Friday, January 30, 2009

MVFHR Board and Staff Together in Boston

The MVFHR Board of Directors is meeting, along with the staff, in Boston today and tomorrow to conduct board business, reflect on the past four years of the organization's work, discuss our current program activities, and plan for the future. Bud Welch is coming from Oklahoma, Vicki Schieber from Maryland, Jeanne Bishop from Illinois, Bill Babbitt from California, Bill Pelke from Alaska, Walt Everett from Pennsylvania, Toshi Kazama from New York, and Robert Meeropol from nearby Western Massachusetts.

It's wonderful to have a chance to spend time and talk at length with this group who cares so much about MVFHR.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Back from the NCADP Conference

Any one person's report from a large conference is always just a glimpse, not the whole picture. I can say, though, that several people I talked to said they found this year's National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference particularly full of engaging and challenging sessions. I very much appreciated the opening plenary titled "New Research, New Reasons to Be Against the Death Penalty," which included Rachel Hardesty's powerful talk about her conversations with district attorneys (we'll have an excerpt from this talk in our spring newsletter) and remarks from Ron McAndrew, the former Florida prison warden and victim's family member whom we interviewed in this issue of our newsletter.

Continuing on a similar theme was the workshop session, "Bringing Law Enforcement Voices into Your Campaign," very ably and enthusiastically led by Laura Porter of Equal Justice USA and Denver Schimming of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. Then there was the session on "Working with Murder Victim Family Members," in which MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing and Marie Verzulli led us through an exercise that helped bring out the many commonalities among victims' family members regardless of their position on the death penalty. Marie, who is the victim outreach coordinator for New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, continues to do valuable work with victims' families in New York.

Renny then spoke, along with Laura Porter, at a plenary session on "Community Reactions in the Wake of Murder." We'll be posting excerpts from that talk here soon.

We MVFHR folks also very much appreciated the integration of human rights language and an international awareness into several aspects of the conference, including the talk by Elizabeth Zitrin of Death Penalty Focus and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the workshop session on "The Death Penalty and International Law" led by David Fathi of Human Rights Watch. I then enjoyed the exchange of information, ideas, and possible strategies that took place in the caucus on mental illness and the death penalty.

In addition to these formal sessions (and the many others that I was not able to get to but that I heard great things about), there were, as always, many good opportunities to meet and talk with victims' family members, members of the group Witness to Innocence (whose tales of their lives before and after exoneration need to be heard as widely as possible), and our colleagues and friends from all around the movement to abolish the death penalty. Thanks to NCADP for all the work that went into creating the conference.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Moral and Human Reasons

I'll have more of a report from the NCADP conference in a day or two, but for now, here's an article from the Central PA News headlined "Group Hopes to End the Death Penalty," about the news conference launching the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty, which was held at the conclusion of the NCADP weekend. The article begins:

When Marietta Jaeger Lane's youngest daughter was kidnapped from her tent during a family camping trip in Montana in 1973, Lane thought of the kidnapper and said "I could kill him with my bare hands and with a smile on my face."

But when the kidnapper called her exactly one year after abducting 7-year-old Susie Jaeger, molesting her and strangling her, Lane talked kindly to him for over an hour.

The man cried when Lane said she had been praying for him. That call and another led the FBI to find and arrest him. David Meirhofer confessed to murdering Susie and three other children. He hanged himself in his jail cell soon afterward.

"The foundation of my Catholic faith let me survive," Lane told about 300 people on Sunday at a National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference at Holiday Inn Harrisburg East in Swatara Twp. "God's idea of justice is not punishment but restoration. No matter how horrible this man was to my little girl, he was a son of God."

Lane joined John Carr of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book "Dead Man Walking," at a news conference launching the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty.

That group will collaborate with established death penalty abolition organizations and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to inform the country's 67 million Roman Catholics about the moral and human reasons why capital punishment must be abolished, Carr said.

Read the rest of the article.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Off to Harrisburg

We are off to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty annual conference, which is being held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania this year. MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing will co-lead workshops on "Community Reactions in the Wake of Murder" and "Working with Murder Victims' Family Members."

During the caucus session, I will give an update on our "Prevention, Not Execution" project, which aims to abolish the death penalty for persons with severe mental illness.

MVVHR board member Reverend Walter Everett, who has been a tireless activist in Pennsylvania, will receive a Special Recognition Award at the Saturday evening awards dinner.

We look forward to seeing many MVFHR members, colleagues, and friends. I don't know if we'll manage live blogging, but we'll certainly report on the conference next week.

Monday, January 19, 2009

In Jamaica

In November, we wrote about efforts to oppose the death penalty in Jamaica. Now an article in Sunday's Jamaica Observer tells about the family of DeeAndrea Morris, a university student who was murdered in Jamaica last year. We noted this in particular:

Beverly Bennett, the mother of the slain student, told the Sunday Observer that last Christmas was very hard to deal with as the excruciating memories came flooding back. ...
But despite the agony of losing a daughter and sister, Morris' relatives are not bitter at the man who slaughtered their loved one.
According to Bennett, she does not support the death penalty.
"The child is already gone. It (the death penalty) cannot replace your loved one. It is just time that will heal it," Bennett said.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top 50 Human Rights Blogs

The e-justice blog has posted "World Watchdogs: Top 50 Human Rights Blogs." Introducing the list, they say, "Watching the news isn’t always the best way to stay on top of human rights cases and the politics, economics and social conflicts that affect living conditions around the world. For a closer look at human rights campaigns, civil liberties groups and the legislation and movements that spread awareness, check out these blogs."

We're proud that "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty" is included in this list. Check out the full list here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Focus on Survivors

I only just now saw this piece in the January 4th Concord (NH) Monitor by MVFHR member Arnie Alpert, "After a murder, focus on survivors":

On what would have been the first day of sixth grade after Christmas break, my father woke me up early to tell me my grandfather had been murdered.

Going into his hardware store late at night, my grandfather had surprised a burglar who had entered through a skylight. The burglar grabbed a hammer, hit my grandfather in the head, and Charlie Alpert was dead.

I was 11 years old. The next few days were a bit of a blur, as the serious affairs of grownups often are to children. Looking back 42 years later, though, I realize that the way my family dealt with the tragedy had a profound effect on me.

Charlie Alpert was a well-known man about town. An immigrant from eastern Europe, he came early in the century to Springfield, Mass., fought in World War I, married my grandmother, opened Alpert Brothers Hardware and raised three children. He spoke Polish and Yiddish in addition to English and was active in civic groups, including the Masons and Jewish War Veterans.

Grandpa's death was a shock, of course. My memory centers on my grandmother's grief and on the dozens of people who passed through her kitchen and living room over the course of a week. There were aunts and uncles, obscure cousins whose relationship to my grandparents I never figured out, and family friends. Even the mayor of Springfield stopped by, which made me think my grandfather must have been an important person.

Everyone's attention was on my grandmother. I do not remember any discussion of the killer, who was arrested within a relatively short period of time.

Grownups shield children from as much adult violence as they can, and no doubt there was a lot that I missed. But children can also be remarkably perceptive, and I suspect my memory reflects my family's attitudes at the time.

My memory of the trial is mostly of how difficult it was for my grandmother, who had to appear as a witness. I don't remember much talk about the murderer and only recall a great sense of relief when the trial was over, and the killer was convicted and sent to prison.

Their response to an act of brutal violence does not explain why I turned out to be a supporter of nonviolence and an opponent of the death penalty, but it's easy to see how my path in life might have been different.

Looking back, I think my family knew what was most important. They devoted their attention to my grandmother, and to each other, not to my grandfather's killer.

(Arnie Alpert of Canterbury is New Hampshire program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization devoted to social justice, peace, and humanitarian service,)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

If You Want to Know How to Talk to Us, Ask Us

Louisiana MVFHR member Tom Lowenstein writes:

Recently I was asked to tell my story at a Defense-Initiated Victim's Outreach training program here in New Orleans. I had given a talk a couple of months back to a group of capital defense lawyers to encourage them to send people to the training, and apparently it was useful so they asked me back as part of the training. Talking about my father's murder is never fun, but like everyone in this community I'm willing to do it if it's useful, so I agreed.

At the meeting a couple of months ago I felt like my story--a victim's family member's story--was central to the day. This time, it felt a bit like "token victim time." I knew it going in--they were doing a 40-hour training and had only a couple of hours scheduled for actual victim's family members to speak. A little strange, I thought. They had even replaced my sister, Kate, who was supposed to be an important presenter during the training and has extensive experience as a liaison with victim's families and who, of course, has been through it herself, with a woman who has a Master's in "Victimology." With all due respect to that woman and her extensive experience and training, I couldn't understand why the DIVO people wanted the actual family member to not speak in favor of an academic.

This tied in with a more general unease I had about the training's heavy emphasis on Restorative Justice, which might be a fine idea in many instances but, in my opinion, is not a helpful concept in homicide cases. And whether it is or not, it shouldn't be part of DIVO: if you're reaching out to a victim's family member during the trial of the murderer, the last thing on earth you should think of bringing up to them is some kind of reconciliation with the killer. And if you're going to hold that carrot out to victim's families you are, in my opinion, doing the same damage as a DA who holds out the great "Feel Good" of the Death Penalty.

Despite my hesitations, I think it's good for actual family members to be heard, so I went ahead. And my talk went fine. I felt like a specimen when I first got there and heard the academics and lawyers talking about victim's family members, but that's par for the course. As I spoke I had that moment of thinking, No matter how much I hate talking about this, it's useful to do it. Which is a good feeling.

Later, I was puzzled to hear that right after I left, the Victimologist got up and did an exercise in which people pinned to her lab coat small badges with emotions on them that a family member of a homicide victim might feel. It must have been strange, I thought--I'd just left the room and she gets up there in the lab coat and announces (role-playing), "I'm the family member of a homicide victim. What might I feel?" And people say emotions and an assistant pins them to her....

Later in the week I went back to listen to another presenter and saw that coat hanging up with the emotions still pinned to it. One of them was "overwhelmed." Yeah, I thought. Right. Overwhelmed. That's what it feels like to hear someone you love has been shot to death.

So I’m left with mixed emotions about DIVO. I think having someone from the defense team say to the victim's family, "I'm sorry for your loss. Our job is to defend this person and we're going to do that, but we want you to know we are sorry for what you're going through and if there's any information we can provide you with without hurting our client we will" would be good for victim's families. I think it would help the cause of “justice,” as flawed a concept as that may be. The same way DA's being honest with victim's families would be good. DA's listening to victim's families, even if those families do not want the death penalty, would be good.

And I think letting victim’s families be heard is important.

Which is why I’m unable to shake my concerns about the DIVO training. Are the proponents of Restorative Justice using DIVO to push a broader agenda? I heard from a friend of mine who did the whole training that even though Restorative Justice got a lot of coverage during the week, he didn’t think the trainers were pushing it. But why was so little time, comparatively, given to hearing actual victim’s family members? I understand that later in the week one other family member spoke, and a short video of two parents of a murder victim was shown. I’m glad of this, but it still doesn’t seem to me like enough. And I still can’t understand their decision to shunt aside an actual family member with years of experience doing victim's family outreach (my sister, but that's not why their decision puzzled and upset me) in favor of an academic. If you're going to spend 40 hours training someone to go talk to victim's family members, shouldn't more than one or two of them or five of them be involved in the training? Wouldn't that be helpful?

It's not like victim's family members are World War One veterans--impossible to find. We're all over the place. If you want to know how to talk to us, ask us. You don't need an "expert" in "victimology" or "restorative justice" to tell you.

The whole experience left me with a bit of that feeling we all get sometimes, from the anti-death penalty world and from the DA's: Say what we need you and want you to say, serve our purposes, and then be quiet.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nothing Worthwhile Could Come from His Execution

This article in last week's Japanese Daily Yomiuri, "Unmasking Capital Punishment: Victim's kin questions point of executions," features Masaharu Harada, the founder of MVFHR's Japanese affiliate group, Ocean:

As his body lay in the coffin, the man bore no traces of his agonizing death. Instead, he had a subtle smile.

The execution of death row inmate Toshihiko Hasegawa was carried out on Dec. 27, 2001, when he was 51. Two days later, his funeral was performed at a church in Nagoya. About 70 people attended the funeral, including Masaharu Harada, 61.

Akio, Masaharu's younger brother, was killed in January 1983 when he was 30 by Hasegawa and his accomplices. Akio was employed by Hasegawa as a truck driver. Hasegawa had taken out a life insurance policy on Akio and had him killed in collusion with two accomplices to collect the money. Hasegawa and one of the accomplices also killed two other people.

In his testimony at a district court hearing, Harada said he hoped Hasegawa would receive the death penalty, saying, "I believe there can never be any other punishment other than the death penalty."

After Hasegawa was sentenced by the district court, he began writing Harada letters of apology.

Harada, however, would throw the letters away unopened. Only once did he unfold one of the letters.

As his anguish over the tragedy faded, he decided to reply to Hasegawa.

"I am sorry for not to replying to you for so long," Harada wrote. The number of letters from Hasegawa increased, with some containing drawings of religious subjects that he drew "to express my feelings of atonement."

In the summer of 1993, just before Hasegawa's sentence was finalized, Harada visited the Nagoya Detention House.

Up until the moment he entered the interview room, Harada felt he might lose his temper with Hasegawa.

"I'm incredibly glad that you are so kind as to come here to meet me!" the death-row convict said to Harada.

Hasegawa seemed filled with joy while conveying his gratitude. Harada found his anger dwindling. Even after the death sentence against Hasegawa was finalized, Harada visited the detention house three times under special permits to see the convict.

Harada quoted Hasegawa as saying on one occasion, "Should I be allowed to get out of here, I would like to give your mother a massage, as I have learned massage techniques in my cell."

As Harada listened to Hasegawa during these visits, he came to feel that he was truly repentant and deeply cared about the bereaved families of the victims of the murders he was involved in.

"Although I had no intention of forgiving him, I wanted him to live and continue conveying his atonement with all his heart," Harada said. "My mind changed as I became aware that nothing worthwhile could come from his execution."

Harada has more than 100 letters and several drawings made with a ballpoint pen from Hasegawa.

In 2007, Harada founded an organization to encourage dialogue between crime victims and imprisoned criminals.

Once, when he interviewed a convict sentenced to die, Harada advised him to apologize from the bottom of his heart to his victims. ...