Years ago, when Timothy McVeigh was about to be executed for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, there was an article in the New York Times with the headline, "Victims' families not of one voice on the death penalty." We consider it an important sign of growing awareness when media coverage demonstrates recognition of the fact that murder victims' family members have a range of opinions on the death penalty and can't automatically be assumed to be in favor of it. Here's an article from this past Saturday from the San Francisco Chronicle, with the headline "Murder victim survivors split on the death penalty":
Murder is the ultimate crime, and the loved ones left behind to mourn are the ultimate survivors. But when it comes to contemplating the ultimate punishment - the death penalty - those survivors don't all agree.
For Judy Kerr, whose 43-year-old brother, Bob, was dragged out of his house and strangled in 2003, the very idea of putting another person to death even in the name of justice is an abomination.
La Wanda Hawkins would like nothing more than to see the man who fatally shot her 19-year-old son, Reginald, in 1995 breathe his last breath in an execution chamber.
The two women share a few emotions around the subject, such as rage and sorrow. But when it comes to compassion or a desire for revenge, the differences spread wide.
Those feelings came to the fore again this week, as they did for thousands of other murder victims' relatives in California, when the state came close to conducting its first execution at San Quentin State Prison in nearly five years.
The lethal injection of rapist-murderer Albert Greenwood Brown was barred by the California Supreme Court on Wednesday, the day before it was to happen. But the debate over the morality and necessity of execution hasn't died down a whit.
There's no doubt where the family of Brown's victim, 15-year-old Susan Jordan of Riverside, stands.
"This execution must take place," Susan's mother, Angelina Jordan, wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month. "No more clemency. No more appeals. No more delays. No more stays due to technicalities and legal loopholes.
"Where is our clemency? How much longer must we endure this injustice?"
To kill or not to kill
"I didn't have a lot of sympathy, and still don't, for killers," said Judy Kerr, 55, a registered nurse who lives in Albany. "But I don't think killing somebody will bring my brother back.
"It's not going to help me, and it's not going to make me safer."
Kerr is an outreach coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an advocacy and support group for those who feel as she does.
Hawkins founded Justice for Murdered Children, which pushes the opposite agenda.
"Why should we give these murderers health care, feed them, clothe them, give them dental care and education?" said Hawkins, 50, a bookkeeper who lives in San Pedro (Los Angeles County). "Do you know how much it costs to go to school? So many of us can't afford it out here, but they're giving it to someone who took someone's life?
"Isn't that outrageous? Kill them."
Support is flexible
Recent surveys reflect this divide in the general population.
A statewide Field Poll in July found that 70 percent of Californians support the death penalty. That's up from 67 percent in 2006, but down from a mid-1980s high of 83 percent. And when asked what sentence they preferred for first-degree murderers, 42 percent said life in prison without parole and 41 percent said death.
The debate is as old as capital punishment itself, dating in California back to 1851, when hanging was instituted as the preferred method of execution and capital punishment abolitionists were already hoisting picket signs.
With at least 2,000 homicides every year in the state - and wait times on Death Row of as long as 30 years for execution dates - there is a never-ending source of discussion.
'People have spoken'
The thugs who killed Bob Kerr and Reginald Hawkins aren't among the 708 condemned inmates in California - they've never been caught. But even among those who know who killed their loved ones, there's no agreement on the right thing to do.
Harriet Salarno's 18-year-old daughter, Catina Salarno, was shot to death by a jilted lover in 1979 in Stockton. She says it is "cruel to make people wait so long for these killers to be executed.
"The people have spoken, they've said they want capital punishment, and obstructing it is just harassment," said Salarno, 77, a retired dental hygienist. "For the victims to wait so long, 20 or 30 years, for justice is cruel and unusual punishment to them."
Steven Burns, the man who killed her daughter, was given a life prison sentence instead of death, and Salarno has channeled her rage over the crime into working for Crime Victims United, the group she founded.
Aba Gayle, 76, has taken the opposite tack.
Her 19-year-old daughter, Catherine Blount, was stabbed to death in 1980 near Auburn by Douglas Mickey, who was in a paranoid delusional rage. For eight years, Gayle wanted Mickey put to death. Then she found Christianity, wrote Mickey a letter - and was "amazed" to get a letter back expressing "gentleness and kindness."
They became the unlikeliest of friends. And today, as head of the Catherine Blount Foundation to promote forgiveness, Gayle wants Mickey's term commuted to life in prison.
"It's horrible to live with all that anger, wanting someone to die," said Gayle, who moved from Santa Rosa to Oregon nine years ago. "You can't be a good mother, a good employee, a good anything. The only way to heal is forgiveness."
No such forgiveness springs from Doris "Trudie" Anderson, 77, of Yuba City (Sutter County).
Donald Beardslee, the man who stabbed Anderson's 19-year-old goddaughter, Stacey Benjamin, to death in Lake County in 1981, was lethally injected in San Quentin five years ago - and Anderson said that deeply satisfies her.
Like many relatives of victims whose killers were executed, Anderson acknowledges that Beardslee's death did not bring the full "closure" of which so many speak. But it was better than the alternative.
A bit of closure
"It does give you at least a certain amount of closure knowing that he's gone, but that pain of loss never really goes away," Anderson said. "I'll tell you this, though: Some might think it's wrong to execute people - but just watch their attitudes change when a loved one is tortured and butchered.
"The only reason they could think it's wrong is because they've never been in that situation."