Friday, January 29, 2010

The Closure Myth

Following up on yesterday's post about victims' testimony in Kansas, here is a useful excerpt from MVFHR board president Bud Welch's testimony. After telling about losing his daughter Julie Marie in the Oklahoma City bombing and eventually coming to oppose the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, Bud concluded:

You legislators hear a lot about the phrase, “Victims needing closure." I’m here to tell you, that is nothing but a myth perpetuated by politicians and news media. Six months after the bombing a poll taken in Oklahoma City of victims’ families and survivors showed that 85% wanted the death penalty for Tim McVeigh. Six years later that figure had dropped to nearly half, and now most of those who supported his execution came to believe it was a mistake. In other words, they didn’t feel any better after Tim McVeigh was taken from his cell and killed.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Consider the emotional cost

Last week we posted an article about victims testifying for repeal in Kansas. Bill Lucero, whose father was murdered, sent us a copy of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which he said:

This session marks the 33rd consecutive year that I have actively lobbied for abolition of capital punishment at the Legislature. You all are familiar with me and my concern that continued application of the death penalty in Kansas will only prolong the suffering of murder victims’ families by re-traumatizing them each time they publically have to re-visit their grief when the case is brought up in the media.

Once again “financial cost” seems to be a driving force behind the abolition effort this session. But I hope you also will consider the emotional cost involved with the death penalty to murder victims’ families, regardless if they favor or oppose capital punishment. The endless years of appeals of capital cases only add stress to families and provide no opportunity for healing.

You have occasionally asked me, “Bill, I see you up here, but are there truly other murder victim families that feel the same way you do?” Last year, you had the opportunity to hear Sue Norton of Arkansas City offer compelling testimony regarding her tragic loss of her parents. Tomorrow you will have the opportunity tomorrow to hear Bud Welch speak about the anguish he suffered following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when he lost his daughter.

Today, I wanted to share with you comments from Kansans who have lost loved ones to murder and have found that the death penalty inadequate and inappropriate as retribution.

Here are a couple of the testimonies from other victims' family members that Bill read:

"When my 28-yr-old daughter Amy was murdered by the father of her 22-month old son, I had to rethink my belief in capital punishment. Some day his son will ask about his birth dad, and I would have to explain everything to him. How could I explain his father was killed because he killed Amy? If I couldn't explain the logic of the death penalty to a child, then it is wrong. I realized I had always looked at the death penalty as one dimensional and not how many persons it affects: the families and communities of both the murdered and murderer, and all of society." -Carol Samuelson

"The murder of my father sadly kept him from knowing the joys that come with age. But the death penalty for those who killed him only perpetuates disregard for human life; it cheapens and brutalizes the society that inflicts it, only reinforcing violence. And those are the very things that underlie the terrible crime committed against my father." - Carolyn Zimmerman

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Comments on California's procedures, part 2

More MVFHR members' comments on California's revised execution procedures:

From Vicki Schieber's comments:

The newly revised lethal injection procedures do not address the concerns I have as the mother of a murder victim, as a former member the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, and as Chair of the Board of Directors of the national organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

From these multiple perspectives, I have learned that it is essential to understand exactly what is involved in the application of the death penalty in order to make informed decisions about it. I remain concerned that the proposed regulations unduly limit media access to the execution process and make it impossible for the full story to be reported. For example, the proposed regulations still state that the public address system is to be turned off after the inmate makes a final statement. What might this prevent us from hearing? Shutting off the public address system places an undue burden on the media’s and the public’s First Amendment right to witness, by sight and sound, what is happening in the lethal injection chamber. What if the inmate cries out in pain? What if a member of the execution team says something about the procedure? The public address system should remain on throughout the execution. Likewise, the execution log should be released to the media, and the inmate’s attorney should have the opportunity to speak to members of the press in the media center. Other states, notably Arkansas’s Execution Protocol, include these provisions.

I am also concerned that the regulations still create an unfair distinction between state-employed chaplains and non-state employed spiritual advisors. I don’t consider it acceptable that a state employed chaplain may perform religious ceremonies for the person to be executed at his or her cell front for five days prior to the execution, while non-state employed spiritual advisors are prohibited from performing cell front religious rituals until six hours prior to the execution. This is an unfair burden on the religious rights of the person to be executed, a right that matters tremendously to me for all citizens. Similarly, I am disturbed that the regulations say the non-state employed spiritual advisor must be “approved by the Warden” but do not specify what standards apply or state that the Warden cannot discriminate between faiths. This creates a substantial risk that the religious freedom and rights of the person to be executed will be violated.

From my experience as a Commission member, as Chair of the Board of a national victims’ group, and as the mother of a young woman whose murder forever changed my life, I object to implementing the regulations as currently written.

And from Renny Cushing's comments:

I am quite concerned to learn that the newly revised lethal injection procedures do not address the issue of adequate protection for the rights of inmates with mental disabilities, which I raised in my comments last June.

As I described previously, I am the son of a murder victim, a New Hampshire State Representative, and the Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an organization of survivors throughout the United States (with several members in California) who have lost loved ones to homicide or execution.

Last July, at the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in San Francisco, my colleagues and I released a report titled Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness. We received an outpouring of support and corroborating testimony from mental health consumers and advocates at the convention and subsequently. Concern about sentencing people with severe mental illness to death is on the rise in the U.S., and we have seen that inmates clearly suffering from severely disabling symptoms of mental illness have been executed, despite the violation that this represents of human rights norms and, potentially, of our own U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ford v. Wainwright. I am deeply disturbed that the proposed lethal injection regulations do not provide an inmate’s attorneys with any opportunity to contest a sanity finding that may be made just prior to the pending execution. Counsel for the person about to be executed should have the opportunity to challenge the sanity finding of the psychiatrist provided by the prison warden, if counsel believes that such a challenge is warranted.

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

Monday, January 25, 2010

Comments on California's procedures, part 1

Last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was accepting public comment on its revised procedures for carrying out executions. Over 1,200 people from California and across the country submitted comments, according to the ACLU's press release. Here are some excerpts from MVFHR members' comments on the issue of how families of the executed person are treated; we'll post other comments tomorrow:

From Bill Babbitt's comments:

It is certainly a step forward for the CDCR to recognize that all execution witnesses should be treated equally -- with the same dignity and respect -- whether they are family of the person being executed or family of the victim. But the revised lethal injection procedures still fail to achieve this goal. As the brother of an inmate who was executed in California, I have these concerns about the revised procedures:

The victim’s family is allowed an unlimited number of witnesses at the execution, while the person being executed is limited to five individuals other than her or his spiritual adviser. Also, the regulations do not make it clear whether the inmate’s attorneys must be included within the total of five permitted witnesses. If, for example, three members of the legal team need to witness the execution, and the family of the person to be executed includes his or her father, mother and three adult children or siblings, will the CDCR make the person being executed choose among his or her loved ones? The regulations are unclear and do not answer this question.

Similarly, in the event of limited space, the victim’s family is provided with the option of remote viewing of the execution, while the same option is not extended to the family of the person being executed. If this technology is available, it is unfair and unreasonable to limit its use to only witnesses for the victim’s family. The regulations should clearly state that accommodations will be made for every immediate family member of the person being executed to witness the execution, including via remote viewing if space is needed. The regulations should also provide that legal observers are allowed to witness the execution regardless of the number of other witnesses for the person being executed.

When I witnessed my brother’s execution, I was forced to stand on the riser because no seating was provided, though seating was provided for the victim’s witnesses. Witnessing an execution is difficult, even traumatic, for any witnesses, and seats should be provided for all, especially the elderly and infirm. I have not seen this issue addressed in the procedures.

I cannot undo my brother’s execution or the specific procedures that were in place at that time, but my concern about the impact of the death penalty on families of the executed demands that I care about the suffering of subsequent inmates’ family members. Families of the executed are innocent people going through an intensely traumatic experience, and all care must be taken to address the harm they suffer.

As the brother of an executed inmate and as a member of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, which represents families of victims and families of the executed throughout the U.S., I object to implementing the regulations as currently written.

From Robert Meeropol's comments:

In my comments on the earlier draft of the proposed regulations, I summarized the unusual perspective I have as a child who survived his parents' execution; my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in 1953, when I was 6 years old. I am writing again because I remain acutely concerned and feel compelled to reiterate the general concerns I expressed because the new regulations fail to address the issues I raised.

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

This raises a disturbing question: If California promulgates a new set of lethal injection regulations, what will the impact be on children whose immediate family members are executed or are placed on death row? No one can deny that it is qualitatively worse to have a family member on death row or executed than to have a family member in prison. But that's not much of an answer. The State must have a better answer to this question, because its agents have a solemn obligation before passing regulations to understand their impact. That obligation becomes even more serious when you are dealing with matters of life and death as you are here.

The fact that the modified regulations ignore these questions renders them irresponsible. Moreover, this neglect raises the possibility that those promulgating the regulations are actively seeking to avoid consideration of this life and death matter that could have a lasting negative impact on innocent children. Such neglect borders on the despicable.

Once again I urge those who are considering restarting state-sanctioned ritualized killings to consider this question first. It is past time to realize such "collateral damage" is yet another powerful reason to abolish the death penalty.

As the child of two execution victims and as a member of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents families of victims and families of the executed throughout the U.S., I object to implementing the regulations as currently written.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Make us all safer

The Washington State Senate Judiciary Committee is having a hearing today on a bill to repeal the death penalty.

Because severe mental illness was a factor in recent murders of police officers in Washington state, we have been working with the ACLU of Washington to educate lawmakers about victim opposition to the death penalty for people with severe mental illness and victims' preference for treatment and prevention rather than execution. As part of that education effort, the ACLU is distributing copies of our Double Tragedies report to state lawmakers with a letter from MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing. Here's part of that letter:

I am aware that Washington state has recently witnessed the appalling murders of law enforcement officers by three separate assailants. While two of the offenders were killed before they could be arrested, it appears from news reports that some or all of the offenders were severely mentally ill. While not all people with mental illness commit murders, these events demonstrate that failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to people in our communities can have tragic consequences.

I am enclosing a copy of a new report released by Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The report, titled Double Tragedies, brings you the voices of experience: family members of victims killed by persons with severe mental illness, and family members of persons with severe mental illness who have been executed. These family members, who know firsthand the devastation of homicide, are calling for the elimination of the death penalty for severely mentally ill offenders and reform of the mental health system. One of the members featured in the report, Linda Gregory, is the widow of a member of law enforcement who was killed by someone with a severe mental illness.

I urge you to read the Double Tragedies report and listen to the compelling voices contained within it. Working for prevention through treatment of mental illness prior to a murder being committed rather than expending precious state resources on the death penalty will make us all safer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Victims testifying for repeal in Kansas

I just got off the phone with MVFHR Board President Bud Welch, who was standing in the Kansas State House after testifying in favor of a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty. Bud said that victim's family member Bill Lucero, whose father was murdered and who has been speaking out against the death penalty for many years, also testified and delivered to the lawmakers a statement, with comments from 11 other Kansas victims' family members, all expressing support for the repeal bill.

Coverage of Bud's testimony is here in the Topeka Capital-Journal:

For the Carr brothers who murdered her boyfriend and three friends, being put death is the right punishment, Amy Scott told Kansas senators hearing testimony this week about a bill that would abolish the death penalty.

"The crimes they committed were so mind-blowingly awful that is was an appropriate punishment," she testified Wednesday morning.

For Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie-Marie was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, he said he found no healing peace in Timothy McVeigh's execution.

"There was nothing about that process that brought me any peace," said Welch, of the organization Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

The differing viewpoints from people who have mourned murder victims came during the second day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on bills that would abolish the death penalty. Two bills are under consideration. One measure that would abolish the death penalty (SB 208) failed to advance during last year's legislative session. A new bill (SB 375) would allow the abolition of the death penalty while also maintaining death sentences for those already sentenced to death and those who commit crimes of capital murder before July 1. It would create a new charge of "aggravated murder" that would carry a possible sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leadership in Asia

We were pleased to see that the president of Mongolia has declared a moratorium on executions and called for abolition of the death penalty, citing several compelling reasons.

In October '08, MVFHR board member and Asia liaison Toshi Kazama joined members of Amnesty International in a meeting with the Mongolian United Nations delegate, and found him to be in favor of abolition, so even at that time Toshi reported being optimistic that Mongolia might head in this direction.

Here's an AFP story, "UN Hails Mongolia's Death Penalty Moratorium":

GENEVA — UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Friday hailed a move by Mongolia's president to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty, saying that it sets a "leadership example in Asia."

President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj on Thursday told lawmakers that all death sentences -- carried out by gunshot -- would be commuted to 30-year prison terms, as he could not bring himself to sign any execution orders.

"I congratulate President Elbegdorj on this historic step which further strengthens human rights protection in Mongolia," Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.

"Mongolia's move sets a leadership example in Asia," she said, urging it to abolish the death penalty.

"Unfortunately, the Asian region includes some of the world's most prolific executioners, but also some countries like Mongolia that have taken a principled stand on this fundamental issue," she added.

According to human rights watchdog Amnesty International, Elbegdorj commuted the death sentences of at least three convicts in 2009.

Monday, January 18, 2010

More press coverage

This article about the NCADP conference from today's Courier-Journal includes mention of victims' families at the conference:

Miriam Kelle, 52, of Beatrice, Neb., and Kurt Mesner, 48, of Central City, Neb., were among those attending the conference's closing ceremony who embraced the theme of compassion. Both of their lives have been greatly affected by violence, and both are members of Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty.

“My brother James Allen Thimm was tortured to death 25 years ago and I'm trying to get the assailant off death row because every life is sacred,” said Kelle.

Mesner said his sister, Janet Mesner, was stabbed to death multiple times about 30 years ago.

“After 21 years my family's efforts were successful in getting the murderer off death row and sentenced to life in prison without parole,” he said.

Also very much worth reading, in press coverage about the conference, is this Associated Press story, "Anti-death penalty movement wooing conservatives."

Home Again

Congratulations to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for putting on another great conference with workshops and panels to interest the many new attendees and the long-time abolitionists too.

Victims' family members were in attendance from all around the country, and we were able to meet and get to know one another at a Friday evening gathering that MVFHR co-sponsored with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Our thanks to MVFR's director, Beth Wood, for imagining and planning this valuable event.

MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber managed to fit in eight public speaking events to Louisville-area school and church groups in the days just before the conference; Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty director Pat Delahanty had made a point of arranging these events when he knew that Vicki would be coming to town.

Fellow MVFHR board members Marie Verzulli and Bud Welch also spoke at the conference -- Marie as part of a workshop on how victims' family members are essential to state repeal efforts and Bud as one of the "voices of experience" that opened each plenary session -- and Bill Pelke was at the conference representing the Journey of Hope, which traveled to several venues in Kentucky earlier last year. Executive Director Renny Cushing spoke as part of a workshop on the victims' movement and on a panel titled "Innovative and Effective Responses to Crime and Violence." Renny was joined on that panel by Susan Herman, whose concept of "parallel justice" we featured in the most recent issue of our newsletter, and Howard Zehr, whose work in the area of restorative justice is widely known. I'll post excerpts from that panel later this week, so check back soon. Meanwhile, thanks again to all who make it possible each year for death penalty abolitionists to get together in person and renew our commitment to our shared goals.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A focus on prevention

Greetings from the NCADP conference, where over 300 participants from around the U.S. (and a few who have traveled here from other countries) are meeting and learning from each other. I'll have a fuller report next week, but meanwhile, here's the radio news story I mentioned in the last post, about the conference and Kentucky's bill that would exempt people with mental illness from the death penalty:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Death penalty opponents from around the country are holding their annual conference in Louisville starting today, and one issue likely to come up for discussion is at the center of a bill now before the Kentucky House.

Susannah Sheffer, program staffer with the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, says people with mental illness should be excluded from receiving the death penalty.

"Someone who is suffering from mental retardation, for example, is not fully aware of the consequence of their actions, and the same is true of people suffering really debilitating symptoms of severe mental illness."

House Bill 16 would apply only to a narrow pool of defendants, and would ensure that those convicted still are severely punished, not merely institutionalized. Opponents say the measure would offer defense attorneys too many opportunities to use mental illness as an argument. If passed, the Kentucky legislation would be the most comprehensive in the country at protecting those who are mentally ill from execution.

Sheffer says her group has members whose relatives have been killed by mentally ill defendants. They see capital punishment as another life unnecessarily lost.

"They actually don't want the death penalty; that's not the way for them to achieve justice or closure or any of those kinds of things that people imagine victims want."

Sheffer says her group has a focus on prevention, above and beyond punishment.

"We're interested in how our loved one came to be taken from us. You know, what went wrong? How was this severe mental illness allowed to go so untreated that it resulted in a violent act?"

More information on the conference is available at

Thursday, January 14, 2010

To Louisville

We are off to Louisville, Kentucky today for the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. We look forward to seeing MVFHR members and colleagues from all over and to re-igniting our commitment and inspiration to carry on with the work that we're all engaged in.

Kentucky is one of the states considering a bill that would exempt people with severe mental illness from the death penalty, and a brief clip about MVFHR's work in this area should air on several Kentucky news stations today. I'll try to post it here as soon as I get a link. Meanwhile, if you're in the area, keep an ear out for it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

New Mental Health Blog

Pete Earley, author of the book CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness,, has a new blog in which he will write about the need for mental health reform, and which will also cover some of his other interests, many of which have to do with criminal justice. Pete wrote the foreword to MVFHR's report Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness, and is a wonderfully clear and incisive writer and thinker.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Never Giving Up

The January issue of Bethesda magazine published this piece about MVFHR Board Chair VIcki's work against the death penalty:

A Place of Peace

Nearly a dozen years after her daughter’s murder, death penalty abolitionist Vicki Schieber arrives at tranquility—but not rest.

By Kathleen Wheaton

Vicki Schieber feels the presence of her late daughter, Shannon, whenever she and her 2-year-old granddaughter are feeding the ducks and swan on the lake of her 6-acre Frederick County farm. “I know that Shannon’s watching over us,” Schieber says. “I know that she led us to this beautiful place.”

Schieber, 65, and her husband, Syl, 63, have carefully restored the property’s Civil War-era brick farmhouse and red barns. They moved to the farm in July 2008, after selling their home in Chevy Chase where they had lived for almost 30 years.

Nearly a dozen years have passed since the Schiebers’ 23-year-old daughter, a first-year doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was strangled by a serial rapist who climbed in through the balcony door of her Philadelphia brownstone apartment. Four years later, Shannon’s killer was caught and convicted. But the Schiebers, citing personal and religious objections to the death penalty, refused to press for his execution. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Shannon Schieber was president of her 1992 graduating class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and graduated in three years from Duke University in Durham, N.C., with a triple major in math, economics and philosophy. She wanted to make a difference in the world, her mother says. Believing that the best way to honor Shannon’s memory was to uphold the moral principles with which her daughter was raised, Schieber quit her marketing job four years ago in order to devote herself to the campaign to end capital punishment.

In June 2008, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent, appointed Schieber to the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, and in December 2008 that panel voted 13-9 to recommend its repeal. In March, however, a repeal bill was narrowly defeated in the Maryland Senate. “It broke my heart,” Schieber says. “But I’ve come to understand that change in politics is incremental.” A compromise bill passed later that month made Maryland’s death penalty requirements the most stringent of the 35 states that allow executions, according to Schieber: Prosecutors in Maryland can seek the death penalty only in murder cases where there is DNA evidence, a videotaped interrogation and confession, or videotaped evidence of the crime. Schieber hopes O’Malley will introduce another bill for repeal. “I believe he’s inclined to do that, but first we have to get him re-elected [in November],” she says.

In the meantime, Schieber crisscrosses the country almost weekly, speaking at colleges, law schools and churches. She tells Shannon’s story and narrates her own awakening to the idea that putting her daughter’s killer to death would not lessen her grief or redeem Shannon’s life. “I am very hopeful that we can change more hearts and minds,” Schieber says. “I haven’t had eggs or tomatoes thrown at me yet, but it’s difficult.” What restores her, she says, is returning to the peacefulness of the farm. Syl has retired from the Social Security Administration and has converted a barn to a woodworking shop. Their son, Sean, who builds custom furniture, lives less than a mile away with his wife, Jess, a violin maker, and their two small children.

Since 2006, when Schieber began her quest, two states—New Mexico and New Jersey—have outlawed the death penalty, and Montana’s Senate has voted for repeal. To celebrate those events, lights were turned on in the Coliseum in Rome, where Christians were once thrown to lions and gladiators fought to the death. Schieber’s dream is to attend a ceremony commemorating the end of capital punishment in Maryland. “I’m never going to give up,” she says.