Wednesday, December 22, 2010

UN General Assembly Votes for Death Penalty Moratorium

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution caling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. This is the third time the General Assembly has passed such a resolution, and this year more countries supported the resolution than the last time the vote was taken.

We were pleased to see that Mongolia voted in favor of the resolution (reversing its previous vote) and South Korea abstained. MVFHR has done work in both countries in support of the resolution.

Here's the news story:

United Nations, Dec 22 (PTI) The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution appealing nations to impose a moratorium on the use of death penalty, the third such step by the world body against capital punishment since 2007.

The resolution was adopted by 109 votes in favour, 41 against with 35 abstentions at the UN General Assembly''s plenary session in New York.

More UN Member States supported the resolution this time than the previous vote in 2008 and the number of votes against it have noticeably decreased, confirming a worldwide trend towards putting an end to capital punishment.

Under the resolution, the countries that still maintain the death penalty are being called upon to progressively restrict its use, to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed, and to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing it.

Countries which have abolished the death penalty have been urged not to reintroduce it.

Following the resolution, Amnesty International urged all countries that retain the death penalty to establish an immediate moratorium on executions as the first step towards abolishing the death penalty.

"The UN General Assembly today sent once again a clear message that the premeditated killing by the state must end," said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International''s representative at the UN in New York.

"The minority of countries that continue to use the death penalty should immediately establish a moratorium on executions as the first step towards ending this ultimate denial of human rights," Diaz said.

When the UN was founded in 1945 only eight states had abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

Today, 136 out of the 192 UN member states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Bhutan, Kiribati, Maldives, Mongolia and Togo changed their vote from 2008 and now support the moratorium.

In a further sign of progress, Comoros, Nigeria, Solomon Islands and Thailand moved from opposition to the moratorium in 2008 to abstention today.

"These positive changes are an encouraging development towards abolishing the death penalty everywhere. We now hope to see national legislation introduced to remove the death penalty in these countries as soon as possible," added Jose Luis Diaz.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Let's focus on victims' families

I just came across this letter by Jane Lemeland in the December 2nd edition of the Concord (NH) Monitor:

Let's focus on victims' families
After witnessing the meetings of the study commission on the death penalty in New Hampshire, I'm convinced that we should shift our focus from seeking revenge on perpetrators to providing for the needs of victims' families.

We spend a fortune seeking death penalty convictions while offering minimal support to victims' family members.

Most family members who spoke said they did not want the murderer put to death. We heard repeatedly that the death penalty retards closure and healing for those left behind, while expensive appeals drag on for decades. Several family members felt that the death penalty took away their opportunity to forgive, which they saw as necessary for healing.

How much better it would be if we offered these families adequate psychological support, retraining for wives, and financial help with college education for children.

Life in prison without parole, the alternative to the death penalty, is a moral and more humane sentence. Yet it requires the perpetrator to live with the consequences of his actions rather than allowing an early exit. It's time that we repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire and instead use our resources to take better care of victims' family members.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I stand firmly

From Friday's Charlotte (NC) Observer, this op-ed by MVFHR member Charisse Coleman:

My brother was murdered and I support ending the death penalty
From Charisse Coleman, a writer and mental health counselor in Durham:

Every time we talk about ending the death penalty in North Carolina, someone throws out the old question: What if someone in your family were murdered? How would you feel then?

For most people, that ends the discussion. Not for me.

In 1995, a man walked into the liquor store where my brother worked as a stock clerk and shot him to death. The killer wanted the contents of the cash drawer. For reasons we will never understand, the man launched the robbery by shooting Russell three times in the back, while leaving two other employees unharmed. He now awaits execution in Louisiana.

It was a senseless crime, and it has sometimes been hard over the last 15 years to keep this single event from turning me into someone I don't want to be. Someone more interested in vengeance than justice, for instance.

Precisely because I refuse to let a murderer sour my soul and embitter my life, because I refuse to let him dictate to me the limits of my capacity to heal and thrive, I stand firmly with the growing number of North Carolinians who believe that we must stop looking to a deeply flawed capital punishment system to soothe our anger and grief over violent crime.

One senseless killing need not beget another.

We absolutely must deal with violent crime in this country, an epidemic that needs to be addressed with forceful, creative energy. But I can't help recognizing: Russell died because a man saw killing him as the answer to a problem. What sense can there be to society using a murderer's methods to solve our problems?

A poll released this week by the Fair Trial Institute shows that North Carolinians have serious concerns about the capital punishment system. Sixty-four percent - conservatives, moderates and liberals - said either that they favored ending the death penalty, or were unsure if it should used at a cost of more than $11 million a year. Nearly 70 percent said executions should be stopped until all the evidence can be heard in cases where the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or misrepresented evidence. Nearly 60 percent said defendants should not be executed if racial bias played a role in their case.

SBI agents lied about the results of blood tests in hundreds of cases. Their dishonesty helped secure death sentences. Despite these revelations, recent news reports show that little has changed in the state lab that handles evidence.

Also in the past few months, new studies show racial bias is alive and well in North Carolina. One study found that killing a white person makes you almost three times more likely to get a death sentence than killing a black person.

We cannot continue executing people under these circumstances, despite the pain that crime has caused in my family.

In my brother's case, the killer was a career criminal, and police suspected him of murdering at least six other people. At 13, the killer savagely beat someone with a lead pipe.

Still, I feel no better knowing that the man who killed my brother is on death row, or that when and if he exhausts his interminable appeals, his sisters and brother will feel the same grief I do.

The killer's execution will change nothing. Not for my family. Not for the community. Not for the cause of justice or peace. Russell will still be dead. Another death will not help us to heal from that loss.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Speaking in Asia, Part Two

(See yesterday's post for Part One)

In Mongolia, Toshi lectured at two universities and then at a police academy in UlaanBaatar, addressing an audience of several hundred students in training to be police officers.

Here, he is speaking to students at Mongolia University:

And here he is addressing the police academy group and showing his photographs of death row inmates, victims' families, and others involved in the issue.

Here we see the audience of police officers in training, listening to Toshi's presentation.

All these events were valuable opportunities to introduce listeners to aspects of the death penalty that they had not previously considered, including the idea of victims’ family members opposition to it.

In addition to his lectures, Toshi also held several valuable meetings. He met with a man who had been released from Mongolia’s death row after being found innocent, with the country’s Japanese ambassador, with a member of Parliament, with a Capital Judge, and with advisors to the President of Mongolia. He also gave an interview to a newspaper journalist.

This photo shows the meeting with the Judge:

And, here, Toshi is meeting with advisors to the President of Mongolia:

This trip to Mongolia, in particular, was vital in terms of its timing. The president of Mongolia has publicly announced his opposition to the death penalty, but over 80% of the country's people are believed to be in favor of the death penalty. Thus the president needs a great deal of support from the international community to carry the momentum of his original statement of opposition to the death penatly and to implement that into law before his term is up in 2012. Toshi's trip on behalf of MVFHR in November was a step in this process.

In Japan, Toshi gave several more university lectures; he spoke at Sofia University, Tsuda University, and Hitotsubashi Law school. He also lectured to a religious group at Kameoka, Kyoto, gave media interviews, and participated in a meeting of the board members of Ocean, MVFHR’s Japanese affiliate group. As Toshi traveled throughout Japan and met with activists there, he engaged in useful brainstorming discussions about developing an effective anti-death penalty campaign in this country. Meanwhile, the feedback from MVFHR's speaking tour in Japan, Taiwan, Province of China, and South Korea this past June has been extremely positive.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Speaking in Asia, Part One

Our Asia liaison Toshi Kazama returned in late November from a lecture trip to China, Mongolia, and Japan. I've just caught up with him and gotten his report of the trip, which I'll post in a series over the next couple of days.

In China, Toshi delivered three lectures in the city of Xian: one at Jintao University, one at a bookstore, and one at Northwest Law School. All were well received.

Here’s a photo of the event at Jintao University:

And the group at Northwest Law School:

Here’s Toshi at the China Against the Death Penalty office:

From China, Toshi traveled to Mongolia in collaboration with Amnesty Mongolia. In this photo, he is meeting with members of their staff and board.

Tomorrow, photos and a brief report of Toshi's public presentations and meetings in Mongolia.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It Hurts Everyone

From yesterday's Sacramento Bee, this op-ed piece by Linda Owens, "Execution ripped open old wounds":

Five years ago Monday, the man convicted of murdering my husband, Albert Lewis Owens, and three others was executed at San Quentin State Prison. His name was Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Just as I felt the night of the execution, I still don't believe that the community, my family or I gained anything from Williams' execution.

Albert was a good person; honest, kind and a good father. He served in the U.S. Army and Navy and cared deeply for our country. I miss Albert's smile, his laughter and his wisdom every day.

We married in 1969 and were joined by our daughters in 1970 and 1973. On Feb. 28, 1979, less than 10 years after our wedding, our lives were irreparably changed when Albert was shot and killed while working at a 7-Eleven in Whittier.

Like many victims, I hadn't thought much about the death penalty before Albert was killed. However, Albert had, which I learned after we saw a news story about a local death penalty case. Albert said that the death penalty was wrong; there were too many problems with the system, the risk of executing the innocent was too high, and he didn't believe we had the right to take another human being's life – it was God's decision, not ours.

I agreed with my husband, but when I learned of Williams' sentence, I didn't object. I was more concerned with the loss of my husband and having to raise our children without him.

I did not know anything about the death penalty, and nobody explained the process to me, so I believed that Williams was executed shortly after sentencing. My children grew up and grandchildren began to arrive. They all knew how Albert had died but didn't know the details, and they believed that a man had been executed for the crime.

Twenty years later, however, the state of California contacted us and we learned that Williams had not been executed, but that he would be on Dec. 13, 2005. My entire world changed again in that instant.

I kept hearing death penalty proponents argue that Williams needed to be executed "for the victims." Knowing that my husband opposed the death penalty, I knew that Williams' execution was certainly not being done for Albert. Death penalty proponents also argued that the execution would bring closure to the victims' families. What they failed to realize is that there is no closure for victims. The only closure after an execution is the closure of government files.

In my case, the execution actually reopened old wounds. After 20 years of healing, all of a sudden I had to relive the horrible details of the case. With the media blitz surrounding the impending execution, I could no longer hide the details from my children and grandchildren. We were a family in crisis.

The death penalty has a domino effect – once it starts it doesn't stop. It hurts everyone. It re-traumatizes victims' families, precludes healing for decades after the crime and creates a second group of innocent victims: the offender's family.

I don't believe that we should let killers out on the streets, but there are more constructive ways to spend money than on the death penalty. If we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the safe and swift alternative, California would save $1 billion in five years. Victims' families, including the offender's family, aren't equipped to handle the loss of a loved one to homicide or an execution. The money saved could be spent on counseling services that we victims need to deal with the trauma of our losses.

There is no punishment that can ever make victims whole again. We can never get what we really want: our loved ones at our sides, sharing our lives. But with permanent imprisonment, at least we can put our resources toward improving the quality of victims' lives.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Human Rights Day

Today is International Human Rights Day, marking the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDR) in 1948.

I always like to quote Sister Helen Prejean's observation, in her book Death of Innocents, that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of the ideal that the Universal Declaration represented. Helen writes:

It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

We are, of course, still working toward that day, and although there is a great deal left to do, we can also appreciate that 62 years after Eleanor Roosevelt made her argument, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty.

Today is also the 6th anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Six years ago, the founding group gathered at the UN Church Plaza in New York City, offered public testimony, and signed a document stating, "In the name of victims, we pledge to end the death penalty around the world."

In MVFHR's first public statement shortly thereafter, we said:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.

Our deepest thanks today to all MVFHR's members and supporters who have helped answer that call and who have accomplished so much in these six years.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

University Events

Kate Lowenstein represented MVFHR this past Saturday at an event at Harvard University titled Dead Man Walking: An Encounter with Capital Punishment in America. After students from Harvard's Law and Divinity Schools performed a theatrical reading of Dead Man Walking, several panelists, including Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, discussed the issues raised by the play and described their work in the area of the death penalty. Kate was able to bring the perspective of victims to this panel presentation and, in particular, to emphasize the need to understand and engage with victims' experience.

Tomorrow evening, Renny Cushing and Laura Bonk will speak to a group at Southern New Hampshire University, again bringing the perspective of victims to a discussion about the death penalty.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cushing statement, part 2

Renny Cushing's statement to the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission. Continued from yesterday's post.

From my perspective, I believe there needs to be what Victim Advocate Susan Herman has identified as a parallel system of justice for victims of crime, including co-victims of homicide. Parallel Justice seeks to identify those who have been hurt by criminal acts, asks what the harm is the victim has suffered, and strives to take actions that mitigate and repair the harm that has been done to victims. This process need not be dependent upon the actions or status of the criminal offender, but is done out of a recognition of community responsibility and solidarity.

The two general areas that have the greatest impact upon victims of crime are the impunity of criminals and reparations for victims. Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss.” Victims’ concerns about impunity focus on the actions of criminals, stopping those who engage in murder and criminal activities from committing further crime and holding them accountable for the crimes they have committed. Reparations for victims of crime focus upon those who have been harmed by homicide and other crimes, and attempt to address the harm to mitigate and repair the damage. Prioritizing ending the impunity of murderers and providing help and support to victims are important to the healing process a survivor of a murder victim must go through.

Testimony before the Commission demonstrated that, whether one supported or opposed capital punishment in theory, the reality of the death penalty system in practice is it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make the public or police safer, it is prone to mistakes that snare innocent people, and it is not a good use of scarce public resources. And rather than being some kind of a balm for the pain for murder victims family members, it is both a perception and a reality that the death penalty is a distraction from meeting the overall needs of survivors of homicide victims.

It is clear from a look at our past that New Hampshire dislikes the death penalty. In the 380-year history of New Hampshire there have only been 24 executions, the last one being in 1939. Two of those executions are reminders of current concerns about the death penalty: wrongful convictions and race. Ruth Blay, put to death in 1768, was the last woman executed in the state, and was, according to some historical accounts, “wrongly” executed. Thomas Powers, executed for rape in 1796, was an African-American man who is the only person ever executed in the state for a crime that did not involve the murder of another person.

Capital punishment involves only a tiny fraction of murders committed in New Hampshire, and when the state decides to seek a death penalty it is a radical departure from the norm. As a rare event, seeking a death penalty in a murder case signals that, from the perspective of the state, all victims are not of equal value. The willingness to devote a disproportionate amount of resources to prosecute a death penalty case in comparison to other murder cases, calls into question the government’s commitment to all victims. No matter what the Attorney General or the legislature or the media believe to be or attempt to designate as the most heinous homicide that demands a ritual killing of the murderer by the state, for every person who has had a family member murdered, the worst, the most painful, the most awful and heinous murder is the murder of their loved one. Whether intended or not, implicit in the decision to mobilize resources to seek a death penalty is the message to family members of murder victims where the death penalty is not sought that the life of their parent or child or sibling or spouse is somehow of less value than the life of the person for whose murder the state seeks an execution. There is a perception among many victims that this creation by government policy of a hierarchy of victims in some way damages to the memory of their murdered loved one.

The state of New Hampshire has demonstrated the willingness and resolve to spend millions of dollars from the state’s general fund on both the prosecution and defense of a single killer charged with a capital murder. As the Commission met, the state has been in the midst of a severe budget crisis that has impacted justice and public safety--- police and prison guards are being laid off, courthouses are shuttered on some days, and crime victims calling the victims assistance commission are greeted with a voice message instead of a human being. And, at the same time the state has focused limited resources in pursuit of a death penalty, the state spends no general fund money to fund compensation for victims of crime, including surviving family members of homicide victims, and no general fund money on the investigation of cold case homicides.

The Commission heard testimony of how, just days after the arrest of Michael Addison for the murder Officer Michael Briggs, the Attorney General went before the Fiscal Committee and Governor and Council to request and be granted $400,000 for the prosecution of that one homicide. This request was made under a little known provision of state law, RSA 7-12, which permits the Attorney General to obtain funds outside the regular budget process of appropriating state general fund dollars. In contrast to this, during the 2009 session of the legislature, the Attorney General’s office opposed proposed legislation that would enable the Attorney General to obtain funds under RSA 7-12 for the Victims Assistance Commission to provide financial support for crime victims.

This raises the question: Why is it more important to the legislature and Attorney General of the state of New Hampshire to fund a death penalty prosecution than it is to provide compensation and assistance for the families of murder victims and other victims of crime?

Instead of making it a priority to spend millions of dollars to pursue executing a prisoner, the legislature should prioritize policies of parallel justice for crime victims, with the funds being spent to pursue the death penalty and other resources redirected to focus on meeting the needs of murder victims’ families.

To that end I make the following suggestions for action by the legislature to help further secure justice for crime victims:

Remove the sunset provision from the law that set up the Cold Case Homicide Unit and, by statute, establish the unit as a permanent operation, with its own line item in the state budget. It is currently scheduled to go out of existence on June 20, 2011.

As part of the state’s commitment to find justice for all homicide victims, the legislature should provide an annual appropriation from the state’s general fund equivalent to $15,000 for each outstanding unsolved murder to support the work of the Cold Case Homicide Unit. Based upon the current list of approximately 115 unsolved murders, this would amount to an appropriation of $1,725,000. a year, a fraction of the cost of a single death penalty case. I note that this figure is also less than the $1,778,000. “to construct a lethal injection chamber to address the potential of future capital crime convictions” that is included Department of Corrections Comprehensive Master Plan of July 10, 2008 that was provided to the Commission.

Raise or eliminate the cap on the amount of money surviving family of homicide victims are eligible to receive from the Victims Assistance Fund. With a limit of $25,000 on the amount of assistance a victim can receive, New Hampshire ranks near the bottom of states in their support for victims. The state of Washington, for example, caps compensation at 100,000, while the state of New York has no cap on medical expenses.

End the 2-year statute of limitations on when a survivor of a homicide victim must apply for assistance from the Victims Assistance Commission. The impact of homicide is long lasting, and sometimes needs of a victim, such as counseling for PTSD, do not manifest themselves until years after a murder. There is not a statute of limitations for prosecution for murder; there should not be a statute of limitations on providing help for survivors of murder victims.

Establish, fund and provide sustaining support for a support group for survivors of homicide victims. At the present time there is no existing group or network in the state where those who have been harmed by homicide can find peer support and interaction. It is incredibly isolating to go through the experience of the murder of a family member, and the inevitable retraumatization that victims experience though the criminal justice system. It is axiomatic that the only person who can truly understand what that process is like is someone who has shared a similar experience.

Enact victims’ leave law to require employers to give unpaid leave to their employees who are survivors of homicide victims to attend trials and other legal proceedings-- similar to the way we treat jurors. It is often important to a victim’s effort to reclaim control over their life that victim gain information about the murder of their loved one and to bear witness by observing trials. Public policy should recognize this need for victims.

Recognize the impact of murder on families is long lasting and multi-generational and establish a fund to provide post secondary education to the children and spouses of murder victims.

Amend RSA 7-12 to authorize the Attorney General, when necessary to meet the needs of victims of crime, to seek and obtain funds outside the regular budget and appropriations process. As a matter of fairness and justice, it should be equally as important to ensure that crime victims receive assistance as it is to see that criminals are prosecuted.

In addition to diverting attention from the needs of victims, the death penalty system can sometimes operate ways that does some victims harm.

The death penalty can divide and damage families. Because “death is different”, and because individuals have deeply held beliefs about the morality and utility of executions, unlike any other punishment the death penalty sometimes creates irreconcilable conflict amongst the surviving family members of murder victims. At a time when mutual support to weather a shared loss is so important, disagreement over the death penalty, instead of helping bring families together, creates fissures and compounds the tragedy of murder.

The death penalty fosters a hierarchy of victims. Depending upon one’s perspective, family members of murder victims are often judged by others on their position on the death penalty, and get divided into categories of ‘good victims” and “bad victims.” Sometimes family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty have their love for their murdered family member challenged—opposition to the death penalty is taken as sign that that they really didn’t love parent/sibling/child. Or, opposition the death penalty is taken as an implication that somehow the victim must be responsible for his or her own murder. Or ,opponents of the death penalty are dismissed as either psychos or saints—crazy for not wanting to see the person who killed their loved one executed, or uncommonly holy for this earth. In some instances opposition to the death penalty results in denial of status and rights under victims rights laws. Fortunately New Hampshire recently amended it Victims Bill of Rights to guarantee equality of treatment for all victims irrespective of their position the death penalty, but subtle prejudices against some victims based upon either their support or opposition to the death penalty remain.

The death penalty puts the media spotlight on murderers and makes rock stars out of killers. Efforts to seek and carry out the death penalty draw attention to the person facing execution. In the process, the life and good work of the victim can be ignored or impugned. In the minds of the pubic, executions turn offenders into victims, and they gain celebrity in their death. Everyone knows the name of Tim McVeigh, but no one knows the name of Julie Welch or any of the other 167 victims of his crime.

The death penalty creates additional victims. When a prisoner is executed, that person is often someone’s parent, someone’s child. The Commission gave no consideration to the impact the death penalty has upon the family of the condemned, but when the state carries out an execution his or her surviving family member become family of a homicide victim. The faces of that family are hidden by silence and shame, but we cannot ignore the reality that the innocent children of killers put to death are impacted ways society, as a whole, has never examined.

The death penalty is a false promise to victims. Proponents of the death penalty put forth the notion that an execution can be a solution to the pain experienced by a survivor of a murder victim. Offering up this promise of a ritual event represents a fundamental misunderstanding of a victim’s journey. Healing is a process, not an event. When public employees take a killer from a prison cell, strap him on a gurney, putting a needle in his vein and pump him full of poison to kill him, that is not, as my retentionist colleagues on the Commission assert, and act consistent with a standard of decency, it is an act of despair. Executions do not accomplish the thing that victims want above all else—they do not bring back their murdered loved one.

The hardest thing for a victim to do is accept that they cannot change the past. But what they can do, what they need to do, is make decisions about the future, about how they lived their lives. Sometimes victims get so fixated on how their loved one died that they almost forget how their loved one lived. Our broken death penalty system, with its years of delays and other problems, holds a victim’s focus, and society’s’ focus, on the killer, anticipating and expecting an event, the event, the killer’s execution. If and when an execution occurs, another coffin is filled, but, sadly, very little changes for the victim. Their loved one is still dead. What sometimes ends up happening is the murder claims two victims: the person killed by the murderer, and the person who is the survivor of that person who was killed, whose life gets claimed by a system that is a set up for failure.

At the end of the day the death penalty is not about those who kill, it is about us. We, as a society, become what we say we abhor, killers. I don’t want the state killing in my name.

As a citizen, as member of this Commission, and as the son of murder victim Robert Cushing, I view the death penalty not as a criminal justice sanction, but as a human rights violation. I aspire to live in a society, in a world where human life is cherished and the dignity of all is respected. As a parent I choose hope and optimism for the future, for my children and the world in which they will live, and I believe that history is on the side of those of us on the Commission who support repeal of the death penalty. New Hampshire can live without the death penalty, and I know the day will come when capital punishment is abolished.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cushing statement, part 1

Statement of Commissioner Renny Cushing to the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission:

There were a number of family members of murder victims who appeared before the Commission to share their personal experiences with homicide and the criminal justice system. They expressed their opposition, as victims, to the death penalty. As I listened to their testimony, and as I do when I listen to the experiences of any family member of a murder victim, whether they support, oppose, or have no opinion on the death penalty, I felt a sense of shared experience, empathy, and solidarity. My father, Robert Cushing, Sr., was shotgunned to death in front of my mother in our family home two decades ago. For me, thinking about what should be done after a murder happens is not just an intellectual exercise; it’s part of my life. The pain that is difficult to give words to, the emptiness and trauma, are part of my personal reality that I brought to the work of the Commission.

I served on the Commission with two other family members of murder victims: Bob Charron, whose son Officer Jeremy Charron was murdered in Epsom in 1997, and Brad Whitney, whose father Eli Whitney was murdered in 2001. Although we ended up disagreeing about the death penalty, their presence on the Commission was important to me. At times when a witness or a member of the Commission would embark on an explanation of legal intricacies or the theories and arcane points about statistical analysis, I would get a sense that somehow the reality of the murder of real people was getting lost in the process. It was good to know I was not the only person in the room who felt in his gut that this was not just a theoretical discussion. I thank both Bob and Brad.

The courageous voices of family members of murder victims the Commission heard from came from diverse backgrounds, and the details of their tragedies and losses were illustrative of the complexity of murder. They shared in common a belief as co-victims/survivors that the death penalty system is not something they embraced, and recommended its repeal. They differed in their reasons for opposing capital punishment, and the process by which they came their position was unique to each person. Among the voices the Commission members heard from were:

Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, who opposed the execution of terrorist Timothy Mc Veigh;

Gail Rice, whose brother Bruce VanderJagt was a Denver police officer killed in the line of duty, who spoke of her experience of a law enforcement family member opposed to the death penalty;

Nancy Filiault, whose sister Kitty, her daughter Rachel and son Kyle were murdered during a brutal home invasion;

Arnie Alpert, whose grandfather Charlie Alpert was murdered with a claw hammer in his hardware story;

Andrea LeBlanc, whose husband Robert Le Blanc was killed in the World Trade Center during the September 11th terrorist attack;

Carol Stamatakis, whose father Emmanuel “Mike” Stamatakis was murdered in his store in 1997, a murder which remains unsolved;

Sandra Place, whose mother Mildred Place was murdered in New Jersey, who shared the nightmare her family experienced as the death penalty elevated the killer in the media into a notorious prisoner;

Laura Bonk, whose mother Laura Hardy was murdered and whose sister, who was shot at the same time as her mother, years later still struggles to recovery from years of surgery she underwent as a result of the shooting;

Ann Lyczak, whose husband Richard Lyczak was murdered, and she and her son injured when attacked while riding in their car;

Bess Klassen-Landis, whose mother was murdered when Bess was 13, and the killer never apprehended;

Bob Curley, whose son Jeffrey was kidnapped by pedophiles, sexually defiled and abused and murdered and then his body was tossed in a river on the Maine-NH border. Bob shared the story of how after his son’s killing he led the effort to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts, but now opposes capital punishment;

Margaret Hawthorne, whose daughter Molly Hawthorne MacDougall was murdered in Henniker on April 29th of this year, who, even as she awaits the trial of the man accused of killing Molly, found a way in her pain to bear witness in her daughters memory to ask the Commission to recommend abolition of the death penalty.

Clearly it must be recognized and acknowledged that those witnesses, and all family members of murder victims, are stakeholders in the discussion and public policy debate about what should be done, by society and individuals, in the aftermath of murder.

The presence of those family members and their sharing of their experiences was a gift to the Commission. It was, therefore, disappointing to me that when it came time for the Commission to deliberate about what we had learned over our year of work together and what our findings and recommendations should be, we failed to discuss or explore in any depth as a group the complicated and painful experiences of people who have had family members murdered, and the individual and family journeys of survivors after lives had been shattered by a homicide.

I’d like to think that, despite the best efforts of Judge Murphy and all of us to keep on schedule, maybe we as a Commission just ran out of time for such a complicated discussion. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been more useful and appropriate for the legislature to direct the Commission to begin an examination of the death penalty by asking and answering this fundamental question:

“What are the needs of the surviving family members of murder victims?”

(Renny's statement continues in tomorrow's post.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NH Study Commission releases final report

Today, the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission is releasing its final report after a year of work. The 22-member commission voted 12-10 to retain New Hampshire's death penalty, as this news story reports.

While we are, of course, disappointed by the final recommendation of the Commission, we also know that the testimony presented to the Commission during its many hearings provides a substantial and powerful record of problems with capital punishment. Victims' family members testified at several of the hearings, and we know that that testimony persuaded one Commission member to vote for abolishing the state's death penalty. Here is an excerpt from the statement that that Commission member, attorney Sherilyn Burnett Young, submitted:

I came to the first meeting of the Commission with an open mind, prepared to listen to the testimony and consider the evidence both for and against the death penalty. Unlike many around the table, I had no strong feelings either in favor of or against the imposition of the death penalty. At the end of an extensive, educational and emotional process of hearings and deliberations, I have concluded that I am opposed to the death penalty.

In my view, the evidence before the Commission did not demonstrate that the death penalty is a meaningful deterrent to the commission of murder. I am concerned that the decision to seek the death penalty may be arbitrary and unfair, despite the best intentions of the decision maker, and therefore cannot be constitutionally applied. I believe that putting a murderer to death through a state proceeding is not consistent with societal standards of decency – an overwhelming majority of those that testified were against the death penalty, and the death penalty has been rejected by most of the Western world. The religious community throughout New Hampshire is united against the death penalty. And the costs to seeking the death penalty are substantially greater than seeking a sentence of life without parole.

While there are several factors that lead me to oppose the death penalty, one above all was the testimony I heard from the family members of murder victims. To my great surprise, the testimony of these witnesses was overwhelmingly opposed to the death penalty. I believe that life without parole is an acceptable alternative to the death penalty, and far better serves the interests of the families of murder victims. It provides for relatively swift justice to be served, placing the murderer out of public view for the remainder of his life, and lets the healing process begin for the families who have themselves been victimized.

Tomorrow we will post excerpts from Renny Cushing's statement and recommendations.