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.)