Thursday, April 9, 2009

They Were Remembered

Today's Northwest (Illinois) Herald has an article about two victims' family members speaking against the death penalty: Gary Gauger, who was exonerated after having been sentenced to death for the murder of his parents, and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose sister was murdered in 1990:

Gary Gauger, a Richmond man exonerated from death row after being convicted of murder, spoke publicly for the first time in McHenry County on Wednesday about his experiences.

Gauger has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “60 Minutes,” “20/20” and other TV programs. He also has written a book, “In Spite of the System,” about his ordeal. However, his speech Wednesday at a forum about the death penalty at McHenry County College was the first in McHenry County since he was convicted in 1994 by a local jury of murdering his parents on April 8, 1993.

“There was never any interest – I was never asked to speak here before,” Gauger said.

He also said he still felt that some people in McHenry County still were trying to connect him to the murder, despite his exoneration.

At the forum, sponsored by the Student Peace Action Network, Gauger spoke alongside Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

Gauger recounted how on April 8, 1993, he found his father dead and called for an ambulance. He talked about his long interrogation with McHenry County Sheriff’s detectives.

“I was in a state of emotional shock. When I found my father’s body it was just like stepping into a dream,” he said. “I was doing everything I could do to be helpful, I was very vulnerable.”

He said the interrogation “took a bizarre turn” and he soon found himself offering to take a polygraph test. Later still, Gauger said the police “had me believing I had killed my parents.” He referred to the interrogation as “brainwashing.”

“I had a mental image of the trail of the real killers getting colder and colder,” Gauger said.

Gauger was convicted of the murders in 1994 and sentenced to death. He talked about his trial and about his exoneration and eventual pardon after James Schneider and Randy Miller, two members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, were convicted of the murders in a botched robbery attempt.

Schroeder, of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, also spoke at the forum. He focused on the costly nature of death penalty cases and the need for abolition. Schroeder said a moratorium put in place by former Gov. George Ryan has created “a unique situation in Illinois,” where politicians can say they support both the moratorium and the death penalty.

Bishop-Jenkins, a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, talked about the 1990 murder of her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert and husband Richard Langert, and their unborn child. During her speech, Bishop-Jenkins did not once mention the name of the New Trier High School student convicted of the slayings.

“I don’t use his name – I don’t want to give that to him,” she said.

She said her sister would not have wanted the death penalty and that not having a death penalty case made it easier on her and her family. Bishop-Jenkins said “he was forgotten and they were remembered.”

More than 100 people attended the forum, which had by far the most collegial atmosphere of any of the programs hosted by SPAN.

“I feel very good about this,” said SPAN coordinator Molly McQueen. “We had a lot of students attend, and there were no fights.”

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