Monday, November 30, 2009

Voices from Kentucky Victims

As a state Supreme Court ruling has halted executions in Kentucky (for a summary, see, for example, this New York Times article), it's a good moment to listen to some of the voices of Kentucky victims' family members explaining their opposition to the death penalty. The Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has posted some powerful videos -- they don't take long to view -- from victims' family members.

Here's one from Ben Griffith, whose brother was murdered, one from Ruth Lowe, who also lost her brother to murder, and one from Eugene Thomas, whose father was murdered.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness Month

We have posted in the past about the work of Tina Chery, who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute after her 15-year-old son was killed in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Here's the post that we ran as part of a "Preventing Violence" series we did a couple of years ago, and here's an excerpt from an article that discusses Tina's opposition to the death penalty.

One of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute's initiatives has been to have November 20-December 20th declared Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness Month in Massachusetts. Here's part of their announcement:

"The Governor shall annually issue a proclamation setting apart the period from November 20th to December 20th, inclusive, as a time for Survivors of Homicide Victims Awareness and recommending that the time period be observed in an appropriate manner by the people."

Why do we need it?
Nearly 35,000 people are killed every year in the U.S., leaving family members, friends and neighbors grieving. 1,156 people were murdered in Massachusetts between 1993 and 1998. For each of these victims, there are seven to ten close relatives – not counting significant others, friends, neighbors and co-workers. This means that while we have experienced a yearly decrease in the homicide rate in Massachusetts – from 248 in 1993 to 123 in 1998 – the number of survivors of victims of homicide continues to rise. In 2004 the City of Boston experienced 64 homicides leaving in its wake over 640 survivors, not including, friends, classmates, and neighbors.

When a man, woman, or child is murdered, all citizens are impacted by the devastating loss regardless or age, race, creed, education, religion, culture or ethnicity. Losing a loved one to homicide is among the most traumatic experiences that a person will ever have to endure. People who suffer a loss are confronted with tremendous upheaval and pain, which can lead to numerous emotional, physical challenges and difficulties and create a crisis response in day to day living.

The epidemic of youth violence in the United States takes a heavy toll on the nation’s health. It results in emotional and physical injuries, permanent disability and death; it consumes enormous health care resources; and it ultimately diminishes the quality of life of individuals, families and communities. These episodes of violence continue to destroy families, schools and communities.

We need this awareness month because our institutions and our society are uncomfortable dealing with the aftermath of murder. We don’t know what to say to survivors and often we don’t know what to do for them. This yearly observance provides a platform where, as a nation, we can learn how to better assist families who have been brutally impacted by violence and to support the efforts of survivors to inform our violence prevention, peacemaking, restorative and social justice movement.

Friday, November 20, 2009

MVFHR member honored by Peace Award

MVFHR member Marietta Jaeger Lane is being honored this evening as a recipient of the Institute for Peace Studies Jeannette Rankin Peace Award at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Marietta has testified against the death penalty in a wide array of venues in several countries. Testifying in favor of a death penalty abolition bill in 2007, Marietta told lawmakers:

While my family and I were camped at the Missouri River Headwaters Park here in Montana 34 years ago, my 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped from our tent during the night. Fifteen months later, the FBI identified and arrested a local man responsible for my child’s disappearance and subsequent death.

Though the death penalty was applicable in this case, at my request the County Prosecutor offered the alternative sentence, in capital cases, of mandatory life imprisonment without parole. Only then did the young man admit to the rape, strangulation death, and dismemberment of my child as well as the deaths of a young woman and two young boys in the same area, but at different times. There was evidence that this man had caused more children’s deaths around the state, but the County Prosecutors in those instances were insisting on the death penalty. The young man would only confess to the deaths that occurred in Gallatin County, where he was being offered life imprisonment. Clearly, Montana’s death penalty had no deterrent value in all those deaths, except to deter confession of guilt.

… Concerning the claim of “justice for the victim’s family,” to claim that the execution of any offender will be “just retribution” is to insult the immeasurable and irreplaceable worth of the victim. For the state to kill in retaliation for my daughter’s death is to violate and profane the goodness, sweetness, and beauty of her life.

We congratulate Marietta on being the recipient of the Peace Award today.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Broken System

Kohl Harrington has made a documentary film called A Broken System that features two MVFHR members, and three other obvious stakeholders in the death penalty debate, describing their experiences. Aba Gayle describes the emotions she went through after the murder of her daughter Catherine, the pressure that she felt, as a victim's family member, to support the death penalty, and her eventual decision to oppose the death sentence of her daughter's murderer. Bill Babbitt describes the experience of his brother's death sentence and execution. Juan Melendez describes the experience of being sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit. Ron McAndrew and Don Cabana tell about being prison wardens overseeing executions.

Each segment is about 10 minutes long. It's definitely worth a look, particularly if you have not yet had a chance to hear these people tell their stories.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Elusive and Deeply Personal

Thanks to Michael Landauer of the Texas Death Penalty blog for the very nice mention the other day. Michael quotes from several of our recent posts and writes:

A lot has been written this week about the notion of seeking closure in the DC sniper execution. Today's Viewpoints page had an interesting column that tackled the subject. Naseem Rakha wrote: "Of all the arguments in support of capital punishment, perhaps the most emotionally compelling is that it provides "closure" for the loved ones of murder victims."

But real closure is elusive and deeply personal. It's unmeasurable, if it exists. That's true for any kind of grief, I suppose.

I've been very impressed with Susannah Sheffer's blogs on this topic in the past few weeks. She really seems to have a grasp on the current topics dealing with closure over on the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights blog.

I in turn highly recommend the Dallas Morning News death penalty blog, the description of which reads: This blog is the leading forum for people on all sides of the debate to discuss issues related to the death penalty. It includes news from Dallas Morning News reporters as well as commentary from members of the editorial board, which opposes the death penalty.

To read more from victims' families questioning the idea of closure, see this special issue of MVFHR's newsletter, which focuses on that topic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

At Amnesty Conference

MVFHR will have a presence at Amnesty International's Northeast Regional Conference this weekend, via a Saturday evening plenary presentation that will feature Bob Curley, whose son Jeffrey was murdered 12 years ago, Brian MacQuarrie, whose new book, The Ride, chronicles Bob Curley's journey from supporter of the death penalty to opponent, and Renny Cushing, MVFHR's Executive Director. If any blog readers are in attendance, do come over and say hello.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Evidence Not Heard

This Reuters piece about efforts to stop the execution of John Muhammad includes a mention of MVFHR and a link to the clemency request, which includes a 4-minute oral testimony from MVFHR about victim opposition to the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. (To hear the testimony, click the link above and then click on "announcements.")

John Muhammad Files for Stay of Execution with U.S. Supreme Court
Evidence of "Severe Mental Illness" Not Heard by Jury

In a two-track effort to stop the November 10 execution of John Allen Muhammad, sentenced to death after his conviction for 10 killings 7 years ago, Attorney Jon Sheldon has filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court and a motion for a stay of execution so that the court can review compelling evidence of Muhammad`s "severe mental illness"

Sheldon also requested that Governor Tim Kaine use his powers of clemency to commute Muhammad`s sentence to life without parole because of the severe mental illness. "The public has been protected from John Muhammad for the past 7 years," said Sheldon, "and a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole would insure that the public would continue to be protected."

"Execution is simply not justified in this case," Sheldon said, "and it is because of John Muhammad`s severe mental illness." Sheldon also stated that "the jurors would not have sentenced him to death if they had received clear instructions and known of his severe mental illness." Life in prison without the possibility of parole has and will keep the people of Virginia safe.

Sheldon said that a psychiatrist has diagnosed Muhammad as "psychotic, delusional and paranoid and that he suffers from schizophrenia."

"This diagnosis" said Sheldon, "is confirmed by objective evidence." Sheldon said that neuropsychological brain imaging applications have demonstrated that John Muhammad has neuropsychological deficits that are consistent with schizophrenia, and point to "brain dysfunction."

Sheldon also said that MRI brain scans of John Muhammad show that "he has three congenital malformations in his brain, two of which are found with greater frequency in people with schizophrenia, and one of which is a shrunken cortex, confirming the brain damage."

Psychiatrist Richard Dudley reviewed all the mental health information and concluded that John Muhammad certainly has a "severe mental illness" of the type that the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Murder Victims` Families for Human Rights have described when they advocate against the execution of the severely mentally ill. Dr. Dudley noted that John Muhammad`s mental illness certainly played a role both in his crimes, and his behavior at trial.

"Elizabeth Young, a juror in the Muhammad case, has described how the evidence of John Muhammad's severe mental illness was never heard by her jury, and that this evidence with clear jury instructions would have led her to vote for a verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole," Sheldon said.

For more information about the certiorari petition and the clemency request, please visit and click on "Announcements."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nothing to do with the healing

Today's Kentucky State Journal has this article about a Journey of Hope event at Kentucky State University with Terri Steinberg, whose son is on death row in Virginia, Shujaa Graham, whose death sentence was overturned in 1979, and MVFHR board member Bill Pelke. Here's an excerpt:

Pelke, the founder of Journey of Hope, arrived at his argument from the other side. He is a murder victim family member who is morally opposed to the death penalty and has dedicated his life to abolishing the practice.

“The death penalty has nothing to do with the healing,” he says. “It just continues the cycle of violence.”

He’s told his story more 5,000 times, but he still choked up Tuesday during the telling.

Four teenage girls skipped out early from their Indiana high school in 1985. After drinking wine and beer and smoking pot, they decided they needed money to go to a local arcade. One girl knew her neighbor, 78-year-old Ruth Pelke, would invite the other three girls in if they asked for a Bible lesson.

“She was a very religious woman, and her passion was telling Bible stories to young people,” her grandson said.

She invited them in.

One girl hit her over the head with a vase; another pulled a knife and stabbed her. Then another took a turn with the knife. The girls ransacked the house and came up with $10 and an old car.

Paula Cooper, 15 at the time, was the one who first pulled out the knife and was deemed the ringleader. When she was sentenced to the electric chair by the state of Indiana, Pelke supported the judge’s decision.

A year later, however, he asked God for compassion for Cooper and her family.

When he imagined his grandparents’ home, he saw his grandmother butchered to death on the dining room floor where they had celebrated Easter and Christmas and birthdays.

Forgiving Cooper changed that.

He became involved in an international crusade on Cooper’s behalf in 1989, and through those efforts, she was removed from death row and her sentence commuted to 60 years.

When she’s paroled, Pelke hopes she’ll spread her story through Journey of Hope.

“People think, ‘If I get revenge, I’ll feel better,’” he said. “The answer is love and compassion. You’re never going to want to see anyone put in the death chamber.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"I think you should get life"

Another article about victim opposition to the death penalty from Eric Rogers, whose parents were murdered in 2006. This is from California's CBS, posted yesterday:

A man who witnessed his uncle murder his parents in their El Cerrito home in 2006 told his parents' killer in court in Martinez Monday that he does not think he should be executed for his crimes.

Eric Rogers was 17 years old when Edward Wycoff, now 40, broke into his family's home 1467 Rifle Range Road in the El Cerrito hills shortly before 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2006, and stabbed and bludgeoned his parents, Julie Rogers, 47, and Paul Rogers, 48.

During the attack, Eric Rogers and his 12-year-old sister hid in a bedroom while Eric Rogers called 911.

In court Monday, Eric Rogers, now 21, told Wycoff, "I think you should get life without the possibility of parole."

"I think the death penalty would be wrong. I think you are mentally childish. I think you are very immature," Rogers said. "I've talked to people who have known you for a long time and they say you haven't changed much since you were about 9 years old."

Wycoff was convicted Oct. 27 of two counts of first-degree murder with enhancements for the use of a knife and a wheelbarrow handle in the killings.

Jurors, who deliberated for about 45 minutes before returning their guilty verdicts, also found true the special-circumstance allegation that Wycoff committed multiple murders, which makes him eligible for the death penalty.

The same jury is now listening to testimony in the penalty phase of the trial and will be asked to decide whether Wycoff should be executed for his crimes.

Wycoff, who is acting as his own attorney, claimed during the first phase of the trial that he had the right to kill Julie and Paul Rogers because they were "bad people" and were out to get him. He claimed that he deserved to be rewarded for killing them because he had made "the world a better place" by "eliminating" them.

Eric Rogers said outside the courtroom that his parents, who were both attorneys, had been opposed to the death penalty and that he and most of his family were opposed to the death penalty.

"I think that killing in hatred is something that is associated with my uncle and not my parents," Eric Rogers said. "I don't think we can teach people that killing is wrong by killing people."

Despite a ballot measure passed in 2008 known as The Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy's Law, which says victims have the right to be heard during criminal proceedings, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge John Kennedy ruled Monday that Eric Rogers could not testify about his or his parents' feelings about the death penalty.

"In any event, the right to be heard certainly does not confer a right to testify to matters the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have deemed inadmissible in a capital trial," Kennedy said in a written ruling issued Monday.

Both sides are prohibited from asking about Julie and Paul Rogers' feelings about the death penalty, witnesses' feelings about the death penalty and the impact the death penalty would have on the victims if Wycoff is sentenced to death, including a lengthy appeals process, Eric Rogers' attorney Ted Cassman said.

The judge said that once the penalty phase of the trial is over, he will reconsider Eric Rogers' request to testify about his feelings about the death penalty. In the meantime, telling Wycoff he doesn't believe he should be executed for his crimes was as much as Eric Rogers was permitted to say about the potential sentence.

Among his many reasons for killing Julie and Paul Rogers, Wycoff said he didn't approve of the Rogers' liberal political beliefs and didn't like the way they were raising their three children. He said he had planned to kill the parents and then adopt the children and raise them himself.

"My dad was one of the most intelligent and compassionate people I've ever known," the couple's daughter, now 16, testified Monday.

She said he was generous, calm, sincere, caring and open-minded.

She said her mother was "also very compassionate and intelligent."

"She thought a lot. She was very creative, really kind and thoughtful," the daughter said.

The night of the murders, Paul Rogers came into his daughter's bedroom and kissed her on the cheek while she was talking on the phone. After she went to bed, her father knocked on her bedroom door and told her goodnight, but she said she pretended she was asleep.

Her mother had been sitting on the couch that night reading and drinking tea. She tucked her daughter into bed and kissed her goodnight.

The next time the girl saw her father, he was lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood with a large knife stuck in his back. The daughter ran and got a towel and held it around the wound to try to stop the bleeding.

But, she said, she doesn't remember her father that way. She thinks about him eating chips and guacamole and leaning over his computer and she remembers the way his mustache moved when he smiled.

She never saw her mother again. Police found Julie Rogers in the backyard. She had been stabbed multiple times and severely beaten. She was taken to the hospital, where she died later that day.

The daughter said she still imagines her mother picking her up from school and calling her funny names. She said she misses everything about her parents, even the things that used to annoy her.

After her parents' were murdered, their daughter moved away from her friends and everyone she had ever known and went to live with her aunt and uncle in Lafayette.

She said she felt like a burden to them and developed anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol addiction.

"I developed a cynical view of the world. It's hard for me to trust people," she said.

She said she doesn't play harp anymore and she doesn't wear colors.

"I'm not happy. I don't want to wear happy colors," she explained.
When asked what she missed most about her parents, she said she
missed their openness and accepting natures.