Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Finding a Positive Response

Today the MVFHR group is visiting the city of Hiroshima. They are visiting the memorial museum and meeting with victims of the atomic bomb and then holding a press conference and a public speaking event at the Civic Center.

Of the MVFHR speakers, the visit to Hiroshima has particular significance for Robert Meeropol. Here is the statement he is delivering at the press conference:

My name is Robert Meeropol now, but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents were executed in Sing-Sing prison in New York State on June 19th, 1953 when I was six years old. My last name was changed when Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted my older brother, Michael, and me after the executions. I believe my brother and I are unique in American history. We are the only people to have both their parents executed by the government. And I am also the only lawyer in the United States to have had both his parents executed.

I am a part of this delegation for several reasons. As a child who survived his parents’ execution I also have an unusual perspective to share with you. How does the death penalty impact the children of those executed?

I am here in Japan to explain that experience. I hope you will see that executing someone helps no one. It does not ease the pain of those who have had a family member murdered. Killing another human being will not undo that terrible act. Executing someone will only bring new pain and suffering to a new set of victims, the children and other family members of the person who is executed.

There is another reason why I have come to Japan. My parents were executed for supposedly stealing the secret of the Atomic Bomb. This was a false charge, so in a way my parents were victims of the Atomic Bomb. No people in the world have suffered more than the Japanese because of the Atomic Bomb. My family has also suffered because of that bomb, and I feel a special relationship with all who have suffered from it.

And here is an excerpt from the remarks that Robert Meeropol has been giving at the group's public presentations:

What is the most fundamental thing wrong with the death penalty?

I believe the death penalty is a human rights abuse, but my opposition to it is even more fundamental. Murder, or any other crime that a society judges sufficiently bad to merit the death penalty, is a negative. An execution is the cold-blooded ritualized killing of a helpless human being.

Each execution is a negative response to a negative event. This does not create anything positive. It only perpetuates more negatives by promoting a cycle of violence and be creating a new set of victims – the family members of those executed.

The best way to respond to a negative is to find a positive response to it. This is not always easy, but my personal experience teaches me that it is possible. Both of my parents were executed when I was s small child. I grew up having revenge fantasies. I wanted to kill the people responsible for killing my parents. But when I was 43 years old, I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). The RFC is a public foundation that raises money to provide for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists. In other words, we help children who are experiencing the kind of terror I experienced as a child. This has become my life’s work. It is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. I don’t care about revenge anymore, and the work I do benefits others. This is my positive response to the negative of my parents’ execution.

Similarly, every member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights has endured a terrible negative. They’ve had a family member murdered, executed or disappeared. They have joined together to work against capital punishment, to make sure murderers are not executed. They promote understanding and a reduction of violence. They have all found a positive response to the negative of murder, and by doing so they are healing themselves and benefiting society by reducing violence.

I urge the people of Japan to find a positive response to murder in your society.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Still arbitrary

Victims' families are among those gathering in front of the U.S. Supreme Court today for the start of the 17th annual four-day Starvin' for Justice Fast & Vigil. The vigil begins today on the anniversary of the Court's 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, which found that the death penalty was applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner, forcing many states to re-write their statutes.

Here's a summary of Furman from the Death Penalty Information Center:

"In 1972, the Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as applied violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Due to a lack of standards for imposing the death penalty, the Court ruled that the death penalty was being applied arbitrarily and capriciously."

DPIC quotes from Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion:

"These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. For, of all the people convicted of rapes and murders in 1967 and 1968, many just as reprehensible as these, the petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed."

In the section of its website that discusses the arbitrariness of the death penalty, DPIC goes on to comment,

"Three decades after sentencing guidelines were approved by the Court in Gregg, the death penalty is still being unpredictably applied to a small number of defendants. There remains a lack of uniformity in the capital punishment system. Some of the most heinous murders do not result in death sentences, while less heinous crimes are punished by death."

It's worth reading the rest of DPIC's information on abitrariness. And for anyone who is feeling especially historically inclined today, here is the full text of the Furman decision.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Meeting again after nine years

In Japan, the MVFHR speakers are at Kobe Gakuin University today and then at Doshisha University tomorrow. The report I've gotten from the first of the three university presentations -- Friday's panel presentation at Toyo University -- was very positive. They spoke to a packed and even overflowing room:

One particularly interesting note is that the Toyo University symposium's moderator, Professor Kaori Sakagami, had first heard Bob Curley and Bud Welch speak in Boston in 2001, at the "Healing the Wounds of Murder" conference. That conference was the first public occasion at which Bob Curley had expressed his opposition to the death penalty, and Professor Sakagami had been so impressed and moved by the occasion that, when she returned to Japan, she wrote an article about it -- which she had now brought with her to show Bob. Nine years later, introducing Bud, Bob, and the other MVFHR speakers who have come to address Japanese audiences, Professor Sakagami told this story. It made for a powerful introduction.

I'll post more reports as I get them.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Scrap the death penalty

MVFHR's visit continues to get very positive coverage in Japan. The featured "quote of the day" on Saturday at the JapanToday news site was this from Renny Cushing: "People believe that all families of murder victims want the perpetrators to be executed, but the belief is not true," followed by the attribution, "Renny Cushing, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. The group are on a 5-city speaking tour of Japan, sharing their experiences of losing their beloved ones and how they have come to oppose capital punishment."

And Sunday's Japan Times featured an article with the headline, "Scrap death penalty, bereaved families say":

Murder victims' kin want debate on capital punishment, arguing it brings no closure
Staff writer

Bud Welch lost his only daughter, Julie, in the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed the lives of 168 people on April 19, 1995. His 23-year-old daughter was working as a Spanish translator at the Social Security Administration in the federal building targeted.

Until the tragedy, Welch, who had operated a Texaco gas station for 37 years, had opposed the death penalty all his life. But the incident affected him so deeply that he wanted the two bombers executed.

"I was so full of anger, so full of revenge. I wanted the death penalty both for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicols," Welch said in a recent interview in Tokyo, revealing that after his daughter's death he had self-medicated with alcohol to such an extent that his body ached from alcohol poisoning. He was also smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, he said.

Amid his grief and anger, however, Welch said he began to question how he could move forward with his life. After nearly a year's reflection, he had rationalized the issue and felt strongly that executing the perpetrators was not going to help him.

"I reached a conclusion that on the day we take Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicols from their cage to kill them, it will simply be not part of my healing process. That killing wasn't going to help me," Welch said.

In fact, on June 11, 2001, the day McVeigh was executed, Welch said he felt nothing out of the ordinary and did not feel that his wounds had healed. Several family members of the 168 victims have come to him after the execution and told him that it didn't help them either, he noted.

About 1 1/2 years after his beloved daughter's death, Welch began to travel domestically and internationally to campaign against the death penalty and raise awareness of the fact that, contrary to what many believe, families of murder victims do not necessarily support executions.

Welch is currently visiting Japan along with four other Americans who are members of the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Through June and early July, the group is touring East Asia to share their experiences in the hope that they will help promote public debate about the death penalty in societies that still use capital punishment.

The group, which arrived in Japan after visiting South Korea, began their speaking tour in Tokyo on Friday. After leaving the capital, they will this week continue their travels to Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Okayama. Their tour is being supported by the European Union, whose member states have all abolished the death penalty and are pushing Japan, the United States and other countries and regions to follow suit.

Among the members visiting Japan is Bob Curley from Massachusetts, a technical assistance official at the Cambridge Fire Department. On Oct. 1, 1997, Curley's 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was sexually abused and murdered by two men. The men stole the boy's bike and lured him to their car with the promise of getting him a new one.

In the months that followed, Curley led the political fight to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts and started a political debate on the issue.

"Losing a family member, a loved one like that, I would think you would be insane not to seek that revenge. I was with so much anger and so much pain," said Curley, whose previous opinion about the death penalty had swayed both ways.

As he observed the trials of the two murderers, however, Curley said he began to realize that the criminal justice system was not being applied fairly. The main perpetrator was convicted of second-degree murder and a life term with the possibility of parole. But the other man, who Curley said was the "tag along," was convicted of murder in the first degree and a life term without parole.

The financial situation of the two families made the difference as the main culprit's family was able to hire a better lawyer, Curley observed.

"The criminal justice system is a very good system but it's not perfect. I was able to see that firsthand, and was able to take a step back and take a good look at the death penalty," he said.

Meeting Welch and other families of the victims who were against capital punishment also helped him through the process. "Until that point, I would feel obligated, like I would be disrespectful to Jeffrey if I wasn't in support of the death penalty," Curley said.

It took a couple of years before Curley could publicly or privately admit that he had changed his mind. But the change doesn't mean that he has forgiven the perpetrators, he said, adding that he also respects other opinions victims' families may hold toward the death penalty.

"I think the best way to honor Jeff is to live my life and try to do much good," said Curley, who often works on child safety and supports the rights of victims.

A public opinion poll by the Japanese government in December revealed that 85 percent of those surveyed said they supported the death penalty. Among the major reasons of support, 54.1 percent replied that they believed that abolishing executions will not heal the pain of the victims and their families.

To a multiple choice question, 53.2 percent also said that those who committed heinous crimes should atone for it with their lives. Another 51.5 percent said abolishing the death penalty would increase heinous crimes.

Welch, however, rejected these opinions, pointing out that perpetrators do not care what is written in the law.

"The justice system is about trying to bring justice to what happened, but also having a system that corrects or stopping that from happening in the future," he said. "I think that's where the death penalty really fails dramatically because (perpetrators) didn't care about the laws on the book. They couldn't care less," Welch said. "The only way you can stop those kinds of people is to have information and to be able to physically stop them before it happens," he said.

Welch, who is visiting Japan for the second time to share his experience, also believes that speaking about his experience and views is a mission on behalf of his daughter, who was in fact an antideath penalty advocate. "It's like I'm keeping her alive. Julie, if she were living, would be 38 now. She'll be turning 39 in September. But she will always be 23 years old."

Friday, June 25, 2010

As a victims' family member and as a lawyer

Today Jeanne Bishop addresses the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and members of the MVFHR delegation meet with Japanese attorneys. Here is an excerpt from Jeanne's remarks:

I come before you in two capacities. I am a family member of murder victims. My younger sister and her husband and their unborn child were shot to death 20 years ago. I am also a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney who represents clients charged with serious crimes. Among the cases I have worked on are murder and death penalty cases, although those cases are not regularly part of the work I do on a daily basis. I am also an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

I am here today to talk about why these two roles—murder victims’ family member and lawyer—have led me to conclude that the death penalty does not work and should be abolished.

First, let me speak as a family member of a murder victim. My younger sister Nancy and her husband were a young couple who worked for the same company, who were saving money for the future, and who were happily expecting the birth of their first child. An intruder broke into their home, waited for them to arrive, and shot them to death. He shot my brother-in-law first, then pointed the gun at my younger sister and fired two shots into her pregnant abdomen. As my sister lay dying beside her husband, she wrote in her own blood next to him a heart and the letter “u," which symbolized, “I love you.” Her last word on her life was love. It is a message that lives in me and inspires me.

The killer did not know my younger sister and her husband. It was not a robbery. He simply killed them to see what it was like to kill someone. He was arrested and convicted of the crime and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Because the killer was just under the age of 17 at the time of the murders, he was not eligible for the death penalty under the law of my state. Some people asked if my family was disappointed that he would not be executed for the murders.

I am not disappointed. I am relieved. Killing another person would not bring my sister back. It would not lessen the pain I feel every year on her birthday, on every holiday when my family gathers without her, when I see a baby and think of her baby who was never born. It would not give me what, in English, we call “closure.” The love I had for my sister and my grief over losing her can never be closed, certainly not by shedding more blood and taking another life.

Nor would killing the murderer give me justice. His life could never equal theirs. His death could never pay for theirs. The justice given to my family with the punishment the killer received—life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—ensures that he will never walk the streets to kill again, that society is safe from him.

Finally, as a murder victims’ family member, I believe that participating in executing him would move me closer to who he is and away from who my sister was. He embraced death. She loved life. He mercilessly took the lives of innocent people. She was carrying life within her body when she died. She would never want her memorial to be the killing of another person.

Second, let me speak from my perspective as a lawyer. I was working as a corporate attorney for one of the world’s largest law firms before my younger sister’s death. When she was killed at age 25, I was 29 years old. I had already lived four years longer than she had on this earth. I realized then that life was short, and that to honor the memory of my sister, I could not waste one moment; I had to live a life of meaning and purpose worthy of her. I left the high salary and prestige of corporate law to represent the indigent as a public defender—that is, a lawyer for people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

In the United States, both the federal government and the majority of U.S. states have an active death penalty. There are some things lawyers in the U.S. know about the death penalty, whether we support the death penalty or oppose it.

First, in death penalty cases, as in every other case in the criminal justice system, we know that we make mistakes. We make mistakes because we are human beings and we are flawed. Sometimes, vital evidence is overlooked or lost. Witnesses lie or simply err in their identification of a criminal suspect. Police take shortcuts rather than thoroughly investigate a crime. People suspected of crime confess to crimes they have not committed. Judges make rulings that are wrong.

Death penalty cases, almost always murder cases, are particularly susceptible to error because they evoke a strong emotional response. The crimes are ghastly, and they cry out for justice. People want a quick arrest, trial and conviction. But an arrest made in haste often turns out to be wrong.

All these mistakes can end up convicting an innocent person. And the problem with the death penalty is that once the sentence is carried out, it is irrevocable. It cannot be taken back; the life lost is gone forever. In such a circumstance, the death penalty creates a new victim of homicide, adding to the injustice of the original crime, and leaves the real killer free to kill again.

The second thing we lawyers in the U.S. know is that the death penalty is expensive. In almost every case, we must spend money to find potential witnesses, to hire experts such as psychiatrists to examine defendants and testify about them, to gather evidence that could help our case. Appeals from death sentences are mandatory, whether the defendant in the case wishes to appeal or not. A single case can literally cost millions of dollars. Forty million dollars were spent on the trial and execution of Timothy McVeigh, who killed my friend Bud Welch’s only child Julie Marie along with 167 other people in a bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City. People studying the death penalty have rightly questioned whether our precious resources could be better spent on preventing crime from happening in the first place.

The third thing we lawyers in the U.S. know is that the death penalty does little to deter crime. I am from Chicago, in the State of Illinois. In my state, there are more than 100 chief prosecutors in separate jurisdictions who can each decide using his or her own criteria whether to seek the death penalty against a particular defendant. Without a uniform set of standards, prosecutors often make their decisions based on political considerations or public pressure. The result is that some areas of my state have many death penalty cases, while other areas of the state have few, so that what is considered deserving of death in one region is not considered deserving of death in another. The result is a complete lack of deterrence, since no one knows exactly what conduct will likely result in a death sentence.

We from MVFHR are here because we believe that despite the differences in our legal systems, we can join together to acknowledge that the death penalty all over the world, from the United States to Japan, from China to Iran, needs to be re-examined. It accomplishes little for crime victims but takes great risks with human life and precious human resources.

Japan has led the world, and continues to lead the world, in countless ways: in technology, innovation, education, the arts. My hope is that Japan will lead the world in this area, too, that by reconsidering its death penalty it will be a shining light for us in the United States and for all the world. That will not happen—it cannot happen—without all of you. The courage and commitment and excellence you bring to your work every day is needed in the death penalty debate now more than ever.

Snapshots from Japan

Here's a photo from the Tokyo press conference (Toshi Kazama, organizer of this MVFHR tour, is speaking):

And here is one of a meeting that was held yesterday, hosted by the United Nations, with the MVFHR delegation and diplomats from several European Union member states and several representatives from Japanese non-governmental organizations:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Toward a Responsible Debate"

From the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights press conference yesterday in Tokyo, the introductory remarks by Mr. Stefan Huber, ChargĂ© d’Affaires a.i., Delegation of the EU to Japan:

Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be invited to speak at this press conference, and I am glad to have this opportunity to talk about human rights in general and the issue of the death penalty in particular.

For the EU, human rights matter. They are at the core of our identity and they are at the heart of what we do around the world. Our own history is about entrenching human rights, democracy and the rule of law across 27 Member States. This is a success story and one on which we base ourselves to promote human rights worldwide. So it is logical that we have developed a strong set of mechanisms to promote these values. To give just one example, over the last 18 months we have provided €235 million in funding for 900 NGO projects in 100 countries.

And I would like to add that in the wide realms of human rights the EU and Japan share many of the same values. Indeed, on many human rights topic, the EU and Japan stand side-by-side, like-minded partners.

But there is one noticeable exception, where the EU and Japan's position diverges and that is the reason why we are all here today. At the heart of the EU's human rights policy there is a strong belief that that abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.

This is why not only have we abolished the death penalty in the European Union, but also why we espouse its abolition for others too. The EU therefore has a strongly held policy agreed by all Member States of working towards universal abolition of the death penalty and, where the death penalty still exists, to call for its use to be progressively restricted and to insist that it be carried out according to minimum standards.

Article 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. And following the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 the Fundamental Rights' Charter, which is referred to in the treaty, has the same legal value as the European Union Treaties. All EU member states are fully committed to these provisions and implement them in practice. All countries wishing to join the EU have to abolish the death penalty, too.

As you know Japan continues to apply the death penalty. The number of executions surged in the 2006-2008 period, prompting the EU to publish statements on the issue in 2008. The circumstances surrounding executions in Japan also worry us: secrecy, extended time in death row, and the quasi absence of pardon of sentence commutation.

But what frustrates us most in Japan is the absence of widespread, sincere debate on the issue. With the introduction of the lay judge system, capital punishment has been – for a short while – a bit more intensely discussed in the media, but other than that, there has been little effort to trigger a real reflection on the continued use of the death penalty in a democracy as mature and a society as safe as Japan.

I believe that Japan does not yet have a mature, responsible, open debate about the death penalty. Politicians all too rarely dare to lead the way on this subject. Thus, many members of the public do not have access to a fully informed understanding of the complicated issues involved. This is probably one of the reasons why Japanese public opinion is still in favour of the death penalty and why studies show a high public support rate.

In this context, further to our dialogue and confidential diplomacy towards the Japanese authorities, one of the things the EU is trying to contribute to in Japan, is to encourage more debate, to divulge more information, and encourage more reflection on the implications of the death penalty. This includes working more closely with NGOs and human rights defenders and helping them in their outreach efforts and advocacy work. For that purpose we provide financial support to a large number of projects for the promotion of democracy and human rights in non-EU countries through a dedicated programme, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.

This year, one of the organisations to receive funding from the EU is the U.S.-based NGO, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. In Japan, aside from the high levels of public support, another reason often cited by retentionists for their support of the death penalty is the “need to think of the victims’ families”.

There is a widespread assumption, and not just in Japan, that victims’ families favour the death penalty. As today’s main speakers have previously stated, executions are presumed to meet survivors’ need for justice and closure and to oppose the death penalty is often seen as somehow being ‘anti-victim’. But this is not necessarily the case.

This visit will allow many Japanese to hear the voices of victims’ families in a context that is rarely heard in the public sphere in Japan, and I sincerely hope that it helps bolster the movement towards a mature, responsible debate in this country.

Thank you for your attention.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

MVFHR in South Korea

Here is a photo of Bud Welch speaking at MVFHR's press conference at the Catholic Pastoral Center for Social Correction, in South Korea

and here are Bud, Bob Curley, and Toshi Kazama meeting with Korean victims' family members

Toshi writes that there were 8 Korean victims' family members joining the U.S. visitors at this meeting. Over the course of two days in South Korea, the MVFHR group also met with the head of the Human Rights Aid division of the Ministry of Justice, the Chairperson of the Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly, and a member of the National Assembly who had introduced a death penalty abolition bill. The visit then culminated with a large public speaking event, "Don't kill in our name."

Many groups helped to make all of this happen: Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea Justice and Peace Subcommittee for Abolition of Death Penalty. Pan-Religious Coalition for the Abolition of Death Penalty, Won Buddhist Human Rights Committee, Catholic Pastoral Committee for Social Correction of Korea, Catholic Human Rights Committee, National Council of Churches in Korea Justice and Peace Committee, and Coalition of Abolition of Death Penalty in Korea.

Bud, Bob, and Toshi have now met up with Renny Cushing, Jeanne Bishop, and Robert Meeropol in Japan, where there are engaged in a similarly full schedule of press conferences, meetings, and public speaking events. I'll post photos and quick reports as I get them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

News coverage from South Korea

From today's edition of The Hankyoreh, a Korean news publication, "U.S. murder victims' families remain opposed to the death penalty":

U.S. civic organization MVFHR visited S. Korea to continue their call to end the death penalty

Representatives of U.S. civic organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), sit down to speak with relatives of murder victims in South Korea at the Catholic Adjustment Center, June 20.

As soon as Bud Welch, the 71-year-old President of the Board of Directors for the U.S. group Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), sat down for an interview on Saturday, he took out a photograph of his daughter Julie Marie. Some 167 people lost their lives in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, and Julie was among the victims. As recently as when the U.S. president and attorney general declared in the wake of the incident that they would examine plans for executing those responsible, Welch believed that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment given his own pain and suffering.

Even amid that suffering, however, he controlled his rage. He collected his emotions by telling himself that executing those responsible would not bring his daughter back. And he openly objected to the decision at the time to execute the terrorist responsible.

“The death penalty is about vengeance and hatred, and that vengeance and hatred is what causes other bombings,” Welch explained.

After his ten-year-old son Jeffrey was slain in 1997, Robert Curley, 55, was enraged enough to lead a campaign to revive the death penalty in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. When he woke up every morning, he vowed that he would beat the killer to death if he ever found him. It was some time afterward that his ideas began to change and things began to appear different. Today, he believes the death penalty is not perfect.

“In the U.S., whether people are executed or not depends on money and race,” said Curley. “What changed me was the fact that the death penalty is a flawed system, neither perfect nor equal.”

MVFHR, established in 2004 by people like Welch and Curley who have lived with the pain of losing their loved ones to murder, has the overarching goal of the abolition of the death penalty. The name of its newsletter is “Article 3,” referring to the article in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that includes the words “Everyone has the right to life.” The date of MVFHR’s establishment was Dec. 10, World Human Rights Day. Its members believe that the response to a violation of human rights, murder, must not be another violation of human rights, execution.

The members of the organization include not only those who lost their loved ones to murder but also family members of death row prisoners. Welch said that the father of Timothy McVeigh, the culprit in the Oklahoma City bombing, was also a victim like himself. “On Jun. 11, 2001, the day the death sentence was carried out, his father and I developed something in common,” Welch said. “The ways were different, but we both lost our sons.”

MVFHR’s members travel the country and relate their experiences under the conviction that they must end the death penalty everywhere in the world in the name of the victims.

On Saturday, they made their first visit to South Korea, at the invitation of the South Korean chapter of Amnesty International and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s Committee for Justice and Peace. On Sunday, they met with “Haemil,” an association of family members of murder victims in South Korea, and on Monday they are scheduled to visit the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and deliver a talk to the public entitled “Do Not Kill in Our Name.” Welch said it was encouraging that the death penalty has not been enforced in South Korea for the past thirteen years, and disappointing that there have been recent calls to carry out death sentences once again.

Friday, June 18, 2010

It only hurts victims' families

Yesterday's AOL news page posted this piece by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation director Beth Wood, "Death Penalty Only Hurts Victims' Families":

This week we are, yet again, focused on one celebrity offender.

We know his name -- Ronnie Lee Gardner -- and how he wants to die -- by firing squad -- and where he will meet his end -- in Salt Lake City.

We also know that the victim's family does not want him executed for the 1985 murder of Michael Burdell, a view shared by an increasing number of murder victims' families.

Most important, though, we know that the money devoted to executing Gardner could have been far better spent.

Fewer than 1 percent of convicted, death penalty eligible murderers are actually sentenced to death and actually executed. This means that more than 99 percent of murder victims' family members aren't getting the so-called "justice" of an execution. And it means that 100 percent of these families would benefit if all the money wasted on capital punishment was instead reallocated to meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Post-tragedy, family members of homicide victims face a myriad of needs. They face the very immediate needs of dealing with the media and burying their loved ones. They face longer-term needs, such as replacing lost wages, counseling expenses and caring for orphaned children.

Some needs are universal to all family members, such as a need to know what happened and why, the desire for the right offender to be apprehended and held accountable for his actions. And the need to be made whole again after such a cataclysmic rending of their world. These are common needs, familiar to family members whether they believe that the death penalty is appropriate or not.

Too often, these needs go unmet because so many resources are directed at so few criminals. Consider what could be accomplished:

Catching more killers

Chris Castillo, whose mother, Pilar, was murdered in 1991 in Houston, believes the money wasted on the death penalty could be better spent enhancing cold-case investigations. His mother's murderer was never caught, and he believes that solving this case and similar ones would protect society by getting more murderers off the streets.

Chris and his family are joined by others. The California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty just released "The Silent Crisis in California," a report about the crisis in unsolved cases in California.

Giving law enforcement the resources it needs to solve cold cases would meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Helping victims' families

Pat Songer started out thinking the death penalty was the right punishment for her son Jeffrey's killer. Twenty-seven years later, she is still waiting and is sure it was not right. She has not received closure or healing from the death sentence.

Her years of waiting have been punctuated by painful trips to hearings where her wounds were again ripped open and laid bare. If Jeffrey's killer is executed, Pat says, she "cannot believe it would make our world a better place." Not only does she feel that the death penalty doesn't meet any of her needs; she also feels the long and painful process further traumatizes her.

Putting murderers in prison and refocusing our resources and attention on family members of homicide victims would meet their real needs.

More mental health services

Nick and Amanda Wilcox's daughter Laura was murdered by a man who was mentally ill. Amanda notes that the more they learned about the tragedy, the more they realized that had the killer received proper mental health care early on, their daughter would still be alive.

Read about the Wilcoxes and 20 other families like them in "Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People With Severe Mental Illness."

Reallocating wasted dollars and attention from the death penalty to mental health resources would meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Gardner's high-profile execution is an opportunity for the country to rethink the death penalty. Let's put murderers in prison and turn our attention and resources to the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I had to rethink the death penalty

We've added two more pages to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories: sisters Bess Klassen-Landisand Suzy Klassen, whose mother, Helen Bohn Klassen, was murdered in Indiana in 1969. Bess was 13 and Suzy was 11 at time of the murder, which to this day remains unsolved.

Last year, we posted excerpts from Bess's testimony before the New Hampshire Senate, and featured an essay by Suzy in an MVFHR newsletter that focused on how people are affected by murder and the death penalty.

In Suzy's Gallery page, she says, “I had only anger towards the man who murdered my mother, and thought about what his punishment should be if he were ever caught. It seemed to me that he should suffer and die in the same horrible way he forced my mother to. I had to rethink the death penalty when I became a mother myself. I realized that if I had a child who grew up to be a murderer, I would never stop loving him. The degree of love I felt would be the same as the first day I held him. With this realization I found complete forgiveness. I also knew my mother would never want someone killed in her name, as I don’t want anyone murdered in mine. The insanity of the death penalty has to end and I oppose it under any circumstance.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Report from the World Coalition meeting

I was able to get a quick report from Kate Lowenstein about the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's General Assembly, held in San Francisco this past weekend. As a speaker on the Voices of Victims' Families panel, Kate talked about how important it is for abolition organizations around the world to begin right from the start to reach out to victims' families and think about how to incorporate victims' families into their work. Changing cultural assumptions about victims and the death penalty is challenging but so vitally important, Kate told the audience.

Also on the panel were Howard Morton of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons and Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Both Howard and Judy have done a tremendous amount to raise public awareness about the needs of victims' families in general and of those with unsolved murders in particular.

The World Coalition gathering was a great opportunity to meet in person with colleagues from the U.S., Europe, and Asia, joined by MVFHR Board members Bill Pelke and Bill Babbitt. Bill Babbitt brought his grandson, Andrew Colvin, to volunteer at the event -- his first abolition conference -- and it was a treat to have another member of the Babbitt family join our collective effort to end the death penalty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Coalition gathering in San Francisco

Kate Lowenstein will be representing MVFHR at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's annual General Assembly, which will be held in San Francisco this weekend. This is the first time that the World Coalition has held a meeting in the U.S.

Kate will participate on a "Voices of Victims' Families Panel" along with Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Howard Morton of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, moderated by Natasha Minsker, the ACLU of Northern California's Death Penalty Policy Director.

Read more about the gathering here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In the name of their daughter

Thanks to the Death Penalty Information Center for posting this North Carolina newspaper editorial about the opposition to the death penalty from the family of Eve Marie Carson, who was murdered in 2008.

Eve Marie Carson received many honors in her brief lifetime. She was an outstanding undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, popular among a virtual multitude of her fellow students who cherished her gentle ways and compassionate friendship.

She was respected by them so much that they elected her student body president. She was by all accounts a young woman who was on her way to making a difference in this world, thoughtful and committed to the people and causes about which she cared.

On Monday, in a Hillsborough courtroom, her family recognized her goodness again and reminded all who knew her, or just knew of her, just how much she will be missed. Thanks to them, to their daughter and to their shared opposition to the death penalty, Demario Atwater, charged in her brutal slaying that took place on March 5, 2008, will not go on trial for his life. The Carson family stoically sat in court as Raleigh attorney Wade Smith, who has been advising them, read their statement regarding the life-without-parole plea agreement.

The statement was powerful, saying that "today's outcome is neither adequate nor good," but that "it honors Eve's love of life and all people." Family members - Carson's father, Bob, her mother, Teresa Bethke, and her brother, Andrew Carson - did not speak. "We won't be talking to the court about how our lives are diminished without Eve," Smith read.

So with the court's acceptance of the plea deal, Atwater will not face a death penalty trial at which the full force of the state would have been brought against him, and instead will spend the rest of his own wasted life in prison.

His co-defendant, Laurence Alvin Lovette, now 19, is charged with murder, kidnapping and robbery in the case, which for him is pending. Because he was 17 at the time of the slaying, he will not face the death penalty. Both Atwater and Lovette were on probation, but their supervision was disgracefully lax, which was the case for too long in North Carolina.

The crime was especially brutal, with Carson taken from her home, driven around to withdraw cash from ATM machines and shot five times. The first four shots did not kill her. A final shotgun blast did.

It must have been unspeakably horrible for her family to know that, and to hear it in court. They were brave simply in their presence.

A desire for revenge, an eye for an eye, would have been entirely understandable. Somehow, the Carsons managed to resist it in the name of their daughter. For their courage in even facing this day, they deserve the admiration of all. Their daughter was a very special person. The same may be said of those who raised her.