Friday, July 31, 2009

If you had told me

We have written in the past about the film Love Lived on Death Row, which tells the story of the Syriani family. (The Syrianis came to oppose the execution of their father, who had been sentenced to death for killing their mother.)

The filmmaker, Linda Booker, has written a guest post on the Dallas Morning News death penalty blog. Here's the opening paragraph:

If you had told me four years ago on the day I received my Certificate in Documentary Studies from Duke University that my first major project would feature the death penalty issue, I probably would have smiled politely and said, "I doubt that." It wasn't an issue I had extreme feelings about one way or the other. But several weeks later as I was checking the weather on our local TV station's website, a headline caught my eye: "Family Forgives Father For A Mother's Death." I immediately felt inexplicably compelled to make a documentary about this family's amazing story of forgiveness. What I didn't know then is that checking the weather that day would change my life and some of my beliefs as I went on to produce a feature length film about the Syriani siblings' story and their experience with North Carolina's system of justice and the media as they faced their father's impending execution.

The discussion among those commenting on this post is pretty heated; some of our readers may want to join in.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I was overwhelmed with understanding

One of the most gratifying and encouraging aspects of our collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been the opportunity to reach new audiences and to touch people who were not previously acquainted with our message. Audience members who attended our panel presentation at NAMI's convention earlier this month have written to tell us that they were in favor of the death penalty when they arrived at the session and had changed their minds by the time they left.

One of those audience members was Mark Anderson, whose son had been formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder just weeks before he took his own life. Mark has given us permission to quote from his email to us, and we share it as, among other things, an example of how powerfully people can be affected by stories like those of panelists Bill Babbitt, Joe Bruce, Carla Jacobs, and Amanda and Nick WIlcox.

From Mark Anderson's email:

I struggled with the presentation at the convention because of my own personal experience with the loss of my son 7 ½ years ago. I know all too well how it feels to lose a child. I get angry when I hear of a vicious murder of someone’s child and I wished for a like fate for the one who committed the murder. I saw the struggle with ongoing and numerous appeals, often followed up with protests by family and friends against an execution, as far more compassion for the criminal than the victim ever received.

When I heard of the pain felt by the families of the criminal who caused a death I was suddenly overwhelmed with understanding that such a loss is painful, in fact just as painful, if not even more complicated, for the families who love that person. Wow, I cried real tears and felt such compassion for them, not to mention shame for the way I’d felt previously. Even though I’d never fully taken the time to think how much, or even consider, that the criminal is loved by their family…just as much as I loved (love) my son.

I still feel concern that a murderer never ever again be a danger to others; however I now must admit that I was wrong for supporting the death penalty. Execution is not the only way to protect the public, in fact it creates ever more harm to a very bad situation.

Adding the element of mental illness to this equation makes it ever more complicated. Somehow we must find a way to provide services to those who live with mental illness early enough that they never become so disabled by the illness that they cause harm to anyone, even themselves. That the standard is to only provide help when they cross the line of being a danger to themselves or others BEFORE they qualify for help is so outlandish and wrong! We must shift from a crisis mode to a prevention mode for the delivery of services to the most vulnerable of our society.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Prevention, Not Execution" Panelists

Just got this photo of the group of panelists at the "Prevention, Not Execution" session that we did at the National Alliance on Mental Illness convention in San Francisco earlier this month.

From left to right:

Ron Honberg, NAMI's director of policy and legal affairs; Joe Bruce, project participant from Maine; Carla Jacobs, project participant from California; Nick and Amanda Wilcox, project participants from California; Renny Cushing, MVFHR Executive Director; Susannah Sheffer, panel moderator (and blogger); Bill Babbitt, project participant and MVFHR board member from California.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

NC mental illness & death penalty legislation

As this Associated Press story reports, legislation exempting people with severe mental illness from the death penalty has passed the North Carolina House subcommittee and now goes to the full House floor. We have been following this legislation and working with colleagues in North Carolina to distribute our new report, Double Tragedies, to lawmakers there.

NC House panel narrowly OKs death penalty change
The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina House lawmakers again have narrowly approved legislation designed to prevent a murder suspect or death row prisoner with severe mental illness from facing capital punishment.
A House appropriations subcommittee voted 5-4 Wednesday in favor of creating a process whereby the death penalty would be removed as a sentencing option for a murder defendant with a severe mental disability. The maximum penalty would be life in prison without parole.
The measure passed a judiciary committee last week and now heads to the House floor.
Opponents said criminal procedure already allow jurors to take mental illness into account at sentencing. A state attorney says the bill creates a process that would cost millions of dollars to carry out if it became law.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spreading our message in Japan - Part 2

Toshi Kazama's report from his trip to Japan continues (see yesterday's post):

"Here, I am giving my photo presentation at Kobe Gakuin University, one of the top universities in southern Japan. One of the people who attended this presentation was a man I had met about a year and a half ago, whose brother had been murdered. When we first met, he had wanted to be involved with Ocean; then he changed his mind and became involved with victims' groups favoring the death penalty. He told me that after a while, he again began to feel that this wasn't the right way, and when he came to the presentation at Kobe Gakuin University, he was very impressed and re-affirmed his desire to become involved with Ocean and MVFHR. I think he will be a powerful spokesperson and am glad to have made this connection with him again."

"At Doshiba University in Kyoto, with Mr. Harada and Mr. Asano, who is a professor and a board member of Ocean. Whenever I spoke at a university, the event was open to the public, so members of the community attended as well. When I give these presentations, I think many members of the audience arrive feeling that they are in favor of the death penalty and then have that belief challenged. Even the people who have helped to organize the events, and who are already opposed to the death penalty, tell me that they need to keep hearing it again and again, because they learn something and think something new each time."

"Members of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, where I also spoke. I don't have a photo of the final event, but it was an important one so I want to mention it: I spoke to Tokyo police officers and youth correctional officers, which was very valuable. I learned from this meeting about the bureaucracy in which Japanese police must work."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Spreading our message in Japan

MVFHR board member Toshi Kazama recently came back from three weeks in Japan, where he gave several public presentations, met with members of Ocean (MVFHR's Japanese affiliate) and with new victim's family members, and worked with local and national organizers to plan an MVFHR speaking tour in Japan in 2010. MVFHR's ability to spread the message of victim opposition to the death penalty in Japan (and other Asian countries) results primarily from Toshi's vision, energy, and ability to connect deeply and effectively with the people he meets.

Toshi's public presentations received particularly good and extensive media coverage on this trip, which Toshi attributes to increased interest in the subject of the death penalty folllowing a change in Japanese law under which groups of lay judges (i.e., ordinary citizens) will be largely responsible for imposing death sentences. The Japanese public overwhelming favors the death penalty but is also reluctant to get involved directly by serving as lay judges, Toshi says, and the time may be right for a closer look at the assumptions and practices surrounding the death penalty.

Here are some photos from the trip, with Toshi's comments.

"I am standing with Mr. Shibata (left), the man who took the lead in bringing out a Japanese edition of MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories. Mr. Shibata is from the Religious Network Against the Death Penalty. He translated several pages from MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories into Japanese and has donated some of the proceeds from the sale of the booklet to Ocean and to MVFHR. During this trip, I was able to attend a board meeting of the Religious Network and to discuss their involvement in next year's MVFHR speaking tour."

"Here is a photo of the Religious Network meeting, with MVFHR literature."

"This photo shows MVFHR's Japanese affiliate, Ocean, having a board meeting that is being filmed by the public television network, NHK. The television network is making a documentary about Mr. Harada, the victim's family member who founded Ocean, and we agreed to allow the board meeting to be filmed because it is so important to show Japanese audiences that there are many types of victims and that victims may change their mind about the death penalty over time (as Mr. Harada did). So much of Japanese support for the death penalty comes from people believing that it is good for victims' families. The producer of the NHK documentary is a long-time friend of mine and I have been giving him a great deal of background information."

"That afternoon, following the board meeting, Ocean and the group Forum 90 held a panel presentation that included a Korean victim's family member who opposes the death penalty (and who had participated in the Texas Journey of Hope). About 200 people came to this event and the media coverage was very good. We are glad to be making connections with Korean victims' family members and hope to vist there as well."

Our report from Japan continues tomorrow!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Getting Away with Murder

This Associated Press story, which ran on Sunday, "NH law keeps murder case liars on the hook," describes the new legislation that Renny Cushing sponsored.

CONCORD, N.H. — Renny Cushing is convinced a former New Hampshire state trooper got away with murder. So the state representative from Hampton sponsored a law that will have people looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives if they've lied about a murder or helped cover one up.

The law removes the statute of limitations, or deadline, for when people can be prosecuted for crimes related to murders. They include such infractions as falsifying evidence, threatening witnesses or lying.

New Hampshire is one of the few states with such a law, and Cushing hopes it becomes a model for other states. Relatives of murder victims — including himself — yearn for justice, he said. And new technology is helping to uncover the truth years after crimes were committed.

There is no limit on charging someone with murder, but laws across the country commonly let people off the hook after a few years for lesser offenses such as backing a false alibi of a murder suspect.

That will no longer be the case in New Hampshire, starting Jan. 1.

"It's one thing if you give false information about somebody stealing a bike, it's another thing if you give false information about somebody stealing somebody's life," Cushing said.

Prosecutors do not envision jailing a lot of people who obstructed investigations, but they hope the lifelong threat of prison will prompt some to tell what they know.

"It gives us another tool to use with witnesses who are reluctant and may act as a deterrent to people if they think that if they can withhold information and enough time goes by, that they'll be immune from prosecution," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin. "Now they'll know they won't be. So there will be some incentive there hopefully for people to be more cooperative and more truthful."

Cushing said the law also could help put killers in prison, at least for short sentences. For example, prosecutors can use the law if investigators discover a murder suspect tampered with evidence, but they couldn't find enough evidence to bring a murder charge.

Cushing said he was inspired by the case of Janet Dow and her stepson, Stephen. Their bodies were found in their burned car in northern New Hampshire in December 1982.

Investigators accepted an explanation from Janet's husband, Richard, a local police officer and former state trooper, that the two had sped away from their Thornton home and crashed, likely igniting an open container of gasoline he said the son had placed in the car.

A decade later, authorities discredited Dow's account, saying they believed the Dows were murdered and the crash staged. Richard Dow was the target of the investigation, but the attorney general said there was not enough evidence to charge anyone.

Strelzin said he couldn't comment on specific open cases, but Cushing said the new law would have helped.
"When police subsequently uncovered the fact it was a homicide instead of an accident, Dick Dow could not be prosecuted for what were obvious false statements made to law enforcement," Cushing said. Dow has consistently refused to comment on the allegations.

Cushing said personal experience also drove him. His father was murdered on his doorstep in 1988 by a police officer neighbor with a grudge. The officer then consoled the family as he pretended to help track down the killer.

"You never lose your longing for justice," Cushing said. "I don't believe people should be allowed to get away with murder."
A few states have similar laws. Pennsylvania's law sets no time limit on prosecuting felony cases connected to a first- or second-degree murder. In Arizona, there are no limits on cases involving falsifying public records. And in Florida, there is no statue of limitation on cases of perjury that occur in capital felony cases.

Limits generally were enacted to make sure cases are pursued only with evidence that has not deteriorated with time. Suspects not charged within the period can never be tried for the crime.

However, new techniques ensure that some evidence, such as DNA, remain intact for decades. Some states have enacted longer limits in cases with DNA evidence, but they generally are aimed at the perpetrator, not someone who helps conceal a crime.

At Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, Associate Dean Jack McDevitt said the New Hampshire law is rare, but he suspects other states will change laws to deal with new forensic techniques that can uncover the truth long after the fact.
"We are really in the beginning stages of that, so I think there's going to be more and more of these kind of new, ancillary developments around the idea that we are going to be able to know more about crimes that were committed from a forensic point of view than we ever did before," McDevitt said.

He said the threat of prison might prevent some people from lying about homicides. But he doesn't expect that to happen as much in big cities, where the threat of gang retaliation for "snitching" is more dangerous than the threat of going to jail for lying to police.

"The best way to get good evidence on a crime is to have an existing relationship of trust with members of the community who then would come forward and testify and give you the evidence you need," he said.

New Hampshire's law applies to eight crimes — including felonies such as perjury and witness tampering and misdemeanors such as lying to the police. The felonies carry up to seven years of prison time, and the misdemeanors carry one-year sentences.

Before the law, prosecutors had to bring charges within six years for the felonies and one year for misdemeanors.
Cushing is hopeful his law catches on nationally.

"Sometimes I just want to do on-the-edge lawmaking and if lawmaking in other states follows, then I'll feel good," he said.

Report from Madrid

Renny Cushing is at the National Council of State Legislatures summit in Philadelphia this week; I caught up with him just before he left and got his report about last week's seminar in Madrid, "Towards a universal moratorium on the death penalty: The case of Arab Countries."

A primary goal of last week's seminar in Spain was to advance the goal of a worldwide moratorium, and the seminar opened with the Director of the Office of Human Rights for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining this motivation behind the meeting. (Spain will assume the presidency of the European Union next year, and the Spanish president recently laid out a proposal suggesting that the year 2015 be a year of worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Back in 2007, MVFHR was involved with the effort to urge the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.)

As its title indicates, the main focus of the seminar was on understanding the death penalty within Arab countries. About 60 people attended, mostly from Arab countries; Renny Cushing, representing MVFHR, was the only participant from the United States. Renny reports that it was very interesting to learn about the issues and questions surrounding the use of the death penalty in Arab countries -- for example, whether there is a religious justification for its use, and whether it serves as a deterrent. Because of the widespread assumption that victims' families view the death penalty as appropriate revenge or necessary justice, the seminar participants were very interested to learn about victim opposition to the death penalty.

There was also a lot of interest in U.S. efforts to eliminate the death penalty for people with mental illness and mental disabilities. Renny had been asked to focus some of his presentation on this aspect of MVFHR's work, and afterward he had some good discussion with a representative from a Spanish mental health group who seeks to urge mental health advocates around the world to speak out on this issue -- with the hope that exempting people with mental illness and mental disabilities from the death penalty might come to represent an international human rights standard.

Renny was also able to have some valuable discussions about families of the executed and MVFHR's No Silence, No Shame project, and to discuss the question of whether families of the executed can be viewed as victims under the UN Declaration of Universal Priciples of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power.

The seminar participants are hoping that a greater number of Arab countries will support, or at least refrain from opposing, the next UN resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium. The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty site has a brief article about the seminar, including a description of the "Madrid Declaration" that the group adopted.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Let's spread the word

Kristin Houle of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty wrote to tell us that TCADP has distributed copies of MVFHR's new report, Double Tragedies, to mental health advocates, defense attorneys, district attorneys, victims' advocates and family members, a couple of death row family members, and colleague organizations like the Texas Catholic Conference and the Texas ACLU. They also sent copies to 40 state legislators (members of key committees, those who have introduced bills related to mental health and criminal justice, etc.).

We are eager to work with others who want to help get this powerful report into the hands of people who can make good use of it:

• mental health advocates, families, and consumers
• victims’ advocates
• members of law enforcement
• district attorneys, defense attorneys, and others within the legal profession
• members of the religious clergy
• legislative allies

The report is available online, and a PDF or hard copy is available on request. We are ready to work with you to draft an accompanying letter to any of these stakeholders in the discussion of the death penalty and mental illness, or to arrange a targeted meeting or presentation of the report to key individuals or groups.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Toward a universal moratorium

Renny Cushing is in Madrid this week, where he will participate in the seminar, "Towards a universal moratorium on the death penalty: The case of Arab Countries." Renny and MVFHR received this invitation from the Human Rights Office of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. The seminar is a joint project of that Ministry and of Casa Arabe, a Spanish institution that promotes analysis and research on Arab and Islamic countries. According to the invitation, the seminar

aims to analyse and debate both international legislation and concrete experiences in Arab countries about this important question, which is of great interest to the government of Spain. The seminar will provide an important opportunity to pool available knowledge, and advance prospects of achieving an international moratorium on the death penalty, making it a global achievement in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 62/149 of December 2007 and 63/168 of December 2008.

Renny has been asked to speak about abolition of the death penalty for minors, pregnant women, and people suffering from mental illness. Participants are coming from Egypt, Morocco, and Lebanon -- among other countries -- and it promises to be an interesting and important gathering. We'll have a report once Renny returns.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Report from NAMI convention

We are back from the National Alliance on Mental Illness convention in San Francisco, where the "Prevention, Not Execution" panel was a powerful success. Panelists Nick and Amanda Wilcox, Carla Jacobs, Bill Babbitt, and Joe Bruce -- all of whom are featured in the DOUBLE TRAGEDIES report -- spoke to a packed room, and their stories, along with the remarks from NAMI's Ron Honberg and MVFHR's Renny Cushing, moved the audience to tears on many occasions and brought them to their feet by the end of the evening, ready to join the project and take action to end the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

We are very grateful to NAMI for being such wonderful partners in this project. Here are a couple of the news stories that accompanied the release of DOUBLE TRAGEDIES.

From the Dallas Morning News crime blog, Families of victims and families of mentally ill offenders release death penalty report.

From the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald, "Mentally ill killers: treat or execute?"

From Disability Scoop, "Death Penalty 'Inappropriate' for those with Mental Illness, Report Says."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Double Tragedies report released today

For Immediate Release
July 6, 2009

Contact: Susannah Sheffer
sheffer (at)

Death Penalty and Mental Illness:

Families of Victims Speak out at National Convention;
“Double Tragedies” Report Released

San Francisco, CA—For the first time, families of murder victims have joined with families of persons with mental illness who have been executed to speak out against the death penalty.

Double Tragedies, a report being released today at a special session on the first day of the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), calls the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for people with severe mental disorders and “a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly led to tragic violence.”

The report calls for treatment and prevention, not execution. It is available online at

The report, a joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

“Family opposition to the death penalty is grounded in personal tragedy,” said MVFHR executive director Renny Cushing. “In the public debate about the death penalty and how to respond in the aftermath of violent crime, these are the voices that need to be heard.”

“Most people with mental illness are not violent,” said NAMI executive director Mike Fitzpatrick. “When violent tragedies occur they are exceptional—because something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded and all our families suffer.”

The report identifies an “intersection” of family concerns and makes four basic recommendations:

• Ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses.
• Reform the mental health care system to focus on treatment and prevention.
• Recognize the needs of families of murder victims through rights to information and participation in criminal or mental health proceedings.
• Families of executed persons also should be recognized as victims and given the assistance due to any victims of traumatic loss.

At least 100 people with mental illness have been put to death in the United States and hundreds more are awaiting execution.

Other resources:

Thursday, July 2, 2009

California Testimony - Part 3

More California testimony; see Tuesday's post for more information.

From Walt Everett:

... As a United Methodist Minister, I am concerned that these proposed regulations deny a condemned inmate full access to their chosen religious advisors at a time when an individual is arguably most in need of this kind of support. In particular, I am deeply disturbed by the fact that, under the proposed regulations, the state chaplain would be required to disclose to the prison warden the contents of private conversations with the condemned inmate. This violation of the clergy-penitent relationship is contrary to the most basic ethical obligations of clergy, and may violate state law as well. I am also disturbed by the proposed prohibition against the spiritual advisor’s being allowed into the execution chamber to provide support to the inmate as his life is being taken. Other states, such as Texas, have long permitted the spiritual advisor to be present in the execution chamber, and I cannot see why it is necessary for California to prohibit this.

From Vicki Schieber:

I recently served as a member of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, and from this experience I have learned that it is essential to understand exactly what is involved in the application of the death penalty in order to make informed decisions about it. I am concerned that the full fiscal impact of California’s proposed lethal injection regulations is not being calculated or disclosed. The public has a right to know exactly how much it will cost taxpayers to carry out executions using lethal injection at San Quentin prison in the way that the regulations propose. Similarly, I believe that the public – by which I mean all of us in whose name executions are carried out – has the right to know exactly what is being done when someone is put to death by lethal injection. I am concerned that the proposed regulations unduly limit media access to the execution process and make it impossible for the full story to be reported.

Although comments about the death penalty most often focus on how the process affects the perpetrator of a crime, my focus is on how the death penalty affects victims’ families. The Maryland Commission concluded by a vote of 20-1 that the effects of capital cases are more detrimental to victims’ families than those that involve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This is something that I understand firsthand. ...

and from Bud Welch:

What victims’ families are led to believe about the death penalty is not always what turns out to be true. I am concerned that the proposed lethal injection regulations in California limit the media’s access more than is necessary, and so deprive all of us of the right to know exactly what is being done in our names. Media witnesses should be allowed to view the entire lethal injection process, including the preparation that occurs in the Infusion Control Room, and should be allowed to hear what is happening in the execution chamber. My point is that this needs to be a transparent process, if it is to happen at all.

I have serious concerns about these proposed regulations, and I do not want to see them implemented as they are currently drafted. I am expressing these concerns both as the father of an Oklahoma City bombing victim and as President of the Board of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of victims’ family members all across the nation (including California) who have experienced the horror of losing a family member to murder and who do not support the death penalty.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

California Testimony - Part 2

Here is an excerpt from the testimony that Robert Meeropol submitted regarding California's proposed lethal injection procedures (see yesterday's post):

I write you on the 56th anniversary of the execution of my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Obviously, I have a personal relationship with the death penalty. I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents were executed in Sing-Sing prison on June 19th, 1953 when I was six years old. My last name was changed when Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted my brother, Michael, and me after the executions. I believe my brother and I are unique in American history. We are the only people to have both their parents executed by the government.

I live in Massachusetts. I am an attorney. I write you as a private citizen and in my capacities as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and as a Founding Board Member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). At MVFHR we oppose the death penalty and believe state-sponsored executions, the premeditated killings of human beings by the state, are murders. We in MVFHR also believe extra-judicial as well as judicial killings violate Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus constitute human rights abuses.

As a resident of Massachusetts I will, for the most part, confine myself to discussing the impact of the death penalty in general, rather than the specifics of California’s proposed regulations. I am, however, concerned that the families of those facing execution are singled out in the regulations for disparate second class treatment. They deserve better than a not so subtle reminder that they are being treated as if they are a little bit guilty. In fact, the shock of having a loved one executed cries out for special counseling and care. The callous failure of the State of California to provide such support is another indication of how the death penalty diminishes the humanity of those who promote it. ...