Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A long and draining process

WHYY has this story today: "Death penalty means emotional journey for victims' families". Here are a couple of excerpts:

When John "Jordan" Lewis was sentenced to die for killing Philadelphia police officer Chuck Cassidy last month, Cassidy's widow Judy said the verdict offered no solace to her. It's been over ten years since an execution was carried out in Pennsylvania, and victims' families typically face a long and emotionally draining appeals process.

When the jury agreed on the death penalty for the man who murdered her son – Kathleen O'Hara felt some relief.

O'Hara: I'm not happy about it, I don't like the death penalty, but it felt right to me, so I drove away thinking – that was really terrible but it's over.

That was in 2001 – two years after O'Hara's son Aaron and his roommate Brian were abducted from their apartment at Ohio's Franciscan University and shot and killed.

But as O'Hara found out as she and her family gathered for Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 – it was far from over.

O'Hara: it was the first Thanksgiving where it was a little less painful, we could be in the same room, we were laughing at Thanksgiving, and I thought, this is really bad but it's not as bad. And then December 1st I got the call. Which sent me right back to remembering everything that had happened.

The call was from a victim's advocate – telling her that the verdict and sentence had been overturned in an appeal.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham says this part of the legal system can be overwhelming for families:

Abraham: Coming to Court innumerable times, listening to whatever testimony, then finally receiving a verdict only to find out that the process keeps on going for years and years and years, is very demoralizing – and it increases their sense of loss and hopelessness – when is this process going to come to an end.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Call for Universal Abolition

Today's UN News Service has this article, "UN human rights chief calls for universal abolition of the death penalty":

15 December 2009 – The top United Nations human rights official today called for the universal abolition of the death penalty, citing a host of reasons ranging from the fundamental right to life to the possibility of judicial errors.
“I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a message marking the on 20th anniversary of the Death Penalty Optional Protocol which was added to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1989 with the aim of abolishing the punishment.

“I hold this position for a number of reasons: these include the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people by mistake; the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent; and what is, to my mind, the inappropriately vengeful character of the sentence.”

Ms. Pillay noted that 140 States no longer carry out the penalty. The 72 States which have ratified the Protocol are duty-bound not to execute anybody, to take all necessary steps to definitively abolish the death penalty, and not to extradite individuals to a country where they would face the death penalty.

“Ratification of the optional protocol, as well as similar regional instruments in Europe and in the Americas, thus draws a firm line under the use of the death penalty,” she said, noting that the instrument is a key step for states moving towards abolition.

“Abolishing the death penalty is a difficult process for many societies, and ratification of the Optional Protocol can often only come about after a period of national debate. Until they reach that point, I urge those States still employing the death penalty to place a formal moratorium on its use, with the aim of ultimately ratifying the Optional Protocol and abolishing the punishment altogether everywhere.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

This will not bring any closure

We've been interested to see news coverage of victim opposition to the recent Indiana execution of Eric Wrinkles. Here's one posted on Friday at the news station WFIE:

Vigil held by those against the death penalty:

Some people against the death penalty held a vigil Thursday night at Holy Redeemer Church in Evansville, just a few hours before the execution of Eric Wrinkles.

Tracy Hobgood read over some of the last letters Wrinkles wrote to her. Hobgood was in the house that fatefull night when Wrinkles stormed in and killed Hobgood's aunt, Debbie Wrinkles and Debbie's brother and sister-in-law.

Hobgood was supposed to be in Michigan City, Thursday night, but decided at the last minute she didn't want to go see Wrinkles die.

Hobgood is against the death penalty and believes Wrinkles was already living out his punishment. She read part of his letter.

"I've had 15 years in here to try to deal with all of this shame, guilt, remorse and sadness, and it still isnt enough. I don't think it ever will be," said Wrinkles in the letter.

Mary Winnecke, the mother of victim Natalie Fulkerson, is also against the death penalty. She attended the prayer vigil.

"We're mourning our daughter's death, her husband, and Debbie. Now we're mourining Eric's death. So, it's a funeral," said Winnecke.

Winnecke feels it's not right for the Wrinkles' children to lose another parent.

[They're mourning] their mother, and now they're losing their father. While he shouldn't be out on the street, it's still different to think tomorrow my father is going to be dead," said Winnecke.

As the family listens in on the prayer service, Natalie Fulkerson's grown daughter says she can't help but feel the death penalty is an easy way out. She says this will not bring any closure.

"There are people that care about him, and they're going to be hurting too. I care about the man he used to be. I greive for the loss of that man," said Natalie's daughter, Kim Dillman.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy International Human Rights Day and Happy Birthday MVFHR

Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDR). I always like to quote Sister Helen Prejean's observation, in her book Death of Innocents, that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of the ideal that the Universal Declaration represented. Helen 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.

We are, of course, still working toward that day, and although there is a great deal left to do, we can also appreciate that 61 years after Eleanor Roosevelt made her argument, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty.

Today is also the 5th anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Five years ago, the founding group gathered at the UN Church Plaza in New York City, offered public testimony, and signed a document stating, "In the name of victims, we pledge to end the death penalty around the world."

In MVFHR's first public statement shortly thereafter, 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.

Our deepest thanks today to all MVFHR's members and supporters who have helped answer that call and who have accomplished so much in five years.

"What about the family?"

From today's issue of the Pennsylvania college newspaper, The Villanovan:

Villanovans Against the Death Penalty hosted anti-death penalty advocate Bill Piper, who gave the lecture, "What About the Family" on Nov. 30.

Ashlee Shelton, director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, introduced Piper.

Shelton works to ban the death penalty in Pennsylvania in favor of life without parole.

She explained Pennsylvania's death penalty laws, noting that the state has the fourth highest number of inmates on death row. However, no one has been put to death here in a decade.

Shelton referenced Cameron Todd Willingham, who recently received national attention because he was executed for arson and murder on Feb. 17, 2004 yet was just found innocent.

Piper recalled his own experiences with the death penalty. His mother was raped and murdered in 1999 at the age of 74 by a 26-year-old man who Piper described as "borderline mentally retarded."

He stated firmly that he remained staunchly against the death penalty before and after his mother's murder.

"Even as a kid, I was mind-boggled by the fact that the country could kill you if you committed a certain crime," Piper said. "How can you take a person's life that isn't yours?"

The man who killed Piper's mother was identified by genetic testing a year later. Most of Piper's family sought the death penalty for the newly identified murderer.

At the trial, Piper said the accused man looked lost and not fully there. He heard stifled cries and realized the man's mother was sitting behind him.

"I have never felt that level of pity in my life," he said.

From that moment, he vowed to do something to help the mother. Family members automatically become secondary victims, and the death penalty enforces this unfortunate ripple effect. Piper then challenged the audience to try to imagine their children being led away to their execution. Ultimately, the district attorney left the decision up to Piper and his sister. Because of Piper's influence, the man was sentenced to life without parole.

"There is a time when we need to take responsibility for who we are, what we do to people and how we treat those around us," he said. "We are responsible for each other."

Revenge makes great television, but in reality, revenge does not bring closure, according to Piper.

"My mother is dead, and she's not coming back," he said. "You get over it by realizing it's done and you are not in control. By realizing such a thing, you are put back into control."

Piper is one of 66 family members of murder victims who signed a statement and helped to convince the New Jersey Congress to end the death penalty in that state.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Don't Execute War-Damaged Vets

This article by Karl Keys and MVFHR board member Bill Pelke was posted on AlterNet this past Friday; it mentions, among other stories, Manny Babbitt, the brother of another MVFHR board member, Bill Babbitt:

Mental exhaustion. Battle fatigue. PTSD. Whatever it's called, many of our soldiers who served in wars over the years came home with combat-related mental illness, traumatized by the carnage and destruction they saw and experienced.

Unfortunately, too many veterans' mental conditions have fueled criminal behavior resulting in their imprisonment. Dating back to the Civil War, veteran incarceration rates increased after each conflict.

This is not a small, marginal problem. Government statistics for the 1980s show that 21 percent of state prison inmates then were Vietnam veterans. The U.S. Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration estimate that two of every five of the 800,000 new Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

The stories of two such veterans illustrate this tragedy. This fall, Vietnam veteran James Floyd Davis was finally presented the awards due to him -- a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct medal -- in a small ceremony held in a hearing room in a North Carolina prison. Davis, now 62, was not permitted to keep his medals after the ceremony.

That's because Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing three people at an Asheville, North Carolina tool company from which he had been fired. At trial, evidence was introduced that he lived alone, talked to himself, instigated arguments with co-workers and shot imaginary groundhogs on his front lawn with his .44 magnum. Further testimony revealed that when he was a child, his alcoholic father threatened to cut Davis' and his siblings' throats while they slept and burn down the house. Davis' father beat him with a mop handle, and would lock the refrigerator and hide the key while Davis went hungry.

What wasn't introduced at trial was that Davis, who attained the rank of sergeant in Vietnam, fought on a Central Highlands firebase during the Tet Offensive, where he lost his hearing, was hit with shrapnel, some of which remains in his leg, and went home with depression, paranoid schizophrenia and PTSD. His marriage fell apart, and he attempted suicide. It isn't certain if Davis will be executed, but he has given up his legal appeals. North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Appeals and one of its attorneys, Ken Rose, continues to advocate for him.

Manny Babbitt, another Vietnam War veteran and a Marine, earned his Purple Heart for courage under fire in the battle of Khe Sanh, where 737 Americans died and more than 2,500 soldiers were wounded. Hit by rocket shrapnel that opened his skull, Babbitt lost consciousness and was thought to be dead. He was loaded onto a pile of corpses by helicopter operators where he regained consciousness surrounded by severed limbs and bodies.

He returned from Vietnam suffering from PTSD, exhibiting bizarre and violent behavior. Eventually he broke into the home of Leah Shendel, an elderly woman, and beat her. She later died of a heart attack.

His brother, Bill Babbitt, turned him in to authorities believing that he owed it to the larger community, and expecting that his war hero brother would get the medical attention he needed and deserved. But not long after being awarded his Purple Heart, Manny Babbitt was executed one minute after midnight, May 4, 1999, in the state of California, on his 50th birthday.

As veterans ourselves, we believe that people who commit crimes as a result of severe mental impairments should not be executed. In 2006, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates adopted that recommendation, which was officially endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia exempts certain persons with impaired mental capacities from the death penalty. But not all states employ this exemption. Many of the same factors present in the cases of individuals without mental impairments who are executed are also present in the cases of those with them: Inability to afford effective legal counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct, unfair and racially biased application of the punishment, and unreliable and false witness testimony at trial.

Capital punishment's costs to states drain our tax dollars away from smarter and more effective approaches to law enforcement and crime prevention and from additional quality, affordable mental health services. Abolishing capital punishment would be a major step forward in criminal justice and mental health reform. In November the nation observed Veterans Day and on December 7th it will observe Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, yet another occasion for honoring war veterans. As you do so, please take a moment to remember James Floyd Davis and Manny Babbitt -- and to work to ensure that no other mentally impaired veterans are treated as they were. We owe that much and more to our men and women in uniform.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Two Wrongs

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice review of Brian MacQuarrie's book The Ride, which tells the story of MVFHR member Bob Curley. A couple of excerpts:

I don't want to jinx this, but, having finished the most emotionally challenging true-crime account I have ever read, I want this book to win every nonfiction reporting award there is.

This book was difficult to read because, as a father, I cannot tolerate violence against children. I find it unsettling, repugnant, and infuriating.

This book is about a father's encounter with the worst thing that can happen to a child, an unthinkable horror, and how he comes to terms with it.


MacQuarrie takes the story further, showing how Bob Curley became a willing, and convincing, spokesman for Massachusetts death-penalty advocates, who narrowly lost a legislative fight to restore capital punishment. He also chronicles how Curley began to drink heavily, unable to get past the guilt and horror of what happened to his youngest child.

When he was invited to speak at public forums on the death penalty, Bob Curley refused to share the same car with anti-capital punishment advocate Bud Welch, a gas-station owner who lost his daughter Julie when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City. The violent death of a child had caused Welch, like Curley, to lose himself in guilt, rage, and alcohol.

Welch eventually determined that executing Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols "wouldn't be part of my healing process. I wasn't going to gain anything from an act of hate and revenge. And hate and revenge, I realized, were the very reasons that Julie and 167 others were dead. I was finally able to see what the Oklahoma City bombing was all about. It was about retribution."

Bob Curley didn't see it that way, but he shared with Welch a resentment at being used by politicians and the news media. From that common thread, the two began to talk, and Bob Curley slowly understood that to get on with his life, he had to end the cycle of anger and guilt that was consuming him.

Curley began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. After many months of inner turmoil, he decided that watching his son's murderers die would not make it easier for him to deal with his grief. Now he believes that a society that kills convicted criminals is not as strong as one that refuses to do so.

MacQuarrie's book doesn't offer answers to the larger problems of crime and punishment, but Bob Curley's story is profoundly important as the debate over the death penalty continues.

Somebody has to make us think about whether two wrongs ever make a right.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tragedies are compounded

We appreciate the post by blogger Grey Matters on Tucson a couple of days ago about mental illness and the death penalty:

Lately there have been stories in the news about people that were given the death penalty(capital punishment) and executed only to find out later through modern DNA testing that the wrong person was killed. That in and of itself is enough to give pause before taking some one’s life for a crime, but what about when the person is seriously mentally ill and symptomatic when a crime is committed?

Amnesty International believes that “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life…It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. There can never be any justification for torture or for cruel treatment.”

At the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) annual convention in San Francisco last summer families of murder victims joined with families of persons with mental illness who have been executed to speak out against the death penalty.

Double Tragedies, a report released at the convention, calls the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for people with severe mental disorders and “a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly lead to tragic violence.”

The report calls for treatment and prevention, not execution. It is available online at

A joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), the report is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states, including Texas which has the highest rate of capital punishment in the United States.

Most people with mental illness are not violent, many preferring to isolate and have little social contact. When violent tragedies occur it’s usually because the person has fallen through the cracks of a broken mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded when all the families involved on all sides suffer. ...

Cities for Life

Yesterday was the day of Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty, an annual event organized by the Italian Community of Sant'Egidio. This international event commemorates the 1786 abolition of the death penalty by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first such abolition by a European state.

Several MVFHR members are participating in Cities for Life events and speaking publicly about victim opposition to the death penalty. Board members Bill Pelke and Bud Welch are speaking in Italy and Belgium, respectively, and member Art Laffin is speaking in Mozambique. We'll have more from them when they return; for now, here's some news from the Journey of Hope's blog.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Voices from Kentucky Victims

As a state Supreme Court ruling has halted executions in Kentucky (for a summary, see, for example, this New York Times article), it's a good moment to listen to some of the voices of Kentucky victims' family members explaining their opposition to the death penalty. The Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has posted some powerful videos -- they don't take long to view -- from victims' family members.

Here's one from Ben Griffith, whose brother was murdered, one from Ruth Lowe, who also lost her brother to murder, and one from Eugene Thomas, whose father was murdered.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness Month

We have posted in the past about the work of Tina Chery, who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute after her 15-year-old son was killed in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Here's the post that we ran as part of a "Preventing Violence" series we did a couple of years ago, and here's an excerpt from an article that discusses Tina's opposition to the death penalty.

One of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute's initiatives has been to have November 20-December 20th declared Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness Month in Massachusetts. Here's part of their announcement:

"The Governor shall annually issue a proclamation setting apart the period from November 20th to December 20th, inclusive, as a time for Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness and recommending that the time period be observed in an appropriate manner by the people."

Why do we need it?
Nearly 35,000 people are killed every year in the U.S., leaving family members, friends and neighbors grieving. 1,156 people were murdered in Massachusetts between 1993 and 1998. For each of these victims, there are seven to ten close relatives – not counting significant others, friends, neighbors and co-workers. This means that while we have experienced a yearly decrease in the homicide rate in Massachusetts – from 248 in 1993 to 123 in 1998 – the number of survivors of victims of homicide continues to rise. In 2004 the City of Boston experienced 64 homicides leaving in its wake over 640 survivors, not including, friends, classmates, and neighbors.

When a man, woman, or child is murdered, all citizens are impacted by the devastating loss regardless or age, race, creed, education, religion, culture or ethnicity. Losing a loved one to homicide is among the most traumatic experiences that a person will ever have to endure. People who suffer a loss are confronted with tremendous upheaval and pain, which can lead to numerous emotional, physical challenges and difficulties and create a crisis response in day to day living.

The epidemic of youth violence in the United States takes a heavy toll on the nation’s health. It results in emotional and physical injuries, permanent disability and death; it consumes enormous health care resources; and it ultimately diminishes the quality of life of individuals, families and communities. These episodes of violence continue to destroy families, schools and communities.

We need this awareness month because our institutions and our society are uncomfortable dealing with the aftermath of murder. We don’t know what to say to survivors and often we don’t know what to do for them. This yearly observance provides a platform where, as a nation, we can learn how to better assist families who have been brutally impacted by violence and to support the efforts of survivors to inform our violence prevention, peacemaking, restorative and social justice movement.

Friday, November 20, 2009

MVFHR member honored by Peace Award

MVFHR member Marietta Jaeger Lane is being honored this evening as a recipient of the Institute for Peace Studies Jeannette Rankin Peace Award at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Marietta has testified against the death penalty in a wide array of venues in several countries. Testifying in favor of a death penalty abolition bill in 2007, Marietta told lawmakers:

While my family and I were camped at the Missouri River Headwaters Park here in Montana 34 years ago, my 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped from our tent during the night. Fifteen months later, the FBI identified and arrested a local man responsible for my child’s disappearance and subsequent death.

Though the death penalty was applicable in this case, at my request the County Prosecutor offered the alternative sentence, in capital cases, of mandatory life imprisonment without parole. Only then did the young man admit to the rape, strangulation death, and dismemberment of my child as well as the deaths of a young woman and two young boys in the same area, but at different times. There was evidence that this man had caused more children’s deaths around the state, but the County Prosecutors in those instances were insisting on the death penalty. The young man would only confess to the deaths that occurred in Gallatin County, where he was being offered life imprisonment. Clearly, Montana’s death penalty had no deterrent value in all those deaths, except to deter confession of guilt.

… Concerning the claim of “justice for the victim’s family,” to claim that the execution of any offender will be “just retribution” is to insult the immeasurable and irreplaceable worth of the victim. For the state to kill in retaliation for my daughter’s death is to violate and profane the goodness, sweetness, and beauty of her life.

We congratulate Marietta on being the recipient of the Peace Award today.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Broken System

Kohl Harrington has made a documentary film called A Broken System that features two MVFHR members, and three other obvious stakeholders in the death penalty debate, describing their experiences. Aba Gayle describes the emotions she went through after the murder of her daughter Catherine, the pressure that she felt, as a victim's family member, to support the death penalty, and her eventual decision to oppose the death sentence of her daughter's murderer. Bill Babbitt describes the experience of his brother's death sentence and execution. Juan Melendez describes the experience of being sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit. Ron McAndrew and Don Cabana tell about being prison wardens overseeing executions.

Each segment is about 10 minutes long. It's definitely worth a look, particularly if you have not yet had a chance to hear these people tell their stories.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Elusive and Deeply Personal

Thanks to Michael Landauer of the Texas Death Penalty blog for the very nice mention the other day. Michael quotes from several of our recent posts and writes:

A lot has been written this week about the notion of seeking closure in the DC sniper execution. Today's Viewpoints page had an interesting column that tackled the subject. Naseem Rakha wrote: "Of all the arguments in support of capital punishment, perhaps the most emotionally compelling is that it provides "closure" for the loved ones of murder victims."

But real closure is elusive and deeply personal. It's unmeasurable, if it exists. That's true for any kind of grief, I suppose.

I've been very impressed with Susannah Sheffer's blogs on this topic in the past few weeks. She really seems to have a grasp on the current topics dealing with closure over on the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights blog.

I in turn highly recommend the Dallas Morning News death penalty blog, the description of which reads: This blog is the leading forum for people on all sides of the debate to discuss issues related to the death penalty. It includes news from Dallas Morning News reporters as well as commentary from members of the editorial board, which opposes the death penalty.

To read more from victims' families questioning the idea of closure, see this special issue of MVFHR's newsletter, which focuses on that topic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

At Amnesty Conference

MVFHR will have a presence at Amnesty International's Northeast Regional Conference this weekend, via a Saturday evening plenary presentation that will feature Bob Curley, whose son Jeffrey was murdered 12 years ago, Brian MacQuarrie, whose new book, The Ride, chronicles Bob Curley's journey from supporter of the death penalty to opponent, and Renny Cushing, MVFHR's Executive Director. If any blog readers are in attendance, do come over and say hello.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Evidence Not Heard

This Reuters piece about efforts to stop the execution of John Muhammad includes a mention of MVFHR and a link to the clemency request, which includes a 4-minute oral testimony from MVFHR about victim opposition to the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. (To hear the testimony, click the link above and then click on "announcements.")

John Muhammad Files for Stay of Execution with U.S. Supreme Court
Evidence of "Severe Mental Illness" Not Heard by Jury

In a two-track effort to stop the November 10 execution of John Allen Muhammad, sentenced to death after his conviction for 10 killings 7 years ago, Attorney Jon Sheldon has filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court and a motion for a stay of execution so that the court can review compelling evidence of Muhammad`s "severe mental illness"

Sheldon also requested that Governor Tim Kaine use his powers of clemency to commute Muhammad`s sentence to life without parole because of the severe mental illness. "The public has been protected from John Muhammad for the past 7 years," said Sheldon, "and a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole would insure that the public would continue to be protected."

"Execution is simply not justified in this case," Sheldon said, "and it is because of John Muhammad`s severe mental illness." Sheldon also stated that "the jurors would not have sentenced him to death if they had received clear instructions and known of his severe mental illness." Life in prison without the possibility of parole has and will keep the people of Virginia safe.

Sheldon said that a psychiatrist has diagnosed Muhammad as "psychotic, delusional and paranoid and that he suffers from schizophrenia."

"This diagnosis" said Sheldon, "is confirmed by objective evidence." Sheldon said that neuropsychological brain imaging applications have demonstrated that John Muhammad has neuropsychological deficits that are consistent with schizophrenia, and point to "brain dysfunction."

Sheldon also said that MRI brain scans of John Muhammad show that "he has three congenital malformations in his brain, two of which are found with greater frequency in people with schizophrenia, and one of which is a shrunken cortex, confirming the brain damage."

Psychiatrist Richard Dudley reviewed all the mental health information and concluded that John Muhammad certainly has a "severe mental illness" of the type that the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Murder Victims` Families for Human Rights have described when they advocate against the execution of the severely mentally ill. Dr. Dudley noted that John Muhammad`s mental illness certainly played a role both in his crimes, and his behavior at trial.

"Elizabeth Young, a juror in the Muhammad case, has described how the evidence of John Muhammad's severe mental illness was never heard by her jury, and that this evidence with clear jury instructions would have led her to vote for a verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole," Sheldon said.

For more information about the certiorari petition and the clemency request, please visit and click on "Announcements."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nothing to do with the healing

Today's Kentucky State Journal has this article about a Journey of Hope event at Kentucky State University with Terri Steinberg, whose son is on death row in Virginia, Shujaa Graham, whose death sentence was overturned in 1979, and MVFHR board member Bill Pelke. Here's an excerpt:

Pelke, the founder of Journey of Hope, arrived at his argument from the other side. He is a murder victim family member who is morally opposed to the death penalty and has dedicated his life to abolishing the practice.

“The death penalty has nothing to do with the healing,” he says. “It just continues the cycle of violence.”

He’s told his story more 5,000 times, but he still choked up Tuesday during the telling.

Four teenage girls skipped out early from their Indiana high school in 1985. After drinking wine and beer and smoking pot, they decided they needed money to go to a local arcade. One girl knew her neighbor, 78-year-old Ruth Pelke, would invite the other three girls in if they asked for a Bible lesson.

“She was a very religious woman, and her passion was telling Bible stories to young people,” her grandson said.

She invited them in.

One girl hit her over the head with a vase; another pulled a knife and stabbed her. Then another took a turn with the knife. The girls ransacked the house and came up with $10 and an old car.

Paula Cooper, 15 at the time, was the one who first pulled out the knife and was deemed the ringleader. When she was sentenced to the electric chair by the state of Indiana, Pelke supported the judge’s decision.

A year later, however, he asked God for compassion for Cooper and her family.

When he imagined his grandparents’ home, he saw his grandmother butchered to death on the dining room floor where they had celebrated Easter and Christmas and birthdays.

Forgiving Cooper changed that.

He became involved in an international crusade on Cooper’s behalf in 1989, and through those efforts, she was removed from death row and her sentence commuted to 60 years.

When she’s paroled, Pelke hopes she’ll spread her story through Journey of Hope.

“People think, ‘If I get revenge, I’ll feel better,’” he said. “The answer is love and compassion. You’re never going to want to see anyone put in the death chamber.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"I think you should get life"

Another article about victim opposition to the death penalty from Eric Rogers, whose parents were murdered in 2006. This is from California's CBS, posted yesterday:

A man who witnessed his uncle murder his parents in their El Cerrito home in 2006 told his parents' killer in court in Martinez Monday that he does not think he should be executed for his crimes.

Eric Rogers was 17 years old when Edward Wycoff, now 40, broke into his family's home 1467 Rifle Range Road in the El Cerrito hills shortly before 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2006, and stabbed and bludgeoned his parents, Julie Rogers, 47, and Paul Rogers, 48.

During the attack, Eric Rogers and his 12-year-old sister hid in a bedroom while Eric Rogers called 911.

In court Monday, Eric Rogers, now 21, told Wycoff, "I think you should get life without the possibility of parole."

"I think the death penalty would be wrong. I think you are mentally childish. I think you are very immature," Rogers said. "I've talked to people who have known you for a long time and they say you haven't changed much since you were about 9 years old."

Wycoff was convicted Oct. 27 of two counts of first-degree murder with enhancements for the use of a knife and a wheelbarrow handle in the killings.

Jurors, who deliberated for about 45 minutes before returning their guilty verdicts, also found true the special-circumstance allegation that Wycoff committed multiple murders, which makes him eligible for the death penalty.

The same jury is now listening to testimony in the penalty phase of the trial and will be asked to decide whether Wycoff should be executed for his crimes.

Wycoff, who is acting as his own attorney, claimed during the first phase of the trial that he had the right to kill Julie and Paul Rogers because they were "bad people" and were out to get him. He claimed that he deserved to be rewarded for killing them because he had made "the world a better place" by "eliminating" them.

Eric Rogers said outside the courtroom that his parents, who were both attorneys, had been opposed to the death penalty and that he and most of his family were opposed to the death penalty.

"I think that killing in hatred is something that is associated with my uncle and not my parents," Eric Rogers said. "I don't think we can teach people that killing is wrong by killing people."

Despite a ballot measure passed in 2008 known as The Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy's Law, which says victims have the right to be heard during criminal proceedings, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge John Kennedy ruled Monday that Eric Rogers could not testify about his or his parents' feelings about the death penalty.

"In any event, the right to be heard certainly does not confer a right to testify to matters the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have deemed inadmissible in a capital trial," Kennedy said in a written ruling issued Monday.

Both sides are prohibited from asking about Julie and Paul Rogers' feelings about the death penalty, witnesses' feelings about the death penalty and the impact the death penalty would have on the victims if Wycoff is sentenced to death, including a lengthy appeals process, Eric Rogers' attorney Ted Cassman said.

The judge said that once the penalty phase of the trial is over, he will reconsider Eric Rogers' request to testify about his feelings about the death penalty. In the meantime, telling Wycoff he doesn't believe he should be executed for his crimes was as much as Eric Rogers was permitted to say about the potential sentence.

Among his many reasons for killing Julie and Paul Rogers, Wycoff said he didn't approve of the Rogers' liberal political beliefs and didn't like the way they were raising their three children. He said he had planned to kill the parents and then adopt the children and raise them himself.

"My dad was one of the most intelligent and compassionate people I've ever known," the couple's daughter, now 16, testified Monday.

She said he was generous, calm, sincere, caring and open-minded.

She said her mother was "also very compassionate and intelligent."

"She thought a lot. She was very creative, really kind and thoughtful," the daughter said.

The night of the murders, Paul Rogers came into his daughter's bedroom and kissed her on the cheek while she was talking on the phone. After she went to bed, her father knocked on her bedroom door and told her goodnight, but she said she pretended she was asleep.

Her mother had been sitting on the couch that night reading and drinking tea. She tucked her daughter into bed and kissed her goodnight.

The next time the girl saw her father, he was lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood with a large knife stuck in his back. The daughter ran and got a towel and held it around the wound to try to stop the bleeding.

But, she said, she doesn't remember her father that way. She thinks about him eating chips and guacamole and leaning over his computer and she remembers the way his mustache moved when he smiled.

She never saw her mother again. Police found Julie Rogers in the backyard. She had been stabbed multiple times and severely beaten. She was taken to the hospital, where she died later that day.

The daughter said she still imagines her mother picking her up from school and calling her funny names. She said she misses everything about her parents, even the things that used to annoy her.

After her parents' were murdered, their daughter moved away from her friends and everyone she had ever known and went to live with her aunt and uncle in Lafayette.

She said she felt like a burden to them and developed anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol addiction.

"I developed a cynical view of the world. It's hard for me to trust people," she said.

She said she doesn't play harp anymore and she doesn't wear colors.

"I'm not happy. I don't want to wear happy colors," she explained.
When asked what she missed most about her parents, she said she
missed their openness and accepting natures.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Don't Execute, Son Says

From yesterday's Contra Costa (CA) Times, "Don't Execute Killer, Slain El Cerrito couple's son says":

The 20-year-old son of a slain El Cerrito couple is fighting to speak against imposing the death penalty on the uncle who killed his parents, testing for the first time a state law that gave crime victims a greater voice in legal proceedings.

Eric Rogers is scheduled to testify for the prosecution next week during the penalty phase of the murder trial of Edward Wycoff, a 40-year-old Sacramento County truck driver convicted Monday of two counts of first-degree murder for killing his sister and brother-in-law, Paul and Julie Rogers, on Jan. 31, 2006.

While legal precedent limits Eric Rogers to testifying only to the impact the murders have had on his life, Rogers said he wants to tell jurors that he doesn't want Wycoff executed. His parents were strongly opposed to the death penalty, as is he, he said.
"I think revenge would bring me closer to the status of my uncle and further from the status of my parents," Eric Rogers told the Times. "To be vengeful in their name would be disrespectful."

Rogers hired Berkeley attorney Ted Cassman to argue that he has a right to voice his opposition to capital punishment under Marsy's Law, also known as Proposition 9 or the Victim's Rights and Protection Act of 2008, which voters approved last November. Marsy's Law gives victims the right to be heard at any legal proceeding.

Beyond Rogers' belief that the death penalty is wrong, such a sentence would cause Rogers more pain by subjecting him to 10 to 20 years of appeals on Wycoff's behalf, Cassman said.

Read the rest.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It Only Brought the Same Pain

The Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing reported earlier this week on their "Voices on the Death Penalty" evening, which included a powerful story from a victim's family member:

Nearly 120 people turned out on a rainy Memphis evening to attend Voices on the Death Penalty: A Dialogue from the Front Lines. For over an hour, attendees heard the powerful stories of those who have been directly affected by the death penalty and why they now are working to end this public policy.

Kathy Kent, a public defender in Memphis, shared her gut-wrenching journey of loss and continued healing since the murder of her brother, Kenny, in the Oklahoma City bombing. She shared her anger and pain but also her conviction that Timothy McVeigh's execution did nothing to bring her peace. In fact, she stated that it only brought the same pain she was experiencing to McVeigh's family--a family who had done nothing wrong.

Read the rest of the post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

If We Are Serious

This letter to the editor was published in today's Gazette.Net, a Maryland online news site:

Repeal the Death Penalty
What a relief to hear that Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger has settled his most recent death penalty prosecution with a sentence of life without parole, thereby securing a speedy resolution for the victim's family.

The sad reality is that the death penalty handcuffs the surviving families of homicide victims to decades of legal procedures. In the end, the vast majority are resentenced to life without parole, which could have been sought at trial.

The new death penalty law that went into effect recently will likely narrow the risk of our state executing an innocent person. But the General Assembly, in passing the law, ignored another compelling finding of the 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment: "the effects of capital cases are more detrimental to (murder victims') families than are life without the possibility of parole cases." As a member of the commission, Shellenberger agreed with this finding, although he voted to maintain the death penalty.

The new law makes Maryland's death penalty ever more complex, which means a longer process.

As a mother who lost a son to murder, my heart goes out the family of [Correctional] Officer [David] McGuinn, whose alleged killers [are] still facing death for killing this correctional officer in 2006. It has been over three years and this case has yet to go to trial — precisely because it is a death penalty case.

If we are serious about helping victims' families, we should go ahead and repeal the death penalty, sparing them the agonizing wait for cases to come to an end. Eliminating the death penalty will also save the state money that could be reinvested to provide more meaningful care for the families of murder victims, something I know from personal experience is lacking now.

Vivian Penda, Silver Spring

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Study Commission in New Hampshire

Yesterday New Hampshire's new Death Penalty Study Commission met for the first time. Like similar commissions in Tennessee and Maryland, this one has an MVFHR member serving on it; New Hampshire's has MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing, who is also a State Representative.

Today's article in the Nashua Telegraph notes that the Commission will consider the following questions about the death penalty:

• Does it serve a legitimate public interest such as general deterrence, specific deterrence, punishment or instilling confidence in the criminal justice system?

• Is it consistent with evolving societal standards of decency?

• Is the use of a penalty phase to determine the death penalty’s use after conviction at trial arbitrary, unfair or discriminatory?

• Should the narrow application of the death penalty in this state be expanded, narrowed, or otherwise altered?

• Are there alternatives to capital punishment that ensure public safety and address the interests of society, the penal system and the families of victims of crime?

• Is there a significant difference in the cost of prosecution and incarceration between capital punishment and life without parole for the convicted capital murderer?

And from another article published in the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago:

The murder of 42-year-old Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon over the weekend comes two weeks before state and local officials are scheduled to meet in Concord to begin work examining New Hampshire’s death penalty law, whether it should be abolished, expanded or left as it is.

Cates was killed in her home early Sunday morning while her husband was away on a business trip. Their 11-year-old daughter was also attacked, but is in a Boston hospital and expected to live.

Four teenagers appeared Tuesday in Milford District Court in connection with the slaying. Steven Spader, 17, and Christopher Gribble, 19, both of Brookline, were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. William Marks, 18, and Quinn Glover, 17, both of Amherst, were charged with burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary and robbery.

According to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, the crime does not fit within the state’s definition of a capital murder. The current statute restricts issuing the death penalty to cases when a law enforcement or judicial officer is killed in the line of duty, in the case of murder-for-hire, if the accused is currently serving a life sentence or when the murder occurs in connection with a kidnapping, drug crime or sexual assault.

With the state’s Death Penalty Task Force Study Commission set to meet Oct. 21, so soon after this brutal and shocking murder, public outcry over the crime could push some commission members into taking a more serious look at expanding the capital murder law.

Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, an outspoken death penalty opponent who sponsored the bill that created the death penalty study commission, said it is a natural emotional reaction after a horrible murder for people to want to put the accused to death.

“I can understand that. I have a similar reaction when I see these things” despite being opposed to the death penalty, he said. “I think you always have to look at the big picture and the death penalty, what it symbolizes, has created an atmosphere of killing. Most industrialized nations of the world say we should not allow the death penalty for that reason.”

State Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, is a well-known death penalty opponent who was appointed to the study commission. He said he doesn’t think Cates’ murder will influence commission members and expects they will come to the table with an open mind.

“I don’t know if any one particular murder will have an influence,” Cushing said. “I think there are still people who support the death penalty but who have concerns [about] how it’s administered and who selects it.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Its Unlikeliest Legacy

This story from the British Telegraph features MVFHR member Jo Berry, whose father, a member of Parliament, was killed in 1984 by a bomb planted by the IRA. In 2000, Jo met with Pat Magee, the man responsible for the bombing.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

'My first impression of him was that he was very polite, very quietly spoken, small, with a beard and glasses. He didn't conform to my idea of what a terrorist should look like at all. He seemed almost academic."

Jo Berry's memory of coming face to face with Patrick Magee, the Provisional IRA bomber who killed her father, Sir Anthony Berry, is delivered in a low, trance-like voice as though she is back, apprehensive and amazed, in the secret location near Dublin where they met nine years ago. She'd repeatedly been told that Magee didn't want to meet her: he wasn't interested in being understood by the middle-class daughter of a Tory toff. Then, one day when she was in the middle of making vegetable soup, there was a call from a go-between with instructions for a rendezvous. She took the ferry to Ireland and launched into a strange, unorthodox friendship.

Sir Anthony, MP for Southgate, was one of the five people who died when the Grand Hotel, Brighton, was ripped apart on October 12, 1984, the last day of the Conservative Party conference. He was 59 and had six children. Magee, who had planted the bomb behind the bath panel in Room 629 three weeks earlier, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment. But his co-criminals in the plot to wipe out Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet were never traced. With no warning to the victims' relatives, Magee was released under the Good Friday Agreement in 1999, after 14 years.

Jo, 52, a first cousin of Diana, Princess of Wales, says she knew early on that if she was going to overcome bitterness it might mean confronting the bomber. She started to make regular trips to Ireland to try to understand the conflict from both sides – without telling family or friends. Meeting Magee seemed the logical, if extreme, extension of her need to make sense of it. "It was much more than me and my father. I felt I was part of a war." As the 25th anniversary of the bomb approaches, the permanency of the bond forged between victim and bomber is its unlikeliest legacy.

"My expectation on that day," she says, "was that he would explain his political position – which I was used to hearing – and I would talk about what it meant to lose my wonderful father. And that would be that. There would be no point in meeting again. It couldn't go anywhere. Once would have been enough."

But it wasn't. They spent three highly-charged hours together. "After an hour and a half, he stopped talking," she recalls. "There was a moment of silence. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. 'I don't know who I am any more', he said. 'I don't know what to say. I've never met anyone like you, with so much dignity. What can I do to help? I want to hear your anger. I want to hear your pain.'

"His face got softer. At that point, I wanted to run. It was so much more than I'd bargained for. I didn't know where it would take me. A voice inside me was saying: you should not be talking to the man who killed your father. It's wrong. wrong, wrong. There was a feeling of betrayal. But part of me wanted this to make a difference. It seemed to be positive. I stayed. As soon as I got home, I wanted to go back for more. It was part of my healing to hear his story and reach an understanding of why he chose violence."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Two Links

Friends of Dick Nethercut's have started a blog in his memory, which contains some good articles and links to more information about Dick's work against the death penalty and his extensive involvement with the Alternatives to Violence Project.

Also, as a follow-up to our posts on World Day Against the Death Penalty, here's a link to the European Union's declaration calling for worldwide abolition of the death penalty; there you can see that the EU also posted several other related documents on the occasion of World Day, including MVFHR's joint statement with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Two Calls to Action

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty has designated October 10th “World Day Against the Death Penalty,” and the World Federation for Mental Health has designated October 10th “World Mental Health Day.”

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have taken the occasion of these two intersecting “World Days” to issue the following statement:

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
National Alliance on Mental Illness

Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty
and World Mental Health Day
October 10, 2009

Today is a day of two calls to action: a call to end the death penalty and a call to make mental health treatment a global priority. As organizations who have come together to form the “Prevention, Not Execution” project, we bring these two calls together and declare that it is time to end the death penalty for people with mental illness.

This past year, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and NAMI released a report called Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness, giving voice to families throughout the United States whose lives have been forever changed by the intersection of murder, mental illness, and the death penalty. Two months later, Amnesty International issued a report titled Hanging by a thread: mental health and the death penalty in Japan, highlighting the Japanese government’s continued executions of mentally ill prisoners.

The death penalty is inappropriate for people with severe mental disorders. On this day of two intersecting worldwide calls for change, we urge prevention of violence, through effective and accessible mental health treatment, rather than executions.

World Day Against the Death Penalty

October 10th is World Day Against the Death Penalty. Here is MVFHR's statement; do check out the link above for efforts and activities around the world.

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty
October 10, 2009

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now, over sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. We call for abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

Death Penalty Push in New Hampshire

From today's Nashua (NH) Telegraph:

Murder pushes death penalty to fore

The random, shocking murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon already has some lawmakers working on a renewed push to expand the state’s death penalty.

Rep. Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said he intends to propose legislation in early 2010 to have capital punishment apply to certain, heinous murders beyond ones the state law covers.

“I am sensitive to the argument of the other side about brutalizing society, but I think there are killings right now that call for the death penalty where that ultimate punishment is not an option,” said O’Brien whose House district also includes Lyndeborough, Wilton, Temple and New Boston.

The New Hampshire death penalty currently applies in the premeditated murder of a police officer, judge or court officer or for any victim when the act occurs in a prison or includes kidnapping, murder for hire, rape or major drug deal.

O’Brien said he’ll wait a few months before fine turning his proposal.

“You can’t say you surely would have prevented this, but there are some murders in which society should be able to say to a would-be offender that if you consider taking a life that way, you could forfeit your own,” O’Brien said.

Death penalty opponent Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, heads Cambridge, Mass., group Murder Victims Families for Human Rights. Cushing's father was shot to death in [1988] by an off-duty police officer.

“The death penalty will not bring that poor woman back, and it would not have prevented the murder from taking place,” Cushing said.

The slaying of Cates and the serious wounds inflicted on 11-year-old Jaimie Cates is of an inexplicable nature that has many in the public seeking to bring more punishment to bear on the actors, Cushing said.

“There are certain emblematic murders that take place that touch everyone’s heart and in this case reverberate far beyond Mont Vernon,” Cushing said. “People in small towns all over America wake up, learn of this and are traumatized by it, too.

“At times like these, we try to apply rational thought to an irrational world. There are still some things about my dad’s death that I can’t to this day get my mind around like what was going through the killer’s mind when he did this.”

The state has not executed anyone since 1939.

Read the rest of the article.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Memoriam: Richard Nethercut

We are saddened to learn of the death of MVFHR member Richard Nethercut, who had been reported missing a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday we got the news of his death, and we want to take a few moments to remember him here.

Dick's daughter, Jaina, had been murdered in 1978, and Dick became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Here is part of the testimony he gave as part of an MVFHR panel speaking against reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts in 2007:

As a murder victim family member, I oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty, which from my perspective will only add to the suffering of the victim’s family rather than lessen it. My daughter, Jaina Nethercut, was raped and murdered in a Seattle hotel on January 15, 1978 at age nineteen. … The rape and murder of a 19-year-old could carry the death penalty under this bill. This is the last thing my wife and I would have wanted because it would do violence to us and what we stand for to execute our daughter’s killer.

And here is an excerpt from the book Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge, by Ellis Cose:

A thin, angular man in his seventies with dark, mostly receded hair and a gentle, earnest manner, Nethercut spends much of his time these days working with prisoners. It was a path he could not have foreseen while growing up in Wisconsin during the 1930s. After serving two years in the army during World War II, he earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and eventually ended up in Hong Kong, as a foreign service officer. In Shanghai in 1960, Nethercut and his wife, Lorraine, adopted a two-year-old girl of Russian descent.

Eight years later, Nethercut was assigned to the State Department's Washington headquarters. Their daughter, Eugenia-or Jaina, as they called her-had trouble adjusting to America. Nonetheless, she made it through high school and decided to go to Washington State University. But instead of focusing on her studies, Jaina began hanging out with a sleazy crowd. And in January 1978, she ended up in a welfare hotel in Seattle, apparently looking for marijuana.

She went to the room of a man she reportedly had met the previous night. The man, stoned out of his head, attacked her. She struggled. She managed to get out of the door; but she was dragged back in, raped, and strangled with a pair of stockings. It was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Jaina was nineteen years old.

The news left Nethercut angry, shocked, and struggling with feelings of powerlessness. He also felt a great deal of guilt. For Jaina's move out west seemed, at least in part, an attempt to distance herself from her family. She wasn't even using the family name, which, for Nethercut, was a source of shame.

Police captured the assailant immediately. And though Nethercut couldn't bear to go to the trial, he was happy the man was sentenced to life in prison. Still, Nethercut was unable to put the tragedy behind him. He was depressed, and his State Department career seemed stalled. Though only in his midfifties, he took early retirement two years after Jaina's death and moved to Concord, his wife's hometown, the place where his daughter was buried.

Shortly after the move, Nethercut felt an inexplicable desire to contact the man who had murdered his daughter. He wrote to the chaplain at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. Weeks later the chaplain called as the murderer waited to get on the line. The conversation lasted roughly ten minutes. Nethercut scarcely remembers what was said. He does recall that the conversation was awkward. "We both danced around the issue. We were quite polite with each other. I wanted to learn more and I didn't learn more. . . . I couldn't understand what had happened." The man expressed regret and yet never acknowledged his crime, and certainly didn't provide the explanation and apology Nethercut so desperately craved. Nevertheless, Nethercut muttered words - insincere though they were - of forgiveness.

The men exchanged Christmas cards a few times; but there was no real relationship to maintain-and no release from the confusion and impotence Nethercut felt. For years, he bottled up his emotions: "I kept my daughter's death to myself. I suppressed it. I didn't go through an authentic grieving process." He blamed himself for being a bad father and wallowed in anger and guilt. Finally, he got psychiatric help for his depression; and he got more involved in the activities of his Congregationalist church.

At a religious retreat in 1986 Nethercut had an encounter that radically changed his life. A Catholic bishop suggested that he become part of a prison Bible fellowship program. The idea strongly appealed to Nethercut, who was searching for a way to fill "the hole in my soul . . . I really wanted to do something positive." Several years later, he got involved in the Alternatives to Violence Program, a two-and-a-half-day immersion experience that brings together prisoners and outsiders to role-play, confess, confide, empathize, and explore ideas about the causes-and cures-for violence. In one of those sessions Nethercut got a chance to role-play the part of the man who had murdered Jaina.

In the exercise, he went before the pretend parole board to make his case for freedom; and for the first time, he felt he understood some part of the man who had killed his daughter. It was unexpectedly empowering.

In 2001, at a national conference of the Alternatives to Violence Program, Nethercut met another man who had murdered a woman. That man, who was no longer in prison, had reached out to the family of the women he had killed; and the family had refused his apology. As the killer and Nethercut talked of their respective experiences, they realized they could help each other. Shortly thereafter they went through a ceremony with a victim-offender mediator. His new friend apologized for the murder and Nethercut accepted. The ritual served its purpose: "I no longer feel the need to hear directly from the man himself."

Nethercut's life has come to revolve around his volunteer work in prison-and in promoting prison reform and nonviolence. It is his way of honoring his daughter, of "giving a gift of significance to my daughter's life." He sees in many of the young prisoners and ex-offenders something of his daughter. "They are angry, alienated, at the same time . . . looking for love, acceptance." And he has come to realize, he says, voicing John Lewis's precise words, that everyone has "a spark of the divine."

Thoughts of the murderer-given parole after seventeen years despite his life sentence-no longer torment Nethercut, who has finally and totally forgiven the man. "Forgiveness is something you do for yourself," said Nethercut. "It releases you from a prison of your own making. You forgive the individual and move on. . . . Reconciliation is a step further. . . . That takes both sides."

Nethercut feels that he is a man transformed, and he is no longer depressed. "I feel more whole, more kind of at peace." Through his work, his faith, determination, and grace, he has turned a tragedy in his past into something about which he feels unequivocally positive.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Essence of Human Rights

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, issued this statement yesterday, "Abolition of Death Penalty is Necessary for Protecting Human Rights." Here's an excerpt:

Step by step the death penalty is being abolished. Most countries of the world have now stopped using this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment: 94 states have decided on total abolition, 10 have abolished the penalty for all ordinary crimes and 35 others have not executed anyone for more than ten years. Europe is nowadays close to being a death penalty free zone. However, the abolitionist cause is not yet won.

The most populated countries in the world retain the death penalty: China, India, the United States and Indonesia. This means that the majority of the world’s people live in countries which continue to practice execution as punishment. In election campaigns in the United States, this is a taboo issue, and even the more progressive candidates refrain from raising it for fear of a backlash.

Politicians have problems in relating to public opinion on this issue also in other countries. The Russian Federation gave an undertaking when joining the Council of Europe 13 years ago to do away with the penalty. A moratorium was introduced but the Duma does not appear to be ready yet for a de jure abolition.

After the monstrous terrorist attack against the school in Beslan in September 2004, there were strong emotions in favour of executing the sole attacker who survived the disaster. However, the judicial authorities in Russia were loyal to the moratorium decision also in this extreme situation; the death sentence was transformed into life imprisonment.

Surveys of public opinion about the death penalty have usually shown a majority to be in favour of retaining this punishment. This has been the case particularly when a brutal and widely publicised murder has taken place.

However, opinion polls on this issue are not easy to interpret. There is a wide difference between asking for a gut reaction to brutal crime and soliciting a considered opinion about the ethics and principles relating to legalised State killing.

It is significant that there have been no widely-based demands for the re-introduction of the death penalty in European countries. Any such proposals are not coming from larger political parties.


... it is not only a question of effective crime prevention, judicial certainty or prevention of discrimination; it is about the essence of human rights.

The Universal Declaration states that no one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. There have been attempts to find means of executing with little pain in order to make the process more “humane”. This has failed; there have been recent examples of prolonged suffering in the electric chair or when a person is injected with poison. Even if this could be avoided, it does not reduce the psychological pain when waiting for the execution. The death penalty is cruel, inhuman and degrading – and will always be so.

The key argument against the death penalty is that it violates the right to life. State killing is indeed the ultimate denial of human rights. That is why it is so essential that we continue to act for abolition.

The Council of Europe has been in the forefront in this effort. All member states have ratified Protocol 6 of the European Convention concerning abolition in peace time and the majority has also agreed to be bound by Protocol 13 regarding abolition in all circumstances (including in situations of war). Those remaining states should join.1

It should also be made clear that Belarus can only aspire to membership or even status as observer after it has abolished the death penalty. Governments in the United States and Japan should be reminded that their status as observer is questioned because of their position on this issue.

In the meantime the successful diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations should continue. A resolution was adopted with broad majority in the General Assembly in 2007 which recommended a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty. A similar resolution was agreed in 2008, again stressing that the moratorium should be established “with a view to abolishing the death penalty”.2

Our position on the death penalty indicates the kind of society we want to build. When the State itself kills a human being under its jurisdiction, it sends a message: it legitimises extreme violence. I am convinced that the death penalty has a brutalising effect in society. There is an element of “an eye for an eye” in each execution.

A civilised society should expose the fallacy behind the idea that the State can kill someone to make the point that killing is wrong.

Monday, October 5, 2009

One Mind at a Time

From a Connecticut news story, "Advocates Rally to Abolish the Death Penalty":

Not only is it not a deterrent, advocates like Rev. Walter Everett said it hinders the healing process.

“I realized that I could not heal as long as I sought vengeance,” Everett whose son was murdered in Bridgeport in 1987 said. He said telling his son’s killer “I forgive you” was the only thing that led to his healing.

“I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t feel good about it,” Everett said. “I didn’t like him at all.”

Now Everett and his son’s killer often speak together about the difference God made in both of their lives.

“To kill somebody to prove that its wrong to kill somebody doesn’t make any sense,” Everett said.

He said one of the most effective ways to change minds is to speak individually to legislators, changing one mind at a time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

She needed to start talking

From a news article, "Speakers Share Why They Oppose the Death Penalty":

Change the hearts and minds of everyday citizens about the death penalty and chances improve that Nebraska's legislators will eventually change their minds and vote to repeal the state's death penalty.

Jill Francke, state coordinator for Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, said her organization is trying to talk to as many people as possible about the realities of the death penalty.

As part of that strategy, Francke accompanied two death penalty opponents, Miriam (Thimm) Kelle and Thomas Winslow, to Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island Thursday evening to tell people why they oppose the death penalty.

Francke said it is her theory that most people don't like to think at any length of time about the death penalty because the subject makes them uncomfortable. She said most people will say to themselves, "I support the death penalty," or "I'm against the death penalty," and then quickly get back to their everyday lives.

Francke said Kelle and Winslow have never had that option.

Kelle is the sister of James Thimm, who was brutally tortured and murdered by death row inmate Michael Ryan as part of the Rulo cult murders. Winslow is one of the "Beatrice 6," who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Kelle and Winslow each talked separately about their own experiences, then answered questions from a small group of people who had gathered at the church to hear their presentations.

Kelle said Ryan's conviction and time on death row have split the family. She said she is in the minority who do not want to see Ryan executed, even though there is no doubt that he committed what she considers to be the most heinous murder in Nebraska history.

Kelle said that for a long time, she kept that minority opinion to herself. But she said she never felt comfortable with Ryan's death sentence and, for her own sake, she needed to start talking about her feelings.

She said she prayed over her decision.

After her talk, Kelle told The Independent that one thing that finally tipped her toward making her opposition to the death penalty known is when she learned how much money has been spent on trying to put Ryan to death.

"It's $2.43 million and it's not over with yet," she said. Kelle said that is more than enough money to have imprisoned Ryan for life without parole.

As a nurse, Kelle said, she thinks about the good that the remainder of that $2.43 million could have done, whether it be in the areas of violence prevention programs or other programs that could have beneficial effects for the state's residents.

Kelle said she believes the ongoing appeals process to put Ryan to death has created an open wound for many family members. She said she believes some family members may think their grief will be relieved when Ryan is put to death.

However, she said no execution date has ever been set for Ryan, who still has appeals pending. Kelle said she did not believe family members' grief will necessarily end even if Ryan is executed. She noted that her brother, James, will still be dead.

Kelle said she believes family members could start working on their grief issues earlier if Ryan was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Now, family members are waiting for some climactic event to happen with Ryan's execution. She said some may not live to see that happen.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Powerful reading

Great to see that Michael Landauer, who maintains the Dallas Morning News's blog about the death penalty, posted yesterday about MVFHR's latest newsletter, with its feature on changing one's mind about the death penalty. He writes:

A lot of people opposed to the death penalty have stories of conversion, but none could possibly be more powerful than those who have been victimized by the crimes eligible for such a punishment. The family members of murder victims are often assumed to be of one mind on the death penalty. I know of no study that quantifies what percentage may be opposed, and I doubt we could ever really know, but the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights has asked some of its members to walk us through their own conversion stories. It's powerful reading.

Michael Landauer has also linked to one of our posts about families of the executed here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Day of Remembrance

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims

Today is a National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. It is a day to hold the victims of murder in our hearts and minds not as statistics but as distinct individuals, each unlike any other. It is a day to acknowledge each homicide as a singular, incomparable tragedy and to recognize that each homicide is a theft of a unique, irreplaceable, deeply loved human life, representing a world of devastation for the victim’s surviving family and friends.

Today Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights joins with other victims’ groups across the United States in honoring our loved ones’ lives and renewing our commitment to working toward a better world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Submit a Loved One's Name

This Friday, September 25, is National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, and we will be posting and circulating a public statement from MVFHR on that day. We also want to let you know ahead of time about the Virtual Vigil that the Counseling Center for Trauma and Grief has set up, because names of those to be commemorated through this vigil must be submitted by midnight on the 24th. Here is the info:

In Commemoration of the
On Friday, September 25, 2009

The Counseling Center for Trauma & Grief
A 501 (c)(3) Non-Profit Organization
Will Sponsor a Virtual Vigil

To Light a Candle In Memory of a Loved One
Who Died Due to an Act of Violence
Please Visit:

Participation Instructions
1) Enter the web-site
2) Select “EVENTS” listed at the top of the page.
3) Select sub-heading “DAY OF REMEMBRANCE.”
4) Complete form to request the inclusion of your loved one’s name.
5) Allow at least 24 hours to pass before returning to website.
6) Select “IN MEMORY” listed at the top of the page.
7) Select sub-heading “SEPTEMBER 25, 2009.”

Names will appear in the order they are received, starting September 15, 2009.

All names of loved ones must be submitted before
Midnight, September 24, 2009.

Talk about Anger

Are victims' family members who oppose the death penalty so full of understanding and compassion that they never feel anger or outrage? In the latest issue of our newsletter, victims' families speak to this question:

I think sometimes when the anti-death penalty movement tells the stories of victims’ families who oppose the death penalty, there isn’t enough attention given to the anger that we have felt. It’s normal to feel that way, and it’s not like people who have gotten through it are better than people who haven’t.

I wish the psychiatrist had known to say to me, “It’s normal to cry so much you can’t function. It’s normal to be so angry you can barely breathe.” I don’t think we talk about the anger enough; victims’ families need to know that the anger is OK, that we have to go through it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Changing One's Mind

Another valuable feature of our latest newsletter is the section "Changing One's Mind About the Death Penalty," which focuses on victims' families who initially supported the death penalty and then gradually came to change their minds. Here's an excerpt from the interview with Bob Curley; I encourage you to check out the whole feature:

I knew that if we did get the death penalty reinstated in Massachusetts, it wouldn’t apply to the men who killed [my son] Jeffrey, but I thought maybe if we had the death penalty, people would think twice before doing this kind of thing to some other child. My main thing was that I wanted to prevent this from happening to someone else. And I think at some level, working for the death penalty offered me a kind of distraction from my own pain. It gave me something else to focus on, a goal, an idea that I might be able to do something good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Parallel Justice

Our fall/winter newsletter is now up (and in the mail), and it features -- among other things -- an interview with Susan Herman, former director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Professor Herman is widely recognized for developing the concept of "parallel justice," which she has defined through this summary:

When we consider justice for victims, we must always begin and end by asking what victims need to rebuild their lives and what society owes them. We should not start with the criminal justice system as our point of reference.

In her interview in the MVFHR newsletter, Susan Herman said:

If we honored a societal obligation to help victims rebuild their lives, if we said that that is an essential ingredient of justice, then I think we would start to redesign the response to crime so that there would be one path to justice that is offender-oriented, where we hold a trial and prosecute and all the rest, and another path to justice that is designed to help victims get back on track and reintegrate them into productive community life.

The reason I call this parallel justice is that I wanted to emphasize that there should be a set of responses to victims that are independent of and can be contemporaneous with the criminal justice response. The prosecution may be happening but at the same time that victim should be given a range of services that have nothing to do with how the prosecution is going. Victims shouldn’t have to feel like their access to services is contingent on whether the prosecution is successful.

Read the rest of the interview, which includes examples of how parallel justice is being put into practice, here. (Scroll down to page 4 of the newsletter.)

I also encourage readers to explore Susan Herman's extensive writing on this issue, including this text of a speech she gave in 2000, "Seeking Parallel Justice."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Automatically Welcomed

In his post today on the Texas Death Penalty blog, Dallas Morning News editor Michael Landauer offers these comments on the idea of closure for victims' families:

The story this week about a widow struggling with the upcoming execution of her husband's killer illustrates a difficult truth about the death penalty: It is not automatically welcomed by families.

I have spoken with and read about families torn apart by disagreements over the death penalty for the killer of a loved one. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case here. The family is uncomfortable with the death penalty, but in their case, the unremorseful killer doesn't exactly make them want to oppose his death.

What bothers me is that pro-death penalty people often argue that we owe it to these families to kill the people who took so much from them. That they deserve closure.

I have three main objections to this logic:

1. It is demeaning to families to assume that execution will give them closure. I doubt the living victims of these crimes will ever fully gain closure. The word, I think, some want to use is vengeance, if they were totally honest. To the extent that close is possible, it seems wholly unrelated to the death penalty. To be sure, some families reach what can be described as some degree of closure merely with conviction of killers, and the vast majority of killers are not executed. So why, if you believe in closure, do you only support the highest levels of closure for some families?

2. We do not set punishments based on what might make victims feel better. That's not justice. It's not at all part of the legal standard, which focuses instead (and rightly so) on future dangerousness and the facts of the crime itself.

3. Even if you have no objection to emotion being used to justify punishment or with the assumption that executions ease the pain of the victim's family, you totally ignore the impact on other blameless people involved: The killer's family, the members of the victim's family who oppose execution. The destructive effect on these lives might be worth it, I suppose, if you could guarantee that the victim's family members who want execution feel that elusive closure, but I've never heard of a case where a family walked away from an execution and said, "There, now we're even and we can all move on." That's simplistic fiction that takes no account of others who are blameless in the loss of human life.

We're glad to see the idea of closure being questioned in this way. If you haven't already, take a look at the special issue of MVFHR's newsletter that focused on the topic "Rethinking Closure."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Same Wounds are Reopened

Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle today:

As the family member of a murder victim, I applaud District Attorney Kamala Harris' promise to seek permanent imprisonment, not the death penalty, for Edwin Ramos ("Death penalty decisions," Sept. 11).

The death penalty only prolongs a family's wait for justice. By keeping the case open during the extensive, but necessary, appeals process, the same wounds are reopened again and again. Condemning Ramos to permanent imprisonment will take him off the streets and allow the Bologna family to begin healing.

Although there is no "closure" when a loved one is murdered, families do deserve justice. Catching killers provides that. My brother Bob was murdered in 2003, and today, his murder remains unsolved. While we waste millions of dollars on a broken death penalty, most murders in California remain unsolved.

Permanent imprisonment is a better alternative: It allows victims' families to begin their healing process immediately while taking killers off of our streets forever and freeing up public safety resources.

My deepest sympathy goes out to the Bologna family. I hope that justice is delivered swiftly so they may begin their own path to healing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hanging By a Thread

Amnesty International has just released a report titled Hanging by a Thread: Mental Health and the Death Penalty in Japan, which is a valuable follow-up to Amnesty's 2006 report on The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders in the U.S. and also complements our own recent report, Double Tragedies.

Here's a paragraph from the introduction to Hanging by a Thread:

The effect of mental illness on the behaviour of an offender has long been recognized as a factor in determining culpability and appropriate punishment for crime. The application of the death penalty against prisoners who were “insane” at the time of their offence or who subsequently became insane has been prohibited for centuries in some jurisdictions. International human rights standards prohibit the imposition of the death penalty on, and the execution of, the mentally ill. This report examines the issue of mental health and the death penalty in Japan and is prompted by continuing reports of mentally ill prisoners in Japan being executed or detained in harsh conditions awaiting execution.

The report details several specific stories and also contains valuable discussion of international human rights law and of the death penalty in Japan in general. It has gotten some good press coverage. For example, this CNN story said:

Japan executes such prisoners despite signing an international law that requires inmates with serious mental illness to be exempt from the death penalty, according to Amnesty. The report urged the government to establish a moratorium on executions and consider abolishing the death penalty.

And here's a clip from The Associated Press story:

The report focuses on five male inmates currently on death row. Amnesty International, which staunchly opposes the death penalty, had no direct access to the prisoners. It relied on interviews with family members, lawyers and medical reports to conclude that they are likely suffering from mental illness.

Japan's Justice Ministry had no comment on the report, ministry official Akihiro Ishi said.

Japan, along with the United States, is one of the few industrialized countries that still has capital punishment. The practice has long been criticized by rights groups and the main Japanese bar association, but there is little public outcry or indication the government will stop its executions, which are all done by hanging.

Executing mentally ill prisoners would put Japan in violation of U.N. standards for individuals facing the death penalty. Amnesty International is calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions in the country.

Friday, September 11, 2009

We need a new way to understand

On this anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, here are some words from our Gallery of Victims' Stories from family members of victims killed in those attacks:

From Loretta Filipov: "After Al was killed, some thought we would feel differently and want revenge. My family and I would have liked nothing better than to have Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists from Flight 11 brought to an open trial and given 92 life sentences; one sentence for each person aboard that flight. But they and the other terrorists also killed themselves on that day. What kind of a world do we want for future generations? We can see from the present course we are following that violence only begets more violence and killing only leads to more killing. It is possible to have justice without revenge and hate. The death penalty is not the answer.”

From Terry Greene: "We cannot afford to enact measures that give the illusion of safety while doing nothing to deter killings. The death penalty has proven ineffective as a deterrent. It only promotes the acceptability of taking lives, a cycle which must instead be broken."

From Robin Theurkauf: “I am opposed to the death penalty because it sanctions violence and revenge as justice. We have somehow become socialized to believe that if we do not kill the author of a horrific crime, justice has not been done. We need a new way to understand a just response to horrible crimes that does not include more violence. When we exercise the death penalty we become in some way what we deplore."

And from Anthony Aversano: “If I let hatred consume my life from that terrorist attack, then that act of terror would have taken more than my father, more than those many other lives and more than those buildings, it would have taken my life too! If I let that happen, then the tragedy of that one day would poison me forever."