Friday, April 30, 2010

A Disservice to Victims' Families

In today's Middletown (CT) Press, "Honest Debate Needed on the Death Penalty", by victim's family member Kristin Froehlich:

A recent Associated Press article that was published in this paper and others across the state focused on the role the death penalty will play in the upcoming elections. Elections are the last place where an honest discussion of the death penalty can occur. As someone who has personal experience with the death penalty, I know that capital punishment in Connecticut — especially in terms of how it affects murder victims’ families — is complicated and nuanced.

My younger brother, David, was 22 when he was murdered in Connecticut. David and four of his friends were brutally murdered by his landlord before he burnt down the house to hide the evidence. David was identified by dental records.

This quintuple homicide shocked and hurt not just my family, but our entire community. The prosecutors sought the death penalty. Because it was a death-penalty case, it took much more time and money than a non-death penalty case. It also exacted a huge emotional cost on family members. We had no say about whether or not to impose the death penalty. We waited three years for the trial to begin. The killer was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.

Had David’s killer been sentenced to death, even now, 15 years later, I would likely still be caught up in the legal process, waiting and waiting for an execution that, let’s face it, might never happen in Connecticut. The media would cover every appeal, giving undeserved attention to the killer. The life without parole sentence David’s killer received allowed me to begin my journey toward healing unencumbered by worries about the killer’s fate.

For the vast majority of murder victims’ families in Connecticut, the death penalty is not a factor in the legal process. In 1995, the year David was murdered, there were 150 murders in Connecticut, and no offender was sentenced to death. That’s pretty typical. In the last 30 years, Connecticut has placed 11 men on death row, has executed only one person, and did that only after he forfeited appeals and begged to have his life taken by the state.

The fact that the death penalty touches so few lives is the first way in which it does a disservice to victims. The death penalty necessarily divides victims between those who are worthy of a death-penalty case and those who are not. These distinctions are incredibly disrespectful to victims’ families and a source of great pain. And since the vast majority of murderers will not face the death penalty, it is inaccurate and hurtful to act as if the death penalty is a real solution for murder victims’ families.

By focusing on the death penalty as a solution for victims, the state fails to address the real needs of victims’ families. What victims’ families like mine need in the wake of a terrible tragedy is respect, support and honesty. We need time and energy to grieve and heal. Some of us need professional counseling help. Some need financial assistance. We all want to feel safe in our communities.

We do not need controversial sentencing that tells us some murders are more heinous than others. We do not need unnecessarily-long and publicized trials. We do not need the false promise that an external act, such as an execution, could ever bring real justice or the ridiculous term, “closure."

What makes our over-simplified reliance on the death penalty harmful, instead of simply misguided, is the fact that the death penalty in Connecticut is so expensive. The state spends millions of dollars above and beyond what it would cost to enact life without the possibility of release. These funds would be much better invested in services for victims’ families and programs to make society safer.

We must not gloss over the unintended consequences the death penalty can have on the very families we want to help. I hope that, as we head into election season, candidates will put aside the rhetoric on this important issue. Our elected officials and those aspiring to higher office must honestly evaluate the death penalty and its host of effects. And if they do this, what they will find is that the death penalty in Connecticut is a disservice to victims’ families.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New members in Gallery of Victims' Stories

We have been adding pages to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories: long-time activists Ron Carlson, whose sister was murdered in Texas, and Tamara Chikunova, whose son was executed in Uzbekistan, now have pages in the Gallery, and we have also added several members who are participants in our "Prevention, Not Execution" project, which focuses on ending executions of people with mental illness. We've added Charlie Strobel, whose mother was murdered (Charlie represented MVFHR on Tennessee's death penalty study commission); Julie Nelson, whose father was murdered; Joe Bruce, whose wife was murdered by their son; Pat Webdale, whose daughter was murdered; Carla Jacobs, whose mother-in-law was murdered.

We'll be adding more stories to the Gallery over the coming weeks, and will announce them here as they're posted.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Helping Victims Be Heard

Today's Delaware Cape Gazette has this story about victim's family member Kim Book:

Tragedy leads to Victims’ Voices Heard
By Henry J. Evans Jr.

Kim Book has a heart made of steel and silk. A heart strong enough to take the cruelest of blows and yet soft enough to be resilient through the pain.

Throughout the past seven years, Book has facilitated meetings between 18 victims and the criminal offenders who hurt them. In cases involving murder, the victims are surviving loved ones.

That’s what Book became after her daughter, Nicole Mosley, was murdered 15 years ago in Dover.

“She was 17 years old. A 16-year-old young man named Levon Walker, who she knew, came to her father’s house. They began arguing, and he picked up a butcher’s knife from the kitchen counter and stabbed her death,” said Book, 52.

Book’s idea about developing programs to bring victims and offenders together didn’t happen instantly after her daughter’s murder.

She said the Attorney General’s Office sought the death penalty for Walker. “I don’t believe in the death penalty and I told them that. They still tried the case that way,” said Book, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, daughter of a Methodist minister.

Today she divides her time between her homes in Lewes and Camden.

Book said Walker received a 38-year sentence for second-degree murder, and about four months ago, for administrative reasons, he was transferred to a prison in New Jersey.

She said she’s never met with Walker, and after 15 years, “He still hasn’t taken responsibility for what he’s done.”

“The day of his sentencing I realized I had forgiven him, and I wanted to move forward with my life. I wanted to do something to help other victims who were not being heard. I had been through the criminal justice system, and it had not provided me with what I needed,” she said.

Book said she felt as though she had no role in the process but had deserved one. As a result, she developed an interest in restorative justice.

“Restorative justice gives victims an opportunity to have some say in what happens to the offender. It also holds the offender accountable in a way that helps them see what they’ve done,” she said.

Read the rest.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Turning grief into advocacy

Pete Earley, author of the book CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, writes a blog on mental health and criminal justice issues, and recently has done a series of posts on mental illness and the death penalty. (Pete wrote the foreword to the report that we produced with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Double Tragedies.)

One of Pete Earley's posts is about MVFHR member Joe Bruce and the tragedy he experienced when his son, suffering from mental illness, killed his mother, Joe's wife. Another of Pete Earley's posts in this series is about MVFHR members Amanda and Nick Wilcox. Here's an excerpt:

Prosecutors were shocked when they met with Nick and Amanda Wilcox. They assumed that Laura’s parents would be their best advocates in seeking the death penalty.

But Nick and Amanda, both devout Quakers, said they did not want revenge. Instead, they demanded to know why officials had overlooked the severity of Thorpe’s mental disorder and why he had access to weapons that enabled him to murder their daughter.

During an investigation, officials were forced to admit that Nevada City did not have a facility where someone as sick as Thorpe could get help and when he began to develop signs of extreme mental illness, public officials had decided that they didn’t want to involuntarily commit him because the county would have had to pay the costs of sending him to an out-of-county facility.

At the trial, Thorpe’s brother and sister-in-law testified that they had warned doctors at Nevada County Mental Health several times about Thorpe’s collection of unregistered guns. But the doctors had told them that there was nothing they could do about Thorpe’s constitutional right to own weapons. One doctor finally told them, “If you’re not happy about it, change the law.”

Thorpe was ruled “incompetent to stand trial” and sent to a forensic mental facility where he remains today.

Many parents would have been outraged by that ruling. But not the Wilcoxes. They called it an appropriate decision and turned their grief into advocacy.

They immediately began lobbying for passage of what became called Laura’s Law, which authorized assisted outpatient treatment in California and was patterned after Kendra’s Law, which I have written about before. Putting their daughter’s “face” on that legislation helped get it passed in 2002.

But the Wilcoxes didn’t stop there.

They opposed the death penalty, especially the execution of persons with mental illnesses, and they were convinced that there were other families who felt the same way even though their loved ones had been murdered. So Nick and Amanda began speaking out against executions. ...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Plea to the Governor

This piece by Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty was published in California Progress Report on April 15:

I am pleased to report that Governor Schwarzenegger and California officials were asked to make a tough choice about the death penalty last week by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I was joined by Aqeela Sherrills, CCV’s Southern California Outreach Coordinator, and by Nick and Amanda Wilcox, CCV supporters from Nevada County.

We delivered our clearly worded plea signed by 150 CCV supporters to Governor Schwarzenegger: save the state $1 billion dollars over the next five years by converting all 700 death sentences in the state to permanent imprisonment and redirect the money towards victim’s services.

We also presented the Governor with CCV’s newly released report, The Silent Crisis in California: Unsolved Murders. According to the report, 1,000 murders go unsolved each year in California due to minimal resources and funding for criminal investigations. This means that thousands of killers are getting away with murder and continue to walk our streets freely. Yet, while we have this public safety crisis on our hands, millions of dollars are wasted each year on the death penalty and on housing the 700 death row inmates who are already safely behind bars occupying the only single-bedded cells in the California prison system.

Nick and Amanda Wilcox of Nevada City described themselves as “tough on crime” in our meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger’s Crime Victim Advocate Susan Fisher and Public Safety Liaison Tom Sawyer. Their daughter, Laura Wilcox, was murdered in 2001 while working as a summer intern at Nevada County’s Behavioral Health Department. Her killer is not competent to stand trial and remains at Napa State Hospital.

Amanda Wilcox described herself to Susan Fisher as a school board member who clearly recognizes the impact of the current budget crisis on all aspects of public education. Amanda told Fisher: “It used to be that school board members across the state would point to high school diplomas as the key to preventing crime. Now we are recognizing the importance of early childhood programs. The costly death penalty does nothing to bring my daughter back, but it does negatively impact education services for all ages which can make a difference for so many.”

The Wilcoxes are strong advocates for gun control and services for the mentally ill and have effectively lobbied for criminal justice reforms. California’s “Laura’s Law” which requires mental health services to be made available to individuals who do not recognize their need for services is named for their daughter.

Aqeela Sherrills is the CCV Victim Outreach Coordinator for Southern California. Sherrills has worked for decades in Watts to end gang violence and understands the tragic implications of failed criminal justice programs including the death penalty. Sherrills’ son Terrell was killed in 2004 while home on winter break from his freshman year in college.

The irony of Terrell’s murder gave new energy and new insight to Sherrills’ work. He recognizes the similarities between retributive gang violence and the death penalty, because both use violence to respond to violence. Sherrills asked Tom Sawyer to reconsider his decades old support of the death penalty so that violence prevention programs could continue to be funded.

I am proud of the growth in CCV membership; over 400 individuals have joined our ranks across the state and that number is growing every day. Among our expanding number of supporters there exists a striking and divergent range in opinion on why the death penalty does not serve victims’ needs. But we are all united in our clear support of effective alternatives to the costly and failed death penalty.

It is now nearly seven years since my brother Bob’s murder. His killer is still walking the streets. My message and voice are focused on dispelling the delusion that the death penalty keeps us safe. We are wasting millions each year sentencing a few aging convicts to death while thousands more murders each year remain unsolved and tens of thousands of family members like me are left with little hope for any justice.

In the past year one of the most compelling stories I have heard was from a woman who supported the death penalty throughout years and years of appeals up until the execution of her loved one’s killer. Her heart rending story ends with her acknowledgment that her health was harmed by years of reliving the horror and anxiously awaiting the execution. In the end, she was left to begin the long healing process much later than she might have if the killer had been sent to prison forever with no chance of release. .

When the maximum allowable punishment under the law is permanent imprisonment, victims’ family members are spared decades of re-traumatization. The notion of closure is incomprehensible to murder victim family members on both sides of the death penalty discussion. Healing, however, is something we all hope for. Healing can begin when the murderer is behind bars and when sentencing is complete.

At the end of our meeting, Susan Fisher carefully explained that she serves at the pleasure of the governor. Fisher is an ardent supporter of the death penalty and makes no apology for her view. She is also a murder victim family member who lost her brother many years ago. She and Sawyer ended the meeting by pointedly mentioning that their positions are under budgetary review. The irony hung heavy in the room as the meeting ended.

It appears that even the office of victim services’ may fall victim to the fiscal crisis while wiser policy choices continue to elude our state.

Fisher assured us that she would deliver the letter signed by 150 murder victim family members and victims of violent crime directly to the governor. I asked Susan Fisher gently if she would deliver the message “with a smile.” She smiled back and promised that she would. I hope sincerely that her smile is enlightened by self-interest as well as by duty bound obligation to all victims in California.

Monday, April 19, 2010

After 15 years

Today is the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and MVFHR board president Bud Welch, whose daughter, Julie, was killed in the bombing, appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show this past Friday evening to talk about his initial support for the death penalty, his change of heart, his work against the death penalty, and his efforts to keep Julie's memory alive.

The segment is about 9 minutes long, and the interview with Bud starts at about the 4-minute mark.

Friday, April 16, 2010

From a Police Officer's Sister

Here are excerpts from Illinois MVFHR member Gail Rice's testimony in New Hampshire last week:

Over twelve years ago, on November 12, 1997, I suddenly became a murder victim family member. My brother, Bruce VanderJagt, 47 years old and a Denver policeman, was trying to apprehend a skinhead trying to flee a burglary with a woman accomplice, when the man shot him with ten bullets from an SKS-assault rifle, killing him instantly. Bruce was the first police officer in the United States to be killed by a skinhead (although sadly, not the last). Bruce's killer, Matthaeus Jaehnig, surrounded by many police officers, eventually exacted his own death penalty by committing suicide with my brother's service revolver. It was an exceptionally brutal murder and also a very sensationalized case, coming as it did in the middle of three weeks of unprecedented skinhead violence in Denver. The woman who had engineered the burglary and assisted the killer at the scene, Lisl Auman, was tried and convicted of felony murder in July 1998, and was sentenced to life without parole. However, her conviction was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court years later on a legal technicality, and she is now free after serving eight years in prison.

My husband, Bob, and I were devastated by the murder. A great and heroic policeman was gone. His loving wife, Anna, and his daughter, Hayley, almost three at the time, faced a lifetime without him. His murder cheated us out of many exciting years of watching him grow and change as a husband and father. Anna, Hayley, and I all needed professional counseling to help us through this tragedy.

... Shortly after Bruce's death, I became involved with the group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), and later with a group that formed from them, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). Through working with these groups and studying the death penalty, I came to see the death penalty as far more flawed than I originally thought. ... In these abolition groups, I made friends with family members whose murdered loved ones were a police officer and a state trooper, yet they opposed the death penalty. If my brother’s killer had lived, he most certainly would have been sentenced to death. Would I have wanted Jaehnig to get the death penalty right after Bruce’s murder? I don’t think so. But now, knowing what I do about the death penalty, I know I would fight against the death penalty being carried out in any case, for any murderer—even for the murderer of a police officer—even for Jaehnig, if he were alive.

Today this commission is focusing on whether the death penalty really deters crime. I believe that all of you on the commission were given a recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center called Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis. If you’ve read that report, you know that when a national sample of 500 randomly selected police chiefs in the U.S. were asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among the areas. The death penalty was considered the least efficient use of the taxpayers’ money. Even police chiefs who philosophically supported the death penalty did not think it was an effective law enforcement tool in practice. Fifty-seven percent said the death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence.

I agree with this last assessment. In most of the heinous crimes that result in the death penalty, the murderer has extreme rage or other problems and is often under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both, which affect the murderer’s behavior. My brother’s killer had a level of methamphetamines in his blood 100 times that of a first-time user; therefore, he was extremely paranoid and homicidal. I mentioned that he shot Bruce with 10 bullets in the head and upper torso, killing him instantly. Bruce was as dead as a person could be, and was no longer a threat to Jaehnig. Yet even then, Jaehnig took my brother’s service revolver and fired three more bullets into the back of Bruce’s head, an act that was pure insanity. No threat about the death penalty would have deterred him.

I am sure that police, prosecutors, politicians, and Presidents will continue to say that they are compelled to support the death penalty “in the name of the victims.” But if I could convince you of anything today, I hope to convince you that the death penalty hurts rather than helps victims. The death penalty is neither swift nor sure justice. The death penalty process is longer because many of the extra procedures are required to reduce the risk of mistakes when a life is on the line; to make the process faster would be to risk more innocent people being executed.

But even states with the fewest protections and a faster process take years or decades to carry out the death penalty. And so survivors enter into an agonizing and lengthy process, reliving the murder over again with each new appeal or court decision. In 2002 I testified briefly at the Prisoner Review Board's clemency hearings that preceded then-Governor Ryan's commutation of 167 prisoners on death row. The Prisoner Review Board was re-examining the details of the cases for each prisoner on death row, and was letting murder victims’ family members speak. I will never forget one woman, screaming at the defendant’s lawyers, “I’ve been waiting 23 years for this, and now one Governor, with the stroke of a pen, is going to take it away from me!” I felt heartsick to see that woman and other victims, many of whom had been locked in rage and vengeance for decades, hanging on to the hope of executions for dear life as their only way for finding peace and closure. If the murderer of that woman’s loved ones had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, she likely would have been able to accept the lifetime incarceration and been freed to get on with her life. If I ever had any doubts about whether the death penalty harmed victims, they ended on that day. Moreover, in cases where executions are actually carried out, survivors are often further devastated to find out that the execution does not bring them the peace and closure promised to them. They have counted on this for so long—now what are they to do?

The death penalty ignores the real needs of surviving families by diverting millions of dollars and much attention from the services that they need to help them heal. Instead, the focus is on the murderer, not the survivors. Services are often provided through the prosecutor’s office, so when the criminal case is over, the services for the victim’s family end too. What if murder victims’ survivors were given the choice of whether money used for death penalty cases could be used instead for grief counseling, financial assistance, ongoing support, and more investigators to solve cold cases? I think I know what choices most victims’ survivors would want.

The death penalty also divides families when they need each other most. Some victim family members who oppose the death penalty have been rejected from their families altogether, so they have two heartbreaks to deal with: first, the death of their loved one, and second, the rejection by family members and friends because of their stand on the death penalty. One abolitionist friend of mine fought in vain to halt the execution of the murderer of her brother, a state trooper, and her brother’s family told her they no longer considered her to be a part of the family. If there is not outright rejection, there can be tension and estrangement. When I told Anna, Bruce’s widow, that I was occasionally speaking against the death penalty, stressing that we would never have to talk about it again and that I wasn’t trying to change her views, the very close relationship that had been developing between us after Bruce’s death became estranged from that day on. COPS, or Concerns of Police Survivors, is a very helpful support group for family members of police officers who have died in the line of duty. Every COPS newsletter has one or two pages describing “Cop-Killer Trials” and rejoicing when cop killers are given the death penalty—obviously, I would not be welcomed in that support group. The family situation is even worse when the victim and the killer are related, and the killer is sentenced to death. Family members must cope not only with one death but also with the possible execution of a relative.

In the end, the death penalty creates a new circle of victims. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights published the book Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind, which describes how family members of the executed suffer. In many ways, although the executioner is the nebulous “state” rather than one person, and although the person executed is usually guilty, the suffering of the families of the executed is a lot like the suffering we went through when Bruce was murdered. However, when Bruce was murdered, I was overwhelmed with love and support. Family members of murderers never receive that support—the public demonizes them, and often they isolate themselves. I never want so much sorrow and pain to be felt by anyone. So I say, along with other murder victim family members, “Don’t kill in my name.” ...

Testifying at Deterrence Hearing

MVFHR member Gail Rice traveled from Illinois to testify before members of New Hampshire's Death Penalty Study Commission last week. A story in Saturday's Concord Monitor, titled "On death penalty, researchers differ with the police; at issue: does punishment deter?" refers to Gail's testimony:

There may be reasons for New Hampshire to keep the death penalty, but statistics show deterrence shouldn't be one of them, a criminologist testified yesterday before a legislative group weighing the future of capital punishment here.

"Our research doesn't mean that punishing homicide offenders is a bad idea," said Tom Kovandzic of the University of Texas. "What we are saying is that increasing punishment by having the death penalty doesn't decrease the number of homicides."

Another statistician from Dartmouth College agreed. Police officers, however, did not.

"I think we need to send a message that we are willing to take extreme action for an extreme act," said Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin, representing the state's 10 sheriffs. "I don't know if we will truly ever know if (having the death penalty) is a deterrent factor. But I think it's common sense that it must be for some."

Brad Whitney, a commission member whose father, Robert Whitney of Penacook, was killed in 2001, agreed. How, Whitney asked, do you count the number of capital murders that weren't committed because a criminal was deterred by fear of execution?

Lawmakers created the 20-member death penalty study commission last year after the state tried two death penalty cases, winning a death sentence in one and life without parole in the other. The commission has until later this year to assess several difficult questions, including whether the life without parole is a suitable option; if the state's death penalty law covers the appropriate crimes; and whether it is applied arbitrarily.

Yesterday, the commission's focus was deterrence. Groups against the death penalty, including the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, paid the expenses of some who testified.

John Lamperti, a retired math professor from Dartmouth College, has reviewed the many statistical studies of the death penalty. He said most of those studies have found no evidence the death penalty deterred crime. Nor did those studies show that the existence of death penalty laws make police officers and prison guards safer, Lamperti said.

Although, Lamperti said, quoting one study, officers felt safer in states with a death penalty.

"Even if there is some deterrence, the negatives outweigh it," Lamperti said. "I am convinced it is bad public policy. I am convinced New Hampshire would be better off without it."

Kovandzic did his own study to reach his conclusion that capital punishment does not deter capital crime. He did so, he said, because of the range of outcomes from the other studies. Some said the death penalty caused more crime while another said an execution could save 18 other lives.

"Criminals aren't as rational as some of these statisticians assume," he said.

For the first time since the commission began meeting late last year, several people with contrary views on the death penalty turned out yesterday. They spoke not of deterrence but of their own views.

State Trooper Jill Rockey, representing the New Hampshire Troopers' Association, said before joining law enforcement she was opposed to the death penalty. That changed, Rockey said, as she began working closely with crime victims.

She said the death penalty should remain an option for families of capital murder victims and the prosecutors assigned those cases.

Manchester Police Officer John Breckinridge, whose police partner, Michael Briggs, was murdered by Michael Addison in 2006, spoke about New Hampshire's sparing use of the death penalty. He wants it to remain that way, he said.

When Addison fatally shot Briggs, he "was lashing out against society, saying he does not accept our laws and order," Breckinridge said. Addison had been given chances to better himself since childhood but had chosen a life of crime, Breckinridge said.

"For such a person, the death penalty is an appropriate response," he said.

Ray Krone of Pennsylvania talked about the 10 years he spent in prison, about three of them on death row, for the murder of a bar waitress. Krone was freed in 2002 after DNA evidence exonerated him.

"The ultimate punishment is living on death row," Krone said. "You have to live every day knowing what you did. Death is the easy way out."

Gail Rice of Illinois testified against the death penalty, even though her police officer brother was murdered in the line of duty in Denver in 1997. "I think some criminal lives can be restored," she said. "I believe nothing in the death penalty is restorative."

For more information about the study commission, including the dates of upcoming meetings, visit

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Constructive Revenge

MVFHR board Vice-Chair Robert Meeropol is busy these days with a series of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, of which Robby is the founder and director. "20 events in 20 cities in 20 months" is the plan, and it's worth checking to see if one of the events is in your area.

Here also is a story from a recent issue of the AARP Bulletin about the Meeropol brothers' experience of the execution of their parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg:

Except for vague impressions of living in a tiny apartment with a warm and loving family, Robert Meeropol remembers very little about his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death 59 years ago today for passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets.

Meeropol, who was 3 when his parents were arrested, says his first real memories of his parents were of the times he visited them in prison. Rather than being traumatic, those visits were comforting, he recalls.

The Rosenbergs’ impending executions prompted protests worldwide. Robert, then 6, and his brother Michael, 10, also demonstrated with their grandmother at the White House just days before their parents were put to death in the electric chair in the summer of 1953.

“I doubt I fully comprehended that my parents had just been killed, but I feigned complete ignorance to avoid the commotion, and went to bed,” Robert Meeropol recalled in his 2003 memoir, An Execution in the Family.

In the years after their parents’ arrest, the boys were shuffled between grandparents, friends and a shelter. After the executions, Rosenberg supporters Anne and Abel Meeropol adopted them. Anne had given birth to a stillborn child, and the couple was unable to have children of their own.

They lived happily and anonymously on the upper west side of Manhattan, a circumstance Meeropol considers remarkable.

“From 1954 to 1973,” he says, “there is not one word written about Michael and Robert Rosenberg. There’s no exposure. There’s no confrontation. How could that happen today?”

In 1973, the brothers came out as the Rosenbergs’ sons when they sued famed trial lawyer Louis Nizer for copyright violations after he published their parents’ prison letters. After six years of wrangling, the case was settled out of court.

They grew up believing in their parents’ innocence, but by the mid-1980s, as more details of the case became public, they began to have their doubts.

A blockbuster revelation came in 2008 when Morton Sobell, convicted with the Rosenbergs, admitted to the New York Times that he had been a spy and implicated Julius Rosenberg. While Ethel knew what Julius was doing, Sobell said, she was guilty only of being Julius’ wife.

Today, Meeropol says, the overwhelming evidence is that his father may have passed some type of “military industrial” information—not atomic bomb secrets—to the Soviets, but that his mother was innocent.

“The thing that I want the American public to understand about my parents’ case,” Meeropol says, “Is that the idea that somehow all the evidence that Julius was guilty means that the government wasn’t wrong in what it did is a vast oversimplification and rationalization of the execution of two people for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Meeropol became a corporate lawyer, but never enjoyed it. In his memoir, he says, “I gained no satisfaction from having my businessman get the better of the other attorney’s businessman.” He disliked the work so much he had problems sleeping, couldn’t eat, and sought therapy. He left the firm in the late 1980s. Shortly afterward, he fulfilled his dream of starting a fund in his parents’ name, the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

For 20 years, the foundation—which has awarded more than $3.5 million in grants to the children of progressive activists who have been harassed or jailed—has given him a way to engage in “constructive revenge,” a philosophy that’s now central to his life.

There are healthy aspects to the desire for revenge, he explains, because that leads to the impulse to be active. But the problem is that revenge can also be destructive.

“So, how do you harness that energy in a positive direction?” he asks. “The Rosenberg Fund for Children, which is my effort to help families who are today living the kind of nightmare that my family lived when I was a child, that’s a constructive way of harnessing that revenge.”

Both Rosenberg sons are now grandfathers. Michael Meeropol recently retired from Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., where he had been an economics professor for almost 40 years. He now has a one-year appointment at John Jay College in New York City to be near his grandchildren, who live in the lower Hudson Valley. His daughter, Ivy, produced a documentary about the case, Heir to an Execution, in 2004.

Robert Meeropol also plans to retire in a few years and turn the foundation over to his older daughter, Jennifer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Elli, a retired pediatric nurse practitioner. Rachel, their younger daughter, is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and her 2-year-old daughter is their first grandchild.

“I found my positive outlet when I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and that’s what I needed,” Robert Meeropol says.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Police chief says: Victims' families changed my mind

The Death Penalty Information Center posted a link to the presentation that West Orange, NJ Chief of Police James Abbott delivered at the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty this past February. Chief Abbott, who was a member of New Jersey's Death Penalty Study Commission, made some important observations about victims' families:

As a police chief, you should have no doubts that I support tough on crime policies and harsh punishment. I have no sympathy for killers, absolutely none. My sympathy, like all of you I’m sure, is with the families of murder victims. It was those very families, including some whose loved ones were police officers killed in the line of duty, which changed my mind about the death penalty.

I had no idea how much families suffer facing years of death penalty appeals and reversals. We had capital punishment in New Jersey for 24 years and we hadn’t executed anyone. For every person that had been sentenced to death, there was a family waiting for the promised punishment to be delivered. They went to court year after year, only to find in the end that the person would never be executed. The reality is that there is no closure in capital cases, just more attention to the murderer and less to the victim. Unfortunately, it’s easier for most of U.S. citizens to name notorious killers than it is their victims.

As I sat on the commission, I heard from these families, one after another. Their cries of pain were devastating. Many of them supported capital punishment when their loved one was killed, and it was only the direct experience of suffering through the process that prompted them to change their minds and beg us to recommend replacing it with life without parole. I heard from mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who spoke of families being divided, lives lived in limbo, and childhoods abruptly ended by a never-ending court process. The death penalty was supposed to help families like these. And virtually everything I heard told me that it was tearing them apart.

At first I thought this problem was unique to New Jersey. But in the time since the study commission made its recommendations which became law, I’ve taken the time to learn more about the death penalty in other states. It doesn’t seem to work any better anywhere else. Even in Texas, which is the death penalty capital of the United States, it still takes years and millions more dollars for an execution to be carried out. It doesn’t seem like any state has found a way to carry out the death penalty quickly and cheaply and also accurately.

After the commission released our report, I began giving media interviews and talks about my experience. One thing I have been asked a lot is whether, as a police chief, I would still support the death penalty for the killing of a police officer. My answer is no. If I were ever killed in the line of duty, I would never, ever want my wife or children to have to suffer the way the families who testified before me have suffered.

Instead, I would want to know that the person who did it was behind bars for life, so they could never kill again, and that my family had the services they needed to heal and the financial support they needed to live without further sacrifice. Our Commission learned that those kinds of services were sorely lacking – and that they could be improved with the financial savings from ending the death penalty. Although we were unable to measure the costs of Life without Parole versus Capital Punishment with great precision primarily because some departments do not keep the data and because some of the extra cost takes the form of resource strain it was clear that the cost of Capital Punishment exceeded that of Life without Parole. Give a law enforcement professional like me those extra dollars and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.

False Assumptions

The Media and Human Rights Symposium, which we mentioned in Wednesday's post, received good coverage in Southern Methodist University's newspaper, with the headline "Murder victim's family opposes the death penalty":

... Human rights scholars and activists presented messages about race, ethics, justice, media and the death penalty.

The death penalty presentation attracted a large audience and various panelists, including Dallas Criminal District attorney Craig Watkins, associate dean at DePaul University College of Law Andrea Lyon and board member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights Jean Bishop.

Murder Victims’ Families for Human rights is an international, non-governmental organization for family members of murder victims of the executed, all of who oppose the death penalty.

Bishop began her speech with a powerful story about her younger sister Nancy. Nancy was three months pregnant when she and her husband, Richard Langert, were shot and killed in their home. The 16-year-old who committed the murder is now serving a life sentence without parole.

While Bishop and her family were grieving this tragedy, the media surrounded their homes, trying to get a story on the family’s opinion of the death penalty. However, Bishop condemned the media, and refused to speak to journalists after false assumptions regarding her view on the death penalty were publicized.

“The last thing I would want is to enlarge the pool of blood,” Bishop said. “The media assumed [my family] wanted him dead.”
In an attempt to prevent the media from printing false assumptions about criminal cases, Bishop concluded her speech with three lessons to journalists: 1. Forget ‘the scoop mentality,’ 2. Look out for the myths and 3. Don’t assume that every single victim will be put on death row. ...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The message was plain

Today's Chicago Tribune has this article about MVFHR members Jeanne Bishop and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, "20 years after Winnetka murder, women remain inspired by sister's dying statement":

As Nancy Bishop Langert lay dying in the basement of her Winnetka home, mortally wounded by an intruder's bullets, she found the strength for an act that even now, 20 years after her murder, continues to inspire those who knew her best.

She crawled over to a metal shelf and tipped it over. Then, with her own blood, she traced symbols onto its surface.

The characters were not perfectly formed, and lawyers would later argue over what they meant. But to Nancy's family, the message was plain: It was a heart, followed by the letter "U".

"What she clearly was saying to us is that love is the most important thing in the world," said Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, 52, one of Nancy's two sisters.

Since then, the sisters say they have tried to live up to that idea. They have spent years battling against capital punishment and for gun control, causes they believe are in keeping with their sister's final message.

The life of an activist, though, is complicated. The sisters have tasted the fury of others who have lost loved ones to murder, and they've broken with former friends over one of their causes — ensuring that juvenile killers who receive life sentences never get parole, a measure being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But even in the dark times, they say, their sister's spirit continues to push them forward.

"I just feel like she's inspired me to live more courageously and do things that I hope will make this world a better place," said Jeanne Bishop, 50. "I feel like I owe that to her."

Nancy Bishop Langert was 25 on April 7, 1990, a coffee company sales rep three months pregnant with her first child. She and her husband, Richard, had returned home from dinner that night when a gunman ambushed them in their townhouse.

Nancy's father came by the next day and discovered their bodies in the basement. Richard had been shot in the neck. Nancy had been shot twice in the torso.

As police hunted for the killer, grief, media attention and investigative pressure upended the lives of Nancy's older sisters.

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins was a teacher at a Catholic high school in Kankakee, and said a workplace visit from authorities eventually cost her her job. Jeanne Bishop, then a corporate attorney, was repeatedly grilled over her human rights work in Northern Ireland (some initially speculated that the symbols left by Nancy spelled "IRA").

Finally, six months after the crime, police arrested David Biro, a senior at New Trier High School who had allegedly bragged to a friend about the murders. As reporters converged on the Winnetka police station, Bishop Jenkins recalled, one asked if she was upset that Biro's age — he was 16 at the time of the slayings — made him ineligible for the death penalty.

That question crystallized a cloud of emotion that had been swirling within her since the killings. For the first time, she was able to imagine her sister's final moments in the basement, tracing what Bishop Jenkins believed to be an unambiguous message of love.

"I realized that the thing to say (to the reporter) was the loving thing," Bishop Jenkins said. "I just shook my head and said, ‘Nancy would never want the memorial to her life to be the death of another human being.'"

At trial, Biro's attorney contended the bloody scrawl was really an attempt to spell the name of another young man who Biro claimed was the real killer. The jury didn't buy it and took only two hours to find Biro guilty. A judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole.

With the case concluded, Nancy's sisters took up transformed lives. Bishop Jenkins, whose activism had been limited to writing letters for Amnesty International, spoke about her anti-death-penalty beliefs at churches and schools. She soon joined organizations that crusaded for its end.

Read the rest.

Two Texas Events

MVFHR will be represented at two interesting events in Texas this week. Today, Jeanne Bishop will be one of the speakers at the Media and Human Rights Symposium in America at Dallas's Southern Methodist University. The description says that the symposium "will feature themed sessions concerning justice in journalism; new media and human rights; media and the death penalty; and media, race, ethics and justice."

On Saturday, Renny Cushing will be among the speakers at a conference that the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin is hosting, titled "The American Death Penalty in the Twenty-first Century: the Direction of Legislative Change and the Prospects for Legislative Abolition." The description says, "State legislatures have been reevaluating the emotionally and politically charged issue of capital punishment. While national public opinion polls show broad support for the death penalty in the abstract, states like New Mexico and New Jersey have abolished capital punishment outright within the last three years, and other states have seen similar proposals closely contested and only narrowly defeated. ... The symposium will explore this newly active legislative foment around capital punishment, closely examining the experience in particular states to see whether any broader lessons may be drawn with respect to the future of state legislative efforts to abolish, limit, and reform the death penalty."

Both these events are free and open to the public.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Common Ground

This is a bit belated as I only just came across this write-up by Renny Cushing that was published last month on the "Death Penalty is" debate site, about the Crime Victims Equality Act. We posted news about the bill when it was initially passed and also had a story about it in the MVFHR newsletter, but it's good to see it covered elsewhere too, and this piece includes the valuable point that such legislation can attract support form both pro- and anti-death penalty lawmakers.

Last year I sponsored legislation (House Bill 370) to prohibit discrimination against victims of crime based upon their position on the death penalty.

The bill was inspired by my experience working with other survivors of homicide victims, including some who found they experienced a loss of standing and recognition of rights as crime victims under the law when they spoke out against or acted in opposition to the death penalty for the person who murdered their loved ones. The idea for a Crime Victims Equality Act was first put forth as a policy recommendation in "Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims' Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty" a report Susannah Sheffer and I wrote a few years ago. New Hampshire was the fourth state to consider such victims legislation, and the first state where it became law.

The legislation amended New Hampshire's existing "Rights of Crime Victims" law by adding the new guarantee of the right of equality for all survivors of homicide victims. It is the first law in the nation to formally acknowledge that family members of murder victims have differences of opinion on capital punishment, and gives equal respect under the law to that diversity to ensure that whether one supports or opposes or is unsure or neutral on the death penalty, they will still enjoy all rights and support they are entitled to as crime victims. During the course of legislative hearings on the bill the measure was publicly supported by victims of crime and victims advocates, and both pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty lawmakers found common ground to vote for the bill. The bill was signed by Governor John Lynch, a death penalty supporter and became effective as the law of New Hampshire in October 6, 2009.