Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Testifying in California - Part 1

Today, victims' family members -- among many others -- are testifying at a hearing regarding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's proposed regulations on lethal injection procedures. MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt is testifying in person, and several other MVFHR members have submitted written testimony.

Here's an excerpt from Bill's testimony:

Because I am so concerned about the effect of executions on the innocent family members of the person being executed, I am especially concerned about the section of the proposed regulations that details the procedure for escorting the various witnesses. Whereas media witnesses and witnesses from the victim’s family are to be escorted to and from the viewing area by an administrative assistant to the prison warden, witnesses from the family of the person being executed are escorted by a Correctional Officer. And whereas the other witnesses, under the proposed regulations, will be brought back to the designated staging area after the execution and given the opportunity to debrief and gather their thoughts, family members of the executed are to be immediately transported to the West Gate and processed out of the institution. There is no reason that families of the executed need to be treated as though they are a greater risk to the institution than other witnesses, and there is every reason that families of the executed ought to be given the same dignity and respect as other witnesses. Families of the executed are innocent people going through an intensely traumatic experience and ought to be treated as such.

And here's an excerpt from Renny Cushing's testimony:

Inevitably, a society’s fiscal decisions reflect its values. When considering the fiscal impact of the application of the death penalty, I submit that a society must also consider whether it is devoting a proportional amount of its resources to meeting the real needs of victims – which includes not only compensation and assistance in the aftermath of a murder, but also focused efforts to prevent future violence. If we truly value victims and want to do right by them, there are much more direct and genuine ways to achieve that goal than administering the death penalty to the perpetrator.

I also noted at the start of this letter that I am concerned about the impact of the proposed regulations on families of the executed. Within the membership of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights are many families of people who have been executed, and over the years I have come to a deeper understanding of exactly how the death penalty harms these innocent family members. In 2006, our organization released a report, based on interviews with three dozen family members of persons who have been executed, titled Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind. I have come to see that each execution represents an additional traumatic experience that compounds the tragedy of the original murder.

For this reason, I am concerned that, under the proposed lethal injection regulations, families of the inmate will be treated throughout the execution process as second-class family members, treated differently from the other witnesses and made to feel as if they are guilty by virtue of being related to the condemned prisoner. There is no reason that the procedures cannot be equivalent for each set of witnesses. We must take into account the human costs – and eventually the societal costs – of further traumatizing the relatives, particularly the children, of people being executed.

Finally, I am concerned that the proposed regulations do not adequately protect the rights of inmates with mental disabilities. The execution of defendants with severe mental illness has recently become an issue at the forefront of our concern at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and on July 6 we will be releasing a report titled Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness. In that context, I note that the proposed lethal injection regulations do not provide an inmate’s attorneys with any opportunity to contest a sanity finding that may be made just prior to the pending execution. We have seen elsewhere in the U.S. that inmates clearly suffering from severely disabling symptoms of mental illness have been executed, despite the violation that this represents of human rights norms and, potentially, of our own U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ford v. Wainwright. Counsel for the person about to be executed should have the opportunity to challenge the sanity finding of the psychiatrist provided by the prison warden, if counsel believes that such a challenge is warranted.

Speaking from my own personal tragedy and on behalf of the personal tragedy that each member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has suffered, I oppose the implementation of the proposed regulations on lethal injection.

Watch for more testimony here over the next couple of days.

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