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.

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