Saturday, February 28, 2009

"I Don't Think the Death Penalty Serves Victims"

From the February 24th edition of The Maneater, the student newspaper of the University of Missouri, "Murder Victims' Relatives Speak Out Against the Death Penalty":

When Ginger Masters speaks about the justice system, it's with a lot of emotion.
"I learned early on that my healing had to come from outside the justice system", she said.
Masters, whose husband was murdered in 2005, traveled across the state last week for the Road Trip For Justice, a speaking tour sponsored by Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty. She spoke alongside Bess Klassen Landis, who also has family members who were murdered, at the First Christian Church in Columbia.
They told the personal stories that led them to be against the death penalty to a crowd of 30 people.
After Masters' husband David was murdered, her struggle with grief and loss took a much different course than she imagined. When she first met with the prosecuting attorney, she said that he told her, "I don't represent your family, or David. I represent the state of Missouri."
She said the attorney explained to her that, despite her family's wishes, he was going to seek the death penalty.
"He didn't respect what David's wishes would have been," she said.

For Landis, the process was a much different one.
"You don't know what victims and their families need unless you ask," she said.
Landis' mother was murdered in March 1969, when Bess was just 13.
"I don't think the death penalty serves victims," she said. "How do you fill the absence murder creates in your heart with vengeance and hate?"
Both Masters and Landis discussed how they struggled with the wounds the murders inflicted.
"The first thing victims need is to feel safe," Landis said. "Make the murderers into humans, not monsters. You'll never feel safe if you're living in fear of a monster which could be lurking everywhere, which can't even be contained behind bars."
Speaking out against the death penalty has helped bring healing to both Masters' and Landis' lives, but it hasn't been entirely pain-free.
"I've been told that since I don't want the death penalty, that I don't love my husband enough," Masters said.
Masters said the death penalty for her husband's murderer would not help her achieve closure.
"Closure will come, for me, when my husband walks through that door," she said. "And that's not going to happen."
In Missouri, 66 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1989, and another 49 still sit on death row.
Masters argued that the death penalty is unfairly practiced in Missouri.
"If the murderer is homeless, or if it's a color-on-color murder they won't pursue the death penalty, unless it's really grievous," Masters said. "But for whites, they'll seek it a lot more often."
Of the 49 inmates on death row in Missouri, 28 are white and 21 are African American.

As of last October, Masters said she and her family have withdrawn themselves from the justice system.
Masters and her seven children have stopped going to the trials, and said she will only appear if subpoenaed. She said the way the prosecuting attorney used the death penalty for political means, and the lack of respect he showed, caused too much harm to her family.
Since she won't be going to the trials, Masters said this was her chance to speak out.
"This is my time to give my victim impact statement," she said.

Friday, February 27, 2009

This isn't going to bring me closure

From KSNW TV News in Kansas, "Death penalty opponents ask committee to end it":

TOPEKA, Kansas - Hearings began Thursday on a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Kansas. The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering the legislation in an effort to save money.

In front of a legislative committee, Sue Norton told her personal story.

"In 1990, I received a phone call and they said that my daddy and my stepmother had been shot to death in their house," Norton said.

The killer received the death penalty and was executed. But Sue opposes capital punishment.

"I watched the execution and I really realized you know what, this really isn't going to bring me closure," she said.

So, asks Sue, without a benefit for victims, why is Kansas spending all this money?

Read the rest of the story.

Quick update

On Monday several victims' families will be testifying in Connecticut about a death penalty repeal bill there. We'll have a report on that, and a report from the MVFHR member who testified in Colorado earlier this week, soon.

I was in the D.C. area on Wednesday meeting with Ron Honberg, our colleague at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to talk through some of the ideas and issues and questions arising out of all the interviews we've done with families of victims killed by persons with severe mental illness and families of persons with severe mental illness who have been executed. We are preparing a report based on these interviews that will be released at NAMI's annual convention in San Francisco in July, and we'll present a panel presentation on the issue as part of a special session at the convention, too.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Testifying in Alaska

From yesterday's online edition of KTUU News, "House committee hears testimony on reinstating the death penalty":

JUNEAU, Alaska -- Future murder suspects might face the death penalty if a House bill passes.

A bill to re-institute capital punishment was heard for the first time Monday by the House Judiciary Committee, which was overflowing with people hoping to testify.

Whichever way the bill goes, there will be plenty of debate.

"It is my hope we can engage in a healthy dialogue about capital punishment," said the bill's sponsor, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.


Alaskans Against the Death Penalty says their membership has grown since the bill was filed, and churches have been organizing events to rally opposition.

"A lot of people want the death penalty as purely a matter of revenge," said Bill Pelke, another board member from Alaskans Against the Death Penalty. "But revenge is never, ever the answer. The answer is love and compassion."

Pelke's grandmother was a murder victim and he wants lawmakers to learn from his personal experience.

Serving on the Study Committee

More from Tennessee: Charlie Strobel published a piece in the Tennessean yesterday about his experience serving on the state's death penalty study committee. A couple of excerpts:

As a member of the recently completed Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, I would like to share my reactions to what the committee was and what it was not. I represented Murder Victims Families' for Human Rights, belonging to this group because my mother was murdered in 1986.

First, let me say that I had the utmost respect for every member of the committee. We were challenged to put aside our personal biases and look objectively at the facts. Whether or not members were for or against the death penalty in theory, I was impressed by their commitment, their openness, their perseverance and determination to follow through on our charge. ...

The key words in our charge as a committee were "fair and accurate." Is the death penalty imposed fairly and accurately in every case? This is the question of justice — that the death penalty cannot be fair and accurate otherwise. In the case of other crimes, the fallible nature of our justice system may err on the side of sentencing a criminal 15 years for a crime and 20 years for a similar crime. But in the matter of capital cases, the state of Tennessee has no margin for error. Death is a different sentence. We must be 100 percent fair and accurate.

The committee was neither an abolitionist nor a moratorium group. The enabling legislation would not allow discourse in this direction. I was told at the beginning that the state legislature would not consider the question of abolition or moratorium, that it would not be "politically wise" to try and force this perspective. So the committee was hemmed in by the question of "fairness and accuracy" only and not fully open to the larger question of abolition. In this regard, the committee never had the stature of commissions in other states with the greater freedom to completely investigate all death penalty matters.

Based on the given testimony, which is an open record for all citizens to examine, our final report discloses gross inadequacies, weaknesses and gaps in the administration of the death penalty in a manner that would be judged fair and accurate.

A laundry list of shortcomings, too long for me to expound upon — from ineffective assistance of counsel to the recording of interrogations to the fact that virtually all defendants sentenced to death in Tennessee are indigent — are in this report. Furthermore,although meeting for 16 months, there was not enough time to satisfactorily conclude our work, as there were many issues that we failed to address. Thus, our report is incomplete and further study is needed.

Overall, I believe that throughout all the testimony offered, there was never any evidence presented to justify the death penalty as fair and accurate

Several times I commented that if the death penalty were a person, and on trial before our committee as judge and jury, I believe it would be found guilty of being grossly unjust and risking the execution of an innocent person. One pro-death penalty witness representing the district attorneys, testifying about prosecutorial discretion, said that if there were 20 prosecutors in a room discussing a potential capital case, 10 would choose to seek the death penalty and 10 would not.

In light of these facts, I believe the death penalty system should be abolished. Because of political reasons, at least we need our elected officials to postpone any future executions — given the cloud of uncertainty that we are under at this time surrounding these issues of fairness and accuracy — by declaring a moratorium on the death penalty. ...

Monday, February 23, 2009

TN study committee; CO cold case bill

An article from Friday's Tennessean, "Tennessee's death penalty laws need major reform, group says," quotes from MVFHR member Charlie Strobel:

Tennessee's death penalty needs major reform to ensure that people facing execution get fair trials, said members of a legislative study committee which just ended 16 months of analyzing how capital crimes are prosecuted in this state. ... Charles Strobel, an advocate for the homeless who represented Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights on the committee, said it's a major concern that virtually all death row inmates are indigent.
"The state of Tennessee has no margin for error," Strobel said. "Death is a different sentence. We must be 100 percent fair and accurate."
He called upon elected officials to declare a moratorium on the death penalty, saying there are too many unresolved issues.

Also today family members of murder victims are testifying before lawmakers in Colorado, in support of a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty and divert the funds toward solving cold cases. We've followed this with interest in the past. Here's a clip from the Denver Post, "Cold Cases Bear Worst Penalty":

Twenty-two years ago today, someone got away with murdering Janice Currie and Walter Marshall.

The case remains cold. And now their family says its grief is renewed as law enforcers scramble to kill a bill that could help nab the killers.

"Losing your mom is hard enough. But knowing that public officials are working against our wishes, well, that makes it tougher to bear," says Currie's daughter, Stacye Walker.

The bill, scheduled Monday for a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, would abolish Colorado's death penalty and use the savings for cold-case investigations. Murder cases are unresolved in 110 of Colorado's 255 police and sheriff's departments, many of which lack the manpower to fully investigate. The measure could create a cold-case team at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation funded with at least $670,000 — 10 times what the agency now spends a year.

Proponents figure funding would come by scaling back the $350,000-a-year capital-crimes unit of the state attorney general's office, saving $400,000 in what public defenders spend defending capital cases, plus untold dollars in court costs.

"Any other program that spends the money we spend with the results that we get with the death penalty would have been gone years ago," says House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, the bill's sponsor. ...

Among the strongest advocates here are families of some of the 1,420 murder victims whose cases, like Currie and Marshall's, remain cold and whose killers walk free.

"It's time to trade vengeance for justice," says Howard Morton of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, himself the father of a son whose murder is unsolved.

"A public policy that allows the prosecution to ignore 1,400 victims and their families so that death may be threatened to extract a guilty plea from a few is a failure," adds state Public Defender Doug Wilson.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Report from Montana

MVFHR member Marietta Jaeger Lane writes with this update about her and others' involvement in the efforts to pass the death penalty repeal bill in Montana:

In October, "The Journey of Hope..From Violence to Healing" toured Montana for ten days, touching hearts and changing minds. Our local organizers did a fantastic job arranging events all over the state, focusing on "hard-headed" areas as much as possible. Then in February, when we knew that lawmakers were going to be voting on an abolition bill, several of us began doing public education events and meetings, including speaking directly with the Governor.

On February 3, I was part of a group that spoke to a well-attended panel discussion at Carroll College, a Catholic Diocesan university in Helena. The speakers were:

Ron McAndrew, ex-Florida death row warden, who oversaw 3 electric chair executions -- one of which men he felt was innocent, but the governor insisted that the execution proceed anyhow, and one whose execution was botched, literally cooking the poor guy to death for 1/2 hour. That was it for Ron!

Senator Dave Wanzenreid, (D), sponsor of our bill -- a great man!

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, from North Carolina. You all may have heard about her before, but I never had. Jennifer brought a very important perspective that in the thirty-plus years I've been speaking on this issue I not only had not ever even considered but had not ever heard! Twenty-some years ago, she was raped by an intruder she awoke to find in her bed in the middle of the night. Because he held a knife against her throat, she had no choice but to submit without struggle. However, as terrified as she was, she managed to remain calm and had the presence of mind to make a concerted effort to remember all the details of his face and body that she could discern in the dark, hoping that the time and occasion would come when she could properly identify him. Can you imagine the self-control that must have taken?!!

That time did come and Jennifer was able to positively identify her rapist not once, but twice in a lineup. Although insisting on his innocence, the man was charged, sentenced and was serving his ELEVENTH year in prison when he realized that another inmate in prison with him had actually been the rapist. DNA evidence proved that to be the case and finally the man Jennifer had so positively identified was released.

Jennifer was in anguish that, as honestly certain as she had been that he was the "right" man, he had in fact been cheated out of 11 years of his life because of her testimony. However, she was also fearful that he would come looking for her now for "payback time.” While she was struggling with what she should do, the man's pastor contacted her about meeting with her "accused rapist" at the church rectory. With strong mixed emotions of repentance and fear, she did go. To her amazement, the man told her that he held nothing against her, he didn't blame her for her mistake, was not out to get even, and finally said, "I forgive you!" What a good heart that man had! The two have now become good friends, keep in touch at least once a week, and sometimes even speak together.

The man's last name is Cotton, and Jennifer's book about the whole experience is coming out in March. It's called "Picking Cotton" -- such a clever title! She's a very special woman, very articulate and wondrously humble to stand up before everyone and admit what her mistake cost a good man.

We also had an exoneree, Ray Krone, speak, with a knock-out presentation. He did an excellent job speaking, testifying, and lobbying the whole time he was here. A Pennsylvanian, he's the 100th person to be released from death row.

I also spoke for the victims' families.

As you probably already know, the Committee passed our abolition bill, SB236, 7-5 (the 5 = all Republicans). On Monday afternoon, 2/16, the whole Senate debated the bill. Ironically, one Senator quoted the passage from Shakespeare's "Hamlet", re "The quality of mercy..." and then announced he was opposing our bill. Huh?! After a lengthy discussion, we held our breaths as the vote was taken and the yeas and nays lighted up the wall next to each Senator's name. Yahoo! We won, 27-23! All the Democrats and six Republicans were on our side; the rest of the Republicans voted against us. The next morning, the Senate "third reading" was held, (no discussion) with identical results.

Now, we're waiting for transmittal of our bill to the House of Representatives and a date to be set for testimonies to be given to their Judiciary Committee. Keep those prayers and positive vibes a'comin' for us and New Mexico!!

At the Carroll College event: Ron McAndrew, Marietta Jaeger Lane, Senator Dave Wanzenreid, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ray Krone

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Issue Found Me

More from Maryland: On Tuesday, Southern Maryland Online had this article, "Victim's Mother Urges Death Penalty Repeal":

ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 17, 2009) -- Vicki Schieber wants to meet the man who brutally raped and murdered her daughter more than 10 years ago.

It's not what you might think. In fact, Schieber wants to help him reach a sense of peace similar to the one she and her husband Sylvester Schieber have found.

"I hope that he can find some sort of reconciliation -- mostly with himself," she said.

Schieber, who lives in New Market, will testify Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of a bill that would repeal Maryland's death penalty. Relatives of other victims will also be there to oppose the bill.

"I never expected to be involved in the death penalty debate. But the issue found me in the worst possible way," Schieber said. Her daughter's killer is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Schieber previously testified in the U.S. Senate and several states including New Jersey, which abolished the death penalty in 2007.

Last year, she served on the Maryland Commission on the Death Penalty. As part of its findings, the commission voted 20-1 that the effects of capital cases are more detrimental to victims' families than those that involve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Schieber began a talk at Hood College in Frederick Thursday by holding up a picture of her daughter, Shannon Schieber.

She then rattled off a list of her daughter's accomplishments that would make any parent proud, including serving as student body president of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and triple-majoring in mathematics, economics and philosophy at Duke University. After graduating in three years from Duke, Shannon was accepted on a full scholarship to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"It was there that our whole life changed," Schieber said.

On May 7, 1998, a serial rapist broke into Shannon's apartment.

A neighbor heard a scream and called 911, but police left without discovering anything. The next day, Schieber's son, who had come to visit his sister, broke down the door with the help of the neighbor and found his sister's body.

Schieber and her husband knew ahead of time that they did not want to seek the death penalty, even though they were pressured by the district attorney to endorse it. Schieber cited her small-town Illinois roots and Catholic faith as pivotal in this decision.

Seeing and talking to other victims' families has helped strengthen Schieber's conviction. Families often face divorce and dysfunction as cases can carry on for 20 years or more, she said.

"They're going through it time and time again. They're reliving everything that they went through," she said.

Schieber did not see speeding up the process as a viable option, either.

"Everything takes a long time because we want to get it right. We do not want to execute the wrong person," she said.

She cited the example of fellow commission member Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent two years on death row in Maryland and was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Schieber sees life without parole as a better option. That way, the family can close the book on the legal discussion, and lives are protected, including those of wrongly convicted prisoners and potential victims.

Her daughter's killer "will never ever see the light of day. I never wake up at night worried he's going to make another family suffer what we went through, and I know society is protected," she said.

During the process, Schieber reached out to the killer's mother, who told her that they both had lost a child. She learned about his troubled past, which included growing up amidst domestic violence and drug use.

While this didn't excuse what he had done, it did help Schieber understand what might have gone wrong.

A former teacher and social worker, Schieber now directs her efforts full time toward the death penalty issue, giving numerous talks around the state. She serves as chair of the board of directors of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents family members affected on both sides of the issue.

She also serves as co-chair of the board of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, where she has had considerable impact on the staff.

"She has taught me huge things about life and loss and forgiveness and how one can take their faith and what's at their core and move forward after losing what is unimaginable for most of us," said Jane Henderson, executive director of the group. ...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Testimony in Maryland

New MVFHR member Marty Price sent us the testimony he is delivering today at Maryland's hearing on a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty:

In April of 1974, I was 12 years old. I was sitting on the back porch of my home, when all of a sudden my mother ran out the back door and screamed, “Come on Marty!” Seconds later, a flash of light lit up the sky. The flash was followed by a loud crack and a simultaneous rattle of the tree branches dangling just over my head. In an unexpected and unprovoked rage, my father had just fired his 22 caliber rifle at my mother and me. My memories of my father define him as an abusive man, a man whose violent episodes put a fear into anyone who crossed his path.

Years later, my parents had divorced and both were now remarried. My father’s violent tendencies, however, stayed with him. On a hot July evening in 1988 my father fired that 22 caliber rifle again; this time the consequences were far more devastating. The shots were directed at my stepmother and stepsister. This round of shots did not hit a tree. At point blank range, my stepmother and stepsister had both been shot three times in the head and my father was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. Following the emotional torment of a public trial, which required me to testify against my own father; he now remains in the custody of Maryland State prison system, where I know he belongs.

My mother’s marriage formed a new blended family. However, violence has now found its way into this family, too. This time, my family was categorized as “on the victim’s side” of violence. In the cold days of December 2007, my stepfather’s grandson was slain in the line of duty. He was a 25-year-old police officer in a small town in Western Maryland.

Over the years, I unconsciously suppressed the memories of my father’s violent episodes. I lashed out with anger on people and events moving in and out of my life. The anger I was choosing to hold onto brought with it a “wet-blanket” effect. For me, it was dealing with confusion and the lack of trust. At night I would secretly pray this man would be put to death. I thought his death would make life easier for me and my family. There were times when my own anger got the best of me and I felt like I, myself, could have delivered the lethal injection into the man who caused so much pain in my life. But that man is my father and I love him.

The power of education and years of counseling have given me the framework to transform myself from what I was conditioned to be. I recognize that every situation is unique. As strange as it sounds, my father’s relentless fury taught me perseverance; his lack of self-control taught me the value of self discipline; his alcoholism taught me to take care of and respect my body; his hatred taught me to love.

Hopelessness, embarrassment, guilt, asking “what can I do?” are the emotions I felt in being the son of a convicted murderer. Remorse, deep sadness, and asking, “Why?” was the emotional toll I felt as a member of the victim’s family.

And so I bring to your attention another chapter of this latest tragedy. Consider the nine-year-old son of the suspect who allegedly murdered my stepfather’s grandson. If this boy’s father is executed. are we contributing to the cycle of violence? Can we definitively say that the State’s participation in more violence will guide this boy into a happy, well-adjusted, and productive adulthood?

“What about the victims’ families?” I am a part of that group as well. And I have this to offer: if we let anger and hatred be our beacon, it will continue to create an ever-thirsty legacy of horror, violence, rage, and revenge. In my experience, the only true antidote to neutralizing anger is found in one of the most difficult acts in times of grief -- forgiveness. I know first-hand when our minds and hearts give and receive forgiveness, we uncover great healing powers and we find new, healthier perspectives on which to create a legacy of love, understanding, compassion, and change.

I am opposed to capital punishment and I urge you to repeal the death penalty in the state of Maryland. Our judicial system has many perspectives to consider when rendering a verdict…and yet it still cannot fully capture the residual effects. More violence is more violence, no matter who or what issues it. What we are capable of is making the proper adjustments to meet those challenges. Part of that adjustment is ongoing assessments that examine our values and principles which in turn advance policies and laws that should be cultivating a society that demonstrates us being civil.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Radio Commentary

Vicki Schieber, of MVFHR and Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, delivered this commentary on American University radio yesterday.

Tomorrow, Maryland lawmakers will hear testimony on the death penalty repeal bill. We will post testimony from victims' family members then.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Number One Factor

Today Montana lawmakers will debate the Senate bill that would abolish the state's death penalty. Steve Hall at the StandDown Texas Project has posted an interview he did with the bill's sponsor, Senator Dave Wanzenried. The interview contains some notable references to the power of victim opposition to the death penalty:

Q: Have you been surprised at the progress of your bill this session following several years of stalemate?

A: Montana has slowly made progress. In 2005 -- as was the case in four or five prior sessions -- the bill did make it out of committee. Last session, as a senate bill it passed the Senate and was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee. In 2009, I am hopeful that we will get it done.

Q: Which issue has swayed legislators to abolish; exonerations, cost, lack of
use, moral opposition?

A: Number one would be murder victim family members who have stepped forward in opposition to the death penalty. Second, exonerations, and third, cost.

More generally, with our country in such disarray in so many areas, legislators seem more introspective and more prone to critically examine long-time, scared institutions, including the death penalty.

Q: How has the testimony of the surviving families of murder victims who oppose capital punishment influenced legislators?

A: This in particular is a factor.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Considered Reason

It's legislative season, and there is exciting news around the country this week as repeal bills advance in New Mexico and Montana and get hearings in Washington state and New Hampshire.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty blog has photos and comments from the New Mexico hearings.

From Tuesday's hearing in New Hampshire came this story in the Keene Sentinel with a powerful reference to a victim's family member's expression of opposition to the death penalty:

Kirk Simoneau, a Franklin Pierce Law Center student, shared another personal experience that left some in the audience in tears. Simoneau said he was standing just feet away when a drunken driver hit and killed his father.

“If I could have, in the moments after my father’s death, killed the woman who caused my father’s death, I would have,” he said. “And that’s why I stand opposed, because in considered reason, in tempered thought, we do the right thing. In sudden emotion, we do the wrong thing.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't Force Us to Bury Another

Victims' families are among those testifying in New Hampshire today in support of a death penalty repeal bill and in favor of a bill that would impose a moratorium and create a study commission there. We'll aim to have a report later this week.

Meanwhile, we were interested to see, via the Death Penalty Information Center, this article from the Columbus Dispatch about the parole board granting clemency to a man who had been scheduled to be executed in March. The board commuted Jeffrey Hill's sentence to life in prison. Hill had been sentenced to death for killing his mother in 1991, and the fact that the surviving family members opposed his execution clearly influenced the board's decision. From the article:

Parole board members were clearly impressed with what a report released today called the "compelling and unanimous opinion" of the family of victim Emma Hill that her son and killer should not be executed.

"They have suffered tremendous loss, and execution would add further to their suffering," the board said.


In a letter to the editor last month, Hill's uncle, Eddie Sanders of Mount Healthy, urged public support for clemency.

"For 18 years, we have grieved Emma's passing," Sanders wrote. "As a family, we have gone through enough. Executing Jeffrey will not bring Emma back or negate our suffering. We already have suffered through the burial of a dear loved one. Our family hopes the state of Ohio honors Emma's wishes and does not force us to bury another."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In the Wake of Murder

From MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing's talk during the session "Community Reactions in the Wake of Murder" at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference last month:

Walt Everett is here today; he’s the first person I met, other than a member of my immediate family, who had someone in his family murdered and would publicly speak in opposition to the death penalty. I came to know him about ten years ago when I was a lawmaker in New Hampshire and had sponsored a bill that would have abolished the death penalty there. Because I had sponsored that bill and was also a survivor of a murder victim, I was invited to participate in a New England-wide conference on the death penalty. I was told I was going to share the session with this guy from Connecticut whose son was murdered; that was Walt Everett.

It was a great conference; there were hundreds of people at a plenary session and then everyone went to the breakout sessions. Walt and I found our way to the room marked “Working with murder victims’ family members.” We sat down and we were the only ones there. No one else came to the session! So to me it speaks volumes about where the movement is now that so much of what we hear talked about at this weekend’s conference is incorporating victims and the perspective of victims into the movement.

My father was shot-gunned to death in front of my mother in their home about 21 years ago. A couple of weeks after my dad was murdered, my mother got the mail and there was an envelope with a bill from the ambulance corps in it. My mother opened it and said, “I can’t believe I have to pay for my husband’s murder.” I tried to take the bill away from her but she got the checkbook and wrote out that $75 check and stuck it in the envelope and got it out of the house quicker than I’d ever seen. As I thought about it, I realized it’s not the $75; it’s the idea that we would send a bill to a widow who had just seen her husband murdered in front of her eyes.

I realize that nobody purposely wanted to put that bill in the envelope and re-traumatize Marie Cushing two weeks after her husband was killed. It’s just that there wasn’t a full consciousness of victims’ needs or victims’ experience in the aftermath of murder and what impact specific actions or policies, or lack of policies, might have.

Some time afterward I testified in support of victims’ compensation legislation. I had come to meet other survivors of homicide victims and to understand what it was like for a mother whose baby was killed and who then couldn’t afford a funeral. Or what it’s like for families when the breadwinner has been murdered and as a result they lose their home or their healthcare. The idea of victims’ compensation is that for those who have suffered some material loss, there should be some kind of assistance. What’s interesting is that taking care of victims has absolutely no impact on the offender; it’s just something that we should do because we care about our brothers and sisters in society.

I’m struck not just by who was there in support of that victims’ compensation bill, but who was absent. Who was absent from policy discussions about victims’ compensation, as they were absent from policy discussions about giving victims access to information, was the abolition movement. I think in many ways that happened because there was a perception that it was a zero-sum game: somehow if you took care of victims, resources would be taken away from offenders. Well, that isn’t really what it’s about. If we’re to succeed, if we’re going to build the beloved community that Dr. King spoke about, if we’re going to have a new day, then in addition to opposing the death penalty we’re going to have to be proactive in supporting policies that meet the needs of victims.

In every state in this country there’s a statute of limitations on the time in which a person is eligible for victim’s compensation. Well, think about this. There’s no statute of limitations on the crime of murder, but there is a statute of limitations on the time you have to be eligible for assistance from the community, from the state, when you’re the survivor of a murder victim. I would suggest that one of the things that the abolition movement needs to be doing is to say that murder is not just an event; it’s an ongoing experience that affects the survivors.

I suggest that the abolition movement needs to join in a genuine way with other organizations and say we want to lift the statute of limitations in our state so that victims can have access to assistance if they decide seven years after the murder that they want to have counseling or if they discover in another way that they have needs that weren’t met. This is particularly important because sometimes victims’ family members are not even able or ready to take advantage of some kinds of help until quite a while after the trauma, when they have moved through the initial stages of shock and denial.

The state doesn’t blink at spending 2 million dollars to execute someone; would the state be willing to spend a tenth of that to meet the needs of victims? I suggest that addressing this question involves finding common ground among those who represent the interests of victims and those who represent the interests of offenders.

When I was a legislator years ago there was a homicide that took place outside of a workplace. A woman was killed by her spouse; she had gotten a restraining order against him, she’d done everything right except that she still had to go to work. Afterward, there was a big hue and cry about what to do in response to this tragedy.

My response, rather than trying to expand the definition of who should be killed, was to try to think in terms of prevention. I worked with law enforcement, with the domestic violence community, and with labor unions to craft a bill that would allow victims of domestic violence who obtain a restraining order to quit their job and relocate and be eligible to collect unemployment compensation so that they would have a revenue stream there. That was kind of pioneer legislation and I know that because a number of other states have followed it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Forgotten Victims

Yesterday's Great Falls (MT) Tribune has an article, "Woman pleads for end of death penalty," that quotes extensively from MVFHR member Marietta Jaeger-Lane. Also yesterday, the online magazine In the Fray published a piece called "The forgotten victims" that features material from several MVFHR members. Some excerpts:

Celia McWee, 83, looked forward to Saturdays for 13 years. This was her favorite day of the week because she would use it to make herself pretty for her Sunday morning visit. But she wouldn’t go to church. She would visit the state prison. She would drive three hours from Augusta, Georgia, to Ridgeville, South Carolina, to visit her son, Jerry McWee. Jerry had been on death row since he robbed and killed John Perry, a grocery store clerk in rural Aiken County, in 1991. He was executed on April 14, 2004. He was 52. ...

Although her son was executed four years ago, not a day goes by that McWee does not recall the sound of his shackles dragging on the floor of the prison each time she visited him.

“The noise that most stands out in my mind is when they would bring them from one building to the other, and we could hear them walking with those chains around their ankles and around their waist and their wrists,” she said. “That is torture. I mean, to see your son being brought in worse than you do to a dog.” ...

McWee’s feeling is common to many relatives of inmates executed by the state. They are trying to recover from the trauma of waiting many years for their loved one’s scheduled death. But often their suffering is made worse because many people still do not recognize their pain as legitimate.

Like McWee, Bill Babbitt had a tough recovery. His younger brother Manny, a decorated Vietnam War veteran severely affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome, was executed at San Quentin State Prison on his 50th birthday — May 3, 1999. He had been charged with robbing Leah Schendel, an elderly woman who died of a heart attack during the crime in Sacramento, California.

What makes Babbitt feel better is touring the country to talk about his brother’s “unfair” execution; Babbitt is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), a group founded in Philadelphia in 2004. The group offers support and advocacy for victims.

He gives his testimony using what he calls “the power of remembrance,” letting his “zipped wound” open, and pouring out what he thinks needs to be said about Manny’s case. He is trying to educate the public about why the death penalty was unnecessary in his brother’s case. Yet many still consider his efforts to be those of a “second-class victim” who is defending a criminal, he said. ...

The families who survive the state execution of their inmate relative are still not specifically referred to as “victims of abuse of power,” as defined by the United Nations General Assembly’s 1985 Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power.

Article 18 of the declaration defines a victim of abuse of power as a person “who, individually or collectively, [has] suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of [his or her] fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that do not yet constitute violations of national criminal laws but of internationally recognized norms relating to human rights.”

In some countries, including the United States, killing by lethal injection is not considered an abuse of power. The declaration does not include the death penalty as a “violation of internationally recognized norms relating to human rights.”

“But these people [families of death row inmates] have, in many ways, suffered a trauma, and their experience, in many ways, parallels the experience of survivors of homicide victims,” said Susannah Sheffer, director of No Silence, No Shame, a project of MVFHR.

The problem is that people don’t think of the inmate as someone who might have a family who will grieve when he is executed.

“Families of the executed are invisible victims, hidden victims. People are not even thinking through the fact that when an execution is carried out, it’s going to leave a grieving family,” Sheffer said. “A lot of people hold the family responsible, [a] kind of ‘guilt by association.’ They think this [the inmate] is a monster, so the parents must have created that.”

... Babbitt and McWee know each other well now. They met at No Silence, No Shame’s first gathering for families of death row inmates in Texas in the spring of 2004. The conference was organized to allow people who share the same grief to share their stories with one another.

According to Renny Cushing, director of MVFHR, the project is now trying to “put a face with the name of the family of the condemned prisoners,” by bringing the testimonies of these family members into courts. Cushing said the hope is that juries judging a death row case will consider these testimonies before announcing their verdict.


A couple of minor corrections: MVFHR's founding ceremony was held in New York City, not Philadelphia, and the No Silence, No Shame gathering for families of the executed took place in October 2005 rather than in the spring of 2004.
Do check out the full article, with more material and photos.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In Our Son's Name

Gayla Jamison of Lightfoot Films has sent us a 9 1/2-minute demo of the film In Our Son's Name, which features MVFHR members Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez. The Rodriguezes' son Greg was killed in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The description of the film says:

As the documentary follows their journey, a striking portrait emerges of two people coping with grief and moving towards healing by speaking out and by reaching out, in ways they never could have imagined.

They find peace in a controversial friendship with A├»cha el-Wafi, whose son, Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted of conspiracy in the 9/11 attack, and Orlando overcomes fear of reprisal to testify for the defense at Moussaoui’s sentencing trial. At an emotional encounter with convicted felons at Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison, they help the men to understand the suffering of victims of violent acts. The film will follow one of the inmates in his quest to meet and reconcile with the son of the man he killed.

The clip that's available on the website is not yet a finished piece, but it is very much worth watching. To view it, visit the Lightfoot Films site and click on "current productions." I'm planning to show it to a group of teenagers later this week as part of a "rethinking harm and punishment" discussion group that I facilitate, and I can imagine many other good uses for the clip. Let us know if you watch it.