Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Testifying in California - Part 1

Today, victims' family members -- among many others -- are testifying at a hearing regarding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's proposed regulations on lethal injection procedures. MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt is testifying in person, and several other MVFHR members have submitted written testimony.

Here's an excerpt from Bill's testimony:

Because I am so concerned about the effect of executions on the innocent family members of the person being executed, I am especially concerned about the section of the proposed regulations that details the procedure for escorting the various witnesses. Whereas media witnesses and witnesses from the victim’s family are to be escorted to and from the viewing area by an administrative assistant to the prison warden, witnesses from the family of the person being executed are escorted by a Correctional Officer. And whereas the other witnesses, under the proposed regulations, will be brought back to the designated staging area after the execution and given the opportunity to debrief and gather their thoughts, family members of the executed are to be immediately transported to the West Gate and processed out of the institution. There is no reason that families of the executed need to be treated as though they are a greater risk to the institution than other witnesses, and there is every reason that families of the executed ought to be given the same dignity and respect as other witnesses. Families of the executed are innocent people going through an intensely traumatic experience and ought to be treated as such.

And here's an excerpt from Renny Cushing's testimony:

Inevitably, a society’s fiscal decisions reflect its values. When considering the fiscal impact of the application of the death penalty, I submit that a society must also consider whether it is devoting a proportional amount of its resources to meeting the real needs of victims – which includes not only compensation and assistance in the aftermath of a murder, but also focused efforts to prevent future violence. If we truly value victims and want to do right by them, there are much more direct and genuine ways to achieve that goal than administering the death penalty to the perpetrator.

I also noted at the start of this letter that I am concerned about the impact of the proposed regulations on families of the executed. Within the membership of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights are many families of people who have been executed, and over the years I have come to a deeper understanding of exactly how the death penalty harms these innocent family members. In 2006, our organization released a report, based on interviews with three dozen family members of persons who have been executed, titled Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind. I have come to see that each execution represents an additional traumatic experience that compounds the tragedy of the original murder.

For this reason, I am concerned that, under the proposed lethal injection regulations, families of the inmate will be treated throughout the execution process as second-class family members, treated differently from the other witnesses and made to feel as if they are guilty by virtue of being related to the condemned prisoner. There is no reason that the procedures cannot be equivalent for each set of witnesses. We must take into account the human costs – and eventually the societal costs – of further traumatizing the relatives, particularly the children, of people being executed.

Finally, I am concerned that the proposed regulations do not adequately protect the rights of inmates with mental disabilities. The execution of defendants with severe mental illness has recently become an issue at the forefront of our concern at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and on July 6 we will be releasing a report titled Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness. In that context, I note that the proposed lethal injection regulations do not provide an inmate’s attorneys with any opportunity to contest a sanity finding that may be made just prior to the pending execution. We have seen elsewhere in the U.S. that inmates clearly suffering from severely disabling symptoms of mental illness have been executed, despite the violation that this represents of human rights norms and, potentially, of our own U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ford v. Wainwright. Counsel for the person about to be executed should have the opportunity to challenge the sanity finding of the psychiatrist provided by the prison warden, if counsel believes that such a challenge is warranted.

Speaking from my own personal tragedy and on behalf of the personal tragedy that each member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has suffered, I oppose the implementation of the proposed regulations on lethal injection.

Watch for more testimony here over the next couple of days.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Still arbitrary

Victims' families are among those gathering in front of the U.S. Supreme Court today for the start of the 16th annual four-day Starvin' for Justice Fast & Vigil. The vigil begins today on the anniversary of the Court's 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, which found that the death penalty was applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner, forcing many states to re-write their statutes.

Here's a summary of Furman from the Death Penalty Information Center:

"In 1972, the Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as applied violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Due to a lack of standards for imposing the death penalty, the Court ruled that the death penalty was being applied arbitrarily and capriciously."

DPIC quotes from Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion:

"These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. For, of all the people convicted of rapes and murders in 1967 and 1968, many just as reprehensible as these, the petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed."

In the section of its website that discusses the arbitrariness of the death penalty, DPIC goes on to comment,

"Three decades after sentencing guidelines were approved by the Court in Gregg, the death penalty is still being unpredictably applied to a small number of defendants. There remains a lack of uniformity in the capital punishment system. Some of the most heinous murders do not result in death sentences, while less heinous crimes are punished by death."

It's worth reading the rest of DPIC's information on abitrariness. And for anyone who is feeling especially historically inclined today, here is the full text of the Furman decision.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The same show, 10 years later

The excerpt from Brian MacQuarrie's book The Ride that I posted two days ago told about Bob Curley's appearance on a New England Cable News Show ten years ago. The experience of appearing on the show with Bud Welch, meeting another man whose child had been murdered and who opposed the death penalty, was the catalyst that began Bob's own journey of re-evaluating his previous support for the death penalty.

Yesterday, Bob Curley and Brian MacQuarrie appeared with New England Cable News host Jim Braude and reflected on that 1999 show, on the process of working on the book, on Bob's violence prevention work, and onhis deep feelings for other victims' family members, regardless of their position on the death penalty. It's a short segment, well worth watching.

And here is a good radio interview, on WBUR, with Brian and Bob, which also aired yesterday.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Change in Direction

Here's Bud Welch mentioned in another piece of writing, this time a story by Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, in the June 19th Huffington Post. The story is titled "Empty Arms on Father's Day."

On Father's Day we pause to acknowledge and honor the crucial role that fathers play in our families, our communities, and our nation. In the midst of the barbecues and the ceremonial exchange of ties and golf clubs, there are fathers for whom this must be the worst of times. For fathers who have lost children to homicide, it is a painful and poignant observance.

Bud Welch is a Board member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He lost his only daughter Julie Marie when she was killed in the Oklahoma City federal office building bombing.

Bud speaks about how Julie's murder affected him: "For about the next eight months, (after the bombing) I struggled with the thought of what's going to happen to these people, how am I going to get some peace," he said.

On a daily basis, he would visit the rubble where the Murrah Building once stood. "I was in deep pain nine months after the bombing," recalled Welch. "I was drinking too much; I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Eventually, the hangovers were lasting all day.

"I had this anguish about what was going to happen. The trials hadn't even begun yet, and I went to asking myself, once they (the people indicted for the bombing) were tried and executed, what then? How's that going to help me? It isn't going to bring Julie back."

Bud Welch is among the most dedicated of advocates for a change in direction. He and a growing number of families -- including some who take no position on the moral value of capital punishment, and some who support it -- are saying that in a world of limited resources we must choose those policies that will best serve the needs of victims. As with anything else, there are opportunity costs that come with the death penalty.

The question for us is whether maintaining capital punishment best serves those who need our support the most - murder victims' family members.

For many, more resources devoted to compensation, counseling, solving cold cases and punishment that is more certain, are a higher priority than the death penalty.

Meanwhile, as Father's Day approaches, I am at a loss to adequately respond to what my dear colleague Bud Welch must be feeling. I can only pledge to carry on the struggle that he and so many other fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers of murder victims are waging - the struggle to create a society that gives meaning to the terrible loss they have suffered--A society that does its level best to prevent the tragedy they have suffered from befalling another--A society that places the balance of resources on helping families heal and achieve what some have called "a new normalcy" in the wake of the worst that any one of us could possibly imagine.

For Bud Welch and other fathers experiencing empty arms on Father's Day, I wish you Peace.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How can they be against the death penalty?

I've now had a chance to read Brian MacQuarrie's new book The Ride in its entirety, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's almost a cliche to declare a book "essential reading," but I really do think this book is essential reading for death penalty abolitionists. It's a dramatic story of death penalty politics within a state, showing in close detail how victims' families are vulnerable to being used for political purposes and giving a gripping account of a last-minute vote change that kept the death penalty from being reinstated in Massachusetts in 1997.

But if I urge abolitionists to read the book, it's not only for these reasons; it's also because the story takes us so deeply into the devastation that a single murder causes, and shows how jagged and personal the process of healing is -- and how long it takes. Years after a murder, when people might expect a grieving family to be well on the way to recovery, the family may in fact be dealing with new layers of pain, and this is what Brian MacQuarrie's account of the Curley family's experience shows so well.

The Ride is a hard book from which to choose an excerpt, because what I really want to say is "go read the whole thing." But here are a couple of passages from the account of Bob Curley's appearing on a television program in the spring of 1999 with Bud Welch, who had come to Massachusetts to participate on a speaking tour with other victims' families who were against the death penalty. Bob Curley, at this point, had, by his own description, "led the fight to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts," and he had been reluctant to appear on the television program with Bud but had eventually agreed:

When [the host] asked Bob if he could accept an iron-clad guarantee of life without parole, the harshest sentence allowed under Massachusetts law, Bob answered, "My position on the death penalty hasn't changed." [The co-host] then asked, "How would you feel if Sicari and Jaynes [the men responsible for the murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley] were killed by lethal injection?"

Before Bob could answer, Welch interrupted. The questions were unfair, he said. Jeffrey's death was still fresh, the pain too near, to consider any option other than revenge. Bob would never get over Jeffrey, Welch continued, and he would miss him every day. But with time, Welch suggested, maybe "he'll learn each day how to live that day a little bit better."

Bob glanced quickly in Welch's direction, again avoiding direct eye contact. But his demeanor had softened. To Bob's surprise, his supposed sparring partner had not come to castigate him or diminish him. Instead, this folksy, gray-haired man had accepted his grief and understood his rage. The exchange touched Bob, who also connected with Welch when the Oklahoman spoke of his swift, unsettling transition from anonymous citizen to high-profile spokesman for a controversial cause. ....

After the television camera had been turned off, Bob and Welch moved quietly to the front of the studio, where two limousines were scheduled to return them separately to Somerville and Cambridge. When only one car arrived, Bob unexpectedly found himself in the awkward position of sharing a ride with Welch and Renny Cushing, who were bound for Harvard University and a speaking engagement ... . During the ride to Cambridge, Cushing spoke about his father. Welch spoke about his daughter ..., And Bob, who mentioned the death penalty only briefly, spoke about the details of Jeffrey's death, as well as his ongoing efforts to bolster child-safety programs. But for most of the ride, the three men shared their stories, forged through pain and perseverance, about the task of coping with extraordinary evil.

Bob had never participated in such a discussion. In previous encounters, the relatives of murder victims had always supported the death penalty. This was new, unexpected, and confounding. Welch and Cushing both seemed like regular guys, men who spoke straight from the heart and who both knew firsthand the horrible pain of murder. How can they be against the death penalty? Bob asked himself.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Friday in 1953

Today is the 56th anniversary of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. June 19th was a Friday in 1953, too, which has given this past week an additional resonance for Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs' younger son who is now the director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (and MVFHR Board Vice-Chair). Each day week, Robby has been posting on the RFC blog a short account of his memories of that same day in 1953. Read the entire week's postings here.

It is also very much worth taking a few minutes today to watch these video clips from the RFC's 2007 event, "Celebrate the Children of Resistance," during which actors Eve Ensler and David Strathairn read the last letters that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg wrote to their children. The letters are extremely moving and remind us that, amidst all the political controversy surrounding the Rosenbergs' execution, theirs was also an execution that -- like so many in the years since -- left behind a grieving family.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Working in Japan

MVFHR board member Toshi Kazama is on his way to Japan to do some valuable MVFHR work there. Toshi will be speaking to several public audiences, meeting privately with victims' families, and working with local organizers to plan an MVFHR speaking tour in 2010.

The public audiences Toshi will be addressing include several university groups, the Japanese Religious Network Against the Death Penalty, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Police Headquarters, two hospitals, a meeting with officials from a juvenile detention center. He will also be meeting with members of Ocean, our Japanese MVFHR affiliate.

We'll have a more detailed report on the trip once Toshi returns.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Today's Boston Globe has a great review of Brian MacQuarrie's new book The Ride, which tells the story of MVFHR member Bob Curley. We'll be posting a couple of excerpts from the book soon, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt from the review by Chuck Leddy:

Bob Curley would become an outspoken advocate for capital punishment in Massachusetts. About his son's killers, he'd tell one television interviewer, "Let's go get them and put the hurt on them. Until people are willing to make a stand, it's just gonna keep going on and on." MacQuarrie offers a detailed account of the passionately fought legislative battle over establishing the death penalty. Just when it looked like the pro-death-penalty position had won, one legislator (Representative John Slattery) switched sides and voted against the measure, defeating it.

MacQuarrie describes how deeply involved Bob Curley would become in the battle, as he lobbied legislators face-to-face and even verbally attacked a few opposing State House demonstrators. Upon seeing one man with a sign opposing the death penalty, writes MacQuarrie, Curley "began screaming uncontrollably."

Although Bob Curley and his family would commit themselves to passing the death penalty in Massachusetts, they were psychologically devastated by Jeffrey's death. MacQuarrie gives us a visceral account of how this trauma affected the Curleys, especially Bob.

MacQuarrie writes of how Bob Curley's encounter with a man named Bud Welch triggered a long process of soul-searching about the death penalty. Welch's daughter had been killed in the Oklahoma City bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh, yet Welch opposed the execution of McVeigh, and the death penalty. "I always thought that if you were against the death penalty, you were a wimp," recounted Curley, but clearly Welch was no wimp. Despite his own experiences, Curley would gradually change his views on the death penalty.

MacQuarrie's account, besides explaining the impact of a terrible crime on a family and a community, also describes how it transformed a single man. It's clear from MacQuarrie's account that Bob Curley's rage could have easily destroyed him (or possibly led him to destroy others), but the book's biggest revelation is how Curley got beyond the hate to discover something positive in himself and in others. "The Ride" is a fascinating story of loss, profound anger, pain, and the difficult, soul-searching aftermath of trauma.

From India

MVFHR was mentioned in a column published yesterday in The Morung Express, an English-language Indian newspaper. The column, titled "Justice, not revenge," was written by Bikram Jeet Batra, a lawyer and researcher who is working on a book about the death penalty in India).

The column begins:

In India, public support for capital punishment is quoted as the reason for continuing a practice that is increasingly being discredited worldwide. Yet, apart from half-baked media surveys and television SMS polls, there is no serious evidence to support this claim After every prominent, violent crime that takes place in the country, a recurring media response is the call for enhanced punishment and, almost inevitably, for the death penalty.

Further on, after some discussion of the media and of politicians, there's this:

While the rhetoric of the media and the politicians can be dismissed, the call for retribution and revenge cannot be ignored when it comes from a family member of a victim of a crime. It is important, however, to distinguish between a call for justice and a call for revenge killing. The thin but important line between the two demands is often ignored by the media, as also – rather conveniently – by those advocating the death penalty. Yet some families do and will call for the death sentence as an appropriate response to the murder of a loved one. Neither statistics nor human rights arguments are likely to convince them otherwise. Instead it is only time and effort spent by abolitionists working along with community and religious groups and engaging with such victims’ families that will make a difference.

In a context where family members of victims are looking for closure, a public barrage calling for revenge can easily override other views and emerge as the sole option. It is here that the role of organisations like the Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) is vital. MVFHR, as the name suggests, is an organisation made up of families of murder victims that has been crucial in asserting the importance of a societal response to murder being consistent with human rights. They argue that no death sentences should be carried out in the name of the families of victims, who should be allowed to speak for themselves. Although no such organisations exist in India, there have been instances of families responding in this manner, including – most famously – the sons of Mahatma Gandhi who sought the commutation of the death sentence awarded to their father’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. More recently, the family of murder victim Jessica Lal also asserted their moral authority, calling for a conviction of the guilty as a just response instead of resorting to the rhetoric of the death penalty.

Many families of victims demand the death sentence under pressure from peers and the public or because they believe that there could be no justice except the death sentence. In the Indian context, misinformation also plays a major role since most laypersons are unaware of the intricacies of the law on life imprisonment and mistakenly believe that it means only 14 years in prison. Unfortunately, with the real voices of such families rarely heard, manipulations and hijacking by those pushing a pro-capital punishment or other political agenda is common. A prime example is the mobilisation of the family members of those killed in the Parliament attack by some politicians to further the cause of their own organisations of ostensibly combating terrorism. This is inevitable unless abolitionist or progressive groups address the real issues and concerns of victims’ families instead of ignoring them.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Gathering with World Coalition members

Renny is in Rome, representing MVFHR at the General Assembly Meeting of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The Coalition's press release says:

Organized at the invitation of the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the founding members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the General Assembly will be an opportunity for WCADP members to gather, share experience about the current situation of the capital punishment, and establish new strategies for its universal abolition.

The World Coalition, seven years after its creation, will hold its first annual general meeting as an independent organization in the Italian capital, where it was founded informally in 2002. The number of NGOs, trade unions, local authorities and bar associations involved has increased eight-fold between the two Rome meetings. The World Coalition hopes to reach 100 members covering 40 countries in 2009.

And from the Coalition's website, a summary of the group's plans for the coming months:

Following the campaign against the death penalty in China in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, the focus on Asia for World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2008 and the successful co-ordination of lobbying efforts to secure a second UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in November, World Coalition members are set to design fresh campaigns for the coming months.

The title of the 2009 World Day will be “Teaching abolition”. Member organizations will target higher secondary school students by encouraging teachers to organize abolition-related activities. The World Coalition is putting together a pedagogical kit to help teachers in that task. Law school students are a secondary target group.

Later this year, the World Coalition will also launch a campaign to encourage 10 target countries to ratify the UN’s Protocol to abolish the death penalty, which makes it illegal for state parties to ever reintroduce capital punishment. The World Coalition is already planning campaigns for 2010, including a World Day focus on the United States and participation to the drafting of the UN Secretary General’s report in preparation for a fresh UN General Assembly debate on the moratorium issue.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One of the earliest leaders

This op-ed by MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing appeared in today's Concord (NH) Monitor:

The effort to abolish capital punishment in the United States follows in large measure from the late 18th- and early 19th-century "anti-gallows" movement, which opposed public hangings. One of the earliest political leaders to call for ending executions, public or otherwise, was New Hampshire Gov. William Badger. This month marks the 175th anniversary of Badger's asking the New Hampshire Legislature to abolish capital punishment.

In his address, Badger compared the possible punishments for capital crime in New Hampshire relative to their effectiveness: solitary confinement in prison for life versus the death penalty.

"As expressed in the Constitution, 'the true design of all punishment is to reform and not to exterminate mankind,' " Badger said. "No one will attempt to controvert the principle that 'the prevention of crime is the sole end of punishment,' and 'every punishment which is not necessary for that purpose, is cruel and tyrannical.' If then the principle is admitted, that the sole end of punishment is the prevention of crime, two questions arise: How shall the offender be disposed of so as to prevent a repetition of the offense? And what punishment shall be most effectual in deterring others from its commission?"

Read the rest.

Film Clip from Germany

In May, three members of the Journey of Hope, including MVFHR board member Bill Pelke, toured Germany, speaking at a total of 32 public events. The German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Amnesty International have posted clips of a short film that was made of one of the public events. Here is the one of Bill Pelke's portion of the event, in which he talks about his grandmother's murder, his initial support for the death penalty, and his eventual activism in opposition to the death penalty.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Victims' Compensation and Restorative Justice

Continuing yesterday's post, the two other victim-related bills that Renny Cushing sponsored during this session and that are now on their way to the New Hampshire Governor (having passed in the House and the Senate), are:

A bill that expands the categories of those who are eligible to file victims' compensation claims. Specifically, the bill amends the existing victims' compensation law to include "a family member of a law enforcement officer, an inmate at a state or county correctional facility, and an individual who is not a citizen of the United States or who is not a legal alien."

Regarding the types of claims that may be made, the new additions are in bold:

The claimant may be reimbursed for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, medical expenses, funeral expenses, counseling expenses, rehabilitative expenses, expenses associated with the victim’s participation in post-conviction proceedings and victim-offender dialogue programs or other restorative justice programs, and lost wages directly resulting from the crime.

And speaking of restorative justice programs, that's the other bill that Renny sponsored: "An act relative to access to restorative justice programs by victims of crime." That bill, in summary, "adds the right to access to restorative justice programs including victim-initiated victim-offender dialogue programs offered through the department of corrections to the victim bill of rights and requires the office of victim/witness assistance to provide information on such programs."

These bills, together with the Crime Victims Equality Act (see yesterday's post), offer activists in other states some powerful examples of progressive victims' rights and criminal justice legislation. Alongside the death penalty repeal bill that got some good attention in New Hampshire this session and the death penalty study commission bill that just passed, they present a vision (and now also a reality!) of the possibilities within anti-death penalty and pro-victim lawmaking.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

First in the Nation

Yesterday, the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill that will create a death penalty study commission; we'll post further news about that as we get it. MVFHR Executive Director and New Hampshire State Representative Renny Cushing has also been able to introduce several innovative bills that expand the rights of crime victims in the state, and we are thrilled that these too passed in the Senate yesterday (having already passed in the House).

One of these is the Crime Victims Equality Act, which "provides that crime victims shall be guaranteed all federal and state constitutional rights on an equal basis. The bill also provides that crime victims shall be treated equally under the law regardless of the victim’s position on the death penalty." The act amends the existing law regarding the rights of crime victims by inserting the following text:

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.

Back in 2002, when Renny and I worked together to produce the report DIGNITY DENIED, which detailed the unequal treatment that victims who oppose the death penalty sometimes receive from judges, attorneys, and victims' rights advocates, Renny drafted model legislation that he hoped states would use to ban this kind of discrimination. He said this morning, "When we published that model legislation, it never crossed my mind that I would be the lawmaker sponsoring the first bill to become law in this country banning discrimination against family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty."

Hats off to Renny for having the leadership and vision not only to conceive of an idea but to see it through to becoming a reality. May other states follow New Hampshire's example and pass their own Crime Victims Equality Acts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Hate Diminished Me

Victims' family members were among those participating yesterday in the protests throughout the state of Texas against the 200th execution under Governor Perry. The Texas Moratorium Network has a video clip of Dr. Jerry Williams, brother of a murder victim, speaking at the Huntsville protest.

The Moratorium Network says:

Williams' sister was brutally murdered and her killer only spent 15 years in prison. His remarks at the 200th execution protest was the first time he has spoken publicly about the murder of his sister. He explains why he doesn't believe in execution. "I hated him. I wanted to see him die. I wanted to see him suffer in prison. And I thought justice would be done only in the way, but what I realized over time was that my hate really diminished me. It damaged me and did nothing for him."