Thursday, February 25, 2010

Speaking Out to an International Audience

The Dallas Morning News's death penalty blog has posted the testimonies that MVFHR members Bob Curley, Bill Babbitt, and Renny Cushing delivered at the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva today, with the title "Victims' Families Speak Out Against the Death Penalty." Take a look, and watch for a fuller update from the World Congress tomorrow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taking our message to the 4th World Congress

MVFHR staff and several board members will be in Geneva, Switzerland this week, participating in the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty. We're told that about 1,700 people from around the world are registered for the event.

MVFHR members will be speaking as part of the Voices of Experience - Words of Victims event, which will be held in a beautiful and historic theatre and will be open not only to conference attendees but also to the general public. Our members will also be speaking on a roundtable titled "Violence, Victims, and the Death Penalty," and presenting a "poster session" on the victim experience and how activists can best work with victims.

I will try to post at least once from Geneva, and will offer a full report afterward both here and in our next newsletter.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not for the reason you might think

From yesterday's San Jose Mercury News, "Death Penalty Takes Resources Away from Solving Other Murders," by Judy Kerr:

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of Jeanine Grinsell, who was killed by David Raley in Santa Clara County. A second victim, sexually assaulted and stabbed multiple times, survived and has spent the past 25 years trying to put the memory behind her. Raley was apprehended, convicted and sentenced to California's death row, where he remains today.

When I hear stories of inmates on death row for murders that happened decades ago, I am filled with rage against the death penalty, but not for the reasons you might think.

I'll be marking a milestone this month, too. My brother, Robert James Kerr, would have been 50 years old, and I would have been celebrating with him. But in 2003 he was severely beaten, strangled and left shirtless and shoeless on the side of the road 30 miles from his apartment. His bank accounts were raided during the three weeks that authorities took to identify his body. There is surveillance video of someone repeatedly using his ATM card after his death.

His killer remains free.

There are over one thousand unsolved murders such as Bob's each year in California. Yet counties are closing cold case units, rape evidence kits are left unprocessed and lawmakers are cutting corrections budgets. We have more people in prison in California than in most countries in the world, but still a thousand families each year are left to fear and wonder and grieve.

In the months and years after Bob's murder, I have talked with investigators and detectives. I have pleaded with state DNA testing lab directors about delays in processing evidence. I have studied the details of the coroner's report for clues that might have been missed by someone who didn't care as much as I do or simply had too many other cases to process.

If Bob's murderer were ever to be apprehended and charged with capital murder, I would face decades of revisiting the horrific details of his death — much like Grinsell's family and Raley's surviving victim. The state would plod endlessly onward with costly appeals and no possibility of closure for my family.

Read the rest of the piece.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New MVFHR site!

MVFHR has a beautiful new website, and we invite everyone to visit.

The site gives a good and easily accessible overview of our work, including our efforts to spread our message to audiences around the world. Our Gallery of Victims Stories is there, of course, and helpful links to our other published material. For example, browse through this summary of the eight published issues of our newsletter, Article 3, and follow the links to any issues that interest you. Check out the summary of our work in the area of victims' rights and human rights, and see our suggestions of ways to get involved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The best decision for us

It's important to remember that even some victims' family members who are for the death penalty in principle may decide that they are not in favor of it because of the stress that the death penalty process places on their family. Here's a news item from yesterday's WCBD News website (Charleston, SC) illustrating this:

Family of murder victim Constable Robert Bailey speak out about plea deal

It was an emotional day for the family of Constable Robert Bailey. Rather than face the death penalty, Walter Fayall the Third pled guilty to murdering Constable Bailey, accepting the sentence of life in prison without parole.

It’s a deal his family asked the solicitor to make happen. His son, Robert Bailey Junior, read a statement after court. He said, “We the family also have a life sentence. We have the rest of our live to life with what he did to ur father. This was also the best decision for us for health reasons, a life or death sentence isn’t going to bring our dad back.“

In court Tuesday, Robert Bailey’s grandson told his grandfather’s killer Walter Fayall he forgives him. Last Saturday, Bailey’s family says they begged Solicitor Scarlet Wilson to end it, and give Walter Fayall a deal to spend the rest of his life in prison, without parole, and no appeals. The family says although they believe in the death penalty, they want this ordeal to be over, and did not want to go through countless appeals. Carmine Deamato is Bailey’s son-in-law and former partner. He says, “It’s over, it’s over.“ He says initially he wanted the death penalty. Deamato says, “He was my partner, not only my father in-law, my partner and friend. Yes, I wanted it, but soon as the gavel comes down, and sentences you to death, his attorney is going to jump like a jumping bean and say appeal, and then we have to live through that.“ The family says they know appeals could linger on for years. The average death penalty case takes 12 years from sentence to execution.

Monday, February 8, 2010

We Lower Ourselves

Last Friday, victims' family members were among those urging New Hampshire's death penalty study commission to consider repealing the state's death penalty law.

Here's an excerpt from Saturday's article in the Union Leader:

Andrea Leblanc, whose husband, a UNH professor, was killed on a jet flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11, called for repeal of the capital punishment.

"The death penalty is not about justice, it's about revenge," she said. "Violence begets violence."

Anne Lyczak of West Lebanon, whose husband was murdered in a random shooting in Portsmouth 16 years ago, also urged repeal.

"It is my belief that it is never right to take anyone's life. By using the death penalty we lower ourselves to the level of the person guilty of murder," she said, noting she too was shot at the night of the murder.

She said reliance on the death penalty would "distract attention from the social conditions that contribute to crime."

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Compelling Message

Just heard from MVFHR's Board Chair Vicki Schieber, who has been doing some public interviews and meeting with legislators in Kansas in anticipation of next week's Senate debate on the death penalty abolition bill that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday.

Meanwhile, this Catholic News Service editorial, published yesterday, is a direct result of VIcki's recent work in Kentucky:

Vicki Schieber’s message about the death penalty — given recently at three Catholic high schools and one parish in the Archdiocese of Louisville — is a compelling one for Catholics to ponder. It’s a message about living, in personally difficult circumstances, our Catholic teaching about respect for human life and forgiveness.

Vicki Schieber’s 23-year-old daughter Shannon was raped and murdered in her Philadelphia apartment in 1998 by a serial rapist. Shannon was an intelligent young woman with a promising life ahead of her. She had graduated from Duke University and was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

“You can’t imagine what this (murder) does to a family,” Vicki Schieber told students at St. Xavier High School. “The anger. We wanted to see vengeance.”

These are understandable feelings following such a horrible crime. But Vicki Schieber and her husband did not let these feelings take hold of their lives. Instead, as a result of their deep Catholic faith, they struggled with prosecutors and the district attorney, asking them not to seek the death penalty after their daughter’s killer was apprehended.

And they prevailed. The man who killed Shannon and who also pled guilty to 13 other sexual assaults was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Why did Vicki Schieber and her husband oppose the death penalty ?

“We believe in the sanctity of human life and forgiveness,” Vicki Schieber told St. X students. “You can’t let that vengeance overwhelm you and take over your life,” she said, adding that the desire for vengeance is “the antithesis of our beliefs” as Catholics.

When asked how she found the courage to fight for the life of her daughter’s killer, Schieber replied: “My solid Catholic formation. ... I believe I lived my Catholic faith, and I got the grace of God to do it.”

Schieber, who is chair of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, also related her story to students at Presentation and Sacred Heart academies and to parishioners at Church of the Epiphany. She was in Louisville for the Jan. 14-17 National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference.

Schieber also has taken her message about the death penalty to other forums, including the U.S. Congress. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2006, she said: “I have come to believe that the death penalty is not what will help me heal (from her daughter’s death). Responding to one killing with another does not honor my daughter, nor does it help create the kind of society I want to live in, where human life and human rights are valued.”

She added: “My husband and I were both raised in homes with a deep-seated religious faith. We were both raised in households where hatred was never condoned and where the ultimate form of hate was thought to be the deliberate taking of another person’s life. ... We cannot in good conscience support the killing of anyone, even the murderer of our own daughter, if such a person could be imprisoned without parole and thereby no longer a danger to society.”

And she asked these questions: “What kind of message do we convey to young people when we tell them that killing another human being is wrong but then impose the death penalty on someone with whom they have some direct or indirect relationship? Isn’t there a possibility that the imposition of the death penalty sends a conflicted message about our society’s respect for life?”

Schieber’s message on the death penalty is one that seems to be gaining support across the country. Two states (New Jersey and New Mexico) have abolished capital punishment in the past three years, and legislation to end capital punishment has picked up momentum in several other states. There is more scrutiny and questioning of the death-penalty system.

It’s time for Kentucky to join this movement by considering legislation that has been before the state General Assembly for several years to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life in prison without parole. House Bill 45 in the current legislative session calls for this, and the legislation should be given a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee.

Action on HB 45 is the message Catholics should convey to our legislators. There is an alternative to responding to criminal acts of violence with other acts of violence. There is another way, as Vicki Schieber has testified to in living her Catholic faith.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If ...

Susan Herman, whose concept of parallel justice we explored in our fall-winter newsletter, followed Howard Zehr on the "Innovative and Effective Responses to Crime and Violence" panel at the NCADP conference last month. Susan's talk included this powerful statement:

If we acknowledge victims’ experiences, make victim safety a high priority, address victims’ needs as much as possible, and enforce their rights to participate meaningfully in the criminal justice process, I believe millions of people who have been victims of crime will be much more open to criminal justice reform—including considering the abolition of the death penalty.

This is one of the most concise summaries I've seen of the interconnectedness of victim work and abolition work.

Here is another excerpt from Susan's remarks:

While much of the criminal justice reform agenda, in my view, clearly overlaps with victims’ needs and concerns, alliances between criminal justice reformers and victims and victim advocates, are few and far between. The common ground between these “camps” is rarely explored. And this is true in both directions.

My hope today is to shed some light on why this may be so, and why it is critical that anyone interested in abolishing the death penalty, or anyone interested in achieving a more just response to crime, try to overcome the barriers between these camps, and understand the relevance of victims’ needs and concerns.

Let’s begin by dealing with some of the elephants in the room. First elephant: Many proposals calling for stiffer sentences, or even supporting the death penalty, have been spearheaded by victims. Furthermore, politicians and prosecutors often align themselves with victims-- sometimes outspoken victims, sometimes victims of particularly horrific crimes-- saying they are pushing for harsher penalties on behalf of these victims.

So, let’s unpack this one. Over the years, research has consistently shown that victims of crime hold views about sentencing that are as diverse as the general population. I am not saying that some victims don’t have extremely retributive leanings. Many do. But as you well know, given your membership, many others don’t.

It’s important to remember that we are far less likely to hear from victims with less extreme views. Some do not seek attention, and worse, when they have, they are often ignored by prosecutors and politicians who fear being seen as soft on crime.

Even the press tends to portray the victims who believe in more lenient sentences---especially, the “forgiving victims”-- as oddities-- almost saint like people whose personal journeys make good stories, but whose views about criminal justice policies are not important.

Second elephant: Many people feel it’s just too difficult to talk with victims or victim advocates about crime policy because it gets too personal, too emotional. For this reason, despite the great potential of such alliances, criminal justice reformers often don’t want to include victims or advocates in their discussions. Likewise, many criminal justice practitioners (police, prosecutors, judges, and even parole officials) complain that victims make the whole criminal justice process messier and more complicated. ...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Living up to our promise?

Here is a transcript of Howard Zehr's remarks on the "Innovative and Effective Responses to Crime and VIolence" panel that was held at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference last month:

Working on the death penalty is important, but we’ve got to go much wider and deeper. As long as the conversation is all around should we execute or not, we are not going to get anywhere. We really need to be asking and get people to be asking, “Should we be punishing people and if so under what conditions?” What about the victims? Are we serving the victims in this criminal justice process? This adversarial assumption that we have: is it really true that so-called victims and so-called offenders have no interests in common? I think it’s really important to ask those questions.

Then, it’s my belief that you have to offer an alternative, something positive. That’s what I’ve seen with Restorative Justice, so I decided that I would devote my time to Restorative Justice as a way of promoting the kind of dialogue I just described. So I spend a lot of time in communities having conversations.

I don’t have time to explain very much of what I mean by Restorative Justice, but I’ll say a word. The Criminal Justice system basically revolves around three questions: what laws are broken, who did it, and what should we do with them. Restorative Justice is trying to get people to think about a different set of questions: who’s been hurt in this situation, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?

A basic principle or assumptions of Restorative Justice is: what matters is the harm that was done, not the rules or laws that were broken but the harm that was done, and if that’s true, then victims have to be central. We ought to be trying to address the cluster of needs that I call victims’ justice needs. My experience is that when we address those needs, victims move on their journey more easily. When survivors get stuck it’s often because their needs aren’t met.

… I think Restorative Justice is great as a way to get people discussing what matters to them. I think when it’s practiced right, it’s wonderful. But I think there are a lot of challenges, and one of the challenges that worries me the most is that we aren’t living up to our promise to victims. We claim that Restorative Justice is victim centered, but are we in practice? If we look at the system, it is so offender-driven, and so many of us, like myself, come to this work from an offender orientation. Are we actually living up to our promise to victims? I think that’s the challenge to all of us.