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.

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