sacramento police department in the murder of Leah Shendel. Bill - an NYADP friend - is a passionate abolitionist and a founding board member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Manny - one of thirteen people executed by the state of California in the modern era - had a serious mental illness aggravated by PTSD acquired through his military service in Vietnam.

The Babbitt family was treated horrendously by a system that promised Manny help for his mental illness. Instead Manny got an incompetent defense attorney, an all-white jury, and an execution date. Bill went to San Quentin prison on May 3, 1999 - Manny's 50th birthday - and watched him be put to death by lethal injection.

This summer, Bill was given some vindication in a report by a commission of the California State Senate on the fair admission of justice. The full report can be found here. But in the excerpt below from Page 70 of the report, the Commission acknowledges that in a rational and just system, Manny would not have been executed.

This report cannot undo the injustice of Manny Babbitt's execution, but at least it acknowledges that injustice, which is something.

[from the report:]

"If California’s death penalty law were narrowed, it would be unwise to proceed with the execution of defendants whose death judgment was not based upon one of the identified special circumstances. With respect to the thirteen executions conducted by California since 1978, ten of them would have met the recommended special circumstance for multiple murders… the executions of Thomas M. Thompson, Manuel Babbitt and Stephen Wayne Anderson would not have resulted in a death sentence using the Mandatory Justice factors."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Opposing the Death Penalty in Jamaica

A few weeks ago, Amnesty International in London contacted us about an upcoming press conference and series of educational events that their Caribbean Team was organizing in Jamaica, for which they hoped to find someone who could speak about losing a family member to execution. MVFHR member Stanley Allridge traveled to Jamaica from Texas for these events, and James Burke, from Amnesty's Caribbean Team, now writes with this report:

The last execution in Jamaica was carried out in 1988. However, death sentences continue to be passed and the Jamaican authorities continually complain about judicial decisions and processes which in their eyes prevent executions being carried out. Recent opinion polls have shown that public support for the death penalty appears to be very high. This is linked with concerns with the increase of violent crime and the seeming inability of the Jamaican authorities to combat it. 2008 could be a record year for total number of homicides.

With a parliamentary debate on the death penalty imminent in Jamaica, the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) and Amnesty International were looking for a speaker to travel to the country in order to campaign on this issue at events coinciding with the World Day Against the Death Penalty. We were fortunate that Stanley Allridge from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and MVFHR was available and willing to travel to Jamaica for such an undertaking.

Stanley spoke at several public events and carried out a number of media interviews. On Thursday 8 October there was press conference held by the IJCHR, AI Jamaica, and members of the Jamaican Catholic Church, where Stanley spoke. Later that day Stanley spoke at a high school in Kingston. The students were aged 14-18 and at the outset the students were overwhelmingly in favour of the death penalty. Stanley was very impressed by the interaction he saw among the students. As he was recounting his experiences and explaining how frequently innocent people are executed he said he saw “lightbulbs go on” in the children and could see that many were reevaluating their beliefs. Following the meeting some of the students asked how they could get involved in campaigning against the death penalty and on other human rights issues.

On Friday 9 October there was a debate at the Law School of the University of West Indies, which was very well attended and quite a heated debate ensued. The majority of attendees were law students who once again were overwhelmingly in support of the death penalty. Although these students were less open to persuasion than the high school students, Stanley believed he was able to successfully challenge their assumptions on the issue, and several audience members were openly moved by the stories he had to tell.

On Saturday 10 October Stanley travelled to speak at a public forum in Montego Bay, on the other side of the island, which was attended by the members of local groups such as Montego Bay Citizen Association, Catholic mothers and the Private Sector association.

Throughout his time in Jamaica Stanley carried out several media interviews. The majority of these were with Jamaican radio stations. Radio is Jamaicans' principal source of information. Stanley was interviewed in debate with other guests and fielded calls from the general public, and would have reached a great amount of the Jamaican population in these interviews.

Although Stanley recognized that campaigning on this issue in Jamaica is difficult given the general support for the death penalty in Jamaica and the escalating rate of violent crime, he believed that education campaigns, especially for schoolchildren, could have a huge impact.

Members of the IJCHR and AI Jamaica have said that Stanley was a very charismatic and effective speaker and that it was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him. Amnesty International Secretariat would like to echo those comments and it is our hope that we will be able to work with Stanley again in the future.