Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It Simply Doesn't Happen

Saturday's Hartford Courant had an article, "Rell Vows to Veto Measure Abolishing the Death Penalty," which features this photo of victims' family members at a press conference.

The photo caption reads:
Families of victims of murder speak at a press conference in support of a bill passed by the legislature Thursday that would abolish the death penalty. Pictured are Gail Canzano, at podium, Elizabeth Brancato of Torrington, State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven, Rev. Walter Everett , Cindy Siclari of Monroe and Anne Stone of Farmington

Here's the article:

Just hours after the state Senate gave final legislative approval Friday to a historic measure abolishing the death penalty in Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell came out with an expected announcement:

She said she was going to veto the measure as soon as it hits her desk.

"I appreciate the passionate beliefs of people on both sides of the death penalty debate. I fully understand the concerns and deeply held convictions of those who would like to see the death penalty abolished in Connecticut," she said in a statement.

"However, I also fully understand the anguish and outrage of the families of victims who believe, as I do, that there are certain crimes so heinous — so fundamentally revolting to our humanity — that the death penalty is warranted."

It's a position that Rell has consistently taken. But murder victims' family members who oppose the death penalty implored the governor Friday during a morning press conference to let the legislature's vote stand. The measure did not pass by a sufficient margin to override a veto.

"I ask Gov. Rell to take the weekend to search her soul, to pray, to examine her own feelings and reach a rational decision," said Gail Canzano of West Hartford, a clinical psychologist whose brother-in-law was slain.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said that the governor was too quick to lock into a position on the death penalty bill. The bill will take days, if not weeks, to reach her desk.

The East Haven Democrat urged Rell "to reach out to our state's prosecutors and judges before taking action. Ask these front-line professionals their off-the-record opinions on whether anyone will ever be executed in Connecticut. I believe that she will be told what many of us have been told — the Connecticut death penalty is a false promise."

Lawlor said he was certain that the "unprecedented bipartisan votes to abolish our death penalty" would mean that no death penalty case "will be successful from this point forward in the state's trial courts or appellate courts."

At Friday's press conference, the Rev. Walter Everett, whose son, Scott, was killed in Bridgeport in 1987, was askedwhat he would say to Dr. William Petit of Cheshire, whose wife and two daughters were killed in a home invasion and arson in 2007 — a crime that traumatized the state.

Petit spoke in favor of the death penalty before a hushed audience of state lawmakers at a hearing in March. The bill approved by the General Assembly would not directly apply to any of the 10 inmates currently on death row or any pending cases — including the Cheshire killings. The state is seeking the death penalty for the two men accused of the crime.

Everett, a member of two groups of survivors of homicide that he said represent 4,000 families, said he believes that Petit is experiencing the rage that all families feel in the first couple of years. He said that Petit might, indeed, come to oppose capital punishment as time goes on.

Everett said he forgave his son's killer, Michael Carlucci, who is now out of prison and speaking about crime and punishment at schools and jails. Everett said that his decision to forgive Carlucci rather than seek retribution was the first step in a healing process, and that he believes both he and Carlucci are better people for it.

Anne Stone of Farmington, whose son, Ralph, was murdered in Washington, D.C., in 1997, echoed a theme shared by the families when she said that capital trials and the seemingly endless appeal process provide no closure to the survivors, even if an execution were to take place.

Canzano, who works with trauma victims, said that the death penalty offers false hope to people at a time when they are experiencing crushing grief.

"There is no trauma like murder and no grief like homicide grief," said Canzano. "But we err as a society if we believe ... the death penalty helps the survivors."

She said that capital punishment appears to promise "that something will be made right, but truth be told, this is something that can never be rectified no matter what we do. The notion of balancing the scales is ludicrous — it simply doesn't happen."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Forgotten Victims

An article that appeared this past Friday in Florida's Palm Beach Post, titled "Children live with the heartbreak of parents on Death Row" and written by Daphne Duret, features members of MVFHR's No Silence, No Shame project and includes several good photos. Here's an excerpt:

... "They really are the forgotten victims in death penalty cases," Susannah Sheffer, director of the No Silence, No Shame project for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, says of Death Row inmates' children. "It's not something that has been part of the debate about capital punishment."

Little has been done to study the effect of an execution on an inmate's children, but some say the combination of the loss of the parent, shame about the crime for which he or she is convicted, and conflicted feelings about the government often come together to inflict deep emotional and psychological trauma that follows them into adulthood.

Desiree Babbitt, now 30 and living in New England, was a toddler when her father, Manny, was sentenced to death in California for killing a 78-year-old grandmother after he broke into her house while suffering a flashback to his time in Vietnam.

She grew up knowing he was in prison but unaware he was on Death Row. After she found out, she spoke out on his behalf. She asked anyone who would listen to keep her father from being executed, saying she needed him.

In the meantime, Desiree said, her father was her world. He sent letters full of poetry and math problems, which prison guards helped him devise as she aged and her proficiency in the subject surpassed his.

Manny Babbitt was executed in 1999. Desiree was 21.

His death is a cloud that hangs over her life, she says.

Since then, she has been hospitalized more than a dozen times for mental illness. She works for several months at a time, lately as a booking agent for a club, but after awhile her depression sets in and she can no longer function.

"I'm OK today," Babbitt said Tuesday. "But if you would have called me yesterday, I probably would have been crying on the phone."

For Misty McWee of South Carolina, the death sentence and 2004 execution of her father, Jerry, fueled a downward spiral that included years of drug and alcohol abuse, a violent marriage and a suicide attempt.

She was 14 and living with her father, a former police officer, when he was charged in the murder of a convenience store clerk in 1991. She was 28 when he was executed.

Now in her early 30s, McWee says she is just now regrouping from the toll of her father's execution.

The birth of her son, now 3, has changed her life for the better, but she says she still wrestles with deep issues of anger. For years, she said, she cried for the children of her father's victim, sad that they would never see their father again.

"I hated him for what he did. I hated him for putting all of us in that situation," McWee said of her father. "But in the end, all the love you have for him takes over."

Sheffer says a death sentence for a parent leaves a child with questions. Chief among them, she says: "If killing is wrong, then why is the state killing daddy?"

The answers, or lack thereof, often breed a resentment of government institutions. ...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Abolition Vote in Connecticut

This photo of MVFHR board member Walt Everett and his wife Nancy is in today's Hartford Courant with this caption:

WALTER EVERETT, whose son Scott was killed in Bridgeport in July 1987, listens to state senators debating a bill to abolish the death penalty. Everett, who forgave his son's killer, is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. He and his wife, Nancy, at right, drove to Hartford from Lewisburg, Pa.

And here are the article's lead paragraphs:

In a historic action -- which may be rendered short-lived by a gubernatorial veto -- the state Senate narrowly gave final legislative approval early Friday to a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Connecticut.

The 19-17 Senate vote came at 4:11 a.m., after nearly 11 hours of impassioned debate in the Senate chamber, and eight days after the state House of Representatives' approval of the bill by a 90-56 vote.

Now the question is whether the bill will ever become law, because Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell has steadfastly said that she supports capital punishment, and repeated that Thursday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Change of Heart

Yesterday's Hartford Courant has a column by Susan Campbell, "A Change of Heart on the Death Penalty." The columnist refers at the end to the murder of Paul Laffin, brother of MVFHR member Art Laffin.

I remember my step-cousin Bobby as a heavy-set, fun-loving kid devoted to collecting and selling stamps and coins. He was a wheeler-dealer who probably could have been a fabulous businessman, given the right choices.

We lost track of one another. I went off to college, and Bobby went off dealing drugs. For a while, he sold cocaine, and in the summer of '94, he ended up battered and stabbed in an Oklahoma ditch. Two men attacked him at his home, then chased him across the street to continue beating and stabbing him, at one point with a broken bottle.

Court documents say Bobby was left to "languish and die," although he was able to rise up on one elbow and tell police the name of one of his attackers. The cause of death was exsanguination. He bled to death.

The men were found guilty of first-degree murder, and Bobby's family — his parents and brother — asked that they be put to death. In her victim-impact testimony, my Aunt Gayle — a lovely, churchgoing woman from whom Bobby got his sense of humor — talked about the futility of nursing her twin 3-year-old grandsons through their nightmares. She spoke of how difficult it was to explain that, no, Daddy wasn't coming home, but, yes, he could see them from heaven.

Of her dead son, she said that he had loved God and had even gone on church crusades as a youth. "And in his adult years," she said, "he strayed from God, but we had always hoped he would come back to what he was taught and what he believed. God does promise us that."

One of Bobby's killers was given life without parole. The other sits on Oklahoma's death row. A friend of mine covered the trials for the local newspaper and sent me the stories. The dead man in the newspaper bore little resemblance to the stout, laughing boy I remembered, and the details of his death were too gruesome to stomach.

It's never easy, talking about the death penalty. Last week, when the Connecticut House of Representatives finished a long and impassioned argument by voting to abolish the state's death penalty, it did so in the wake of the fatal shooting of a Wesleyan University student.

But then, is there ever a time when we can talk about our most heinous crimes without passion?

The governor has reiterated her stand that some crimes are too heinous to punish with anything but the death of the perpetrator, and for years I agreed with her.

Then, five years after my step-cousin was killed, my friend Paul Laffin was stabbed and killed behind the Hartford homeless shelter where he worked, and his loving family asked to pray for and with the killer. We were still standing in the hospital hallway waiting to hear if Paul had pulled through, and even when he didn't, his family insisted on forgiveness, and they asked that we redirect our anger from Paul's killer to a health-care system that doesn't provide nearly enough care for the mentally ill.

Paul's killer was mentally ill, and the death penalty wouldn't have been an option, but as I stood listening to Paul's wounded family, I had to lean against the hospital wall. The Laffins opened a door to grace, and those of us who witnessed that had to step through.

I would never take from my step-cousin's family their anger or hurt. That wasn't just a battered corpse in the ditch. That was their son, brother, father.

But while we're talking about the death penalty in the next few weeks, I am sitting quietly with this: Fifteen states do not have the death penalty on their lawbooks. I hope Connecticut joins them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

News Briefs

MVFHR board member Jeanne Bishop spoke yesterday to a peace studies class at Chicago's DePaul University. Jeanne writes that it was "a lively discussion, bringing in law, morality, faith, accountability, forgiveness, and a broad array of other issues. I came away kind of spent but enriched, too." It's a good reminder of how valuable these kinds of speaking opportunities can be.
MVFHR board member Bill Pelke has been speaking to many groups as part of the Journey of Hope's German tour; check out some photos on the Journey's blog.

Also this week, MVFHR staff member Kate Lowenstein is at a training on Enforcing Victims' Rights, conducted by the federal Office of Victims of Crime.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cannot Support It

From yesterday's Hartford (CT) Courant, this letter to the editor from victims' family members, "Cannot Support Death Penalty":

In response to the May 9 article about the death penalty [Page 1, "Fix It Or Repeal It"]:

Our son, Ralph, became a homicide victim in 1997 when an assailant entered his Washington, D.C., condominium and brutally stabbed him to death and robbed him. The main suspect was never arrested because of a lack of evidence.

Ralph was an outstanding young man whose life was honored by hundreds of people he served throughout the developing world, by his fellow graduate students at George Washington University, where he received a posthumous Ph.D. degree, and through the living memorials to his life.

Our family will always grieve his loss, but we could never be in favor of the death penalty. Justice should mean long-term incarceration, not a life for a life. Ralph was a peace-loving man. The death penalty could never assuage our grief; our faith in God and our dedication to the causes for which he would be proud can only do that. -- Anne and Fred Stone, Farmington

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Ride, The Walk

In this past Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine there's an excerpt from Brian MacQuarrie's forthcoming book, The Ride, which tells the story of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, who was murdered in Massachusetts in 1997, and of his father's journey from supporting the death penalty to opposing it. We posted about Bob Curley's testimony against reinstatement of the death penalty here a couple of years ago.

The Globe's excerpt focuses on the day that Bob Curley began to suspect his son had been murdered. Later chapters chronicle Bob's effort to bring the death penalty back to Massachusetts and then his eventual change of heart. The book is scheduled for publication in June.

Also in Sunday's Globe was an article about the 13th Annual Mothers' Walk for Peace, organized by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which was founded by Clementina Chery in memory of her son. Tina, like Bob Curley, has testified against reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts, and the Peace Institute does wonderful work to support victims and prevent further violence.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bill Signing in Maryland

Yesterday Maryland's governor signed the new law that will significantly restrict the imposition of the death penalty. Among those standing with him during the signing was MVFHR Board Chair VIcki Schieber, who had served on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.

Yesterday was also the 11th anniversary of the murder of Vicki's daughter, Shannon Schieber.

Coverage of the governor's signing of this and other bills is here in the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rejection of Vengeance

The May issue of Peacework, the peace and social justice magazine of the American Friends Service Committee, focuses on Opposing Murder by the State. They've printed the full text of MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing's testimony before the New Hampshire House in March, with the title "Don't Let those who Kill Turn Us into Killers: NH Legislator's Rejection of Vengeance Sways House."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Two Speaking Tours

MVFHR board member Bill Pelke is in Germany this week with the Journey of Hope. See the speaking tour's schedule here, and photos here.

Also this week, and closer to home, MVFHR board member Walt Everett and member Bess Klassen-Landis are doing a speaking tour with Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The tour is titled "The Voices of Experience and Reconciliation," and the schedule is here.