Wednesday, December 22, 2010

UN General Assembly Votes for Death Penalty Moratorium

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution caling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. This is the third time the General Assembly has passed such a resolution, and this year more countries supported the resolution than the last time the vote was taken.

We were pleased to see that Mongolia voted in favor of the resolution (reversing its previous vote) and South Korea abstained. MVFHR has done work in both countries in support of the resolution.

Here's the news story:

United Nations, Dec 22 (PTI) The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution appealing nations to impose a moratorium on the use of death penalty, the third such step by the world body against capital punishment since 2007.

The resolution was adopted by 109 votes in favour, 41 against with 35 abstentions at the UN General Assembly''s plenary session in New York.

More UN Member States supported the resolution this time than the previous vote in 2008 and the number of votes against it have noticeably decreased, confirming a worldwide trend towards putting an end to capital punishment.

Under the resolution, the countries that still maintain the death penalty are being called upon to progressively restrict its use, to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed, and to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing it.

Countries which have abolished the death penalty have been urged not to reintroduce it.

Following the resolution, Amnesty International urged all countries that retain the death penalty to establish an immediate moratorium on executions as the first step towards abolishing the death penalty.

"The UN General Assembly today sent once again a clear message that the premeditated killing by the state must end," said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International''s representative at the UN in New York.

"The minority of countries that continue to use the death penalty should immediately establish a moratorium on executions as the first step towards ending this ultimate denial of human rights," Diaz said.

When the UN was founded in 1945 only eight states had abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

Today, 136 out of the 192 UN member states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Bhutan, Kiribati, Maldives, Mongolia and Togo changed their vote from 2008 and now support the moratorium.

In a further sign of progress, Comoros, Nigeria, Solomon Islands and Thailand moved from opposition to the moratorium in 2008 to abstention today.

"These positive changes are an encouraging development towards abolishing the death penalty everywhere. We now hope to see national legislation introduced to remove the death penalty in these countries as soon as possible," added Jose Luis Diaz.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Let's focus on victims' families

I just came across this letter by Jane Lemeland in the December 2nd edition of the Concord (NH) Monitor:

Let's focus on victims' families
After witnessing the meetings of the study commission on the death penalty in New Hampshire, I'm convinced that we should shift our focus from seeking revenge on perpetrators to providing for the needs of victims' families.

We spend a fortune seeking death penalty convictions while offering minimal support to victims' family members.

Most family members who spoke said they did not want the murderer put to death. We heard repeatedly that the death penalty retards closure and healing for those left behind, while expensive appeals drag on for decades. Several family members felt that the death penalty took away their opportunity to forgive, which they saw as necessary for healing.

How much better it would be if we offered these families adequate psychological support, retraining for wives, and financial help with college education for children.

Life in prison without parole, the alternative to the death penalty, is a moral and more humane sentence. Yet it requires the perpetrator to live with the consequences of his actions rather than allowing an early exit. It's time that we repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire and instead use our resources to take better care of victims' family members.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I stand firmly

From Friday's Charlotte (NC) Observer, this op-ed by MVFHR member Charisse Coleman:

My brother was murdered and I support ending the death penalty
From Charisse Coleman, a writer and mental health counselor in Durham:

Every time we talk about ending the death penalty in North Carolina, someone throws out the old question: What if someone in your family were murdered? How would you feel then?

For most people, that ends the discussion. Not for me.

In 1995, a man walked into the liquor store where my brother worked as a stock clerk and shot him to death. The killer wanted the contents of the cash drawer. For reasons we will never understand, the man launched the robbery by shooting Russell three times in the back, while leaving two other employees unharmed. He now awaits execution in Louisiana.

It was a senseless crime, and it has sometimes been hard over the last 15 years to keep this single event from turning me into someone I don't want to be. Someone more interested in vengeance than justice, for instance.

Precisely because I refuse to let a murderer sour my soul and embitter my life, because I refuse to let him dictate to me the limits of my capacity to heal and thrive, I stand firmly with the growing number of North Carolinians who believe that we must stop looking to a deeply flawed capital punishment system to soothe our anger and grief over violent crime.

One senseless killing need not beget another.

We absolutely must deal with violent crime in this country, an epidemic that needs to be addressed with forceful, creative energy. But I can't help recognizing: Russell died because a man saw killing him as the answer to a problem. What sense can there be to society using a murderer's methods to solve our problems?

A poll released this week by the Fair Trial Institute shows that North Carolinians have serious concerns about the capital punishment system. Sixty-four percent - conservatives, moderates and liberals - said either that they favored ending the death penalty, or were unsure if it should used at a cost of more than $11 million a year. Nearly 70 percent said executions should be stopped until all the evidence can be heard in cases where the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or misrepresented evidence. Nearly 60 percent said defendants should not be executed if racial bias played a role in their case.

SBI agents lied about the results of blood tests in hundreds of cases. Their dishonesty helped secure death sentences. Despite these revelations, recent news reports show that little has changed in the state lab that handles evidence.

Also in the past few months, new studies show racial bias is alive and well in North Carolina. One study found that killing a white person makes you almost three times more likely to get a death sentence than killing a black person.

We cannot continue executing people under these circumstances, despite the pain that crime has caused in my family.

In my brother's case, the killer was a career criminal, and police suspected him of murdering at least six other people. At 13, the killer savagely beat someone with a lead pipe.

Still, I feel no better knowing that the man who killed my brother is on death row, or that when and if he exhausts his interminable appeals, his sisters and brother will feel the same grief I do.

The killer's execution will change nothing. Not for my family. Not for the community. Not for the cause of justice or peace. Russell will still be dead. Another death will not help us to heal from that loss.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Speaking in Asia, Part Two

(See yesterday's post for Part One)

In Mongolia, Toshi lectured at two universities and then at a police academy in UlaanBaatar, addressing an audience of several hundred students in training to be police officers.

Here, he is speaking to students at Mongolia University:

And here he is addressing the police academy group and showing his photographs of death row inmates, victims' families, and others involved in the issue.

Here we see the audience of police officers in training, listening to Toshi's presentation.

All these events were valuable opportunities to introduce listeners to aspects of the death penalty that they had not previously considered, including the idea of victims’ family members opposition to it.

In addition to his lectures, Toshi also held several valuable meetings. He met with a man who had been released from Mongolia’s death row after being found innocent, with the country’s Japanese ambassador, with a member of Parliament, with a Capital Judge, and with advisors to the President of Mongolia. He also gave an interview to a newspaper journalist.

This photo shows the meeting with the Judge:

And, here, Toshi is meeting with advisors to the President of Mongolia:

This trip to Mongolia, in particular, was vital in terms of its timing. The president of Mongolia has publicly announced his opposition to the death penalty, but over 80% of the country's people are believed to be in favor of the death penalty. Thus the president needs a great deal of support from the international community to carry the momentum of his original statement of opposition to the death penatly and to implement that into law before his term is up in 2012. Toshi's trip on behalf of MVFHR in November was a step in this process.

In Japan, Toshi gave several more university lectures; he spoke at Sofia University, Tsuda University, and Hitotsubashi Law school. He also lectured to a religious group at Kameoka, Kyoto, gave media interviews, and participated in a meeting of the board members of Ocean, MVFHR’s Japanese affiliate group. As Toshi traveled throughout Japan and met with activists there, he engaged in useful brainstorming discussions about developing an effective anti-death penalty campaign in this country. Meanwhile, the feedback from MVFHR's speaking tour in Japan, Taiwan, Province of China, and South Korea this past June has been extremely positive.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Speaking in Asia, Part One

Our Asia liaison Toshi Kazama returned in late November from a lecture trip to China, Mongolia, and Japan. I've just caught up with him and gotten his report of the trip, which I'll post in a series over the next couple of days.

In China, Toshi delivered three lectures in the city of Xian: one at Jintao University, one at a bookstore, and one at Northwest Law School. All were well received.

Here’s a photo of the event at Jintao University:

And the group at Northwest Law School:

Here’s Toshi at the China Against the Death Penalty office:

From China, Toshi traveled to Mongolia in collaboration with Amnesty Mongolia. In this photo, he is meeting with members of their staff and board.

Tomorrow, photos and a brief report of Toshi's public presentations and meetings in Mongolia.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It Hurts Everyone

From yesterday's Sacramento Bee, this op-ed piece by Linda Owens, "Execution ripped open old wounds":

Five years ago Monday, the man convicted of murdering my husband, Albert Lewis Owens, and three others was executed at San Quentin State Prison. His name was Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Just as I felt the night of the execution, I still don't believe that the community, my family or I gained anything from Williams' execution.

Albert was a good person; honest, kind and a good father. He served in the U.S. Army and Navy and cared deeply for our country. I miss Albert's smile, his laughter and his wisdom every day.

We married in 1969 and were joined by our daughters in 1970 and 1973. On Feb. 28, 1979, less than 10 years after our wedding, our lives were irreparably changed when Albert was shot and killed while working at a 7-Eleven in Whittier.

Like many victims, I hadn't thought much about the death penalty before Albert was killed. However, Albert had, which I learned after we saw a news story about a local death penalty case. Albert said that the death penalty was wrong; there were too many problems with the system, the risk of executing the innocent was too high, and he didn't believe we had the right to take another human being's life – it was God's decision, not ours.

I agreed with my husband, but when I learned of Williams' sentence, I didn't object. I was more concerned with the loss of my husband and having to raise our children without him.

I did not know anything about the death penalty, and nobody explained the process to me, so I believed that Williams was executed shortly after sentencing. My children grew up and grandchildren began to arrive. They all knew how Albert had died but didn't know the details, and they believed that a man had been executed for the crime.

Twenty years later, however, the state of California contacted us and we learned that Williams had not been executed, but that he would be on Dec. 13, 2005. My entire world changed again in that instant.

I kept hearing death penalty proponents argue that Williams needed to be executed "for the victims." Knowing that my husband opposed the death penalty, I knew that Williams' execution was certainly not being done for Albert. Death penalty proponents also argued that the execution would bring closure to the victims' families. What they failed to realize is that there is no closure for victims. The only closure after an execution is the closure of government files.

In my case, the execution actually reopened old wounds. After 20 years of healing, all of a sudden I had to relive the horrible details of the case. With the media blitz surrounding the impending execution, I could no longer hide the details from my children and grandchildren. We were a family in crisis.

The death penalty has a domino effect – once it starts it doesn't stop. It hurts everyone. It re-traumatizes victims' families, precludes healing for decades after the crime and creates a second group of innocent victims: the offender's family.

I don't believe that we should let killers out on the streets, but there are more constructive ways to spend money than on the death penalty. If we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the safe and swift alternative, California would save $1 billion in five years. Victims' families, including the offender's family, aren't equipped to handle the loss of a loved one to homicide or an execution. The money saved could be spent on counseling services that we victims need to deal with the trauma of our losses.

There is no punishment that can ever make victims whole again. We can never get what we really want: our loved ones at our sides, sharing our lives. But with permanent imprisonment, at least we can put our resources toward improving the quality of victims' lives.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Human Rights Day

Today is International Human Rights Day, marking the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDR) in 1948.

I always like to quote Sister Helen Prejean's observation, in her book Death of Innocents, that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of the ideal that the Universal Declaration represented. Helen writes:

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

We are, of course, still working toward that day, and although there is a great deal left to do, we can also appreciate that 62 years after Eleanor Roosevelt made her argument, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty.

Today is also the 6th anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Six years ago, the founding group gathered at the UN Church Plaza in New York City, offered public testimony, and signed a document stating, "In the name of victims, we pledge to end the death penalty around the world."

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

University Events

Kate Lowenstein represented MVFHR this past Saturday at an event at Harvard University titled Dead Man Walking: An Encounter with Capital Punishment in America. After students from Harvard's Law and Divinity Schools performed a theatrical reading of Dead Man Walking, several panelists, including Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, discussed the issues raised by the play and described their work in the area of the death penalty. Kate was able to bring the perspective of victims to this panel presentation and, in particular, to emphasize the need to understand and engage with victims' experience.

Tomorrow evening, Renny Cushing and Laura Bonk will speak to a group at Southern New Hampshire University, again bringing the perspective of victims to a discussion about the death penalty.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cushing statement, part 2

Renny Cushing's statement to the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission. Continued from yesterday's post.

From my perspective, I believe there needs to be what Victim Advocate Susan Herman has identified as a parallel system of justice for victims of crime, including co-victims of homicide. Parallel Justice seeks to identify those who have been hurt by criminal acts, asks what the harm is the victim has suffered, and strives to take actions that mitigate and repair the harm that has been done to victims. This process need not be dependent upon the actions or status of the criminal offender, but is done out of a recognition of community responsibility and solidarity.

The two general areas that have the greatest impact upon victims of crime are the impunity of criminals and reparations for victims. Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss.” Victims’ concerns about impunity focus on the actions of criminals, stopping those who engage in murder and criminal activities from committing further crime and holding them accountable for the crimes they have committed. Reparations for victims of crime focus upon those who have been harmed by homicide and other crimes, and attempt to address the harm to mitigate and repair the damage. Prioritizing ending the impunity of murderers and providing help and support to victims are important to the healing process a survivor of a murder victim must go through.

Testimony before the Commission demonstrated that, whether one supported or opposed capital punishment in theory, the reality of the death penalty system in practice is it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make the public or police safer, it is prone to mistakes that snare innocent people, and it is not a good use of scarce public resources. And rather than being some kind of a balm for the pain for murder victims family members, it is both a perception and a reality that the death penalty is a distraction from meeting the overall needs of survivors of homicide victims.

It is clear from a look at our past that New Hampshire dislikes the death penalty. In the 380-year history of New Hampshire there have only been 24 executions, the last one being in 1939. Two of those executions are reminders of current concerns about the death penalty: wrongful convictions and race. Ruth Blay, put to death in 1768, was the last woman executed in the state, and was, according to some historical accounts, “wrongly” executed. Thomas Powers, executed for rape in 1796, was an African-American man who is the only person ever executed in the state for a crime that did not involve the murder of another person.

Capital punishment involves only a tiny fraction of murders committed in New Hampshire, and when the state decides to seek a death penalty it is a radical departure from the norm. As a rare event, seeking a death penalty in a murder case signals that, from the perspective of the state, all victims are not of equal value. The willingness to devote a disproportionate amount of resources to prosecute a death penalty case in comparison to other murder cases, calls into question the government’s commitment to all victims. No matter what the Attorney General or the legislature or the media believe to be or attempt to designate as the most heinous homicide that demands a ritual killing of the murderer by the state, for every person who has had a family member murdered, the worst, the most painful, the most awful and heinous murder is the murder of their loved one. Whether intended or not, implicit in the decision to mobilize resources to seek a death penalty is the message to family members of murder victims where the death penalty is not sought that the life of their parent or child or sibling or spouse is somehow of less value than the life of the person for whose murder the state seeks an execution. There is a perception among many victims that this creation by government policy of a hierarchy of victims in some way damages to the memory of their murdered loved one.

The state of New Hampshire has demonstrated the willingness and resolve to spend millions of dollars from the state’s general fund on both the prosecution and defense of a single killer charged with a capital murder. As the Commission met, the state has been in the midst of a severe budget crisis that has impacted justice and public safety--- police and prison guards are being laid off, courthouses are shuttered on some days, and crime victims calling the victims assistance commission are greeted with a voice message instead of a human being. And, at the same time the state has focused limited resources in pursuit of a death penalty, the state spends no general fund money to fund compensation for victims of crime, including surviving family members of homicide victims, and no general fund money on the investigation of cold case homicides.

The Commission heard testimony of how, just days after the arrest of Michael Addison for the murder Officer Michael Briggs, the Attorney General went before the Fiscal Committee and Governor and Council to request and be granted $400,000 for the prosecution of that one homicide. This request was made under a little known provision of state law, RSA 7-12, which permits the Attorney General to obtain funds outside the regular budget process of appropriating state general fund dollars. In contrast to this, during the 2009 session of the legislature, the Attorney General’s office opposed proposed legislation that would enable the Attorney General to obtain funds under RSA 7-12 for the Victims Assistance Commission to provide financial support for crime victims.

This raises the question: Why is it more important to the legislature and Attorney General of the state of New Hampshire to fund a death penalty prosecution than it is to provide compensation and assistance for the families of murder victims and other victims of crime?

Instead of making it a priority to spend millions of dollars to pursue executing a prisoner, the legislature should prioritize policies of parallel justice for crime victims, with the funds being spent to pursue the death penalty and other resources redirected to focus on meeting the needs of murder victims’ families.

To that end I make the following suggestions for action by the legislature to help further secure justice for crime victims:

Remove the sunset provision from the law that set up the Cold Case Homicide Unit and, by statute, establish the unit as a permanent operation, with its own line item in the state budget. It is currently scheduled to go out of existence on June 20, 2011.

As part of the state’s commitment to find justice for all homicide victims, the legislature should provide an annual appropriation from the state’s general fund equivalent to $15,000 for each outstanding unsolved murder to support the work of the Cold Case Homicide Unit. Based upon the current list of approximately 115 unsolved murders, this would amount to an appropriation of $1,725,000. a year, a fraction of the cost of a single death penalty case. I note that this figure is also less than the $1,778,000. “to construct a lethal injection chamber to address the potential of future capital crime convictions” that is included Department of Corrections Comprehensive Master Plan of July 10, 2008 that was provided to the Commission.

Raise or eliminate the cap on the amount of money surviving family of homicide victims are eligible to receive from the Victims Assistance Fund. With a limit of $25,000 on the amount of assistance a victim can receive, New Hampshire ranks near the bottom of states in their support for victims. The state of Washington, for example, caps compensation at 100,000, while the state of New York has no cap on medical expenses.

End the 2-year statute of limitations on when a survivor of a homicide victim must apply for assistance from the Victims Assistance Commission. The impact of homicide is long lasting, and sometimes needs of a victim, such as counseling for PTSD, do not manifest themselves until years after a murder. There is not a statute of limitations for prosecution for murder; there should not be a statute of limitations on providing help for survivors of murder victims.

Establish, fund and provide sustaining support for a support group for survivors of homicide victims. At the present time there is no existing group or network in the state where those who have been harmed by homicide can find peer support and interaction. It is incredibly isolating to go through the experience of the murder of a family member, and the inevitable retraumatization that victims experience though the criminal justice system. It is axiomatic that the only person who can truly understand what that process is like is someone who has shared a similar experience.

Enact victims’ leave law to require employers to give unpaid leave to their employees who are survivors of homicide victims to attend trials and other legal proceedings-- similar to the way we treat jurors. It is often important to a victim’s effort to reclaim control over their life that victim gain information about the murder of their loved one and to bear witness by observing trials. Public policy should recognize this need for victims.

Recognize the impact of murder on families is long lasting and multi-generational and establish a fund to provide post secondary education to the children and spouses of murder victims.

Amend RSA 7-12 to authorize the Attorney General, when necessary to meet the needs of victims of crime, to seek and obtain funds outside the regular budget and appropriations process. As a matter of fairness and justice, it should be equally as important to ensure that crime victims receive assistance as it is to see that criminals are prosecuted.

In addition to diverting attention from the needs of victims, the death penalty system can sometimes operate ways that does some victims harm.

The death penalty can divide and damage families. Because “death is different”, and because individuals have deeply held beliefs about the morality and utility of executions, unlike any other punishment the death penalty sometimes creates irreconcilable conflict amongst the surviving family members of murder victims. At a time when mutual support to weather a shared loss is so important, disagreement over the death penalty, instead of helping bring families together, creates fissures and compounds the tragedy of murder.

The death penalty fosters a hierarchy of victims. Depending upon one’s perspective, family members of murder victims are often judged by others on their position on the death penalty, and get divided into categories of ‘good victims” and “bad victims.” Sometimes family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty have their love for their murdered family member challenged—opposition to the death penalty is taken as sign that that they really didn’t love parent/sibling/child. Or, opposition the death penalty is taken as an implication that somehow the victim must be responsible for his or her own murder. Or ,opponents of the death penalty are dismissed as either psychos or saints—crazy for not wanting to see the person who killed their loved one executed, or uncommonly holy for this earth. In some instances opposition to the death penalty results in denial of status and rights under victims rights laws. Fortunately New Hampshire recently amended it Victims Bill of Rights to guarantee equality of treatment for all victims irrespective of their position the death penalty, but subtle prejudices against some victims based upon either their support or opposition to the death penalty remain.

The death penalty puts the media spotlight on murderers and makes rock stars out of killers. Efforts to seek and carry out the death penalty draw attention to the person facing execution. In the process, the life and good work of the victim can be ignored or impugned. In the minds of the pubic, executions turn offenders into victims, and they gain celebrity in their death. Everyone knows the name of Tim McVeigh, but no one knows the name of Julie Welch or any of the other 167 victims of his crime.

The death penalty creates additional victims. When a prisoner is executed, that person is often someone’s parent, someone’s child. The Commission gave no consideration to the impact the death penalty has upon the family of the condemned, but when the state carries out an execution his or her surviving family member become family of a homicide victim. The faces of that family are hidden by silence and shame, but we cannot ignore the reality that the innocent children of killers put to death are impacted ways society, as a whole, has never examined.

The death penalty is a false promise to victims. Proponents of the death penalty put forth the notion that an execution can be a solution to the pain experienced by a survivor of a murder victim. Offering up this promise of a ritual event represents a fundamental misunderstanding of a victim’s journey. Healing is a process, not an event. When public employees take a killer from a prison cell, strap him on a gurney, putting a needle in his vein and pump him full of poison to kill him, that is not, as my retentionist colleagues on the Commission assert, and act consistent with a standard of decency, it is an act of despair. Executions do not accomplish the thing that victims want above all else—they do not bring back their murdered loved one.

The hardest thing for a victim to do is accept that they cannot change the past. But what they can do, what they need to do, is make decisions about the future, about how they lived their lives. Sometimes victims get so fixated on how their loved one died that they almost forget how their loved one lived. Our broken death penalty system, with its years of delays and other problems, holds a victim’s focus, and society’s’ focus, on the killer, anticipating and expecting an event, the event, the killer’s execution. If and when an execution occurs, another coffin is filled, but, sadly, very little changes for the victim. Their loved one is still dead. What sometimes ends up happening is the murder claims two victims: the person killed by the murderer, and the person who is the survivor of that person who was killed, whose life gets claimed by a system that is a set up for failure.

At the end of the day the death penalty is not about those who kill, it is about us. We, as a society, become what we say we abhor, killers. I don’t want the state killing in my name.

As a citizen, as member of this Commission, and as the son of murder victim Robert Cushing, I view the death penalty not as a criminal justice sanction, but as a human rights violation. I aspire to live in a society, in a world where human life is cherished and the dignity of all is respected. As a parent I choose hope and optimism for the future, for my children and the world in which they will live, and I believe that history is on the side of those of us on the Commission who support repeal of the death penalty. New Hampshire can live without the death penalty, and I know the day will come when capital punishment is abolished.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cushing statement, part 1

Statement of Commissioner Renny Cushing to the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission:

There were a number of family members of murder victims who appeared before the Commission to share their personal experiences with homicide and the criminal justice system. They expressed their opposition, as victims, to the death penalty. As I listened to their testimony, and as I do when I listen to the experiences of any family member of a murder victim, whether they support, oppose, or have no opinion on the death penalty, I felt a sense of shared experience, empathy, and solidarity. My father, Robert Cushing, Sr., was shotgunned to death in front of my mother in our family home two decades ago. For me, thinking about what should be done after a murder happens is not just an intellectual exercise; it’s part of my life. The pain that is difficult to give words to, the emptiness and trauma, are part of my personal reality that I brought to the work of the Commission.

I served on the Commission with two other family members of murder victims: Bob Charron, whose son Officer Jeremy Charron was murdered in Epsom in 1997, and Brad Whitney, whose father Eli Whitney was murdered in 2001. Although we ended up disagreeing about the death penalty, their presence on the Commission was important to me. At times when a witness or a member of the Commission would embark on an explanation of legal intricacies or the theories and arcane points about statistical analysis, I would get a sense that somehow the reality of the murder of real people was getting lost in the process. It was good to know I was not the only person in the room who felt in his gut that this was not just a theoretical discussion. I thank both Bob and Brad.

The courageous voices of family members of murder victims the Commission heard from came from diverse backgrounds, and the details of their tragedies and losses were illustrative of the complexity of murder. They shared in common a belief as co-victims/survivors that the death penalty system is not something they embraced, and recommended its repeal. They differed in their reasons for opposing capital punishment, and the process by which they came their position was unique to each person. Among the voices the Commission members heard from were:

Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, who opposed the execution of terrorist Timothy Mc Veigh;

Gail Rice, whose brother Bruce VanderJagt was a Denver police officer killed in the line of duty, who spoke of her experience of a law enforcement family member opposed to the death penalty;

Nancy Filiault, whose sister Kitty, her daughter Rachel and son Kyle were murdered during a brutal home invasion;

Arnie Alpert, whose grandfather Charlie Alpert was murdered with a claw hammer in his hardware story;

Andrea LeBlanc, whose husband Robert Le Blanc was killed in the World Trade Center during the September 11th terrorist attack;

Carol Stamatakis, whose father Emmanuel “Mike” Stamatakis was murdered in his store in 1997, a murder which remains unsolved;

Sandra Place, whose mother Mildred Place was murdered in New Jersey, who shared the nightmare her family experienced as the death penalty elevated the killer in the media into a notorious prisoner;

Laura Bonk, whose mother Laura Hardy was murdered and whose sister, who was shot at the same time as her mother, years later still struggles to recovery from years of surgery she underwent as a result of the shooting;

Ann Lyczak, whose husband Richard Lyczak was murdered, and she and her son injured when attacked while riding in their car;

Bess Klassen-Landis, whose mother was murdered when Bess was 13, and the killer never apprehended;

Bob Curley, whose son Jeffrey was kidnapped by pedophiles, sexually defiled and abused and murdered and then his body was tossed in a river on the Maine-NH border. Bob shared the story of how after his son’s killing he led the effort to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts, but now opposes capital punishment;

Margaret Hawthorne, whose daughter Molly Hawthorne MacDougall was murdered in Henniker on April 29th of this year, who, even as she awaits the trial of the man accused of killing Molly, found a way in her pain to bear witness in her daughters memory to ask the Commission to recommend abolition of the death penalty.

Clearly it must be recognized and acknowledged that those witnesses, and all family members of murder victims, are stakeholders in the discussion and public policy debate about what should be done, by society and individuals, in the aftermath of murder.

The presence of those family members and their sharing of their experiences was a gift to the Commission. It was, therefore, disappointing to me that when it came time for the Commission to deliberate about what we had learned over our year of work together and what our findings and recommendations should be, we failed to discuss or explore in any depth as a group the complicated and painful experiences of people who have had family members murdered, and the individual and family journeys of survivors after lives had been shattered by a homicide.

I’d like to think that, despite the best efforts of Judge Murphy and all of us to keep on schedule, maybe we as a Commission just ran out of time for such a complicated discussion. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been more useful and appropriate for the legislature to direct the Commission to begin an examination of the death penalty by asking and answering this fundamental question:

“What are the needs of the surviving family members of murder victims?”

(Renny's statement continues in tomorrow's post.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NH Study Commission releases final report

Today, the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission is releasing its final report after a year of work. The 22-member commission voted 12-10 to retain New Hampshire's death penalty, as this news story reports.

While we are, of course, disappointed by the final recommendation of the Commission, we also know that the testimony presented to the Commission during its many hearings provides a substantial and powerful record of problems with capital punishment. Victims' family members testified at several of the hearings, and we know that that testimony persuaded one Commission member to vote for abolishing the state's death penalty. Here is an excerpt from the statement that that Commission member, attorney Sherilyn Burnett Young, submitted:

I came to the first meeting of the Commission with an open mind, prepared to listen to the testimony and consider the evidence both for and against the death penalty. Unlike many around the table, I had no strong feelings either in favor of or against the imposition of the death penalty. At the end of an extensive, educational and emotional process of hearings and deliberations, I have concluded that I am opposed to the death penalty.

In my view, the evidence before the Commission did not demonstrate that the death penalty is a meaningful deterrent to the commission of murder. I am concerned that the decision to seek the death penalty may be arbitrary and unfair, despite the best intentions of the decision maker, and therefore cannot be constitutionally applied. I believe that putting a murderer to death through a state proceeding is not consistent with societal standards of decency – an overwhelming majority of those that testified were against the death penalty, and the death penalty has been rejected by most of the Western world. The religious community throughout New Hampshire is united against the death penalty. And the costs to seeking the death penalty are substantially greater than seeking a sentence of life without parole.

While there are several factors that lead me to oppose the death penalty, one above all was the testimony I heard from the family members of murder victims. To my great surprise, the testimony of these witnesses was overwhelmingly opposed to the death penalty. I believe that life without parole is an acceptable alternative to the death penalty, and far better serves the interests of the families of murder victims. It provides for relatively swift justice to be served, placing the murderer out of public view for the remainder of his life, and lets the healing process begin for the families who have themselves been victimized.

Tomorrow we will post excerpts from Renny Cushing's statement and recommendations.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cities for Life

Today, 1307 cities around the world are participating in "Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty", an annual event organized by the Italian Community of Sant'Egidio. This international event commemorates the 1786 abolition of the death penalty by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first such abolition by a European state.

For Italian readers, here is an article about the event, describing the participation of murder victims' family members Marietta Jaeger Lane, Bud Welch, Bill Pelke, and Ron Carlson.

This write-up, posted yesterday at the online version of America magazine, a Catholic weekly, gives a good, brief description of Cities for Life:

Tomorrow is the the anniversary of the first ever abolition of the death penalty by a state -- the Grand Duchy of Tuscany on 30 November 1786 -- celebrated for the past few years as the International Day of the Cities for Life campaign organised by the Rome-based Catholic community of Sant'Egidio. It begins tonight with a vigil in Rome; 1,300 other cities across the world -- 61 of them capital cities -- in 85 countries will light up a monument or a square, to declare themselves against the death penalty. It is the largest international mobilisation against the death penalty there has ever been, bringing together local governments and civil society organisations under the slogan, "No justice without life".

Monday, November 22, 2010

Knowing too clearly

From yesterday's Northwest (Illinois) Herald, this guest column, "Time to Repeal the Death Penalty in Illinois":

The death penalty in Illinois, currently under moratorium, is broken.

People sentenced to death sit on death row for years and years with no execution in sight. Murder victim family members wait for something to happen and suffer years of uncertainty. Whether you support the death penalty or not, we all know that this simply is not working.

So the question is what to do about it. Should we lift the moratorium, shorten the process and execute at a faster pace? Or should we drop this failed policy once and for all?

I have the strange and unique position of truly being able to view it from all sides. My husband, Gary Gauger, was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of his parents, a crime he did not commit. The state of Illinois, having no physical or eyewitness evidence, convicted Gary based on an alleged confession obtained after hours of interrogation filled with lies and omissions intended to get him to confess.

Gary was sentenced to death despite having no prior incidents of violence. The funny thing is, when there is scant evidence to convict, there is nothing to show a mistake was made either. Gary’s innocence was proven by mere happenstance. A totally unrelated federal investigation of a violent biker gang revealed facts from an informant as to the real killers of Gary’s parents.

Two men eventually were convicted of committing their murders. Since Gary’s brush with death row, our family has met dozens of other death row exonorees who spent decades in jail before their innocence was revealed.

If we were to shorten the process, we would clearly increase the number of executions of innocent people in our state. It is so hard to undo a conviction once it is obtained, and I wonder if there are others who have been wrongly imprisoned but have no federal investigation to happen to set them free.

On the other hand, my family lost two vibrant beautiful human beings to senseless violence. We are glad that the real killers were apprehended and convicted. We also are glad that they did not receive death sentences.

Knowing too clearly why the death penalty process can’t be shortened, we would not want to go through years of appeals and constant media attention that death sentences deliver. A sentence that assures our safety and ends our involvement with the legal process allows us to begin to move forward with our lives.

Resources that would be spent in endless appeals could be given to surviving family members who have very serious long-term needs with little available help.

It is time to admit that the death penalty cannot be fixed, and that the moratorium causes additional pain to murder victim family members.

The legislature should repeal the death penalty and increase funds available for homicide survivors.

• Sue Rekenthaler and Gary Gauger live on their family farm in Richmond.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A kairos moment

Today at the Kairos Conference in Atlanta, MVFHR members Bud Welch, Renny Cushing, Marietta Jaeger Lane, and Bonnita Spikes are speaking on a panel titled "Healing and Restoration After Loss: Murder Victims' Family Members and How Faith Communities Can Foster Restorative Justice."

The Kairos Conference is sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Here's a description:

Now is a kairos moment on the death penalty. It’s a new day – a special time – to which more and more religious communities are awakening. The Kairos Conference: Discerning Justice and Taking Action is a national conference marking this kairos moment for the religious community and all concerned people in the United States to learn, discern, pray, and choose to act on the death penalty. It is the first interfaith conference on religious organizing on the death penalty in the United States this century.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Advocating for Treatment, Not Execution in Tennessee

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt and David Kaczynski were speaking in Tennessee last week. Here's coverage from the November 10th edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, "Justice system fails those with mental illness, advocates say":

In 1995 after David Kaczynski read the anti-technology manifesto of the Unabomber -- a mysterious mailbomber wanted by the FBI for nearly two decades -- he recognized the writings of his older brother, Ted.

The idea that his brilliant yet increasingly isolated brother could commit murder was beyond belief, David Kaczynski recounted Tuesday to more than 220 attendees at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's University Center.

"I was literally considering the possibility that my brother was the most wanted man in America," he said.

But David Kaczynski argued Tuesday that justice is not applied equally.

In 1999 California executed a decorated yet traumatized Vietnam War veteran, who'd been turned in to police by his brother, Bill Babbitt.

On Tuesday Bill Babbitt said he'd hoped his brother -- who had post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia -- would receive treatment for his mental illness after he assaulted an elderly woman, who then died of a heart attack.

But Manny Babbitt spent 20 years in prison before he was executed in California on his 50th birthday.

The speakers pressed for a criminal justice system that recognizes people with severe mental illness are more likely to make false confessions and more commonly fire their lawyers and represent themselves in court.

Advocates with the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Chattanooga urged attendees to support a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly to exclude people with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty.

Amnesty International estimates that 10 percent of people who have been executed in the U.S. have serious mental illness, David Kaczynski said.

"I was always a believer in the death penalty ... until it came knocking on my door," Bill Babbitt said.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Heightened attention

From yesterday's Boston Globe, "N.H. trial fuels death penalty debate":

The horror of the 2009 machete slaying of a New Hampshire nurse, recounted in grisly testimony during the recent trial of Steven Spader, has stoked passions over the death penalty in a state that last held an execution in 1939.

“It’s an awful murder, one of those iconic, high-profile murders that really touch people,’’ said state Representative Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton, N.H., who opposes the death penalty. “It’s an atmosphere of heightened attention in what we do in the aftermath of the killing.’’

Cushing sits on a state commission that has been charged with studying whether the death penalty is sound public policy. Its recommendations are scheduled to be released Dec. 1, and supporters of capital punishment hope large Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature renew its use and expand its applicability.

Read the rest.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Texas

Visiting Austin, Texas this week, I've had a good opportunity to catch up with Virginia Raymond and Walter Long, whose work with the Texas After Violence Project we featured in MVFHR's newsletter last year. The project has added several new interviews with murder victims' family members to its website, and they are very much worth viewing.

I also welcomed the chance to support our colleagues at the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty by attending one of their events last night and learning about the valuable work they are doing to end the death penalty in Texas.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A big concern

From today's Deutsche Welle, "U.S. must tackle human rights issues, says former UN torture investigator":

Manfred Nowak served as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 until October 2010. He is the director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna and a professor for international human rights protection at the University of Vienna. From 1996-2003, Nowak was a judge at the Human Rights Chamber in Bosnia.

Deutsche Welle: Last year President Barack Obama reversed his predecessor's decision not to join the UN Human Rights Council and on Friday the council reviewed the US for the first time. Was Obama right to join the group?

Manfred Nowak: I certainly welcome very much that the US joined the Human Rights Council. It is the most important political body of the United Nations dealing with human rights and it is important that all the major member of the Security Council are also members of the Human Rights Council. There are also some positive developments which the US brought into the policy making of the Human Rights Council.

In its required report prior to the council's review, the US admitted problems with discrimination and immigration. What are the other human rights issues involving the US?

First of all, the US has a very bad reputation in ratifying UN and other human rights treaties and accepting monitoring procedures. It's one out of two countries in the world which has not yet ratified on the rights of the child, similarly the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, even the Inter-American convention on human rights.

There is no individual complaints procedure. No US person can ever bring a complaint to an international body whether within the United Nations or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It has not accepted the statute of the International Criminal Court and that is of course a matter of major concern.

Another big concern is of course capital punishment. The death penalty is still fairly widely practiced in 35 states and in the federal jurisdiction and the General Assembly of the United Nations issued a strong appeal to all states to at least take action for a moratorium with the final aim of abolishing the death penalty. ...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Marching in Texas

"Hundreds of people march against the death penalty," says this KVUE news piece from October 30th. The story covers the march that participants in the Journey of Hope took to the Texas State Capitol on Saturday, and quotes from several death row exonerees and from MVFHR board member Bill Pelke:

Bill Pelke's grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls. One got the death penalty.

“Originally I supported the judge's decision,” Pelke says. “But I went through a transformation and became convinced that execution is not the solution.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There are human beings involved

And more from Connecticut, with thanks to the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty's Bo Chamberlin. Here is press coverage of MVFHR member Bob Curley's recent talks in Connecticut, from the 10/19/10 Quinnipiac Chronicle, with valuable comments from audience members at the end:

"The death penalty isn't the answer"
Despite son’s murder, Curley speaks against capital punishment

Robert Curley’s 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was kidnapped and murdered by two pedophiles, and through the midst of pain and anger, Curley has come to one conclusion: The death penalty is not the answer.

Joined by Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, Curley advocated for the abolition of the death penalty in his lecture “From Rage to Redemption: A Father’s Journey.” The event was sponsored by Quinnipiac’s Willingham Abolition Society in the School of Law’s Grand Courtroom on Monday.

In a sullen tone, Curley explained the rage he felt after his son’s death. It was far from easy for him, having previously been impartial on the issue, to oppose the death penalty after such a heinous crime.

“I had an internal struggle,” Curley said. “I kept asking myself why I was having second thoughts.”

Curley came to the conclusion that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because of the execution of U.S. Marine veteran Manny Babbitt, who was executed in 1999.

Babbitt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The Vietnam veteran alleged he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from combat and the murder was not premeditated.

“That just didn’t seem fair,” Curley said.

According to Jones, one of the arguments against the death penalty is innocent people get executed too often.
“No one wants to see an innocent person get executed,” Jones said.

In light of the current trial of Steven Hayes, convicted of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion which resulted in the murder of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters, questions from the audience were raised about the moral aspects of the death penalty.

“I understand Mr. Petit’s current pain and suffering, but the death penalty isn’t the answer,” Curley explained. “It becomes a thirst for revenge.”

Willingham Abolition Society Vice President Denise Graham said the group helps to promote discussion about legal and emotional issues.

“Curley brings a different perspective, especially in light of the Hayes case,” Graham said. “He helps to remind us that there are human beings involved.”

Graduate student Meghan Woods, neutral on the death penalty issue, said Curley’s story was “extremely powerful.”

“I can’t fathom what he’s been through,” she said. “It gives me a lot to think about.”

Larger than you might expect

Here is a link to a 10/7/10 Connecticut Public Radio interview with MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber. The description of the show says

Listen to the audio to hear a remarkable conversation with Vicki Schieber, who opposed the death penalty for the murder of her daughter, and Mike Fitzpatrick, a defense attorney who has worked on capital cases in Connecticut.

In 2002, making the final public appearance of her life, an old woman named Mamie Till-Mobley addressed the Governor of Illinois with the following words:

“I am pleased that I am able to stand here today and say with a pure heart and a meaningful heart that I am against the death penalty. There is no purpose that it serves except to further the damage that has already been done.”

You may not recognize her name, but you do know her story. Mamie Till-Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy murdered in Missisippi in 1955. The two white men who beat him to death were acquitted by an all-white jury after about an hour of deliberation.

Mamie Till-Mobley joined a group -- larger than you might expect -- of bereaved people who conclude that the death penalty won't bring them peace. In her case, there wasn't even an alternate form of justice offered up.

Death Penalty Affects Survivors

From the 10/22/10 New Haven Register, Elizabeth Brancato's letter to the editor:

Death Penalty Affects Survivors
While I agree with the Register editorial that the actions of the defendants in the Cheshire home invasion murders warrant the harshest punishment, I am troubled by its call for the death penalty as it does not consider the effects of a death sentence on surviving family members.

My mother, Barbara McKitis, was murdered in Connecticut at the age of 53. It was hard for me to grieve and figure out how I was going to go on while the legal proceedings dragged on. I do not wish a death sentence for any family traumatized beyond belief.

In our state, the death penalty cases never end.

The understandable emotions surrounding this case should not prevent us from looking at how death sentences really work, and the years of additional harm it could cause surviving family members.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Links

Speakers from The Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing will be in several Texas cities this week and next. You can follow them online here.

And here is a link to the video of the "No Human Way to Kill" event at the White Box Gallery in New York City last Monday, featuring several murder victims' family members speaking about how they came to oppose the death penalty.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For the rest of our lives

From yesterday's Lake County (Montana) Leader, "Death penalty system discussed":

Carolyn Madplume knows a thing or two about death. Her 20-year-old daughter, Catherine, was killed in Feb. 2005 when three men robbed and killed her boyfriend, an act of violence south of Ronan that shocked the community.

The killers' take? $193.

All three men were convicted for their roles in the homicides and will spend the next several years in prison. But Madplume has no desire for more death, despite the heinous crime that took the life of her young daughter.

“You can’t have all these lives on you,” she said. “Your loved ones wouldn’t want it.”

Madplume, who now lives in Heart Butte, was one of two guests of the Montana Abolition Coalition that spoke at the Salish Kootenai College on Monday evening. Both had had young daughters killed in senseless acts, acts that “an eye for an eye” can never repair. Rather, both woman hope they can actively speak out against the death penalty and abolish capital punishment, a penalty that the Coalition believes would be better replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“It’s a fallible, fatal system,” Marietta Jaeger Lane, whose daughter was killed in 1973, said. “I’ve not only forgiven the killer but I absolutely want to get rid of the death penalty.”

Such strong anti-death penalty sentiment, from someone with such a close connection to pain and death, may seem an anomaly. But Lane realized long ago that vengeance is just a waste of time.

Lane and her family had planned a trip to Montana, by way of Michigan, in the summer of 1973. The family of seven was undeniably excited.

“This was the vacation we would talk about for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Lane was right about that, but for all the wrong reasons. The dream vacation quickly turned into a nightmare when the family woke up to find 7-year-old Susie missing from the children’s tent. A hole was cut in the fabric and the little girl had been pulled into the night, without a sound.

The family woke up frantic, and a wild, statewide search ensued. Two weeks later, with no sign of her daughter, Lane became angry, despite her Catholic upbringing that taught her it was a sin to be angry.

“I was terrified, I’d never allowed myself to feel that way,” she said. “I knew I could kill that man with my bare hands with a smile on my face. I felt absolutely justified in my rage and desire for revenge.”

Before she knew it, Lane’s faith in God, including a divinely inspired moment, calmed her down. As more time elapsed and the family returned to Michigan, Lane began to pray for the kidnapper, despite still not knowing what had become of her child. A call from the kidnapper to the family house demanded a ransom, but when the trace of the phone line fell through, a promising lead went nowhere.

A few days before the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance, a quote in a newspaper article blew open the case.

“I’d give anything to have a chance to talk to the kidnapper myself,” Lane had been quoted as saying.

On the one-year anniversary, Lane got her wish. The kidnapper called, taunting the family and again asking for a ransom. But Lane remained cool and calm, and kept the man on the line for more than an hour, at one point getting him to break down and cry.

The phone call was the big break, and eventually the FBI caught the man, who admitted to kidnapping Susie and killing her no more than two weeks after. David was a local from Three Forks and had even been part of the original search team. He’d been interviewed as a suspect but had passed all tests, Lane said.

“You pray and pray for an answer and it’s not quite the answer you’re looking for,” she said.

David eventually admitted to killing Susie, as well as three other young girls in Gallatin County. The crimes would undoubtedly make David eligible for the death penalty, but Lane lobbied the prosecutor to offer life in prison without the possibility of parole instead.

“How do I best honor Susie’s memory?” she said. “To become one that I abhor would be to dishonor her memory. It wouldn’t undo what happened to Susie.”

Hours after confessing to the murders, David committed suicide in his jail cell. Lane visited David’s mother, when the two women wept in each other’s arms. Both had lost children, Lane said, and her ability to forgive overrode any other emotion.

“The execution does not heal the victim’s family,” she said.

15 states do not have the death penalty, including Lane’s home state of Michigan, which became the first to abolish capital punishment. The Montana Abolition Coalition hopes stories from families of murder victims like Madplume and Lane can spread the word that the death penalty is not the answer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our deepest human rights abuse

From yesterday's Birmingham News, "Death penalty diminishes humanity for all citizens," by Robert and Rachel Meeropol:

Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty, and with that in mind, we urge the United States to outlaw this horrible punishment.

As the son and granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage at the height of the McCarthy period in 1953, we have a personal reason to abhor the death penalty.

As attorneys, we view the death penalty as a fundamental human rights abuse. And as citizens, we are ashamed the death penalty is still being carried out in our country.

There are many compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty.

First of all, the death penalty diminishes the humanity of everyone it touches.

Second, since our system of justice can never be mistake-free, it is inevitable that an error will be made in a capital case and an innocent person will be executed. In fact, DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of at least 17 Death-Row inmates since 1993, according to the Innocence Project.

Third, the question of cost is also compelling. At a time when states face massive budget shortfalls, a study examining the cost of the death penalty in Kansas found that death penalty cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable nondeath-penalty cases.

Fourth, the death penalty disproportionately falls on poor people and people of color. Blacks and Latinos make up more than 55 percent of the current Death Row population, despite comprising only about 25 percent of the U.S. population.

Fifth, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. States that use it don't have lower murder rates than states that do not.

Finally, there is a more fundamental reason. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States took a leadership role in drafting an "international bill of rights" that recognized all people have certain inherent rights. This core human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put it simply: Life is a human right.

This makes the death penalty our deepest human rights abuse.

"No Human Way to Kill" event today

MVFHR's Director Renny Cushing is among the speakers participating in today's event, "No Human Way to Kill," sponsored by New York City's White Box Gallery, Firstsite Contemporary Visual Arts, and the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex (England). This panel discussion will be streamed live from the White Box Gallery between 1:00 and 2:30 today (eastern time, U.S.). Two dozen universities throughout the U.S. have agreed to show the event via streaming, so it will get a wide and geographically diverse audience.

Renny is joining panelists Reverend Cathy Harrington, whose daughter, Leslie Ann Mazzara, was murdered, Barbara Lewis, whose son, Robert Gattis, is on death row, Anne Coleman, whose daughter, Frances, was murdered. The panel will be moderated by Robert Priseman, a visual artist and Fellow at the Essex Human Rights Centre.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

MVFHR Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty
October 10, 2010

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now, over sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. We call for abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

World Day: Focus on the U.S.

Here is the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's press release for World Day Against the Death Penalty, October 10th. This year's World Day focuses on the United States.

On 10.10.10, the 8th World Day against the Death Penalty will focus on ending the use of the death penalty in the United States of America. Since 2003, abolitionists have taken actions all over the world every 10 October to raise awareness and opposition to the death penalty. This year, to mark the World Day against the Death Penalty, dozens of events have been organized across the USA from Texas to Alaska, including in New York and Washington DC. All over the world, abolitionists are hosting events in support of the American movement to end the death penalty. To see the complete program of scheduled events, visit:

By encouraging debates and education on the death penalty on 10.10.10, worldwide abolitionists would like every citizen to understand that the fundamental right to life applies to all people, that the death penalty is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent even in the most competent systems of justice. In the USA, as elsewhere, the death penalty does not deliver justice. Since 1977 more than 130 people have been released on grounds of innocence revealing significant flaws in legal process. It is also a system that continues to condemn people on discriminatory grounds and that diverts time and money from other more efficient law enforcement measures. Police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction and they do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.

In 2010 the US has executed 40 people to date; Texas (16) having executed the most people so far. In 2009 11 states executed 52 prisoners: Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Vancouver, Ohio, and Tennessee and South Carolina. Even as executions continue though, movement has been made to reduce the number of those sentenced to death. Today in the USA, 15 states do not have the death penalty and 11 more made legislative proposals to abolish capital punishment in 2009. In 2002 the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of the [people with mental retardation], and in 2005 it prohibited the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime. 2009 also saw a decrease in the number of death sentences, and the number of executions is trending down.

This World Day is the opportunity for abolitionists to work together, in the United States and abroad, to help continue this trend of restricting the use of the death penalty and to work to educate the public to bring about the end of its use. By 2009, 139 countries in the world had abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and 18 of the 58 retentionist states actually executed people. To support the American movement to end the death penalty is also to support abolition all over the world, to
take another step towards universal abolition.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A fervent advocate

More great coverage of Vicki Schieber's talks in Connecticut this week, this time in yesterday's Fairfield Patch. The link has some very good photos, too.

Vicki Schieber, whose only daughter was brutally raped and murdered in 1998, took Sacred Heart University students on a personal journey with her Wednesday evening as she told them why she is a fervent advocate of abolishing the death penalty.

When she was finished, many of the students flocked to sponsors of the talk to add their names to a growing pile of postcards that will be sent to Connecticut legislators in a campaign to end capital punishment in Connecticut.

"We'll have a new governor after the fall election and we may have an excellent shot at getting it passed," said Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, who brought Schieber from her home in Maryland to join his group's campaign.

Gubernatorial candidate Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor, opposes the death penalty. His opponent, Republican Tom Foley, is an advocate of the death penalty.

Last year, both houses of the General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut, but Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

"Over the past 10 years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty," Jones said. "In Connecticut, legislative opponents of the death penalty are on the rise."

Schieber's daughter, Shannon, a 23-year-old who was on a full scholarship at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was stalked by a serial rapist, Schieber related to the hushed audience of nearly 100 students in SHU's Shine Auditorium.

On the eve of her last final exam before graduation, 22-year-old Troy Graves entered her second-floor apartment by shimmying up an outside wall and breaking a screen-door lock on a tiny balcony as she showered.

Emerging from the shower, Shannon screamed when she encountered the stranger.

"For Shannon, everything went wrong that evening," Schieber said.

The scream was heard by her second-floor neighbor, who called 911.

But when police arrived shortly thereafter, officers discounted neighbors' reports of a disturbance after the officers knocked on Shannon's door and received no response. Graves had secured the screen door when he entered and police concluded there was no sign of a forced entry. Within five minutes, they left the scene, Schieber said.

Unbeknownst to the police, Graves was secreted inside the apartment.

He entered the apartment with an intention to rape, but he strangled Shannon to quiet her to avoid police intrusion, Schieber said.

The following morning, Shannon's brother, Sean, arrived at her office on campus to meet her for a prearranged luncheon date. When she could not be found, and her fellow students told him she had not appeared for her final exam, he went to her apartment.

The second-floor neighbor buzzed him in and together they broke the door to her apartment after she did not answer their knock.

When Sean saw the bloodied apartment and his sister lying naked on her bed, he fainted, Schieber said, tears welling in her eyes.

The Philadelphia police had failed to alert the four-block community in which Graves had stalked potential victims and raped at least two other women before he zeroed in on Shannon.

Schieber's initial reaction, shared by her husband Sylvester - "She was Daddy's girl," she said - was one of rage and hatred, driven by a fever to exact revenge on the cold-blooded killer who had stolen the life of their talented, treasured Shannon.

"My husband said if he'd been within five feet of him, he would have strangled him," she said.

But both she and her husband were brought up in the Catholic faith in the Midwest and, over time, they found themselves on a journey of peace, believing in the power of redemption and transforming their justifiable anger into positive acts.

"If you are raised with a set of principles," she said, it's necessary to honor them in practice.

"The death penalty diminishes us all," she said.

When Graves was arrested four years later in Colorado after resuming his serial raping, even after marrying and being hired as a high-security-clearance weapons specialist with the U.S. Air Force, DNA tests linked him to Shannon's rape and murder.

The Philadelphia prosecutor called for the death penalty.

But the Schiebers opposed it and eventually Graves pleaded guilty to Shannon's murder and 14 cases of sexual assault in an agreement by which he would serve life in prison with no possibility of parole.

"At the sentencing hearing, he turned to us and said, 'I wish to thank the Schieber family for believing in the sanctity of human life,' " said Schieber, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a retired professor.

At age 26, Graves was put in solitary confinement for the first 18 months of his sentence, a customary prelude for a criminal imprisoned for a life term.

Graves - like others serving life terms for capital felonies - is paying for the crime in a "hellish" way, Schieber said, referring to the bleak conditions of a maximum security prison.

Schieber said she has overcome the anger she felt at first and has not allowed it to destroy her and her family as she said it has many other families of murder victims torn apart by pain and anger.

Schieber has sought to meet with Graves in prison as part of her journey of peace.

"What would you say to him?" asked a student.

"I hope to have a conversation with him before I die," she replied quietly. "I would tell him how I reached out to his mother and how she cried for hours. He grew up amidst violence."

"I hope he has that journey of peace, too," she said.

Schieber said prison rules and budgetary constraints - no funds to hire a social worker intermediary as the prison would require - have so far made such a conversation impossible.

Schieber began her talk by displaying a black-and-white photograph of Shannon to the audience.

"She's always sitting on my shoulder, wherever I go," Schieber said.

Schieber said Shannon was an exceptional child and young woman.

Shannon recited the alphabet at 18 months and was reading at the third-grade level when she was 3 years old, her mother said. She headed the equestrian team at Duke and led the student body as freshman president. She graduated from college in three years.

"But the best part of her, apart from her great brain, was that she was absolutely beautiful inside," Schieber said.

Schieber knew that Shannon was devoted to social justice issues and wanted to make a difference with her life.

Shannon volunteered one day a week to mentor inner-city children while she pursued her demanding graduate studies and was known to lend a hand to the elderly in her neighborhood on a whim - aspects of Shannon's life in Philadelphia that Schieber discovered only when her daughter's shaken acquaintances rose to speak at her memorial service.

Schieber praised the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer for taking on the issue of why the police left the scene of the crime as it was unfolding. The Inquirer's dogged investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department led to a change in police procedures that mandates police officers remain at a potential crime scene on 911 calls until they have contacted superior officers and gained clearance to leave, she said.

"Shannon possibly would be alive," she said, if the police had heeded the complaints of Shannon's neighbors who alerted them and had forced their way into her apartment.

She said the newspaper's investigation led the department to reopen 2,000 sexual assault cases that had been closed as mere "investigatory complaints" – possibly to lower crime statistics – and reclassify 60 percent of them as active felonious assault cases subject to prosecution.

Schieber, a founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Life, has testified before Congress, addressed legislators and editorial writers and spoken out across the country against the death penalty.

She attended the celebration when New Jersey abolished the death penalty.

"Shannon was with me, cheering me on with 'Go Mom!' " she said, expressing hope to return to Connecticut for its own celebration after the death penalty is outlawed.

She's especially gratified to share her story with students who, unlike many in adult audiences, may not yet have formed their own opinions.

When she concluded her talk, after a round of applause, a stillness filled the auditorium. Then students began slowly to approach Schieber to give her a hug and express their sorrow at her tragedy and awe at her fortitude.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Closure or Peace?

From today's Hartford Courant, "Death Penalty Vs. Life: An Issue of Closure Vs. Peace", by Susan Campbell:

Shannon Schieber was one of those brilliant lights, an honors student who finished college in three years with three majors, then earned a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where she hunkered down to shine as well.

She told her mother she intended to use her education to reach out to the poor, among whom she volunteered as a doctoral candidate despite her challenging course load.

And then in May 1998, a serial rapist broke into her Philadelphia apartment. Shannon cried out, and that, investigators said later, may have proved fatal. Her attacker, Troy Graves, would eventually be found guilty of a series of sexual assaults and home intrusions in Pennsylvania and Colorado; Shannon was his only murder.

Her cries brought a concerned neighbor, who knocked on her door, heard nothing and then summoned police, who used their nightsticks to knock on the door as well. After finding no sign of a break-in, they left the scene.

Meanwhile, Graves choked Shannon Schieber to death.

When she didn't show up for work the next day, her brother, who had planned to meet her for lunch, went to her apartment and, with the neighbor who had earlier called police, broke in to find his sister's battered and bloody body.

Devastated, her family — brother Sean and parents Sylvester and Vicki — felt cushioned (if one can be cushioned after such a horror) by their loved ones and their Catholic faith. Vicki Schieber found herself relying on a lesson she had learned in church, that life is sacred. If this man who took her daughter's life could not live by that precept, she could. The family began to lobby for life without parole instead of the death sentence. Now, Graves is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.

The district attorney was stunned and even asked Vicki Schieber if she loved her daughter. Because if she did, wouldn't she want her killer dead?

But, as Schieber told a small but rapt audience Monday at St. James Catholic Church in Rocky Hill: "If you don't pass the test and live up to your principles, were those ever your principles in the first place?"

Schieber spoke along with Robert Pallotti, director of the Archdiocese of Hartford's office of the diaconate, and Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network To Abolish the Death Penalty. The 20 or so people sat quietly as Schieber spoke passionately about the peace she seeks and the peace she's attained.

On Tuesday, a New Haven jury found Steven Hayes guilty of 16 of the 17 charges he faced in the Petit murders. Hayes is eligible for the death penalty; Connecticut is one of 35 states that retains that option for its most heinous crimes. The jury will decide Hayes' fate beginning Oct. 18. After that, the state — and, more pointedly, the Petit family survivors — will face the trial of Hayes' accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky.

Vicki Schieber knows how passionate people can be during trials like these. Her voice was quiet but emphatic Monday when she said, "We call 'closure' the 'c-word.' Closure is kind of a deceptive word."

If we can't find closure, may we find peace.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Survivors don't all agree"

Years ago, when Timothy McVeigh was about to be executed for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, there was an article in the New York Times with the headline, "Victims' families not of one voice on the death penalty." We consider it an important sign of growing awareness when media coverage demonstrates recognition of the fact that murder victims' family members have a range of opinions on the death penalty and can't automatically be assumed to be in favor of it. Here's an article from this past Saturday from the San Francisco Chronicle, with the headline "Murder victim survivors split on the death penalty":

Murder is the ultimate crime, and the loved ones left behind to mourn are the ultimate survivors. But when it comes to contemplating the ultimate punishment - the death penalty - those survivors don't all agree.

For Judy Kerr, whose 43-year-old brother, Bob, was dragged out of his house and strangled in 2003, the very idea of putting another person to death even in the name of justice is an abomination.

La Wanda Hawkins would like nothing more than to see the man who fatally shot her 19-year-old son, Reginald, in 1995 breathe his last breath in an execution chamber.

The two women share a few emotions around the subject, such as rage and sorrow. But when it comes to compassion or a desire for revenge, the differences spread wide.

Those feelings came to the fore again this week, as they did for thousands of other murder victims' relatives in California, when the state came close to conducting its first execution at San Quentin State Prison in nearly five years.

The lethal injection of rapist-murderer Albert Greenwood Brown was barred by the California Supreme Court on Wednesday, the day before it was to happen. But the debate over the morality and necessity of execution hasn't died down a whit.

There's no doubt where the family of Brown's victim, 15-year-old Susan Jordan of Riverside, stands.

"This execution must take place," Susan's mother, Angelina Jordan, wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month. "No more clemency. No more appeals. No more delays. No more stays due to technicalities and legal loopholes.

"Where is our clemency? How much longer must we endure this injustice?"

To kill or not to kill

"I didn't have a lot of sympathy, and still don't, for killers," said Judy Kerr, 55, a registered nurse who lives in Albany. "But I don't think killing somebody will bring my brother back.

"It's not going to help me, and it's not going to make me safer."

Kerr is an outreach coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an advocacy and support group for those who feel as she does.

Hawkins founded Justice for Murdered Children, which pushes the opposite agenda.

"Why should we give these murderers health care, feed them, clothe them, give them dental care and education?" said Hawkins, 50, a bookkeeper who lives in San Pedro (Los Angeles County). "Do you know how much it costs to go to school? So many of us can't afford it out here, but they're giving it to someone who took someone's life?

"Isn't that outrageous? Kill them."

Support is flexible

Recent surveys reflect this divide in the general population.

A statewide Field Poll in July found that 70 percent of Californians support the death penalty. That's up from 67 percent in 2006, but down from a mid-1980s high of 83 percent. And when asked what sentence they preferred for first-degree murderers, 42 percent said life in prison without parole and 41 percent said death.

The debate is as old as capital punishment itself, dating in California back to 1851, when hanging was instituted as the preferred method of execution and capital punishment abolitionists were already hoisting picket signs.

With at least 2,000 homicides every year in the state - and wait times on Death Row of as long as 30 years for execution dates - there is a never-ending source of discussion.

'People have spoken'

The thugs who killed Bob Kerr and Reginald Hawkins aren't among the 708 condemned inmates in California - they've never been caught. But even among those who know who killed their loved ones, there's no agreement on the right thing to do.

Harriet Salarno's 18-year-old daughter, Catina Salarno, was shot to death by a jilted lover in 1979 in Stockton. She says it is "cruel to make people wait so long for these killers to be executed.

"The people have spoken, they've said they want capital punishment, and obstructing it is just harassment," said Salarno, 77, a retired dental hygienist. "For the victims to wait so long, 20 or 30 years, for justice is cruel and unusual punishment to them."

Steven Burns, the man who killed her daughter, was given a life prison sentence instead of death, and Salarno has channeled her rage over the crime into working for Crime Victims United, the group she founded.

Unlikely friends

Aba Gayle, 76, has taken the opposite tack.

Her 19-year-old daughter, Catherine Blount, was stabbed to death in 1980 near Auburn by Douglas Mickey, who was in a paranoid delusional rage. For eight years, Gayle wanted Mickey put to death. Then she found Christianity, wrote Mickey a letter - and was "amazed" to get a letter back expressing "gentleness and kindness."

They became the unlikeliest of friends. And today, as head of the Catherine Blount Foundation to promote forgiveness, Gayle wants Mickey's term commuted to life in prison.

"It's horrible to live with all that anger, wanting someone to die," said Gayle, who moved from Santa Rosa to Oregon nine years ago. "You can't be a good mother, a good employee, a good anything. The only way to heal is forgiveness."

No such forgiveness springs from Doris "Trudie" Anderson, 77, of Yuba City (Sutter County).

Donald Beardslee, the man who stabbed Anderson's 19-year-old goddaughter, Stacey Benjamin, to death in Lake County in 1981, was lethally injected in San Quentin five years ago - and Anderson said that deeply satisfies her.

Like many relatives of victims whose killers were executed, Anderson acknowledges that Beardslee's death did not bring the full "closure" of which so many speak. But it was better than the alternative.

A bit of closure

"It does give you at least a certain amount of closure knowing that he's gone, but that pain of loss never really goes away," Anderson said. "I'll tell you this, though: Some might think it's wrong to execute people - but just watch their attitudes change when a loved one is tortured and butchered.

"The only reason they could think it's wrong is because they've never been in that situation."