Monday, June 22, 2009

How can they be against the death penalty?

I've now had a chance to read Brian MacQuarrie's new book The Ride in its entirety, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's almost a cliche to declare a book "essential reading," but I really do think this book is essential reading for death penalty abolitionists. It's a dramatic story of death penalty politics within a state, showing in close detail how victims' families are vulnerable to being used for political purposes and giving a gripping account of a last-minute vote change that kept the death penalty from being reinstated in Massachusetts in 1997.

But if I urge abolitionists to read the book, it's not only for these reasons; it's also because the story takes us so deeply into the devastation that a single murder causes, and shows how jagged and personal the process of healing is -- and how long it takes. Years after a murder, when people might expect a grieving family to be well on the way to recovery, the family may in fact be dealing with new layers of pain, and this is what Brian MacQuarrie's account of the Curley family's experience shows so well.

The Ride is a hard book from which to choose an excerpt, because what I really want to say is "go read the whole thing." But here are a couple of passages from the account of Bob Curley's appearing on a television program in the spring of 1999 with Bud Welch, who had come to Massachusetts to participate on a speaking tour with other victims' families who were against the death penalty. Bob Curley, at this point, had, by his own description, "led the fight to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts," and he had been reluctant to appear on the television program with Bud but had eventually agreed:

When [the host] asked Bob if he could accept an iron-clad guarantee of life without parole, the harshest sentence allowed under Massachusetts law, Bob answered, "My position on the death penalty hasn't changed." [The co-host] then asked, "How would you feel if Sicari and Jaynes [the men responsible for the murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley] were killed by lethal injection?"

Before Bob could answer, Welch interrupted. The questions were unfair, he said. Jeffrey's death was still fresh, the pain too near, to consider any option other than revenge. Bob would never get over Jeffrey, Welch continued, and he would miss him every day. But with time, Welch suggested, maybe "he'll learn each day how to live that day a little bit better."

Bob glanced quickly in Welch's direction, again avoiding direct eye contact. But his demeanor had softened. To Bob's surprise, his supposed sparring partner had not come to castigate him or diminish him. Instead, this folksy, gray-haired man had accepted his grief and understood his rage. The exchange touched Bob, who also connected with Welch when the Oklahoman spoke of his swift, unsettling transition from anonymous citizen to high-profile spokesman for a controversial cause. ....

After the television camera had been turned off, Bob and Welch moved quietly to the front of the studio, where two limousines were scheduled to return them separately to Somerville and Cambridge. When only one car arrived, Bob unexpectedly found himself in the awkward position of sharing a ride with Welch and Renny Cushing, who were bound for Harvard University and a speaking engagement ... . During the ride to Cambridge, Cushing spoke about his father. Welch spoke about his daughter ..., And Bob, who mentioned the death penalty only briefly, spoke about the details of Jeffrey's death, as well as his ongoing efforts to bolster child-safety programs. But for most of the ride, the three men shared their stories, forged through pain and perseverance, about the task of coping with extraordinary evil.

Bob had never participated in such a discussion. In previous encounters, the relatives of murder victims had always supported the death penalty. This was new, unexpected, and confounding. Welch and Cushing both seemed like regular guys, men who spoke straight from the heart and who both knew firsthand the horrible pain of murder. How can they be against the death penalty? Bob asked himself.

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