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.

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