Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dignity Restored

Renny Cushing is in Italy representing MVFHR at a meeting of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty steering committee. Among other business, the group will be beginning to plan the Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, a gathering that will take place next February.

Last week, in addition to passing the death penalty study commission and repeal bills, the New Hampshire House became the first legislative body in the country to pass legislation that prohibits discrimination against victims who oppose the death penalty. House Bill 370, "An act relative to the treatment of victims of crime," passed 213-114. The bill amends New Hampshire's Crime Victims Bill of Rights by adding this section:

"The right to all federal and state constitutional rights guaranteed to all victims of crime on an equal basis, and notwithstanding the provisions of any laws on capital punishment, the right not to be discriminated against or have their rights as a victim denied, diminished, expanded, or enhanced on the basis of the victim’s support for, opposition to, or neutrality on the death penalty."

For several years, we've been documenting instances of discrimination by prosecutors, judges, and victims' advocates against victims based on their opposition to the death penalty. In the report Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims' Families Who Oppose the Death Penalty, we proposed model legislation, the Crime Victims' Equality Act, and last week's New Hampshire legislation is based on this model. We hope that other states will now introduce similar legislation.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Amnesty International's annual national conference, held in Boston this year, begins today and continues through the weekend. MVFHR Director Renny Cushing will participate in a panel titled "Stories from the Trenches: personal narratives from the Abolition Movement," along with Florida death row exoneree Juan Melendez and Chad Stokes, lead singer of State Radio, who has been advocating on behalf of death row inmate Troy Davis.

I am in DC attending the annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium where, among other things, I will be meeting with people involved with issues of mental illness and the family. I hope to connect with some potential allies for our Prevention, Not Execution project.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Surprise vote in New Hampshire House

Yesterday the New Hampshire House voted to repeal the state's death penalty. Here's New Hampshire Public Radio's news story quoting extensively from Renny Cushing's remarks during the floor debate; the site also has a link to the audio version.

New Hampshire House lawmakers shocked many today when they voted to repeal the state’s death penalty.

The measure passed by 19 votes, one-hundred ninety-three to one-hundred seventy-four.

This comes after a jury sentenced Michael Addison to death last fall for the murder of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs.

New Hampshire Public Radio’s Dan Gorenstein reports.

This year death penalty opponents had their hopes on a bill to study the issue.

That measure sailed through the House.

Nobody, really, thought the bill to repeal the death penalty had a chance.

In fact, many members left their seats, or chatted as the first few Representatives spoke in favor of the legislation.

But then....

TAPE: the chair recognizes the member from Hampton, Representative Cushing....Thank you Madame Speaker, members of the House....

....Democrat Renny Cushing started talking about how his dad was murdered.

TAPE: my father was sitting at the kitchen table reading Foster’s Daily Democrat, and my mother was on the couch watching the Boston Celtics playoff game...There was a knock on the front door....my dad got up to open it...and two shotgun blasts rang out, turned his chest into hamburger and he died in front of my mother in the home they lived in for 35 years and raised their seven children.

On hearing such intimate details, House members grew quiet and leaned forward.

Cushing went on.

TAPE: an old friend came up to me and he said, ‘you know Renny, I hope they fry the bastards. I hope they fry the bastards so your mother, and you and your family can get some peace.”

But he says he didn’t have the “normal” reaction to his father’s murder.

On principle, Cushing had always opposed to the death penalty.

And he said, if he changed his opinion in the wake of the murder, he would only give his father’s murderer more power.

TAPE: because not only would my father be taken from me. But so would my values. And it’s the same for society as it is for individuals. If we let those who kill, make us into killers, than evil triumphs. And we all lose.

SFX: That was amazing, honey. That was amazing.

After the vote, teary eyed lawmakers greeted Cushing, people patted his back, others just gave long knowing looks.

Cushing says he’s not sure why a majority voted to repeal capital punishment.

If Committee hearings are any indication, it’s not unusual for emotional anecdotes like Cushing’s to sway House member’s opinions.

Cushing says maybe hearing a so-called ‘victim’ say he didn’t support retribution flipped some votes.

Or maybe, it’s because people are uncomfortable with the result of the Addison and John Brooks cases.

TAPE: there is this concern about justice in black and white in New Hampshire. And the fact that we had two capital cases; and the white millionaire gets off and the black get from Boston gets death bothers people.

Not everyone believes the death penalty needs to be repealed.

TAPE: sad day for the state of New Hampshire. The saddest I’ve seen in 21 years.

That’s Republican Representative Julie Brown.

She’s in her 11th term.

TAPE: I am appalled. And I am just wondering if Mrs. Briggs and her sons are listening to what the New Hampshire Legislature did. How do you think they feel waking up every morning knowing their loved one is gone? And yet the prisoner sits in jail. With the lap of luxury, medical care, three meals a day. Better than any welfare.

The measure now heads to the Senate.

Attorney General Kelly Ayotte says she will lobby to kill the bill.

She may not have to work too hard.

Already senators from both sides of the aisle say the legislation has no chance.

But somehow, if this bill defies the odds like it just has in the House, Governor Lynch has promised vowed to veto it.

For NHPR News, I’m Dan Gorenstein.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Where it belongs

Coverage of New Mexico's repeal of the death penalty continues not only with news stories but also with editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor around the country. Here's one that emphasizes the victim's perspective, from MVFHR board member Walt Everett in the March 22 Pennsylvania Daily Item:

On March 18, Gov. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, signed into law a bill that abolishes the death penalty in that state. Importantly, the repeal package, which includes other bills currently working their way through the New Mexico Legislature, places emphasis where it belongs: on murder victims' families.

When my 24-year-old son, Scott, was murdered in 1987, I was devastated. Losing a loved one to murder tears apart the lives of victims' family members. There are no easy answers. But I know that government policy must be redirected to programs that help those victims' family members heal.

New Mexico's bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole is a major step in that direction. The additional measures being considered as adjuncts to this newly enacted legislation focus on enabling New Mexico to use the savings gained from ending the death penalty to provide support to children of murder victims, provide services and programs to murder victims' families, and create a murder victims' family services fund. Another measure requires employers to provide time off for family members to attend judicial proceedings.

Capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder. It is too costly and has insufficient protections against wrongful executions.

It is time for Pennsylvania to follow New Mexico's lead in providing restitution for victims' family members, as well as alternatives to the death penalty.

Walter H. Everett,

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Orphaned by the state

When MVFHR Board Vice-Chair Robert Meeropol was doing a series of speaking engagements in Germany earlier this month, he also did an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian, and on Saturday (March 21) they published this piece, titled "Orphaned by the state":

It's early evening on Friday 19 June 1953, and in a garden in New Jersey two little boys, brothers aged six and 10, are playing baseball. The light starts to fade, but the boys play on. Strangely, because this isn't normally how it is, no adults come to call them in. The children continue. Eventually it gets so dark that they can't see the ball any more. But still they go on playing.

Deep in their hearts, these little boys know that something appalling, something devastating, something almost too terrible to contemplate, is happening. Deep in their hearts, they know that as soon as they step back into the house, their lives will be changed horribly, and for ever.

Eventually, reluctantly, the boys head inside. Robert, the younger of the two, is a bit hazy about what happens next. He remembers Michael, his brother, becoming distraught, and he remembers the adults trying to console him. He remembers realising, with the black-and-white clarity of a child's take on the world, that his six-year-old brain simply isn't equipped to deal with the awfulness of the evening's events. He remembers going to bed, and trying to shut everything out. He remembers feeling that if he just feigns ignorance the grown-ups will leave him alone and then he can start to deal with the nightmare as best he can.

What has just happened is that Robert and Michael's parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, have been executed. At one minute before sundown, while the children were in the garden, their parents - one aged 35, the other 37 - were strapped into an electric chair in Sing Sing prison, near New York. Julius first, then Ethel. In the time that elapsed between the boys going out to play and coming inside again, their country has made them orphans.

Even more than half a century on, it's hard to hear this story without being affected by its magnitude. As Robert Meeropol describes what happened on that evening 56 years ago, I have tears in my eyes. When Meeropol describes how, earlier that same day, his brother began moaning, "That's it then! Goodbye, goodbye"; when the news flashed on to the television that the executions were going ahead that night; and when he describes seeing the press reports counting down his parents' final days, I can hardly bear to listen.

Meeropol (whose name was later changed to that of the couple who adopted him) is used to journalists getting emotional on him. "It's different for you," he says understandingly, "I've lived with this all my life; I'm used to it." But how does anyone get used to the fact that their parents have been put to death by their country; how does anyone pick up the pieces of a childhood left that broken? What is most extraordinary about Meeropol, in fact, is how entirely ordinary he seems today. We meet in Berlin, where he is currently on a book and campaigning tour. Now 62, bespectacled and balding, he is every inch the liberal east-coast lawyer and grandfather he has become. Yet, as he's the first to point out, his life is permeated by the story of the parents he knew for such a short space of time: their legacy has taken up much of his life, certainly much of his last 30 years, and fighting against the death penalty, and being an advocate for children who suffer as he did because of their parents' politics, is now his full-time occupation.

Read the rest of the article.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I've dedicated my life

From yesterday's online edition of the (Indiana) Tribune-Star, "Anti-death penalty advocate brings message of Hope to Valley":

All the electricity in the execution chair won’t bring Bill Pelke’s grandmother back to life. And that’s just one of his points.

“I’ve dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty,” the 61-year-old retired steelworker said Sunday as he prepared for two presentations in Terre Haute on Tuesday.

On May 14, 1985, Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher in Gary, was murdered by four teenage girls inside her own home. According to Pelke, the four high school freshmen attended nearby Lew Wallace High School, where his own father had gone, and had decided to skip school that day.

The girls had been drinking and smoking marijuana when they decided to play video games at an arcade and needed money. One of the girls lived near a woman who was known to teach Bible lessons in her home, so the group went there and knocked on the door under the pretense of wanting a lesson.

Once inside, one girl hit Pelke over the head with a vase while the others stabbed her 33 times until she died.

Paula Cooper, then 15, was determined to have been the ringleader of the attack and was sentenced to death on July 11, 1986.

Pelke was in his 20th year at Bethlehem Steel, and at the time, fully in favor of executing his grandmother’s murderer.

But as he reflected on her life and the faith she had taught him, his views began to change. And when Pelke saw Cooper’s own grandfather forced from the courtroom for his emotional outburst at the death sentence handed “his baby,” he decided his grandmother “would have had compassion on her and her grandfather.”

What started as a simple prayer for the power to forgive began a transformation which Pelke described as life-changing, as he switched sides and crusaded for Cooper’s removal from death row.

More than 2 million signatures and Pope John Paul II’s request later, Cooper’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in 1989.

Pelke retired from Bethlehem Steel 12 years after his grandmother’s death and has recently authored the book “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing” in conjunction with 20 years of anti-death penalty advocacy, crossing 40 states and 10 nations to tell his story and make his case with his own Journey of Hope Organization and the Indiana Information Center on Abolition of Capital Punishment.

As Pelke explained, it wasn’t until he remembered his grandmother’s compassion that he could forget the way she died to celebrate the way she lived.

“I agree that society has a right to protect itself from violent people,” he said Sunday afternoon, noting that Indiana, like many states, offers a sentence of life without parole.

And broken down in dollars, the prison term often makes more sense.

“It’s cheaper to keep a person in prison for life,” he said, noting the cost of mounting a death penalty case can often be three or four times more expensive. But, “even if the costs were the same, I’d rather feed them than kill them,” he said.

Read the rest of the article.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Is it "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" punishment?

From the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, "Is the death penalty a cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment under international law?":

The United Nations's special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, caused a stir at the tenth session of the UN's Human Rights Council by releasing a report in which he recommended investigating whether the death penalty was a cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

“The differing views reached by the Human Rights Committee and other authorities in grappling with the question whether detention on death row and if various methods of execution are compatible with the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment suggest the need for a different, more fundamental approach to the matter”, he wrote.

His report draws a parallel with corporal punishment, deemed acceptable a few decades ago and now banned in international law.

While he acknowledged that the death penalty is not currently banned by global treaties, he suggested that a “more comprehensive legal study” be carried out to take modern interpretations of the law into account.

“I proposed to interpret the death penalty in light of the present-day understanding of 'cruel, unusual or degrading treatment and punishment',” he explained when he presented his report on March 12, 2009, adding that that notion “has been evolving”.

Two World Coalition member organisations with consultative status at the UN welcomed the report. In a statement on behalf of the World Coalition, the International Federation of ACATs (FIACAT) said the death penalty “should be banned in international law and opposed by all means”. It urged the Human Rights Committee to go ahead with the comprehensive legal study suggested by the rapporteur.

World Coalition members Penal Reform International, National Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, National Association of Criminal Lawyers and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights co-signed the statement. ...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Death Penalty Abolished in New Mexico!

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has signed the bill that abolishes the state's death penalty! At MVFHR we extend our hearty congratulations to all who have worked so hard for this, particularly the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which provided a great deal of support to its New Mexico affiliate.

From the beginning of this effort, the New Mexico Coalition has put victims' families front and center in the debate about the death penalty, and there are now two additional measures making their way through the state legislature that, if passed, will enable New Mexico to use the savings gained from ending the death penalty to provide a reparation award to children of murder victims, provide services and programs to murder victims’ families, and create a murder victims' family services fund. There's also another measure that would require employers to provide leave to crime victims to attend judicial proceedings.

When we argue that the death penalty is a distraction from the real needs of victims, it is then so important to pair abolition of the death penalty with efforts to enact policies that will in fact aim to meet the real needs of victims. We look forward to seeing these additional measures pass in New Mexico and hope similar legislation in other states will follow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What price?

From today's San Francisco Chronicle, Judy Kerr's op-ed piece, "On the Death Penalty: What price vengeance?":

My heart goes out to Chandra Levy's parents, Robert and Susan, who have waited almost eight years for an arrest to be made in their daughter's murder. While "closure" is a myth for those of us who have lost a loved one to violence, at least the killer's arrest and conviction will provide the Levys with some peace of mind. At least they will know that their daughter's killer is not out there on the streets endangering others and that he will be held accountable for his crime. I can only hope that this will happen for my family one day.

My brother, Robert (Bob) James Kerr, was found lifeless, shirtless, barefoot and without identification on July 12, 2003 in Everett, Wash. It took weeks for investigators to identify Bob. Like the Levys when their daughter went missing eight years ago, I spent those first weeks after my brother's disappearance not knowing where he was, hoping he was still alive. I struggled from my home in California to get the local officials to do more to find him. Five and a half years later, I am still waiting for a suspect to be named and for justice to finally take its course.

In many cities and counties across the United States, the majority of murders go unsolved and killers continue to walk the streets. In California alone, there are nearly 25,000 unsolved homicides from the past 20 years. Despite this alarming number, due to a continual shortage of funds, there are not nearly enough homicide or cold case investigators in most jurisdictions.

In the midst of California's mounting economic crisis, the situation worsens every day as local law enforcement officials are forced to make more cuts. Yet, at the same time, we continually throw our money away to fund a costly, ineffective and deeply flawed death penalty.

This is even more shocking given that we already have a safer, more cost effective alternative: replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Permanent imprisonment punishes killers, protects our communities, and provides victims and the community with peace of mind knowing that killers are off the streets. Forever. And it does so without wasting public safety resources.

In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a bipartisan blue ribbon panel created by the California Senate in 2004, unanimously concluded that California's death penalty is broken. The commissioners reported that the current failed system costs $125 million more each year than permanent imprisonment. It is time, the commission concluded, for the voters to think seriously about replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Given the economic turmoil throughout the United States, that is exactly what many other states are doing. Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, Nebraska and New Mexico are all considering legislation that would end executions in order to cut costs.

With the largest death row in the country and a fiscal emergency on our hands, I find it shocking and deplorable to think that California still invests hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in a broken death penalty while so many murders go unsolved.

Death penalty proponents often claim the death penalty deters crime even though the vast majority of studies are inconclusive at best. The death penalty has never been shown to be a better deterrent than permanent imprisonment. So what does deter murder? Catching killers. Right now, we are literally letting thousands of people get away with murder - that is a public safety crisis. It seems so obvious that our limited public safety resources would be better spent catching these killers.

As Robert and Susan Levy wait for the their daughter's murder to be solved, I will wait, too, for Bob's murderer to be identified and held accountable for taking my brother's life. In the meantime, I hope that we will all carefully consider what exactly we are sacrificing to keep California's death penalty alive.

Judy Kerr, an Albany resident, is spokeswoman and victim liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternative to the Death Penalty.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Execution in the Family

Robert Meeropol, Vice-Chair of the MVFHR Board of Directors, is in Germany this week on a speaking tour to promote the German translation of his book An Execution in the Family. Over the next couple of days he'll be at the Leipzig Book Fair, a huge gathering of publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers.

Robby's book is a powerful reflection on his experience as the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the U.S. government in 1953. Here at MVFHR we're glad to see that the book is attracting attention not only within the U.S. but in other countries, and we look forward to hearing about how German audiences responded to Robby's message.

Here's an excerpt from Robert Meeropol's page in MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories:

An attorney and long-time activist, Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990 to provide support to children of parents who have been harassed, jailed, or otherwise targeted for their progressive beliefs. He is the author of the book An Execution in the Family and has spoken against the death penalty throughout the United States and in Puerto Rico and Japan.

“As far as I know, no one has studied how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children. We don’t even know how many children have an immediate family member on death row in the United States today. Worse, we don’t know the effect that having a parent executed will have upon their impressionable lives, and the cost society may pay for that impact. As far as I can tell, no one has bothered to study this even though these children are all innocent victims of the state’s efforts to kill their loved ones.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Japanese edition of MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories

The Japanese Religious Network Against the Death Penalty has published a Japanese version of MVFHR's Gallery of Victims' Stories. They have translated the text of several MVFHR members' stories into Japanese, have added the story of Masaharu Harada, who is the founder of MVFHR's Japanese affiliate, and have included an introduction as well.

We are excited to know that the voices of these U.S. victims' family members and families of the executed will be heard in Japan and can be used to help strengthen victim opposition to the death penalty there. Of the 1,000 booklets printed, 350 will be distributed to members of the Religious Network Against the Death Penalty and the rest will be sold for a small fee; proceeds will benefit MVFHR and our Japanese affiliate, Ocean. We extend our gratitude to all those who helped to make this booklet available.

日本の、「死刑を止めよう」宗教者ネットワークは、MVFHRの「Gallery of Victims' Stories」 (被害者のストリー集)の日本語訳版のブックレットを発行しました。本はMVFHRの会員らの話とMVFHRによる前書きが翻訳され、Ocean(MVFHRのアフィリエート団体)の原田代表の話も含まれています。


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I was surprised to find

Some weeks ago the New York bureau of The Mainichi Newspapers, Japan's oldest news organization, contacted us at MVFHR about a series of articles they were doing (in connection with their Tokyo office) about the death penalty. In particular, they were interested to know if we could refer them to an MVFHR member who had been in contact with the inmate on death row who was responsible for the murder of their loved one. We referred them to Oregon member Aba Gayle. The result was this article, published in the Mainichi Daily News on February 24th:

Dear Mr. Mickey, 12 years ago, I had a beautiful daughter named Catherine. She was a young woman of unusual talents and intelligence. She was slender and her skin glowed with health and vitality. She had long naturally wavy hair that framed her sparkling eyes and warm bright smile. She radiated love and joy!

(When you took her life,) I knew that I had been robbed of my precious child and that she had been robbed of growing into womanhood and achieving all of her potential. I was very angry with you and wanted to see you punished to the limit of the law. You had done irreparable damage to my family and my dreams for the future. (But) after eight long years of grief and anger...I was surprised to find that I could forgive you.

In April 1992, Aba Gayle, 72, of Silverton, Oregon, wrote these words in a letter to Douglas Mickey, 60, the man sitting on death row at San Quentin California State Prison for the murder of her daughter. A few weeks later she received a thankful reply from Mickey, and in August of the same year Gayle went to visit Mickey.

Read the rest of the article.

Monday, March 9, 2009

More Connecticut testimony

As a continuation of Friday's post, here's more MVFHR member testimony from last week's Connecticut hearings. First, an excerpt from Antoinette Bosco's testimony:

In the Fall of 2005, I was greatly honored when I received an invitation from the Catholic Bishops to come to Washington, D.C. to participate in the work they called the “Catholic Campaign to end the Use of the Death Penalty. At their meeting in Washington, D.C. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn , set the tone, asking: “What does the death penalty do to us? What kind of society do we want to be?” He noted that this is “not a liberal issue, but a life issue.” And he underscored, “In the matter of life and death, no mistake is acceptable. Death is irreversible.”

The Bishops had invited me because I am the mother of murder victims. My son John and his wife Nancy were killed back in August 1993 as they slept in their newly purchased home in Montana, blown away by the 18-year old son of the people from whom they had just bought the house.

The Bishops wanted me to speak out and say why I and my family had become outspoken opponents of the death penalty. We gave our heart-deep, honest answer—that unnatural death is an evil, no matter whose hand stops the breath. We can punish killers by taking away their freedom, nor their breath.

I well remember when the Catholic Bishops first called for an end to the death penalty some thirty years ago. I was proud of my Church then, and ever since for its never wavering stand on how we must be people who always affirm life.

Now they are “renewing this call to seize a new moment and a new momentum…to bring about an end to the use of the death penalty in our land.” ...

And from Walt Everett's testimony:

I come today to urge you to abolish the death penalty, for the many reasons that others have given, but also for the benefit of victims’ family members.

My son was murdered in Bridgeport, CT, in 1987, and I lived for a year with intense rage – a rage that was destroying me emotionally and spiritually. I met other murder victims’ family members who had been struggling with this same debilitating anger for 15, 20 or more years, waiting for promised “closure”. Of course, when an execution takes place, the families do not find that “closure” that they had sought. Consequently, they have wasted many years of their lives waiting and then, when the relief doesn’t come, they must finally begin to seek a way to find some measure of healing.

In my own case, I ultimately forgave the offender, and thus began the path to my personal healing.

I realize that many people are unable to consider forgiveness. Yet another option, that of life without parole, would give murder victims’ family members the opportunity to begin healing at a much earlier date, shortly after hearing this sentence meted out.

Moreover, studies have shown that the initial cost of trying a capital case is far more expensive than the trying of any other case. Additionally, the cost mounts up when we consider the many necessary appeals.

The money saved by abolishing the death penalty could be well used for programs to meet the needs of victims’ families. In fact, New Mexico’s House recently passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, with the understanding that the money saved would be used for programs for victims’ family members. One of the deciding factors was a recent poll indicating not only decreasing support for the death penalty, but also the fact that fully 68% of those polled favor abolition of the death penalty if the alternative is life without parole plus restitution of some kind for victims’ family members. ...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Connecticut testimony

On Wednesday, MVFHR members Art Laffin, Toni Bosco, and Walt Everett presented testimony to Connecticut lawmakers at a hearing about a death penalty repeal bill. Here's an excerpt from Art Laffin's testimony:

My name is Art Laffin and I am a murder victim family member. I am also a Hartford native who lives and works at a Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C.

Nine years ago my younger brother, Paul, was murdered in Hartford, Connecticut. On September 20, 1999, as Paul was leaving Mercy Housing and Shelter where he had worked for ten years, he was stabbed to death by a mentally ill homeless man, Dennis Soutar, who often frequented the soup kitchen at the Shelter. My family and I were consumed with a sorrow that defies words. I still can’t believe what happened to my kid brother. My family and I and all who knew Paul still grieve his senseless horrific death. My brother truly gave his life for those he served.

Dennis Soutar was ultimately deemed incompetent to stand trial for killing my brother. Had he been deemed competent to go to trial, and was convicted, he could have faced the death penalty. He is now serving a 60-year sentence at the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.

After Paul’s highly publicized death, my dear late-Mom and I, through God’s amazing grace, appealed to the public to show mercy toward Dennis Soutar and to pray for him. We recalled that Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy.” “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” As Jesus is being executed He says to his persecutors: “Father forgive them.” My Mom and I were able to meet with members of the Soutar family--Dennis’ brother and sister-in-law -- and asked them to convey to Dennis our prayers for his healing. I pray for Dennis Soutar's healing and that he will experience God’s forgiving love. I also ask everybody here today to pray for Dennis' healing.

What happened to my brother is not uncommon, and has tragically occurred elsewhere in Connecticut and across the country. It is a societal disgrace that some of the mentally ill homeless, who fall through the cracks and are not properly cared for, end up committing violent lethal acts. During my eulogy for Paul, I asked that all necessary resources be made available to provide a continuum of care for Dennis and all other mentally ill homeless so that future tragedies like what happened to my brother might be averted.

My prayers go out to all family members throughout our society and world who are grieving the loss of loved ones who have been murdered. I know their pain and pray for their healing.

There are many people who believe that we have to kill the murderer in order to bring closure for the victim’s family. I believe that killing people who kill will never bring true closure and healing. Killing Dennis Soutar will never bring my brother back. It will never bring healing or closure for me and my family. The pain of Paul’s murder will always be there.

Certainly, individuals, and even corporations and governments who commit violent acts must be held accountable for their actions and make restitution to the victims’ families. But we must never sanction killing those who kill, no matter how brutal the crime. ...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Offering Help to Victims

From Sunday's Portsmouth (NH) Herald, "Voice for N.H. crime victims: Lawmaker files compensation bill":

The state spends millions prosecuting criminals, but not nearly as much when it comes to offering financial assistance to help out the victims of those crimes.
Of the 50 states that offer victim-assistance funds, state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said New Hampshire ranks last with the amount of compensation it makes available for victims of violent crimes.
"It's an embarrassment or what I like to call the New Hampshire disadvantage," Cushing said.
Cushing recently filed legislation that would fix the disparity and also make it easier for more people to take advantage of the fund.
Currently, victims of a violent crime are eligible to recover up to $10,000 related to out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance or other resources. States such as Massachusetts cap it at $25,000, while California allows up $70,000.
Cushing said his bill would raise the cap in the state to $100,000.
"We shouldn't abandon victims," Cushing said. "We have a responsibility to help them. And this is a fund that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime."
The costs of the program are paid by motor vehicle and criminal fine assessments and federal Victims of Crime Act grants.
Cushing said last year alone, seven victims reached the $10,000 limit.
"When people become victimized, they have some real needs," Cushing said. "And $10,000 doesn't go that far. You may need counseling or need help paying for the funeral."
Cushing said the reason he's so passionate about this issue is because he understands what it's like to be victim. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer.
Afterward, he supported a bill establishing the Victims' Compensation Fund in New Hampshire, which was approved in 1990.
"I remember my family getting a bill from the ambulance that transported my father's body from the home he was murdered in to the hospital," Cushing said. "I did not want to live in a society where we would send a widow a bill for watching her husband get murdered and then have her pay for it."
And when he returned to the state House in 2008, he said it was time to update the law.
Over the years, he has heard horror stories of a mother who couldn't afford to bury a child who was murdered or a victim of clergy sex abuse coming forward for help, but being turned away because it happened 20 years earlier.
Cushing said not only would his bill raise the cap, but it would also eliminate the statue of limits to file a claim.
"What we have learned in the last 20 years is that a victim of a crime does not always come forward right away, like victims of childhood sex abuse," Cushing said.
"Also, sometimes when a crime takes place, people shut down as a survival mechanism and they are not ready to deal with what took place until years later," Cushing said.
Another reform would include victims previously excluded, such as prisoners.
"Just because a person who is sent to the state prison because they passed a bad check doesn't mean they can't end up being a victim," Cushing said.
"They are there to serve their sentence, but that doesn't include being attacked or getting raped."
Other victims who would become covered if the bill is approved are surviving family members of a police officer killed in the line of duty and immigrants brought into the state for human trafficking.
The bill is in the House Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
Cushing said while nobody has spoken against the bill, he doesn't know if it will pass.
"The reality is victims are not an organized force in the state," Cushing said. "They don't have a lobbyist in Concord fighting on their behalf.
"I would hope it would pass. My hope with this bill is to ensure that we don't re-victimize people who have already been raped or lost a loved one. We should do what we can or at least offer what other states offer to make them whole."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

For the Sake of the Victims

Here's MVFHR member Gail Rice's testimony before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee. See yesterday's post for Gail's report on the hearing.

Perhaps some of you recognize this picture of my brother, and maybe some of you even attended his very public funeral eleven years ago, because he was killed in Denver. On November 12, 1997, my brother, Bruce VanderJagt, became the first police officer in the United States to be murdered by a skinhead. Bruce was trying to apprehend Matthaeus Jaehnig and a woman accomplice, Lisl Auman, at a Denver condo after a botched burglary attempt. Jaehnig used an SKS-assault rifle to shoot ten bullets into Bruce’s head and upper torso, killing him instantly. Many police were called to the murder scene, and Jaehnig, probably knowing that he would be sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer, exacted his own death penalty that day by committing suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Lisl Auman, Jaehnig’s accomplice, who had engineered the burglary and assisted him at the murder scene, was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole the following July. However, the CO Supreme Court overturned her conviction, and Lisl is now free.

My husband, Bob, and I were devastated by the murder. A great and heroic policeman was gone. His loving wife, Anna, and his daughter, Hayley, almost three at the time, faced a lifetime without him. All of us – Anna, Hayley, and I – have needed professional counseling to get through this tragedy.

At the time of Bruce’s murder, I opposed the death penalty primarily because I was convinced that it could never be applied fairly. I had worked for eighteen years in prison literacy and prison ministry, and I knew there was a very different standard of justice for the rich and the poor. After Lisl’s trial, I got involved with groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, which were composed of murder victim family members like me who opposed the death penalty and worked for alternatives to it, such as lifetime incarceration. Through working with these groups and also through learning about restorative justice, my opposition to the death penalty has deepened beyond my concerns about the fairness of the system. Would I have wanted Jaehnig to get the death penalty right after Bruce’s murder? I don’t think so. But now, knowing what I do about the death penalty, I know I would fight against the death penalty being carried out in any case, for any murderer – even Jaehnig, if he were alive.

Many politicians fight for the death penalty because they think that victim family members want it and need it. But I represent hundreds of murder victim family members across the country who do NOT want the death penalty. As a Christian, I find the death penalty morally reprehensible. And I oppose the death penalty not just for moral and religious reasons but because I believe that it hurts rather than helps victims. Prosecutors promise victims’ family members that they will finally experience peace and resolution when the death penalty is carried out, so families hang on to that lie for dear life, putting their lives on hold for years, sometimes decades, as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder. These family members are further devastated when they find that the death penalty, if it is carried out, does not bring them peace. If the murderers were instead sentenced to life without parole, those family members could have moved on with their lives.

For the last several years, I’ve given victim-impact statements to juvenile offenders on probation, in the hopes that it might help the juveniles not to re-offend. However, when the Cook County budget was cut two years ago, many services for victims were done away with. I wish I had the chance in Illinois to do what I’m doing here – to speak on behalf of a bill that would divert money used for death penalty cases to efforts that would help crime victims. Although there has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois since former Governor Ryan emptied death row in 2003, Illinois now has 13 new people on death row. The Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which funds capital cases, has spent $3-5 million dollars per death sentence, and that does not even include incarceration costs. I grieve that this money was not used instead for crime prevention, additional police protection, services for victims, and help in solving Illinois’ unsolved murder cases. Please, for the sake of the victims, pass House Bill 1274.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Report from Colorado hearings

A few weeks ago, Howard Morton, director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, contacted us about having an MVFHR member testify at a hearing on the bill that would repeal Colorado's death penalty and divert the funds to the solving of cold cases. Howard's group already had many victims' families planning to testify in support of the bill, but they also wanted someone who could represent a national organization of victim's families who oppose the death penalty. We referred Howard to Illinois member Gail Rice, whose brother was murdered in Colorado. Gail traveled to Colorado to testify last week, and she now writes with this report:

Howard Morton, leader of the Colorado group Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), asked me to represent Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and testify in Denver, at Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee meeting on February 23, 2009. The testimony was in support of House Bill 1274, sponsored by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, which would abolish the death penalty and direct the roughly $4 million a year to create a Cold Case Task Force in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to work on the 1,435 unsolved homicides in Colorado. Only one person has been put to death in Colorado in the past 45 years, and there are only two inmates currently on death row.

My brother, Denver policeman Bruce VanderJagt, had been murdered by a skinhead in Denver eleven years ago. Bruce’s killer then committed suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Since the case was so widely publicized, I suspected that many people in Denver would remember it, and they did. It was a great privilege to meet Howard and his wife, Virginia, who had worked tirelessly for years to organize and minister to victims. Their son had been murdered in 1975, and the case has never been solved. I could not imagine the agony of having to deal with a homicide or disappearance that was never solved – talk about a lack of closure! Even those murder victims’ family members who supported the death penalty were eager to give it up if it meant that resources would become available to solve their cold cases. The question of how to punish murderers wasn’t relevant for them when the murderers hadn’t even been captured. “We wound up saying, ‘We’re willing to trade vengeance for justice,’” Morton said.

I had never before seen such raw pain from so many victims’ family members. Emotional testimony went on, first from those who supported the bill and then from those who opposed it, from 3:00 until 10:00 that night. Family members held up pictures and posters of their loved ones. One family member, Tina Terry, told the House Judiciary Committee, “Don’t look at me and tell me how sorry you are for my loss. Do something.”

Attorney General John Suthers, several district attorneys, and others testified against the measure, arguing that the death penalty was necessary for some criminals. Proponents of the death penalty also shared tragic stories. Some supported increased funding for cold case investigations but begged Committee members not to abolish the death penalty to do it.

Just before the voting took place, some Committee members shared how they intended to vote and explained why. Several said, “This bill is really about the death penalty.” Then the committee approved the bill in a 7-4 party-line vote, with the Democrats voting in favor. That was a better margin than we had expected, and we rejoiced at the outcome.

The bill next goes to the House Appropriations Committee. Howard said that it should sail through that committee. It will be harder, though, to get the bill passed in the full House.

We'll post Gail's testimony here tomorrow.