Friday, August 27, 2010

I know firsthand

This letter from MVFHR Board President Bud Welch was published in today's Daily Oklahoman: "Capital Punishment Harmful for Families of VIctims":

Regarding “Federal judge issues stay of execution for Oklahoma death row inmate” (news story, Aug. 18): I extend my sympathies to the families of Otis Short and Jeffrey Matthews, who faces execution for the murder of Short, his great uncle. I understand their hurt. My daughter, Julie Marie Welch, died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. My anger and pain was like no other. I wanted nothing more than the perpetrators’ execution. But I remembered a conversation with Julie some time before she was killed. She said that killing people who kill solves nothing.

I subsequently met Timothy McVeigh's father. He and I found we had in common our love for our children and grief over losing my daughter and his son. In my work sharing Julie's memory around the world, I've met many people close to the death penalty. I know firsthand the harm it causes to the family members of murder victims and those facing execution; to the prison personnel conducting executions; and to our communities still victimized by homicides because capital punishment doesn't deter them.

It's particularly disturbing that capital punishment has few protections against wrongful executions. In recent years, 10 Oklahomans were freed from death row by evidence that proved them innocent. If no evidence links Matthews to his great uncle's murder, every precaution must be taken so Matthews is not mistakenly executed and the anguish of both families over their loved one's murder isn't compounded by Matthews' wrongful death.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A better choice

Another great opinion piece from our California colleagues! This one is from today's Sacramento Bee and is by Judy Kerr and Helene Burns, "Death Penalty is not worth the cost":

We are two women who share the worst kind of bond: We are the survivors of murder victims.

We are also registered nurses dedicated to helping people heal from trauma. We are parents seeking a safe world for our children. We are citizens interested in helping our communities. And we are people whose life experiences have taught us a great deal about how to make difficult choices.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently said that he has been fighting for the death penalty for the past five years and that courts have blocked his attempts, and he is now planning to proceed with spending billions to remodel death row at San Quentin. This wasted effort will be outdated before it is finished.

We believe we would all be better off if, instead, the governor fought to end the death penalty. Our personal and professional experiences have shown us that California would be better off if our legislators stopped spending taxpayers' dollars on pursuing death sentences for just a few killers. Instead, our limited resources should be invested in victim services to help victims in the aftermath of a crime, and in law enforcement units and state crime labs to increase the number of murders solved.

In 1985, Helene Burns' mother was murdered by her father in San Pedro. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office initially considered the death penalty. The deputy DA explained to the family that pursuing the death penalty is much harder on the surviving families who have to go through years of appeals that death row inmates are entitled to before they are put to death.

He explained that life without the possibility of parole would be more expedient and that the family could have the justice they deserved. With input from the family, the DA's office opted to seek a life sentence.

Twenty-two months after her mother's murder, Helene's father was convicted. He is now serving a life sentence. Had the DA's office sought the death penalty, the case would have taken years and millions of dollars would have been spent before there was any resolution.

Helene was never advised about obtaining victim services, though she knows that she and her family would have benefited from such services had they known about them. As a psychiatric nurse in Austin, Texas, Helene has gone on to use her own tragedy to help others in her work by volunteering with victim services and with the Travis County Sheriff's Office CISM Team.

Judy Kerr's brother, Robert James Kerr, was murdered in July 2003 in Washington. Seven years later, his murder remains unsolved. Bob's case is a cold case.

After her brother's murder, Judy was given a victim services brochure and told to call and "open a case." Judy inquired about much-needed grief counseling for her then 8-year-old daughter, but was told that only first-degree relatives qualified for services.

She found counseling on her own and submitted the bills to the victims compensation fund for reimbursement. After several appeals, her request was denied because she had not accessed her personal health insurance, which, in her case, had a four-month waiting period for grief counseling.

The struggles we encountered following the murders of our loved ones are not uncommon. Because victim service providers are so underfunded, they are characterized by bureaucratic delays, lack of publicity on where and how to obtain services, and inadequate services for those who have obtained them. We have both met countless surviving family members who have had trouble obtaining necessary services.

In these economic times, California simply does not have resources to fund every program. We must make tough choices. If we replaced the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, California could save millions of dollars that could be spent on law enforcement, DNA testing, and grief counseling and other victim services.

Unfortunately, our legislators choose to crunch family members of murder victims out of the numbers every budget season. Last year, the Legislature took $50 million from the victims compensation fund.

We must stop wasting resources on the death penalty and put them where they count.

Life without parole is not only a cheaper alternative to the death penalty, it is a safer alternative. It removes killers from our streets. Forever. It also avoids turning killers into media stars and ensures that victims' families do not have to go through years of appeals.

The cost of keeping the death penalty and rebuilding death row is one that we simply cannot afford. We hope that this year the governor finally recognizes that for victims and for all citizens, there is a better choice.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We deserve to be heard

From today's San Jose Mercury News, "Without the death penalty, we'd have funds to treat mental illness", by Deldelp Medina:

As someone who lost a loved one to murder, elections in California cause me pain. The death penalty is trotted out like a show pony every election cycle.

The latest July 22 Field Poll is such a show pony, released as momentum builds for the California gubernatorial elections. "Seven in 10 voters favor capital punishment in California" screamed the headlines across the state. Steve Cooley's campaign for attorney general quickly took their cue, bragging that while "death sentences have declined nationwide, Cooley obtained 13 death verdicts last year, four more than the entire state of Texas."

The echo of familiar rhetoric is incredibly painful for those of us who have lost a loved one to murder, and whose voices are effectively shut out of the debate because we oppose the death penalty.

We heard of my aunt's violent murder watching the national evening news in Spanish. My family members called each other right away, from San Francisco to Colombia, the East Coast and beyond.

My Tía's killer was her own son -- my cousin. He was in the midst of a psychotic break. We never got the sympathetic call from the police we expected. Instead, we got a low blow from the district attorney. He wanted the death penalty.

We didn't have the $100,000 it would take to get a private defense attorney, so we gave what we had. Some planned the funeral. Others gave their English skills and education. I flew to Miami to advocate for him.

We pored over his school and medical records to reconstruct his painful past. When we met with his public defenders and realized how overworked they were, we gave our time. We became his investigators. We banded together in our grief.

Finally, the obvious became clear to the DA and he dropped the death penalty charges. A judge ruled that my cousin was ill, that he was not fit to stand trial at all. He will probably live the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It sounds strange, but that was one of the best gifts I ever got.

Our story is unfortunately common. Mental illness and familial violence often overlap. And right now, California's justice system is not equipped to deal with either.

It's important for prosecutors and politicians alike to listen to the family members who understand the anguish and the dangers wrought by mental illness. Our vantage point is valuable.

And for many of us, the death penalty is not an answer. Yet we are suffocated by the loudest, angriest "tough on crime" voices. We deserve to be heard. Within the system and in the debate.

We know that there is a better choice: We can replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. In California, every person sentenced to life without parole has died in prison or will die in prison unless new evidence emerges to show that he or she is innocent.

Life without the possibility of parole also costs a fraction compared to the death penalty. In the next five years, California will spend $1 billion on the death penalty. Just this week, the governor took $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of a new death row housing facility that will cost $400 million to complete.

Meanwhile, the governor has proposed cutting more than $400 million a year from mental health programs at the local level. Cutting funding to treat mental illness while paying for the death penalty is simply insane.

Justice is one of those precious gifts only strangers can offer. Let's hope our elected officials will give us justice by protecting funding for mental illness programs and cutting the death penalty instead.

DELDELP MEDINA is an active member of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and lives in Berkeley. She wrote this article for this newspaper.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Working with victims who oppose the death penalty

Renny Cushing and Marie Verzulli are representing MVFHR at the 36th annual National Organization for Victim Assistance conference in Salt Lake City, where yesterday they presented a workshop on "Working with Victims Who Oppose the Death Penalty." Renny writes:

While in the past I and other MVFHR members had given presentations at NOVA conferences relating to victim opposition to the death penalty, the marginalization of victims opposed to the death penalty, and the failure of many in the victim's advocacy community to treat those victims with dignity and respect, our workshop this year was the first time that NOVA had offered a specific training to help victim advocates understand and support victims who oppose, or are uncertain about, capital punishment.

The workshop attracted an interesting array of conference attendees. The target group, front-line victim advocates, included a couple of individuals who were themselves survivors of homicide victims, people from states that use the death penalty, individuals who had never before spoke with victims who are opposed to the death penalty, and individuals who were themselves ambivalent about capital punishment and wanted to learn more. The session was also attended by police officers, prosecutors, researchers, and corrections workers.

We covered such topics as why victims' families oppose the death penalty, discrimination against victims' family members who oppose the death penalty, when families are divided on the issue of the death penalty. We talked about the challenge that can arise when victims' advocates experience a conflict of interest between working for the office of a prosecutor seeking the death penalty and trying to provide support to victims' family members who oppose the death penalty. We described the Crime Victims' Equality Act, suggested that there was a need for more discussion within the victim services community about the death penalty and for the development of "best practices" regarding serving all victims, regardless of their position on the death penalty.

We distributed several of our materials to the group, and received a very positive response from the attendees, who requested that MVFHR provide materials to victims' advocates on an ongoing basis. We will be working to develop the most effective way to do that.

MVFHR member Bill Jenkins -- a regular, valued presenter at NOVA for many years -- is also at the conference, offering a workshop on How Traumatic Loss Affects Relationships in Victims’ Families.

Doesn't bring them back

From Asheville (NC)'s Citizen-Times, 8/21/10, "Capital punishment can't bring back loved ones," by Megan Smith:

There is a lot of current hype about the death penalty and the Racial Justice Act. I lost my father and stepmother to murder, and one of the killers is on death row now. As I have learned more and more about capital punishment over the years, it has become clear that the system is biased and broken in many ways. It seems like a system so extreme ought to at least be fair — racially and otherwise — but isn't. I'm glad that the Racial Justice Act forces us to confront that issue. Even if some are stretching the statistics, overall the numbers speak loudly that something must change.

As a family member of murder victims, I can tell you that I feel no healing, justice or closure that someone else might die. It doesn't set things straight again, prevent other teenagers from going down the wrong track, nor does it bring back my loved ones. Maybe instead of just analyzing racial statistics, perhaps we can take another look at the purpose of the death penalty and if it is really accomplishing what we hope it is.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Victim's Compensation in Cold Cases

A bill regarding cold cases and victim's compensation, sponsored by Renny Cushing, was just signed into law in New Hampshire. (Renny is MVFHR's Executive Director and a New Hampshire State Representative.) The law provides that a victim of a crime under investigation by the cold case homicide unit shall be eligible for victim’s compensation, regardless of the date of the crime.

Renny writes with some background about the new law:

Last year the New Hampshire legislature passed a law to set up a cold case homicide unit. The legislation establishing that unit failed to mention victims or the needs of the unique subset of crime victims that is surviving family members of cold case homicides. The unit got up and running last December, and in June made its first arrest in a cold case.

This year I introduced a bill to carve out exceptions to the limitations on our Victim's Assistance Fund to provide that family members of cold cases are eligible to receive up to $25,000 for expenses related to the murder of their loved one. Prior to passage of this law, those family members were ineligible because 1) The victim's comp law did not cover crimes that took place before enactment of the law setting up the fund (1989), and 2) There is a two-year statute of limitations on the time victims have to initiate requests for compensation assistance. Many of the cold cases under investigation took place pre-'89 and in other cases the family did not decide to seek assistance. However, just the process of reinvestigation triggers things in many survivors, revisiting the crime and experiencing retraumatization. This bill recognizes that the impact of crime upon victim-survivors is long term.

It is my understanding that the law that went into effect last week is the first law in the country that specifically recognizes cold case homicide victims under victim's compensation statutes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

She would be proud

Laura Bonk gave this testimony to the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission yesterday:

My name is Laura Bonk and I live in Concord, New Hampshire. I appreciate the time and energy that you are all devoting on behalf of New Hampshire’s citizens. I have spent most of the past decade as an elected or appointed official in New Hampshire. I know that it is hard to balance competing values and interests and that this study commission has many viewpoints to consider.

I come before you today as a victim of a violent crime and more importantly, to honor my mother. Today, August 12th, is my mother’s birthday. If she were alive, she would be 69 years old. Sadly, she was murdered in August 1989 one week before her 48th birthday. My 16 year old sister was also shot at the same time. After several surgeries, she mostly recovered.

The shooting took place on a hot, Sunday afternoon in Littleton, Massachusetts—just south of the New Hampshire border. My mother was visiting an elderly woman who was suffering from dementia. The woman’s son decided to shoot my mother and sister as they sat at the kitchen table. It was a senseless crime.

My mother had a clear and strong moral code that guided her life. One of her beliefs was that she opposed the death penalty. I ask, as a citizen of New Hampshire, that you recommend the repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire. It would honor me, and most importantly, my mother.

I have a graduate degree from MIT and I’m normally comfortable with facts and figures—and yet my family tragedy is not just another statistic in our country’s horrible struggles with homicide. The murder profoundly and deeply altered my life and the lives of my family, neighbors, and friends. We all did not feel safe. How could a murder happen on a summer Sunday in a quiet neighborhood? How could a murder interrupt a good deed of checking on an elderly person? A murder—with no motive—and no explanation.

At the time of the murder, I was only 23 years old—the oldest of 3 girls. I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, South America. It had been more than a year since I had been in the States and had seen my mother. Ironically, 6 months before, in February 1989, I lived through a military coup d’ etat in Paraguay. General Stroessner, after 34 years of totalitarian rule, was overthrown by General Rodriguez. Paraguay had yet to enjoy the peace of a civilized society. My mother had been terrified for my safety. As life unfolds in ways that are often incomprehensible, I remained safe and she was later killed near her hometown.

I arrived back in the States 2 days after her murder. I would immediately become the legal guardian of my 16 year old sister. My mother did not have life insurance and her only liquid assets were $6,000 in an IRA fund. Without a job, I was expected to support my sisters. Fortunately, to pay our bills, we received $25,000 from the Massachusetts Victims Fund and numerous donations from our community members and friends.

The unexpected death of a loved one is always a tremendous shock; however, when the death is a homicide, the victims become part of our government that few people experience. First hand, I witnessed the glories and imperfections of our government employees. I owe a profound thanks to the police and firemen who risked their own lives to subdue an armed gunmen. They were able to save my sister’s life in those first crucial minutes. However, with the glories also come the imperfections. I remember impulsive detectives who jumped to conclusions and ignored facts. I remember a trial that was postponed several times—each postponement created debilitating anxiety and stress. It was more than a year later before the trial began. We all wanted justice and we wanted it swiftly. The postponements only prolonged our agony. More than one year was a horrible wait. The length of time in capital punishment appeals must cause great harm to the victim’s family. Each day of waiting for a trial is a day that is not lived fully—it is a day of stress and anxiety.

Fortunately, in 1989, capital punishment was not allowed in Massachusetts. Justice was a long prison term. Our trial was difficult to live through. A capital punishment trial would have been worse due to the intense publicity and lengthy appeals.

Most importantly, capital punishment was not able to divide my family. Had capital punishment been an option, my aunt—my mother’s younger sister -- would have supported it at that time. This would have divided and destroyed my family when we greatly needed each other. Families are rarely united on capital punishment. The option only serves to divide and destroy the families and friends of the murder victim.

I would like to believe that our society has matured to the point of realizing that State sponsored killing is beneath us. The most important thing is to remove those who have murdered from the public arena and that can certainly be done with a long prison term.

Time passes and 3 years ago, while I was preparing dinner here in Concord, my aunt called me. She told me that the murderer died of natural causes in prison. There is a false belief that death brings closure to the victims. It does no such thing. The murderer’s death does not bring your loved one back. It does not lessen the pain. It does not help the victims heal.

Today, on my mother’s birthday and in her honor, I plead that you recommend the repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire. My mother taught me that capital punishment was barbaric and had no place in a civilized society. If my mother were alive, she would be proud that I came forward today. My mother always told me that my job is to make this world a better place to live. New Hampshire would be a better place without the death penalty.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Don't get into this business

Following up on our earlier post, here is the Associated Press story about today's hearings of the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission, which quotes from Ron McAndrew's testimony and from victim's family member Laura Bonk:

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) ― A former prison warden who carried out eight executions urged a New Hampshire commission Thursday to stay away from the practice, saying the memories of those he has put to death haunt him.

"It's nothing but a premeditated, ceremonial killing, and we do it to appease politicians who are tough on crime," Ron McAndrew said after his testifying at the Legislative Office Building. "The state has no right to ask people to kill others on their behalf."

McAndrew, a former warden in Florida and Texas and now living in Florida as a prison consultant, said he supported the death penalty until "these men came and started sitting at the edge of my bed at night."

McAndrew helped perform three electrocutions in Florida and oversaw five lethal injections in Texas. Since he has been speaking out against the death penalty, he said, many former corrections officers who participated in executions have sought his counsel.

"We spent hours on the phone, trying to process the horror we went through," McAndrew told the panel. "We never admitted it at the time. That would have shown weakness in a job that demanded strength."

"I implore you, don't get into this business," McAndrew told the commission. "Honor your corrections officers and don't force them to go through what I went through — what so many of us have gone through and have suffered for."

The last execution in New Hampshire took place in 1939. The state has one convict on death row, cop killer Michael Addison, whose appeals have just begun to wend their way through the courts. The state Supreme Court is still shaping how to evaluate the fairness of the state's death penalty laws.

Since October, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty has heard testimony from both advocates and opponents of the death penalty and is scheduled to issue its report in November.

Testimony included people on both sides of the debate, from a relatives of a crime victim to a law expert.

Laura Bonk, a Concord woman whose mother was murdered in Massachusetts in 1989, urged the panel to repeal the death penalty.

She told them Thursday would have been her mother's 69th birthday. Bonk's sister, 16 at the time, was also shot by the son of a sick friend her mother was visiting in Littleton, Mass.

"My mother was opposed to the death penalty," Bonk said. "I ask you to recommend repeal. It would honor me and, most of all, my mother."

Bonk said her aunt called three years ago to tell her the killer died in prison of natural causes. She told the panel his death brought no comfort or closure.

"It does not lessen the pain," she said. "It does not help victims heal."

Read the rest of the article.

Today in New Hampshire

Former Florida State Prison warden Ron McAndrew is testifying before the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission today. Ron has become an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, rooted in his own experience overseeing executions in Florida. Less often featured in coverage of his talks is that Ron is also a victim's family member. In his interview with MVFHR's newsletter two years ago, he described the murder of his cousin and then, years later, of his sister-in-law:

[Ron's] cousin, who had lived with his family when he was growing up, was killed by a group of men who held her against the wall of a church and then drove a car straight at her, shattering her body. The men responsible for her death were never caught. Many years later, Ron’s sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver who received a second-degree life sentence and commit- ted suicide in prison after serving ten years.

“It struck me that not a single person in my family expressed pleasure at his suicide,” Ron recalls. “Every time he had come up for parole, we had all written letters opposing his release. We had all worked together for that, but his death didn’t do anything for us; we didn’t celebrate it.”

That was one of the things that came to mind when Ron started questioning the death penalty. ...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Victims don't want the death penalty applied

A news piece in last Thursday's Chester County (PA) Daily Local News cited opposition from the victim's family as a factor in the prosecution's decision not to seek the death penalty in a case:

The prosecution will not seek the death penalty against either of the defendants accused in the murder of a West Goshen man whose wife allegedly enlisted the aid of her lover to kill him in order to avoid a messy divorce.

District Attorney Joseph Carroll said in a press release Thursday that the main reason he would not ask a jury or judge to sentence the pair to death if found guilty in the case is that none of the state’s legally certified “aggravating factors” in death penalty cases applied to the murder of Kevin Eugene Mengel Jr.

But Carroll also said that Mengel’s family, including his mother and father, did not want the death penalty applied against either Morgan Marie Mengel, the victim’s wife, or Stephen Michael Shappell, her alleged lover.