Thursday, May 27, 2010

Children and Grief

A couple of weeks ago we posted about the Mother's Day Walk for Peace that MVFHR member Tina Chery has organized for the past several years. This week, a Psychology Today blog about children and grief quotes from a piece by Tina. Blogger Phyllis Silverman writes:

I found in my e-mail recently a piece written by Tina Chery, whose son had been murdered. She was writing it to explain why she walks on Mother’s Day with other parents whose children were murdered. This is the 16th Mother’s day since her son Louis Brown was killed when he inadvertently walked into the cross fire of rival gangs in his neighborhood. Hers is a different tragedy than what happened to survivors of the Holocaust, but nonetheless involving violence caused by human disrespect for others. As I read what she wrote I see that she is talking about a silence that she tried to maintain, as she fought facing her grief and the pain when she confronted what she had lost. She did not hide the fact of the death from her other children but she was trying to hide her grief, in some way, from herself as well as from them.

I quote what she wrote:

“Our children are grieving and we as adults are not equipped to know what to do and how to help; our children often feel the need to protect us and we as parents believe that we are protecting them by putting on a MASK of “I am FINE”

In the first few years after Louis was killed I remember not wanting to do anything or go anywhere with my family; we would make plans and when the time came I would cancel, feeling guilty for moving on and leaving Louis behind while at the same time not being there for my two babies. I remember my daughter at age 5 asking me if I still loved her and her brother. That day hearing her ask me that question and watching her sad face got me out of my trance.

How could I forget my children; they too needed to know me. I prayed to transform my pain and anger into power and action. The Mother’s Walk for Peace was born. I realized that if I was feeling this way how many mothers were in the same situation.

My children are my teachers not my friends. Louis in his young life, taught me to be a good mother. Alexandra and Allen today are teaching me to be a better mother, a mother who has had to learn to grieve the death of her oldest son while at the same time finding joy in celebrating the life of her two living children.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Speaking in Montana

MVFHR Board President Bud Welch is in Montana this week, speaking at a series of events around the state organized by the Montana Abolition Coalition. You can see the schedule here. We'll post coverage of these events as we get it.

Montana is one of many states that incorporates the voices of victims' family members into death penalty abolition efforts. Last year, 34 victims' family members signed a letter to the Montana House of Representatives in support of a repeal bill there. The letter included these lines: "It is vitally important that our state address the needs of surviving family and friends as we struggle to heal. We know that elected officials who promote the death penalty often do so with the best intentions of helping family members like us. We are writing to say that there are better ways to help us. The death penalty is a broken and costly system."

Friday, May 14, 2010

What was most important

Today the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission is holding another of its hearings; they continue through the fall and Commission members must prepare their final report by December 1st. One of the victim's family members active in organizing testimony before this Commission, and active in working against the death penalty in general, is Arnie Alpert, New Hampshire Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee. Arnie's grandfather was murdered when Arnie was 11 years old.

We've just added Arnie Alpert to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories. In his Gallery page, Arnie says, "Looking back, I think my family knew what was most important. They devoted their attention to my grandmother, and to each other, not to my grandfather's killer. For me, their love interrupted the cycle of violence instead of perpetuating it, and made it possible for an impressionable child to mature into an adult who has devoted his life to the practical application of nonviolence, including ending the death penalty.”

More from North Carolina

Wednesday's Associated Press article about news from North Carolina's General Assembly included this item:

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: Brothers of two men convicted of murder held a news conference next door to the Legislative Building to try to build support for bills that prevent a murder suspect or death row prisoner with severe mental illness from facing capital punishment. David Kaczynski, brother of "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, and and Bill Babbitt have been traveling the state over the past week talking about how they turned in their brothers to police. They said their brothers were seriously ill. Babbitt's brother was executed in California but Ted Kaczynski is serving life in prison. David Kaczynski said lawmakers shouldn't force family members to take the risk that their loved one may face the death penalty in order for justice to be served. The House bill passed two committees last year but hasn't been heard on the floor.

More recent coverage of Bill and David's speaking tour is here in the News Observer and here in the Rocky Mount Telegram.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More additions to online Gallery of Stories

We've added four more pages to the Gallery of Victims' Stories, all participants in the "Prevention, Not Execution" project, which focuses on the intersection between murder, mental illness, and the death penalty:

Linda Gregory, whose husband, Florida Deputy Sheriff Gene Gregory, was killed by Alan Singletary, who had been diagnosed with mental illness. From Linda's Gallery page: "Linda has been active in working for reform of mental health laws and improving services. She also works to train members of law enforcement in crisis intervention, “I never felt good that Alan Singletary was dead. I just thought, what a tragedy that might have been prevented. It was a heartbreak for everybody."

Barbara McNally, whose husband Jim was killed in Illinois. From Barbara's Gallery page: "Barbara has been active in working for reform of some of her state’s mental health laws, including legislation that allows murder victim’s family members to deliver victim impact statements at commitment hearings when a defendant has been found not guilty by reason of insanity, and a law that will consider proximity to surviving victims when determining in which facility to place an inmate."

Kim Crespi, whose twin daughters Samantha and Tessara were killed by her husband, the girls' father. From Kim's Gallery page: "Kim has spoken publicly about her tragedy on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 20/20 and to People Magazine. Kim also participated in a North Carolina symposium, 'Mental Illness and the Death Penalty,' which provided the basis for legislation that would exempt people with mental illness from the death penalty. Kim remains active in local work to end the death penalty in North Carolina. 'Executing David would only make things worse for me and our children. It is hard enough for them to understand that their loving father, in an uncontrolled psychotic state, killed their baby sisters. Trying to understand how
reasonable, non-psychotic people would now choose to take their father’s life would create another layer of distrust and tragedy that certainly would do nothing to aid in their healing.'”

And long-time activists Ken and Lois Robison, whose son Larry was exected in Texas. From the Robisons' Gallery page: “We had tried for years to get treatment for Larry, but he was routinely discharged from hospitals after a short time because he was 'not violent' and the 'needed the bed.' When Larry eventually committed violence, were horrified, and terribly distressed for the victims and their families. We thought Larry would finally be committed to a mental institution, probably for life. We were wrong. Despite his medical history, he was found sane, guilty and sentenced to death. How can a modern, civilized society choose to exterminate its mentally ill citizens rather than treat them?”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mothers of Victims Walk for an End to Violence

An article in yesterday's Boston Globe covered the annual Mother's Day Walk for Peace that MVFHR member Clementina Chery helped to start 14 years ago. Here's an excerpt:

Natasha Steele was making her third Mother’s Day Walk for Peace yesterday in honor of her son, Cedirick, who was killed by gunfire in 2007, but it turned out she had a new family member to mourn: On Saturday afternoon, her second cousin Jaewon Martin, 14, was fatally shot near a basketball court on the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury line.

Steele wiped tears away with one hand as she struggled to hold onto a poster papered with photos of Cedirick and Jaewon while the wind pushed hard against it.

“Jaewon’s mother was supposed to come to support Natasha,’’ said Lakeisha Martin, cousin to both women. “But then, [his death] happened.’’

Hundreds of family and friends of young people killed by street violence gathered in Town Field Park in Dorchester early yesterday morning to kick off the 14th annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace. By 7 a.m., registration tables were staffed, a stage with loudspeakers was set up, and a commemorative quilt was hung, studded with pins depicting faces of murder victims.

“Every year [the walk] grows,’’ said Clementina Chery, cofounder of the Louis D. Brown Institute Peace Institute, which began the walk.

And fatal shootings over the past week only underscore why the peace walk remains relevant, she said.

“I mean, [Saturday] night, two people were shot,’’ she said before the walk, referring to the death of Martin and the wounding of another, unidentified juvenile.

Chery is familiar with the pain of losing a child to violence. In 1993, her son, Louis D. Brown, 15, died after being caught in crossfire on his way to an antiviolence Christmas party.

“Louis believed that peace would be achieved by his generation, no matter what side of the street they come from,’’ Chery said.

Through the Peace Institute, Chery provides support for countless others who have lost loved ones to violence....

Monday, May 10, 2010

It would dishonor her memory

It's unusual to see coverage of friends or associates of a murder victim speaking publicly against the death penalty for the person responsible for that victim's murder, but this May 7 Associated Press story presents that perspective:

Slain Va. prof's students don't want death penalty for accused killer
Some former students of a slain Longwood University professor are asking prosecutors not to seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing her and her family.

Debra Kelley, her 16-year-old daughter Emma Niederbrock, Emma's father Mark, and Emma's 18-year-old friend Melanie Wells of Inwood, W.Va., were found bludgeoned to death in Kelley's Farmville home in September.

Emma's boyfriend, 21-year-old Richard “Sam” McCroskey III of Castro Valley, Calif., has been charged in connection with the deaths.

Two of Kelley's former students, Jessica and Scott Hintz, started an online petition asking prosecutors to seek a life sentence for McCroskey.

They say Kelley was opposed to capital punishment and a death penalty in the case would dishonor her memory.

A longer version of that AP story also discusses opposition to the death penalty on the part of victims' family members -- in general, not in reference to this particular case -- and quotes from MVFHR member SueZann Bosler:

... While petitions asking to spare criminals are not new, prosecutors and advocates said, pleas most often come from the families of those killed.

SueZann Bosler of Miami worked more than 10 years to get the man who stabbed her multiple times and killed her father off of Florida's death row. Her father, a minister, was a death penalty opponent, so Bosler made it her mission to get his killer's sentence reduced after prosecutors refused to listen to her pleas not to seek the death penalty.

Bosler is the co-founder of the anti-death penalty Journey of Hope.

"Even when I saw him laying in the floor bleeding to death, taking his last breath," she said of her father, "I knew he did not change his mind."

"I am so positive that he forgave him before he took his last breath."

Death sentences have declined by about 60 percent since 2000, even in Virginia, which is second only to Texas in the number of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Prosecutors are seeking capital punishment less in favor of plea bargains for life in prison, which are less expensive for states and save the families from reliving the crime over and over throughout lengthy appeals.

But in the end, it's the prosecutor's call, said Dieter, with the Death Penalty Information Center.

"It's not the victim versus the defendant, it's the state versus the defendant," he said.

In North Carolina, district attorney Jim Woodall must decide whether to seek the death penalty against a man who pleaded guilty to killing University of North Carolina student body president Eve Carson two years ago. Federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty and allowed a plea bargain for life, but Woodall still could pursue death on state charges.

Carson's family has said they oppose the death penalty. Woodall has not announced his decision.

"It's one of many, many factors, but it's a big one," Woodall said of the family's concerns. "It can't be the controlling factor."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Speaking Out in North Carolina

During these first two weeks of May, MVFHR board members Bill Babbitt and Marie Verzulli are speaking as part of a tour of Eastern North Carolina organized by Murder VIctims' Families for Reconciliation. Bill Babbitt is speaking together with David Kaczynski of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; the two men are telling their stories of turning in their brothers for murder. While David's brother, Ted Kaczynski -- the "Unabomber" -- was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Bill's brother, Manny Babbitt, was executed. The two men together make a powerful statement about the death penalty and particularly the effects of race and mental illness.

Here is some local news coverage of the events, and here is David Kaczynski's piece from the Times Union blog:

His Brother's Keeper
David Kaczynski
Technically, we’re not brothers, but Bill Babbitt calls my mom “Momma” and she in turn calls him her “fourth son” – after Ted and me and my other honorary brother, Gary Wright, who survived one of Ted’s bombs in 1987.

Regular readers of this blog know that in 1980 Bill Babbitt turned in his younger brother, Manny, to the Sacramento police department when he suspected him of a fatal assault against 79-year-old Leah Schendel. Manny – a mentally ill Vietnam War veteran – was strapped onto a gurney eighteen years later on his 50th birthday and executed by the state of California. Bill was there at San Quentin prison to witness Manny’s execution and to bid his brother goodbye.

I spend a lot of time and energy sharing my views on the death penalty with anyone who will listen. In fact, even before I turned in my brother to the FBI in 1996, I’d always opposed the death penalty for many of the same reasons that I reject violence generally (except in cases where it might be necessary as a last resort to defend against a violent aggressor). For ten days, Bill and I are touring the state of North Carolina to talk about issues related to the death penalty, including how mental illness and race affect the imposition of death sentences. North Carolina’s legislature is currently contemplating a ban on executing people who commit murder while seriously mentally ill. Last year they passed a racial justice act to counteract the undue influence of race on capital trials.

Few people realize that the experience that galvanized my opposition to the death penalty into a public campaign was not the outcome of Ted’s legal case. It was the outcome of Manny’s. I felt so badly for Bill and his mother, Josephine. I also was shocked by the political establishment’s indifference to the sacrifices made by Manny Babbitt, who enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and was nearly killed by a piece of shrapnel that penetrated his skull at the siege of Khe Sanh deep in the Vietnamese jungle.

I was also disturbed by the cold indifference to Bill Babbitt’s sacrifice. Talk to anyone in law enforcement these days and they will tell you how often they are frustrated and hampered in their investigation of serious crimes by reluctant witnesses who refuse to come forward or to cooperate with law enforcement when approached. During my recent visit to Rochester, I learned that a woman had been beaten to death in broad daylight in the presence of numerous witnesses who “saw nothing.” In the early 1960’s, the murder of Kitty Genovese in front of many witnesses who failed to summon the police made national news. Levels of public cooperation with law enforcement have, by most accounts, deteriorated since then.

Watching Bill hold up pictures of his brother and mother to the audience at a Baptist church in Raleigh last night reminded me why I agreed to leave my family for ten days to join Bill on this tour. The pictures were evocative: brother Manny as a young Marine in uniform; brother Manny again in uniform, but now as a corpse in his coffin after his execution in 1999. Bill’s mother - an image of timeless grief – with a shawl draped over her head after midnight on a cold San Francisco night outside the prison where her son was being executed. Bill’s hands were trembling. He had a facial tic. No doubt he was back there again. Still brave. Willing to relive that horrific night so that others might understand the injustice and the human costs of the death penalty. Once again making a personal and emotional sacrifice to protect people whose names he doesn’t know.

For a preview of a documentary featuring my “brothers” Bill Babbitt, Gary Wright and Bud Welch, visit

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Victim's Family Opposes Utah Execution

Yesterday's ABC News has this story, "Victim's Family Asks to Block Execution of Condemned Killer Ronnie Gardner":

A convicted murderer ordered executed by firing squad has found unusual allies in his effort to be spared -- the family of the man he killed.

Ronnie Lee Gardner is to be executed by a firing squad for the 1985 murder of attorney Michael Burdell. His date with death is set for June 18.

Gardner, 49, has asked the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole for a commutation hearing and among the witnesses will be Burdell's father, former girlfriend and a friend.

"Michael didn't believe in capital punishment, he didn't believe in eye for an eye, a life for a life," Donna Nu, Burdell's girlfriend at the time of his murder, told ABC News. "Michael would have done the same for me had the situation been reversed."

"Further, Michael would not want to be the reason that Ronnie Lee is executed," she said.

Nu noted that Burdell, who was a pacifist, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam but refused to carry a gun.

Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, said, "Nu and Ron Temu, a close friend of Burdell, are both listed as witnesses as far as commutation. They both believe that Burdell wouldn't want the death penalty for Gardner. And that isn't what they want either."

Parnes has also submitted a video of Burdell's father stating that his son would not have wanted the death penalty.

Read the rest.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Family of Mumbai victims: "More killing does not solve anything"

This Indian news story gives voice to victim opposition to the death penalty in the case of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai:

Chicago: As Ajmal Kasab awaits punishment after being held guilty in the Mumbai attacks, the widow of an American killed in the terror strikes says she does not favour death penalty for the Pakistani gunman and prefers him to be jailed for life.

Kia Scherr, whose 13-year-old daughter was also killed in the 26/11 strikes, further said she is planning to visit India later this year and would especially like to meet "the families of those who lost their lives in the attack" in November 2008.

"I have never favoured the death penalty. More killing does not solve anything. Kasab should remain in the Indian prison system for life. In the meantime, I favour rehabilitation and education," Scherr told PTI in an e-mail statement.

Kasab will be sentenced tomorrow by a special court in Mumbai with the prosecution demanding death penalty, branding him a killing machine manufactured in Pakistan.

Scherr's husband, Virginia resident Alan Scherr, and their daughter Naomi were at Mumbai's Oberoi Hotel when Kasab along with nine other Pakistani terrorists held the city hostage for three days killing 166 people, including six Americans.

Terming the court's guilty verdict as "appropriate", Scherr said "I do think this verdict of guilty for Ajmal Kasab will bring some closure to the families of the victims".

Planning to visit India later this year, Scherr said she would like to meet the people of Mumbai.

"Mr Oberoi, the owner of the Oberoi Hotel, where my husband and daughter were killed, is in support of our message and has agreed to be an honorary member of our Board of Advisors. He invited us to be his guests when we come to Mumbai," she said.

Scherr said if Kasab could be moved to tell the truth, he could "perhaps prevent more young men from joining the terrorist groups. I am open to this possibility and would be willing to have this conversation with him".

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Silent Crisis

We've added Judy Kerr to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories. Judy, who is spokeswoman and victim liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, has written several pieces about the effect of unsolved murders on victims' families, and in her Gallery page we have this quote of hers:

“My brother’s killer is still walking the streets. My message and voice are focused on dispelling the delusion that the death penalty keeps us safe. We are wasting millions each year sentencing a few aging convicts to death while thousands more murders each year remain unsolved and tens of thousands of family members like me are left with little hope for any justice. "I don't want the state to execute my brother's killer but I do want him arrested and punished for what he has done.”

California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has just released a report on the problem of unsolved homicides in California, titled The Silent Crisis.

Here also is MVFHR's newsletter issue focusing on unsolved murders, with quotes from Judy and several others.