Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Powerful reading

Great to see that Michael Landauer, who maintains the Dallas Morning News's blog about the death penalty, posted yesterday about MVFHR's latest newsletter, with its feature on changing one's mind about the death penalty. He writes:

A lot of people opposed to the death penalty have stories of conversion, but none could possibly be more powerful than those who have been victimized by the crimes eligible for such a punishment. The family members of murder victims are often assumed to be of one mind on the death penalty. I know of no study that quantifies what percentage may be opposed, and I doubt we could ever really know, but the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights has asked some of its members to walk us through their own conversion stories. It's powerful reading.

Michael Landauer has also linked to one of our posts about families of the executed here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Day of Remembrance

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims

Today is a National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. It is a day to hold the victims of murder in our hearts and minds not as statistics but as distinct individuals, each unlike any other. It is a day to acknowledge each homicide as a singular, incomparable tragedy and to recognize that each homicide is a theft of a unique, irreplaceable, deeply loved human life, representing a world of devastation for the victim’s surviving family and friends.

Today Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights joins with other victims’ groups across the United States in honoring our loved ones’ lives and renewing our commitment to working toward a better world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Submit a Loved One's Name

This Friday, September 25, is National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, and we will be posting and circulating a public statement from MVFHR on that day. We also want to let you know ahead of time about the Virtual Vigil that the Counseling Center for Trauma and Grief has set up, because names of those to be commemorated through this vigil must be submitted by midnight on the 24th. Here is the info:

In Commemoration of the
On Friday, September 25, 2009

The Counseling Center for Trauma & Grief
A 501 (c)(3) Non-Profit Organization
Will Sponsor a Virtual Vigil

To Light a Candle In Memory of a Loved One
Who Died Due to an Act of Violence
Please Visit: www.CCTGNJ.org

Participation Instructions
1) Enter the web-site www.CCTGNJ.org
2) Select “EVENTS” listed at the top of the page.
3) Select sub-heading “DAY OF REMEMBRANCE.”
4) Complete form to request the inclusion of your loved one’s name.
5) Allow at least 24 hours to pass before returning to website.
6) Select “IN MEMORY” listed at the top of the page.
7) Select sub-heading “SEPTEMBER 25, 2009.”

Names will appear in the order they are received, starting September 15, 2009.

All names of loved ones must be submitted before
Midnight, September 24, 2009.

Talk about Anger

Are victims' family members who oppose the death penalty so full of understanding and compassion that they never feel anger or outrage? In the latest issue of our newsletter, victims' families speak to this question:

I think sometimes when the anti-death penalty movement tells the stories of victims’ families who oppose the death penalty, there isn’t enough attention given to the anger that we have felt. It’s normal to feel that way, and it’s not like people who have gotten through it are better than people who haven’t.

I wish the psychiatrist had known to say to me, “It’s normal to cry so much you can’t function. It’s normal to be so angry you can barely breathe.” I don’t think we talk about the anger enough; victims’ families need to know that the anger is OK, that we have to go through it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Changing One's Mind

Another valuable feature of our latest newsletter is the section "Changing One's Mind About the Death Penalty," which focuses on victims' families who initially supported the death penalty and then gradually came to change their minds. Here's an excerpt from the interview with Bob Curley; I encourage you to check out the whole feature:

I knew that if we did get the death penalty reinstated in Massachusetts, it wouldn’t apply to the men who killed [my son] Jeffrey, but I thought maybe if we had the death penalty, people would think twice before doing this kind of thing to some other child. My main thing was that I wanted to prevent this from happening to someone else. And I think at some level, working for the death penalty offered me a kind of distraction from my own pain. It gave me something else to focus on, a goal, an idea that I might be able to do something good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Parallel Justice

Our fall/winter newsletter is now up (and in the mail), and it features -- among other things -- an interview with Susan Herman, former director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Professor Herman is widely recognized for developing the concept of "parallel justice," which she has defined through this summary:

When we consider justice for victims, we must always begin and end by asking what victims need to rebuild their lives and what society owes them. We should not start with the criminal justice system as our point of reference.

In her interview in the MVFHR newsletter, Susan Herman said:

If we honored a societal obligation to help victims rebuild their lives, if we said that that is an essential ingredient of justice, then I think we would start to redesign the response to crime so that there would be one path to justice that is offender-oriented, where we hold a trial and prosecute and all the rest, and another path to justice that is designed to help victims get back on track and reintegrate them into productive community life.

The reason I call this parallel justice is that I wanted to emphasize that there should be a set of responses to victims that are independent of and can be contemporaneous with the criminal justice response. The prosecution may be happening but at the same time that victim should be given a range of services that have nothing to do with how the prosecution is going. Victims shouldn’t have to feel like their access to services is contingent on whether the prosecution is successful.

Read the rest of the interview, which includes examples of how parallel justice is being put into practice, here. (Scroll down to page 4 of the newsletter.)

I also encourage readers to explore Susan Herman's extensive writing on this issue, including this text of a speech she gave in 2000, "Seeking Parallel Justice."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Automatically Welcomed

In his post today on the Texas Death Penalty blog, Dallas Morning News editor Michael Landauer offers these comments on the idea of closure for victims' families:

The story this week about a widow struggling with the upcoming execution of her husband's killer illustrates a difficult truth about the death penalty: It is not automatically welcomed by families.

I have spoken with and read about families torn apart by disagreements over the death penalty for the killer of a loved one. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case here. The family is uncomfortable with the death penalty, but in their case, the unremorseful killer doesn't exactly make them want to oppose his death.

What bothers me is that pro-death penalty people often argue that we owe it to these families to kill the people who took so much from them. That they deserve closure.

I have three main objections to this logic:

1. It is demeaning to families to assume that execution will give them closure. I doubt the living victims of these crimes will ever fully gain closure. The word, I think, some want to use is vengeance, if they were totally honest. To the extent that close is possible, it seems wholly unrelated to the death penalty. To be sure, some families reach what can be described as some degree of closure merely with conviction of killers, and the vast majority of killers are not executed. So why, if you believe in closure, do you only support the highest levels of closure for some families?

2. We do not set punishments based on what might make victims feel better. That's not justice. It's not at all part of the legal standard, which focuses instead (and rightly so) on future dangerousness and the facts of the crime itself.

3. Even if you have no objection to emotion being used to justify punishment or with the assumption that executions ease the pain of the victim's family, you totally ignore the impact on other blameless people involved: The killer's family, the members of the victim's family who oppose execution. The destructive effect on these lives might be worth it, I suppose, if you could guarantee that the victim's family members who want execution feel that elusive closure, but I've never heard of a case where a family walked away from an execution and said, "There, now we're even and we can all move on." That's simplistic fiction that takes no account of others who are blameless in the loss of human life.

We're glad to see the idea of closure being questioned in this way. If you haven't already, take a look at the special issue of MVFHR's newsletter that focused on the topic "Rethinking Closure."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Same Wounds are Reopened

Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle today:

As the family member of a murder victim, I applaud District Attorney Kamala Harris' promise to seek permanent imprisonment, not the death penalty, for Edwin Ramos ("Death penalty decisions," Sept. 11).

The death penalty only prolongs a family's wait for justice. By keeping the case open during the extensive, but necessary, appeals process, the same wounds are reopened again and again. Condemning Ramos to permanent imprisonment will take him off the streets and allow the Bologna family to begin healing.

Although there is no "closure" when a loved one is murdered, families do deserve justice. Catching killers provides that. My brother Bob was murdered in 2003, and today, his murder remains unsolved. While we waste millions of dollars on a broken death penalty, most murders in California remain unsolved.

Permanent imprisonment is a better alternative: It allows victims' families to begin their healing process immediately while taking killers off of our streets forever and freeing up public safety resources.

My deepest sympathy goes out to the Bologna family. I hope that justice is delivered swiftly so they may begin their own path to healing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hanging By a Thread

Amnesty International has just released a report titled Hanging by a Thread: Mental Health and the Death Penalty in Japan, which is a valuable follow-up to Amnesty's 2006 report on The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders in the U.S. and also complements our own recent report, Double Tragedies.

Here's a paragraph from the introduction to Hanging by a Thread:

The effect of mental illness on the behaviour of an offender has long been recognized as a factor in determining culpability and appropriate punishment for crime. The application of the death penalty against prisoners who were “insane” at the time of their offence or who subsequently became insane has been prohibited for centuries in some jurisdictions. International human rights standards prohibit the imposition of the death penalty on, and the execution of, the mentally ill. This report examines the issue of mental health and the death penalty in Japan and is prompted by continuing reports of mentally ill prisoners in Japan being executed or detained in harsh conditions awaiting execution.

The report details several specific stories and also contains valuable discussion of international human rights law and of the death penalty in Japan in general. It has gotten some good press coverage. For example, this CNN story said:

Japan executes such prisoners despite signing an international law that requires inmates with serious mental illness to be exempt from the death penalty, according to Amnesty. The report urged the government to establish a moratorium on executions and consider abolishing the death penalty.

And here's a clip from The Associated Press story:

The report focuses on five male inmates currently on death row. Amnesty International, which staunchly opposes the death penalty, had no direct access to the prisoners. It relied on interviews with family members, lawyers and medical reports to conclude that they are likely suffering from mental illness.

Japan's Justice Ministry had no comment on the report, ministry official Akihiro Ishi said.

Japan, along with the United States, is one of the few industrialized countries that still has capital punishment. The practice has long been criticized by rights groups and the main Japanese bar association, but there is little public outcry or indication the government will stop its executions, which are all done by hanging.

Executing mentally ill prisoners would put Japan in violation of U.N. standards for individuals facing the death penalty. Amnesty International is calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions in the country.

Friday, September 11, 2009

We need a new way to understand

On this anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, here are some words from our Gallery of Victims' Stories from family members of victims killed in those attacks:

From Loretta Filipov: "After Al was killed, some thought we would feel differently and want revenge. My family and I would have liked nothing better than to have Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists from Flight 11 brought to an open trial and given 92 life sentences; one sentence for each person aboard that flight. But they and the other terrorists also killed themselves on that day. What kind of a world do we want for future generations? We can see from the present course we are following that violence only begets more violence and killing only leads to more killing. It is possible to have justice without revenge and hate. The death penalty is not the answer.”

From Terry Greene: "We cannot afford to enact measures that give the illusion of safety while doing nothing to deter killings. The death penalty has proven ineffective as a deterrent. It only promotes the acceptability of taking lives, a cycle which must instead be broken."

From Robin Theurkauf: “I am opposed to the death penalty because it sanctions violence and revenge as justice. We have somehow become socialized to believe that if we do not kill the author of a horrific crime, justice has not been done. We need a new way to understand a just response to horrible crimes that does not include more violence. When we exercise the death penalty we become in some way what we deplore."

And from Anthony Aversano: “If I let hatred consume my life from that terrorist attack, then that act of terror would have taken more than my father, more than those many other lives and more than those buildings, it would have taken my life too! If I let that happen, then the tragedy of that one day would poison me forever."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's not going to bring me peace

From an article in the September 6th issue of the Evansville (IN) Courier & Press:

If Mary Winnecke wished death upon Eric Wrinkles, it would be easy to understand why. Wrinkles is a death-row inmate at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. He stands convicted of killing three people, including Winnecke's daughter, Natalie Fulkerson.

Natalie was only 26. Her death left behind two orphaned children and a world of pain for surviving loved ones. And Eric Wrinkles was the cause of it all.

But to understand why Winnecke wants Wrinkles to live — well, that's the story.

Winnecke says her Catholic faith compels her to oppose the death penalty and to pray for her daughter's killer. She does not believe the state should put Wrinkles to death, even though he ended Natalie's life.

"What right do they have to kill in her name?" Winnecke said.

This summer, Winnecke started a letter-writing campaign on Wrinkles' behalf. Columns in the Catholic Diocese of Evansville's weekly newspaper, "The Message," have outlined Winnecke's desire that fellow death-penalty opponents join her in writing to Gov. Mitch Daniel's office asking that Wrinkles' sentence be commuted to life in prison, and to end the death penalty altogether.


Winnecke wasn't always opposed to the death penalty. But when the topic came up in a Bible study group, she started to think and pray about it. Over time — she can't remember exactly when — she grew convinced that the death penalty is wrong in all cases.

Winnecke's opposition to the death penalty puts her among a growing number of Catholics who feel the same way, according to a local theology professor.

"For many faithful Catholics, opposition to the death penalty is consistent with our respect for all life from conception to natural death," said Mark Ginter, associate professor of moral theology at St. Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind.

In 1980, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

And from later in the article:

The trauma of the brutal crime affected Winnecke mentally as well as emotionally.

Winnecke used to work as a legal secretary. Since Natalie's death, Winnecke said her ability to think in a linear fashion — her sense of time, her ability to remember daily details like friends' names — has been shattered.

"I don't go 'A-B-C' any more. The mind just doesn't do it," she said.

Winnecke holds Wrinkles fully responsible for his crimes.

"He deserves to spend his life in jail. He murdered three people. All his rights should be taken away," Winnecke said.

Even so, thinking of Wrinkles' execution fills Winnecke with dread.

"It's not going to bring me peace. It's not going to bring me nothing. ... It's just going to be a horrible day, the day he dies," Winnecke said.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Coverage in Mental Health Weekly

I've just gotten the copy of Mental Health Weekly that has an article about our collaborative project with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The publication isn't available online (except by subscription), so I can't link to it, but here's an excerpt from the article:

A new report released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is calling the death penalty as a response to homicides committed by persons with severe mental illness (SMI) “inappropriate and unwarranted.” The report is being supported by families of murder victims who, for the first time, are joining families of persons with mental illness to speak out about the death penalty.

The focus should be on affordable and appropriate treatment to help prevent or minimize the risk of violence committed by some individuals who experience acute psychotic symptoms of mental illness, according to the report, released during NAMI’s annual convention earlier this month.

The report, “Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness,” is a joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an international organization of relatives of homicide victims and relatives of people who have been executed. ...

The same standards established for defendants with mental retardation and juveniles in dealing with the death penalty should also apply to defendants with a serious mental illness, said Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs for NAMI.

The driving force for the project involves families of people who have been murdered and families of people who have been executed, he noted. Families on both sides came together last October in San Antonio, Texas, to share their stories, and begin the conversation of advocating for those with mental illness, said Honberg. This gathering marked the official launch of the project, titled “Prevention, Not Execution,” to bring a new perspective to the debate about whether persons with severe mental illnesses should be exempt from capital punishment, he noted.

“There’s a public perception that murdered victims’ families support the death penalty,” said Honberg. While some do, more victims’ families are for human rights and support the mission to end the death penalty for offenders with SMI, he noted.

A person with SMI who is executed or is on death row only adds to the tragedy and to the pain, and does nothing to prevent future tragedies, Honberg noted. NAMI advocates continue to advocate for better services in the community, such as housing, and for other improvements to the mental health system, he noted.