Tuesday, March 3, 2009

For the Sake of the Victims

Here's MVFHR member Gail Rice's testimony before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee. See yesterday's post for Gail's report on the hearing.

Perhaps some of you recognize this picture of my brother, and maybe some of you even attended his very public funeral eleven years ago, because he was killed in Denver. On November 12, 1997, my brother, Bruce VanderJagt, became the first police officer in the United States to be murdered by a skinhead. Bruce was trying to apprehend Matthaeus Jaehnig and a woman accomplice, Lisl Auman, at a Denver condo after a botched burglary attempt. Jaehnig used an SKS-assault rifle to shoot ten bullets into Bruce’s head and upper torso, killing him instantly. Many police were called to the murder scene, and Jaehnig, probably knowing that he would be sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer, exacted his own death penalty that day by committing suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Lisl Auman, Jaehnig’s accomplice, who had engineered the burglary and assisted him at the murder scene, was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole the following July. However, the CO Supreme Court overturned her conviction, and Lisl is now free.

My husband, Bob, and I were devastated by the murder. A great and heroic policeman was gone. His loving wife, Anna, and his daughter, Hayley, almost three at the time, faced a lifetime without him. All of us – Anna, Hayley, and I – have needed professional counseling to get through this tragedy.

At the time of Bruce’s murder, I opposed the death penalty primarily because I was convinced that it could never be applied fairly. I had worked for eighteen years in prison literacy and prison ministry, and I knew there was a very different standard of justice for the rich and the poor. After Lisl’s trial, I got involved with groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, which were composed of murder victim family members like me who opposed the death penalty and worked for alternatives to it, such as lifetime incarceration. Through working with these groups and also through learning about restorative justice, my opposition to the death penalty has deepened beyond my concerns about the fairness of the system. Would I have wanted Jaehnig to get the death penalty right after Bruce’s murder? I don’t think so. But now, knowing what I do about the death penalty, I know I would fight against the death penalty being carried out in any case, for any murderer – even Jaehnig, if he were alive.

Many politicians fight for the death penalty because they think that victim family members want it and need it. But I represent hundreds of murder victim family members across the country who do NOT want the death penalty. As a Christian, I find the death penalty morally reprehensible. And I oppose the death penalty not just for moral and religious reasons but because I believe that it hurts rather than helps victims. Prosecutors promise victims’ family members that they will finally experience peace and resolution when the death penalty is carried out, so families hang on to that lie for dear life, putting their lives on hold for years, sometimes decades, as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder. These family members are further devastated when they find that the death penalty, if it is carried out, does not bring them peace. If the murderers were instead sentenced to life without parole, those family members could have moved on with their lives.

For the last several years, I’ve given victim-impact statements to juvenile offenders on probation, in the hopes that it might help the juveniles not to re-offend. However, when the Cook County budget was cut two years ago, many services for victims were done away with. I wish I had the chance in Illinois to do what I’m doing here – to speak on behalf of a bill that would divert money used for death penalty cases to efforts that would help crime victims. Although there has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois since former Governor Ryan emptied death row in 2003, Illinois now has 13 new people on death row. The Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which funds capital cases, has spent $3-5 million dollars per death sentence, and that does not even include incarceration costs. I grieve that this money was not used instead for crime prevention, additional police protection, services for victims, and help in solving Illinois’ unsolved murder cases. Please, for the sake of the victims, pass House Bill 1274.

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