Monday, August 31, 2009

Hear the Words of Texas Families of the Executed

Our colleagues at the Texas After Violence Project, whom we interviewed for the MVFHR newsletter last year, have posted excerpts from a couple of the interviews they have done with family members of the executed in Texas.

One is from their interview with Tina Duroy, whose brother James Colburn was executed in 2003. The Texas After Violence Project conducted this particular interview specifically for MVFHR's "Prevention, Not Execution" project, and we're grateful for that collaborative help.

As TAVP summarizes it, in this interview Tina "recalls her brother as a child, the mental and social changes he began to manifest as a teenager, and the severe mental illness he began to display after he was raped at the age of 17. She also describes her family's ongoing but futile struggle to find effective mental health services for James. Mr. Colburn acknowledged that he killed Peggy Murphy; the State of Texas acknowledged that Mr. Colburn was seriously mentally ill. Nevertheless, the Montgomery County jury sentenced Mr. Colburn to death. The case attracted national and international criticism."

Other excerpts are from interviews with Ireland and Jamaal Beazley, father and brother, respectively, of Napoleon Beazley, who was executed in Texas in 2002. TAVP's summary explains: "Napoleon Beazley was 17 years old on April 19, 1994, when he fatally shot Mr. John Luttig in Tyler, Smith County, Texas. The death sentence and execution of Napoleon Beazley sparked international protest because many nations, and states within the U.S. had banned the death penalty for people who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. Within three years of the execution of Napoleon Beazley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) banned the practice. "

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sharing and Fellowship

Renny Cushing is heading down to Tennessee today to speak at a gathering organized by the Sharing Our Stories: Murder Victims' Families Speak program of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK). The event will be "a time of learning, sharing, and fellowship," as TCASK's invitation describes it. Renny will talk about his personal experience as a survivor of a murder victim and his work with MVFHR.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Victims' Voices are Essential

This story is featured in the August/September issue of New England Psychologist

Report shows impact of mental illness, death penalty

By Catherine Robertson Souter

When Manny Babbitt's brother, Bill, turned him in to the police in 1980, he knew he was doing the right thing. He believed his brother, who was mentally ill, was involved in a murder.

What he didn't know was that he was handing his brother over to his eventual executioners rather than to a system that would help to cure him, something he has had to live with for nearly 30 years.

"I spoke with the police for hours about Manny and they said that they would help him. I believed them," Bill remembers.

Bill said Manny had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at Bridgewater State Hospital in 1973 and was later determined to be suffering from PTSD as a result of two tours of duty in Vietnam.

He was executed at San Quentin Prison in California in 1999 after a lengthy appeals process. The fact that Manny had lived through some of the worst trauma, both in Vietnam and during his poverty-level childhood in a Cape Verdean neighborhood in Wareham, Mass., was not seen as relevant to the case and not presented to jurors. At the time of his execution, then-California Gov. Gray Davis was quoted as saying, "Countless people have suffered the ravages of war...but such experiences cannot justify or mitigate the savage beating and killing of defenseless, law-abiding citizens."

The difficult part of any conversation about the death penalty, even where mental illness is concerned, is that it is understandable that victims' families demand retribution. A "not guilty due to insanity" label does not seem to serve justice. In popular culture, people often say someone "got off on an insanity plea," as if this plea is a loophole in the system.

In July, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) released a report sharing the stories of those affected by mental illness and the death penalty. The report, produced by MVHFR and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, features what appear to be disparate voices on the subject: the families of the perpetrators and the families of the victims. Based on interviews with 21 families, the report pleads the case for reformation of the mental health system rather than execution.

"We felt that the victims' voices are essential in this," said MVHFR staff member Susannah Sheffer, who wrote the report. "People believe that victims' families would want the death penalty, saying, 'if it happened in your family you wouldn't be against the death penalty.'"

"But this shows that victims' families do not all feel one way about the death penalty. These people have a powerful voice. You can't argue with the legitimacy of these voices," she adds.

For Julie Nelson of Massachusetts, whose father George, a Lutheran minister, was killed in California in 1979 by the mentally ill son of one of his parishioners, taking that man's life would not have given her closure or justice.

"I think that the state killing people just reinforces death at the societal level," she says. "I am against the death penalty in general but I also think that the death penalty for the mentally ill is just barbaric."

Joe Bruce happens to sit on both sides of this particular fence. He and his wife, Amy, first realized that their son Willy was very ill in 2003, when he was 22-years-old. After a series of hospitalizations, each time being released because he could not be held longer than 30 days or forced to take his medication unless he had been violent, Willy was sent home. In June 2006, after he was returned to his parents, he killed his mother, because he believed her to be an Al Qaeda operative.

"We were unable to get proper treatment for him," Joe says. "If we had been facing the death penalty on top of that, we would be looking at 20 years of appeals only to see him lethally injected when we knew from day one that he was not responsible for what he had done."

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Upcoming Mass. event

For our Massachusetts readers, MVFHR board member Robert Meeropol will be speaking at an event commemorating the 82nd anniversary of the wrongful execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on August 23rd; this event is organized (as it is each year) by the Hampden County Chapter of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty. Event details are on their site.

The MVFHR office will be closed and "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty" on a posting break until the week of August 24th. Until then, best wishes to all readers during these summer days.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Welcome Marie Verzulli

We welcome Marie Verzulli to the MVFHR Board of Directors. Marie has worked for several years as the Victims’ Family Outreach Liaison for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, facilitating a group called Family and Friends of Homicide Victims. She is masterful at forming connections with other victims' families and developing alliances with groups and individuals who may not be explicitly anti-death penalty but who share our goals of helping victims and preventing violence.

Marie's 29-year-old sister was one of eight women murdered by serial killer Kendall Francois in Poughkeepsie, New York during 1996 and 1997. In her page in MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories, Marie says, “I had never thought much about the death penalty until the day in 1998 when the District Attorney asked me how I felt. I told him that I had never really thought about it. I couldn’t imagine what, if anything, could bring me comfort or lessen my pain and despair, but I knew it wasn’t that. The most perverse part of this unfair and costly death penalty process is that the murderer achieves a kind of celebrity while the pain and anguish of the murder victim’s family members is forgotten or just seems to fall between the cracks.”