Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A long and draining process

WHYY has this story today: "Death penalty means emotional journey for victims' families". Here are a couple of excerpts:

When John "Jordan" Lewis was sentenced to die for killing Philadelphia police officer Chuck Cassidy last month, Cassidy's widow Judy said the verdict offered no solace to her. It's been over ten years since an execution was carried out in Pennsylvania, and victims' families typically face a long and emotionally draining appeals process.

When the jury agreed on the death penalty for the man who murdered her son – Kathleen O'Hara felt some relief.

O'Hara: I'm not happy about it, I don't like the death penalty, but it felt right to me, so I drove away thinking – that was really terrible but it's over.

That was in 2001 – two years after O'Hara's son Aaron and his roommate Brian were abducted from their apartment at Ohio's Franciscan University and shot and killed.

But as O'Hara found out as she and her family gathered for Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 – it was far from over.

O'Hara: it was the first Thanksgiving where it was a little less painful, we could be in the same room, we were laughing at Thanksgiving, and I thought, this is really bad but it's not as bad. And then December 1st I got the call. Which sent me right back to remembering everything that had happened.

The call was from a victim's advocate – telling her that the verdict and sentence had been overturned in an appeal.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham says this part of the legal system can be overwhelming for families:

Abraham: Coming to Court innumerable times, listening to whatever testimony, then finally receiving a verdict only to find out that the process keeps on going for years and years and years, is very demoralizing – and it increases their sense of loss and hopelessness – when is this process going to come to an end.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Call for Universal Abolition

Today's UN News Service has this article, "UN human rights chief calls for universal abolition of the death penalty":

15 December 2009 – The top United Nations human rights official today called for the universal abolition of the death penalty, citing a host of reasons ranging from the fundamental right to life to the possibility of judicial errors.
“I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a message marking the on 20th anniversary of the Death Penalty Optional Protocol which was added to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1989 with the aim of abolishing the punishment.

“I hold this position for a number of reasons: these include the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people by mistake; the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent; and what is, to my mind, the inappropriately vengeful character of the sentence.”

Ms. Pillay noted that 140 States no longer carry out the penalty. The 72 States which have ratified the Protocol are duty-bound not to execute anybody, to take all necessary steps to definitively abolish the death penalty, and not to extradite individuals to a country where they would face the death penalty.

“Ratification of the optional protocol, as well as similar regional instruments in Europe and in the Americas, thus draws a firm line under the use of the death penalty,” she said, noting that the instrument is a key step for states moving towards abolition.

“Abolishing the death penalty is a difficult process for many societies, and ratification of the Optional Protocol can often only come about after a period of national debate. Until they reach that point, I urge those States still employing the death penalty to place a formal moratorium on its use, with the aim of ultimately ratifying the Optional Protocol and abolishing the punishment altogether everywhere.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

This will not bring any closure

We've been interested to see news coverage of victim opposition to the recent Indiana execution of Eric Wrinkles. Here's one posted on Friday at the news station WFIE:

Vigil held by those against the death penalty:

Some people against the death penalty held a vigil Thursday night at Holy Redeemer Church in Evansville, just a few hours before the execution of Eric Wrinkles.

Tracy Hobgood read over some of the last letters Wrinkles wrote to her. Hobgood was in the house that fatefull night when Wrinkles stormed in and killed Hobgood's aunt, Debbie Wrinkles and Debbie's brother and sister-in-law.

Hobgood was supposed to be in Michigan City, Thursday night, but decided at the last minute she didn't want to go see Wrinkles die.

Hobgood is against the death penalty and believes Wrinkles was already living out his punishment. She read part of his letter.

"I've had 15 years in here to try to deal with all of this shame, guilt, remorse and sadness, and it still isnt enough. I don't think it ever will be," said Wrinkles in the letter.

Mary Winnecke, the mother of victim Natalie Fulkerson, is also against the death penalty. She attended the prayer vigil.

"We're mourning our daughter's death, her husband, and Debbie. Now we're mourining Eric's death. So, it's a funeral," said Winnecke.

Winnecke feels it's not right for the Wrinkles' children to lose another parent.

[They're mourning] their mother, and now they're losing their father. While he shouldn't be out on the street, it's still different to think tomorrow my father is going to be dead," said Winnecke.

As the family listens in on the prayer service, Natalie Fulkerson's grown daughter says she can't help but feel the death penalty is an easy way out. She says this will not bring any closure.

"There are people that care about him, and they're going to be hurting too. I care about the man he used to be. I greive for the loss of that man," said Natalie's daughter, Kim Dillman.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy International Human Rights Day and Happy Birthday MVFHR

Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDR). I always like to quote Sister Helen Prejean's observation, in her book Death of Innocents, that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of the ideal that the Universal Declaration represented. Helen writes:

It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

We are, of course, still working toward that day, and although there is a great deal left to do, we can also appreciate that 61 years after Eleanor Roosevelt made her argument, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty.

Today is also the 5th anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Five years ago, the founding group gathered at the UN Church Plaza in New York City, offered public testimony, and signed a document stating, "In the name of victims, we pledge to end the death penalty around the world."

In MVFHR's first public statement shortly thereafter, we said:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.

Our deepest thanks today to all MVFHR's members and supporters who have helped answer that call and who have accomplished so much in five years.

"What about the family?"

From today's issue of the Pennsylvania college newspaper, The Villanovan:

Villanovans Against the Death Penalty hosted anti-death penalty advocate Bill Piper, who gave the lecture, "What About the Family" on Nov. 30.

Ashlee Shelton, director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, introduced Piper.

Shelton works to ban the death penalty in Pennsylvania in favor of life without parole.

She explained Pennsylvania's death penalty laws, noting that the state has the fourth highest number of inmates on death row. However, no one has been put to death here in a decade.

Shelton referenced Cameron Todd Willingham, who recently received national attention because he was executed for arson and murder on Feb. 17, 2004 yet was just found innocent.

Piper recalled his own experiences with the death penalty. His mother was raped and murdered in 1999 at the age of 74 by a 26-year-old man who Piper described as "borderline mentally retarded."

He stated firmly that he remained staunchly against the death penalty before and after his mother's murder.

"Even as a kid, I was mind-boggled by the fact that the country could kill you if you committed a certain crime," Piper said. "How can you take a person's life that isn't yours?"

The man who killed Piper's mother was identified by genetic testing a year later. Most of Piper's family sought the death penalty for the newly identified murderer.

At the trial, Piper said the accused man looked lost and not fully there. He heard stifled cries and realized the man's mother was sitting behind him.

"I have never felt that level of pity in my life," he said.

From that moment, he vowed to do something to help the mother. Family members automatically become secondary victims, and the death penalty enforces this unfortunate ripple effect. Piper then challenged the audience to try to imagine their children being led away to their execution. Ultimately, the district attorney left the decision up to Piper and his sister. Because of Piper's influence, the man was sentenced to life without parole.

"There is a time when we need to take responsibility for who we are, what we do to people and how we treat those around us," he said. "We are responsible for each other."

Revenge makes great television, but in reality, revenge does not bring closure, according to Piper.

"My mother is dead, and she's not coming back," he said. "You get over it by realizing it's done and you are not in control. By realizing such a thing, you are put back into control."

Piper is one of 66 family members of murder victims who signed a statement and helped to convince the New Jersey Congress to end the death penalty in that state.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Don't Execute War-Damaged Vets

This article by Karl Keys and MVFHR board member Bill Pelke was posted on AlterNet this past Friday; it mentions, among other stories, Manny Babbitt, the brother of another MVFHR board member, Bill Babbitt:

Mental exhaustion. Battle fatigue. PTSD. Whatever it's called, many of our soldiers who served in wars over the years came home with combat-related mental illness, traumatized by the carnage and destruction they saw and experienced.

Unfortunately, too many veterans' mental conditions have fueled criminal behavior resulting in their imprisonment. Dating back to the Civil War, veteran incarceration rates increased after each conflict.

This is not a small, marginal problem. Government statistics for the 1980s show that 21 percent of state prison inmates then were Vietnam veterans. The U.S. Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration estimate that two of every five of the 800,000 new Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

The stories of two such veterans illustrate this tragedy. This fall, Vietnam veteran James Floyd Davis was finally presented the awards due to him -- a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct medal -- in a small ceremony held in a hearing room in a North Carolina prison. Davis, now 62, was not permitted to keep his medals after the ceremony.

That's because Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing three people at an Asheville, North Carolina tool company from which he had been fired. At trial, evidence was introduced that he lived alone, talked to himself, instigated arguments with co-workers and shot imaginary groundhogs on his front lawn with his .44 magnum. Further testimony revealed that when he was a child, his alcoholic father threatened to cut Davis' and his siblings' throats while they slept and burn down the house. Davis' father beat him with a mop handle, and would lock the refrigerator and hide the key while Davis went hungry.

What wasn't introduced at trial was that Davis, who attained the rank of sergeant in Vietnam, fought on a Central Highlands firebase during the Tet Offensive, where he lost his hearing, was hit with shrapnel, some of which remains in his leg, and went home with depression, paranoid schizophrenia and PTSD. His marriage fell apart, and he attempted suicide. It isn't certain if Davis will be executed, but he has given up his legal appeals. North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Appeals and one of its attorneys, Ken Rose, continues to advocate for him.

Manny Babbitt, another Vietnam War veteran and a Marine, earned his Purple Heart for courage under fire in the battle of Khe Sanh, where 737 Americans died and more than 2,500 soldiers were wounded. Hit by rocket shrapnel that opened his skull, Babbitt lost consciousness and was thought to be dead. He was loaded onto a pile of corpses by helicopter operators where he regained consciousness surrounded by severed limbs and bodies.

He returned from Vietnam suffering from PTSD, exhibiting bizarre and violent behavior. Eventually he broke into the home of Leah Shendel, an elderly woman, and beat her. She later died of a heart attack.

His brother, Bill Babbitt, turned him in to authorities believing that he owed it to the larger community, and expecting that his war hero brother would get the medical attention he needed and deserved. But not long after being awarded his Purple Heart, Manny Babbitt was executed one minute after midnight, May 4, 1999, in the state of California, on his 50th birthday.

As veterans ourselves, we believe that people who commit crimes as a result of severe mental impairments should not be executed. In 2006, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates adopted that recommendation, which was officially endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia exempts certain persons with impaired mental capacities from the death penalty. But not all states employ this exemption. Many of the same factors present in the cases of individuals without mental impairments who are executed are also present in the cases of those with them: Inability to afford effective legal counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct, unfair and racially biased application of the punishment, and unreliable and false witness testimony at trial.

Capital punishment's costs to states drain our tax dollars away from smarter and more effective approaches to law enforcement and crime prevention and from additional quality, affordable mental health services. Abolishing capital punishment would be a major step forward in criminal justice and mental health reform. In November the nation observed Veterans Day and on December 7th it will observe Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, yet another occasion for honoring war veterans. As you do so, please take a moment to remember James Floyd Davis and Manny Babbitt -- and to work to ensure that no other mentally impaired veterans are treated as they were. We owe that much and more to our men and women in uniform.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Two Wrongs

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice review of Brian MacQuarrie's book The Ride, which tells the story of MVFHR member Bob Curley. A couple of excerpts:

I don't want to jinx this, but, having finished the most emotionally challenging true-crime account I have ever read, I want this book to win every nonfiction reporting award there is.

This book was difficult to read because, as a father, I cannot tolerate violence against children. I find it unsettling, repugnant, and infuriating.

This book is about a father's encounter with the worst thing that can happen to a child, an unthinkable horror, and how he comes to terms with it.


MacQuarrie takes the story further, showing how Bob Curley became a willing, and convincing, spokesman for Massachusetts death-penalty advocates, who narrowly lost a legislative fight to restore capital punishment. He also chronicles how Curley began to drink heavily, unable to get past the guilt and horror of what happened to his youngest child.

When he was invited to speak at public forums on the death penalty, Bob Curley refused to share the same car with anti-capital punishment advocate Bud Welch, a gas-station owner who lost his daughter Julie when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City. The violent death of a child had caused Welch, like Curley, to lose himself in guilt, rage, and alcohol.

Welch eventually determined that executing Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols "wouldn't be part of my healing process. I wasn't going to gain anything from an act of hate and revenge. And hate and revenge, I realized, were the very reasons that Julie and 167 others were dead. I was finally able to see what the Oklahoma City bombing was all about. It was about retribution."

Bob Curley didn't see it that way, but he shared with Welch a resentment at being used by politicians and the news media. From that common thread, the two began to talk, and Bob Curley slowly understood that to get on with his life, he had to end the cycle of anger and guilt that was consuming him.

Curley began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. After many months of inner turmoil, he decided that watching his son's murderers die would not make it easier for him to deal with his grief. Now he believes that a society that kills convicted criminals is not as strong as one that refuses to do so.

MacQuarrie's book doesn't offer answers to the larger problems of crime and punishment, but Bob Curley's story is profoundly important as the debate over the death penalty continues.

Somebody has to make us think about whether two wrongs ever make a right.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tragedies are compounded

We appreciate the post by blogger Grey Matters on Tucson a couple of days ago about mental illness and the death penalty:

Lately there have been stories in the news about people that were given the death penalty(capital punishment) and executed only to find out later through modern DNA testing that the wrong person was killed. That in and of itself is enough to give pause before taking some one’s life for a crime, but what about when the person is seriously mentally ill and symptomatic when a crime is committed?

Amnesty International believes that “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life…It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. There can never be any justification for torture or for cruel treatment.”

At the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) annual convention in San Francisco last summer families of murder victims joined with families of persons with mental illness who have been executed to speak out against the death penalty.

Double Tragedies, a report released at the convention, 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 lead to tragic violence.”

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

A joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), the report is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states, including Texas which has the highest rate of capital punishment in the United States.

Most people with mental illness are not violent, many preferring to isolate and have little social contact. When violent tragedies occur it’s usually because the person has fallen through the cracks of a broken mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded when all the families involved on all sides suffer. ...

Cities for Life

Yesterday was the day of Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty, an annual event organized by the Italian Community of Sant'Egidio. This international event commemorates the 1786 abolition of the death penalty by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first such abolition by a European state.

Several MVFHR members are participating in Cities for Life events and speaking publicly about victim opposition to the death penalty. Board members Bill Pelke and Bud Welch are speaking in Italy and Belgium, respectively, and member Art Laffin is speaking in Mozambique. We'll have more from them when they return; for now, here's some news from the Journey of Hope's blog.