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.

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