Thursday, July 29, 2010

Any sense of closure

MVFHR board member Walt Everett is quoted at the end of Tuesday's article in the Hartford Courant:

NEW HAVEN — When Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislature's repeal of the dealth penalty last year, she referred to the only surviving victim in the Cheshire triple homicide case — and that violated the due-process rights of co-defendant Stephen Hayes, the defense argued Tuesday.

As a result, the lawyers said, the judge should bar the prosecution from pursuing the death penalty during Hayes' trial, which starts Sept. 13.

But Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue did not appear sympathetic to that argument. He said a governor's veto is part of the legislative process, and the death penalty remains law in Connecticut. He said Rell's reference to the Cheshire case could be remedied by a fair and impartial jury following its oath to reach a verdict based on what it hears in the courtroom, and to abide by the instructions of the judge during any penalty phase of the capital case. Blue did not issue a ruling on the defense motion Tuesday.

Defense lawyers Patrick Culligan and Thomas Ullmann argued that because a majority of the state House and Senate in June 2009 voted to repeal the death penalty, the action represents the will of the people and should trump Rell's veto. The legislature lacked the votes to override the veto.

The lawyers focused on a paragraph in Rell's veto message that said, "The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes. We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion. We should not, will not, abide by those who have killed for the sake of killing; to those who have taken a precious life and shattered the lives of many more. Dr. William Petit recently quoted Lord Justice Denning, Master of the Rolls of the Court of Appeals in the United Kingdom, who said …"

Rell than quoted a statement that Denning made in 1949 that said, in part, "It is essential that the punishment inflicted for grave crimes should adequately reflect the revulsion felt by the great majority of citizens …"

Petit's wife and and two daughters were killed in a home invasion and robbery on July 23, 2007. Petit was badly beaten but escaped.

Hayes and co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky, who will be tried separately at a later date, are charged in the in the killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled. Her daughters were left bound to their beds, and the house was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Before the killings, Hawke-Petit was forced to go to her bank with one of the assailants and withdraw money.

"A death case is different than any other kind of prosecution,'' Culligan argued, adding that to pursue death in the face of Rell's specific reference to the surviving victim in the Cheshire case would be to deprive Hayes of his right to a fair trial.

"The line is clear and she stepped way over it,'' Culligan said of Rell.

Blue noted that Rell has the power to veto legislative actions and that even imprudent statements by governors or presidents don't necessarily deprive criminal defendants of fair trials.

"The case law seems to say that as long as the atmosphere is not completely poisoned, that the appropriate thing to do is to choose a fair and unbiased jury. If that is done, the trial is deemed fair," Blue said.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Petit said that it was painful for him to hear the defense lawyers say that the death penalty violates standards of decency, given that he lost his family in such a brutal crime.

"I have difficulty rationally and emotionally following those arguments," he said, reiterating that he staunchly supports the death penalty.

In May 2009, an anti-death penalty group made up of family members of murder victims asked Petit to reconsider his views. The Rev. Walter Everett, whose son was killed in Bridgeport in 1987, said the pain of the years' long appeals process that follows a death sentence and the burden of carrying the anger obliterate any sense of closure that an execution might bring.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Prevent rather than perpetuate

MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing is a the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Summit in Louisville, Kentucky this week, where he's had the opportunity to participate in several criminal justice sessions, to meet with other state legislators specifically about death penalty issues, and to participate in an "issue forum" on "Reexamining the Death Penalty."

Earlier this month, Renny also represented MVFHR at the 12th European Union-Non-Governmental Organization Forum on Human Rights, where one specific area of focus was the EU's role in the worldwide fight against the death penalty. We were interested to see these comments in the paper that the working group on the death penalty prepared before the meeting:

The assumption that survivors of murder victims are commonly in favour of capital punishment may not hold up in reality. In many instances all around the world, family members of murder victims have expressed their respect and love for the victim while maintaining an anti-death penalty stance on grounds that the response to one violation should not be another, and that the better way to honour victims is by preventing violence rather than by perpetuating it. In any case, killing the murderer cannot bring the victim back to life or undo the suffering that friends and family have suffered from the crime. Not only that, but the use of the death penalty further compounds human suffering, not only of the person to be executed, but of his or her friends and family while the convicted person waits on ‘death row’ and after the execution as well.

And this resounding summary comment:

The EU considers that abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights and it opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. The EU considers the death penalty to be cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment that fails to deter criminal behaviour, and as such it represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mixed feelings

Louisiana's WWLTV News posted this story on July 15th: "Brother of Danziger victim has mixed feelings on possible death penalty":

For most, it's just a bridge. People pass freely without paying a dime. But in the chaos post Katrina, Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with a severe mental disability, paid with his life while trying to walk across to the west end of the Danziger Bridge, killed at the hands of New Orleans Police officers.

In federal court on Tuesday, six more current and former New Orleans Police officers were charged in connection with the deadly shootings atop the Danziger Bridge, just 6 days after Hurricane Katina. Officers shot six people - wounding four and killing two others.

While two of the officers now in custody were not among those who were present or involved in the actual shootings, they were supervisors who are now accused of covering up what really happened. Archie Kauffman could face 120 years in prison if convicted and Gerard Dugue could face 70 years.

The remaining four officers are among the group of cops known as the 'Danziger Seven,' who are accused of playing a role in the deadly shootings. Officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, and Anthony Villavaso are now in custody and could face the death penalty.

"I don't want to see anyone executed, but I guess I have to keep in mind that they executed my brother," saidand Romell Madison, Ronald's older brother. "I just have mixed feelings about it."

And so Romell Madison, a prominent dentist in New Orleans, remains torn on the future fate of his little brother's accused killers. ...

Working to shift the paradigm

Thomas Hubert posted a piece on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty site, "American murder victims' families advocate abolition in Asia." The piece summaries some of the material we've posted here about MVFHR's recent speaking tour in Asian countries, and concludes:

After the “Words of victims” evening at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva in February 2010, the Asian tour was a new opportunity for MVFHR to contribute to the global effort against capital punishment.

“Our colleagues in Asia are working against the death penalty under considerable duress and even threat,” Susannah Sheffer said.
“It is not only the sharing of victims’ stories across borders that is important, but also the working in collaboration with colleagues in retentionist countries, towards the goal of creating a social and political climate in which victims will be more able to express opposition to the death penalty, and gradually working to shift the paradigm so that victims are not assumed to be unilaterally in favour of the death penalty and policymakers recognize that it is possible to be both anti-death penalty and pro-victim,” she added.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Photos from "Victims, We Care" tour

The MVFHR delegation returned from Asia last week, and I continue to get reports about what a powerful effect they had there, reaching many people who had never before heard the message of victim opposition to the death penalty.

Here are a couple of photos sent by Aba Gayle. Below, MVFHR members Aba Gayle, Robert Meeropol, Renny Cushing, and speaking tour organizer Toshi Kazama with the volunteers who arranged the press conference in Taipei:

And here's the group after a meeting with the Minister of Justice, where they spoke about the need for policies that recognize that victims' family members have a diversity of views on the death penalty.

While in Taiwan, Province of China, the group also spoke to university audiences and met with victims' advocates and members of the legal aid society.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Enormous emotional cost

Just came across the op-ed, titled "Death Penalty Conflicts," that former district attorney Dan Glode published in the June 25th issue of the Newport (OR) News-Times. Some relevant excerpts:

I have a confession to make. After 12 years as Lincoln County district attorney, I have to admit I have conflicts regarding the death penalty as it is administered in this state. I realize it may not be politically correct for an elected (or an ex-elected in my case) district attorney to admit this, but I feel compelled to do so at this time. Some current district attorneys may think it political suicide to do so because they fear they would be considered “soft” on crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let me say that my compunctions primarily are not on moral or ethical grounds involving putting a convicted murderer to death, but on the way it is used (or not used) in this state, and the enormous expense in dollars and emotional capital for the families of homicide victims.


The emotional cost on the families of the victim is also enormous. I have some knowledge of this, as a close relative of mine was murdered back in the 1980s. It took several years to finally catch those responsible, and I realized I just wanted it over. When they were finally tried and incarcerated, I knew I could move on. The justice system, as good or imperfect as it may be, cannot make the victim’s family whole again, but it can reduce the trauma by not dragging things out interminably. In these capital cases, the process goes on and on. Sometimes these family members have to go through additional trials if the cases get kicked back for re-trial, and the hurt begins anew. The wound never heals; it doesn’t even scar over.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Profound Connection

From today's Taiwan News, "Death penalty is danger to all, Meeropol tells Taiwan":

Robert Meeropol vice chair of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and founder of the Rosenberg Foundation for Children, speaks about his opposition to capital punishment during a 'Victims, We Care!' seminar in Taipei. The picture behind is Meeropol's parents, Julius and Ethel Rodenberg.

In an exclusive interview, Robert Meeropol, vice-chair of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Foundation for Children, discussed with Taiwan News Chief Editorial Writer Dennis Engbarth how his experience as a child whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed by the United States government for "conspiracy to commit espionage" at the height of the "anti-communist" Cold War period known as "McCarthyism" led to opposition to the death penalty.

Taiwan News(TN): Why did you join Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)?

Robert Meeropol: I joined the MVFHR when it was founded on Dec. 10, [2004] because they were the first victims organization to recognize family members of persons who were executed as murder victims in their own right. No matter whether it is state sanctioned killing or occurs on a street, it is still murder.

MVFHR brings together immediate family members of persons who are murdered or executed and believe that capital punishment is a human rights abuse and not just a criminal justice issue.

TN: What happened to your family?

Meeropol: I was born Robert Rosenberg and was six years old on June 19, 1953 when my parents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at New York's Sing Sing Prison on charges of conspiracy, or planning, to commit espionage and not for murdering anyone.

These were vague charges that were transformed at the height of the Cold War into a claim, which was not officially part of their indictment, that they stole the secret of the atomic bomb and gave it to the Soviet Union.

They were charged for one crime, but executed for another charge.

The evidence is overwhelming that neither stole the "secret" of the atomic bomb, which in any case was an absurd notion since the atomic bomb is the product of an industry and not a formula or recipe.

In addition, my mother was not actively engaged in any illegal activity and was arrested by the government to pressure my father to confess to something which he had not done.

My father was involved with a group of young people who began to pass on military and industrial information on electronics and radio to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis in World War II and it is not clear when this activity ended.

It would not have been outrageous for the U.S. government to arrest and imprison him for that activity, but the U.S. government trumped up facts and got people to lie and used the death penalty to extort cooperation from them. When my parents refused to lie and implicate others, they were killed.

The McCarthy period played a primary role but not in their arrest but in the charge of stealing atomic bomb secrets and in their execution.

My brother and I changed our names after the couple that adopted us and became the first children who had both parents executed by the United States government.

As a child who survived the execution of both of his parents, I have an unusual perspective on the death penalty from the standpoint of how does capital punishment impact the lives of the children of the executed.

Positive channelling

TN: What do children of executed prisoners need to adjust?

Meeropol: Such children do need counselling and community support so they do not feel isolated after the execution, but thousands of times more important is that they need for their parents not to have been executed.

Relatively more enlightened people will say that there are services for children of executed convicts but the reality is that such positions miss the point which is that executing someone helps no one.

It does not ease the pain of those who had a relative murdered and killing another person will not undo that terrible act but will only bring pain and suffering to a new set of people, namely the family members and children of the executed.

TN: Why did you decide to form the Rosenberg Foundation for Children and what is its function?

Meeropol: My full time job is founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Foundation for Children, a public foundation which provides approximately US$350,000 a year in assistance for the educational and emotional needs of children or targeted activists and targeted activist youth in the United States.

We believe that all people have equal worth and that people are more important than profits and that world peace and ecological sustainability and human rights are necessities. A "targeted activist" is a person who is "blacklisted" from employment or imprisoned or hurt or worse in the course of working for these principles and their children are eligible for help from the RFC for their educational and emotional needs.

Basically, we try to help other people the way that I and my elder brother Michael were helped.

After the execution of our parents, our attorney raised a trust fund for us which provided resources for therapy and summer camps and special schools and that's what we do now.

It took me until I was 43 years old to figure out that my work in life was to repay the community of support that supported me by supporting people who need help now.

TN: How are the RFC and MVFHR connected in your work?

Meeropol: The connection between the RFC and the MVFHR is very profound.

The RFC is my positive response to the terrible thing which happened to my family and allows me to gain professional fulfilment by transcending the destruction visited on my family by helping others.

MVFHR brings together people who lost loved ones and whom have found their own positive responses in their own ways. The common thread is the positive response to terrible circumstances and the message that I and the other members of our group have is that helping others helps society and helps heal yourself.

In my case, I did not immediately oppose the death penalty. Instead, I believed that my parents had been wrongly executed and had fantasies about seeing the executions of the people who executed my parents.

Like many members of victims' families, I was also stuck in anger and revenge, but was able to find a positive channel for this anger in the RFC. For me, it was not a question of forgiveness but revenge did not matter any more as I was healing myself by trying to make something good out of a terrible thing.

TN: Why did you decide to participate on the MVFHR "Victims, We Care!" speaking tour to Asia?

Meeropol: When [Toshi Kazama], a photojournalist and a MVFHR director, invited me to travel together with him and other MVFHR members on a speaking tour to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, I immediately agreed.

I wanted to go to Hiroshima as my parents and my family were also victims of the atomic bomb and I wanted to come to Taiwan because there is a great deal of political equivalence between the period of McCarthyism (named after Republican Senator Josephy McCarthy) of the Cold War in the United States and the "White Terror" in Taiwan that makes me feel a sense of kinship with the families of victims of the White Terror here.

TN: Since public opinion in Taiwan is strongly against abolishment of the death penalty, what do you expect your visit to achieve?

Meeropol: The bar associations in the United States and Japan are both working for death penalty moratoriums even though most people in both countries favor the retention of capital punishment.

I believe this disconnection exists in part because people who experience capital punishment directly and give it deeper thought are more likely to become opposed to the death penalty.

Support for capital punishment is broad but not very deep. Most people do not give the matter much thought and may believe that the easiest thing to do to a killer is to kill them back.

However, you can move people if you yourself has experienced the pain of a murder and show that your position comes out of hard-won and very painful personal experience. People will recognize this fact and will take you seriously.

Finally, my study of this issues shows that there has been virtually no country in which the government waited to have majority support before abolishing the death penalty.

In all cases, the majority was against abolishment, but the government has to display the leadership and vision to realize higher aspirations instead of allowing base emotions of revenge dominate society.

TN: What have you learned from your visit to Taiwan?

Meeropol: After the experience of the White Terror, I am perplexed why so many people in Taiwan support the death penalty as they should realize that the death penalty is a danger to them all.

The lesson about capital punishment is that if you allow the government the power of life or death over you, sooner or later the government will abuse this power and kill innocent people.

Capital punishment is a human rights abuse and it is unacceptable in a democratic society that governments have the right of life or death over its citizens.

It is also sadly ironic that the government here is now acting more like the government in the People's Republic of China, which is the world's biggest executioner state, by resuming executing people in a dangerous convergence.

The positive aspect in Taiwan is that there is now a discussion, even if it is somewhat one - sided. The initial state of facing this issue is education and for talking. The more reasoned and measured the discussion is and the more respectful we can be with each other in the process of disagreeing, the more our society will learn how to cope with contentious issues and the more the level of violence in society will decline.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Earlier this week, James Clark of the ACLU of Southern California published a piece about the state's budget priorities with respect to the death penalty on the one hand and the needs of victims' families on the other (see especially the paragraph marked in bold):

California's governor has proposed closing the state's $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach; slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS.

California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California's death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. In total, California's death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year.

Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don't build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the governor has focused on cutting the "rehabilitation" side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide.

Meanwhile, efforts to get California's budget under control are threatening the safety of the state's most vulnerable residents: seniors and people with disabilities who rely on in-home supportive care, working moms and their children surviving round after round of cuts to child care and CalWORKs, and children who depend on the Healthy Families program for insurance coverage. They all have faced dangerous erosions in access to health care and social services. Yet funding for death penalty prosecutions continues unabated.

Even victims of violent crime have felt the sting of the state budget cuts. Last year, the legislature and the governor took $50 million from the Victims' Compensation Fund, cutting money used to pay for funeral services, counseling, and medical care for crime victims and their families. Now the fund is running out of money because the state has prioritized execution above victims' services.

In addition, local law enforcement is also under threat. Los Angeles is currently unable to afford overtime pay for homicide investigations, and Oakland is about to lay off 80 police officers. Already, more than half of the murders from the last 10 years remain unsolved in Los Angeles County and Alameda County, where Oakland is located. Statewide, 45 percent of murders were not solved from 1999 to 2008. That means up to 10,000 killers walk the streets because we are not spending the time and money needed to catch them.

California must re-evaluate its budget priorities. Cuts to social services and effective public safety programs that protect communities and reduce crime threaten California families. Permanent imprisonment is a safe and cost-effective alternative to the death penalty, providing swift and certain justice, real public safety, and massive budget savings that can be passed on to taxpayers. Every day, more and more Californians are calling on Gov. Schwarzenegger to CUT THIS. End the death penalty and save $1 billion in five years.