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.” ...

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