Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There are human beings involved

And more from Connecticut, with thanks to the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty's Bo Chamberlin. Here is press coverage of MVFHR member Bob Curley's recent talks in Connecticut, from the 10/19/10 Quinnipiac Chronicle, with valuable comments from audience members at the end:

"The death penalty isn't the answer"
Despite son’s murder, Curley speaks against capital punishment

Robert Curley’s 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was kidnapped and murdered by two pedophiles, and through the midst of pain and anger, Curley has come to one conclusion: The death penalty is not the answer.

Joined by Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, Curley advocated for the abolition of the death penalty in his lecture “From Rage to Redemption: A Father’s Journey.” The event was sponsored by Quinnipiac’s Willingham Abolition Society in the School of Law’s Grand Courtroom on Monday.

In a sullen tone, Curley explained the rage he felt after his son’s death. It was far from easy for him, having previously been impartial on the issue, to oppose the death penalty after such a heinous crime.

“I had an internal struggle,” Curley said. “I kept asking myself why I was having second thoughts.”

Curley came to the conclusion that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because of the execution of U.S. Marine veteran Manny Babbitt, who was executed in 1999.

Babbitt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The Vietnam veteran alleged he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from combat and the murder was not premeditated.

“That just didn’t seem fair,” Curley said.

According to Jones, one of the arguments against the death penalty is innocent people get executed too often.
“No one wants to see an innocent person get executed,” Jones said.

In light of the current trial of Steven Hayes, convicted of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion which resulted in the murder of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters, questions from the audience were raised about the moral aspects of the death penalty.

“I understand Mr. Petit’s current pain and suffering, but the death penalty isn’t the answer,” Curley explained. “It becomes a thirst for revenge.”

Willingham Abolition Society Vice President Denise Graham said the group helps to promote discussion about legal and emotional issues.

“Curley brings a different perspective, especially in light of the Hayes case,” Graham said. “He helps to remind us that there are human beings involved.”

Graduate student Meghan Woods, neutral on the death penalty issue, said Curley’s story was “extremely powerful.”

“I can’t fathom what he’s been through,” she said. “It gives me a lot to think about.”

Larger than you might expect

Here is a link to a 10/7/10 Connecticut Public Radio interview with MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber. The description of the show says

Listen to the audio to hear a remarkable conversation with Vicki Schieber, who opposed the death penalty for the murder of her daughter, and Mike Fitzpatrick, a defense attorney who has worked on capital cases in Connecticut.

In 2002, making the final public appearance of her life, an old woman named Mamie Till-Mobley addressed the Governor of Illinois with the following words:

“I am pleased that I am able to stand here today and say with a pure heart and a meaningful heart that I am against the death penalty. There is no purpose that it serves except to further the damage that has already been done.”

You may not recognize her name, but you do know her story. Mamie Till-Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy murdered in Missisippi in 1955. The two white men who beat him to death were acquitted by an all-white jury after about an hour of deliberation.

Mamie Till-Mobley joined a group -- larger than you might expect -- of bereaved people who conclude that the death penalty won't bring them peace. In her case, there wasn't even an alternate form of justice offered up.

Death Penalty Affects Survivors

From the 10/22/10 New Haven Register, Elizabeth Brancato's letter to the editor:

Death Penalty Affects Survivors
While I agree with the Register editorial that the actions of the defendants in the Cheshire home invasion murders warrant the harshest punishment, I am troubled by its call for the death penalty as it does not consider the effects of a death sentence on surviving family members.

My mother, Barbara McKitis, was murdered in Connecticut at the age of 53. It was hard for me to grieve and figure out how I was going to go on while the legal proceedings dragged on. I do not wish a death sentence for any family traumatized beyond belief.

In our state, the death penalty cases never end.

The understandable emotions surrounding this case should not prevent us from looking at how death sentences really work, and the years of additional harm it could cause surviving family members.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Links

Speakers from The Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing will be in several Texas cities this week and next. You can follow them online here.

And here is a link to the video of the "No Human Way to Kill" event at the White Box Gallery in New York City last Monday, featuring several murder victims' family members speaking about how they came to oppose the death penalty.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For the rest of our lives

From yesterday's Lake County (Montana) Leader, "Death penalty system discussed":

Carolyn Madplume knows a thing or two about death. Her 20-year-old daughter, Catherine, was killed in Feb. 2005 when three men robbed and killed her boyfriend, an act of violence south of Ronan that shocked the community.

The killers' take? $193.

All three men were convicted for their roles in the homicides and will spend the next several years in prison. But Madplume has no desire for more death, despite the heinous crime that took the life of her young daughter.

“You can’t have all these lives on you,” she said. “Your loved ones wouldn’t want it.”

Madplume, who now lives in Heart Butte, was one of two guests of the Montana Abolition Coalition that spoke at the Salish Kootenai College on Monday evening. Both had had young daughters killed in senseless acts, acts that “an eye for an eye” can never repair. Rather, both woman hope they can actively speak out against the death penalty and abolish capital punishment, a penalty that the Coalition believes would be better replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“It’s a fallible, fatal system,” Marietta Jaeger Lane, whose daughter was killed in 1973, said. “I’ve not only forgiven the killer but I absolutely want to get rid of the death penalty.”

Such strong anti-death penalty sentiment, from someone with such a close connection to pain and death, may seem an anomaly. But Lane realized long ago that vengeance is just a waste of time.

Lane and her family had planned a trip to Montana, by way of Michigan, in the summer of 1973. The family of seven was undeniably excited.

“This was the vacation we would talk about for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Lane was right about that, but for all the wrong reasons. The dream vacation quickly turned into a nightmare when the family woke up to find 7-year-old Susie missing from the children’s tent. A hole was cut in the fabric and the little girl had been pulled into the night, without a sound.

The family woke up frantic, and a wild, statewide search ensued. Two weeks later, with no sign of her daughter, Lane became angry, despite her Catholic upbringing that taught her it was a sin to be angry.

“I was terrified, I’d never allowed myself to feel that way,” she said. “I knew I could kill that man with my bare hands with a smile on my face. I felt absolutely justified in my rage and desire for revenge.”

Before she knew it, Lane’s faith in God, including a divinely inspired moment, calmed her down. As more time elapsed and the family returned to Michigan, Lane began to pray for the kidnapper, despite still not knowing what had become of her child. A call from the kidnapper to the family house demanded a ransom, but when the trace of the phone line fell through, a promising lead went nowhere.

A few days before the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance, a quote in a newspaper article blew open the case.

“I’d give anything to have a chance to talk to the kidnapper myself,” Lane had been quoted as saying.

On the one-year anniversary, Lane got her wish. The kidnapper called, taunting the family and again asking for a ransom. But Lane remained cool and calm, and kept the man on the line for more than an hour, at one point getting him to break down and cry.

The phone call was the big break, and eventually the FBI caught the man, who admitted to kidnapping Susie and killing her no more than two weeks after. David was a local from Three Forks and had even been part of the original search team. He’d been interviewed as a suspect but had passed all tests, Lane said.

“You pray and pray for an answer and it’s not quite the answer you’re looking for,” she said.

David eventually admitted to killing Susie, as well as three other young girls in Gallatin County. The crimes would undoubtedly make David eligible for the death penalty, but Lane lobbied the prosecutor to offer life in prison without the possibility of parole instead.

“How do I best honor Susie’s memory?” she said. “To become one that I abhor would be to dishonor her memory. It wouldn’t undo what happened to Susie.”

Hours after confessing to the murders, David committed suicide in his jail cell. Lane visited David’s mother, when the two women wept in each other’s arms. Both had lost children, Lane said, and her ability to forgive overrode any other emotion.

“The execution does not heal the victim’s family,” she said.

15 states do not have the death penalty, including Lane’s home state of Michigan, which became the first to abolish capital punishment. The Montana Abolition Coalition hopes stories from families of murder victims like Madplume and Lane can spread the word that the death penalty is not the answer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our deepest human rights abuse

From yesterday's Birmingham News, "Death penalty diminishes humanity for all citizens," by Robert and Rachel Meeropol:

Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty, and with that in mind, we urge the United States to outlaw this horrible punishment.

As the son and granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage at the height of the McCarthy period in 1953, we have a personal reason to abhor the death penalty.

As attorneys, we view the death penalty as a fundamental human rights abuse. And as citizens, we are ashamed the death penalty is still being carried out in our country.

There are many compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty.

First of all, the death penalty diminishes the humanity of everyone it touches.

Second, since our system of justice can never be mistake-free, it is inevitable that an error will be made in a capital case and an innocent person will be executed. In fact, DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of at least 17 Death-Row inmates since 1993, according to the Innocence Project.

Third, the question of cost is also compelling. At a time when states face massive budget shortfalls, a study examining the cost of the death penalty in Kansas found that death penalty cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable nondeath-penalty cases.

Fourth, the death penalty disproportionately falls on poor people and people of color. Blacks and Latinos make up more than 55 percent of the current Death Row population, despite comprising only about 25 percent of the U.S. population.

Fifth, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. States that use it don't have lower murder rates than states that do not.

Finally, there is a more fundamental reason. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States took a leadership role in drafting an "international bill of rights" that recognized all people have certain inherent rights. This core human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put it simply: Life is a human right.

This makes the death penalty our deepest human rights abuse.

"No Human Way to Kill" event today

MVFHR's Director Renny Cushing is among the speakers participating in today's event, "No Human Way to Kill," sponsored by New York City's White Box Gallery, Firstsite Contemporary Visual Arts, and the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex (England). This panel discussion will be streamed live from the White Box Gallery between 1:00 and 2:30 today (eastern time, U.S.). Two dozen universities throughout the U.S. have agreed to show the event via streaming, so it will get a wide and geographically diverse audience.

Renny is joining panelists Reverend Cathy Harrington, whose daughter, Leslie Ann Mazzara, was murdered, Barbara Lewis, whose son, Robert Gattis, is on death row, Anne Coleman, whose daughter, Frances, was murdered. The panel will be moderated by Robert Priseman, a visual artist and Fellow at the Essex Human Rights Centre.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

MVFHR Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty
October 10, 2010

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now, over sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. We call for abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

World Day: Focus on the U.S.

Here is the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty's press release for World Day Against the Death Penalty, October 10th. This year's World Day focuses on the United States.

On 10.10.10, the 8th World Day against the Death Penalty will focus on ending the use of the death penalty in the United States of America. Since 2003, abolitionists have taken actions all over the world every 10 October to raise awareness and opposition to the death penalty. This year, to mark the World Day against the Death Penalty, dozens of events have been organized across the USA from Texas to Alaska, including in New York and Washington DC. All over the world, abolitionists are hosting events in support of the American movement to end the death penalty. To see the complete program of scheduled events, visit: www.worldcoalition.org/worldday

By encouraging debates and education on the death penalty on 10.10.10, worldwide abolitionists would like every citizen to understand that the fundamental right to life applies to all people, that the death penalty is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent even in the most competent systems of justice. In the USA, as elsewhere, the death penalty does not deliver justice. Since 1977 more than 130 people have been released on grounds of innocence revealing significant flaws in legal process. It is also a system that continues to condemn people on discriminatory grounds and that diverts time and money from other more efficient law enforcement measures. Police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction and they do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.

In 2010 the US has executed 40 people to date; Texas (16) having executed the most people so far. In 2009 11 states executed 52 prisoners: Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Vancouver, Ohio, and Tennessee and South Carolina. Even as executions continue though, movement has been made to reduce the number of those sentenced to death. Today in the USA, 15 states do not have the death penalty and 11 more made legislative proposals to abolish capital punishment in 2009. In 2002 the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of the [people with mental retardation], and in 2005 it prohibited the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime. 2009 also saw a decrease in the number of death sentences, and the number of executions is trending down.

This World Day is the opportunity for abolitionists to work together, in the United States and abroad, to help continue this trend of restricting the use of the death penalty and to work to educate the public to bring about the end of its use. By 2009, 139 countries in the world had abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and 18 of the 58 retentionist states actually executed people. To support the American movement to end the death penalty is also to support abolition all over the world, to
take another step towards universal abolition.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A fervent advocate

More great coverage of Vicki Schieber's talks in Connecticut this week, this time in yesterday's Fairfield Patch. The link has some very good photos, too.

Vicki Schieber, whose only daughter was brutally raped and murdered in 1998, took Sacred Heart University students on a personal journey with her Wednesday evening as she told them why she is a fervent advocate of abolishing the death penalty.

When she was finished, many of the students flocked to sponsors of the talk to add their names to a growing pile of postcards that will be sent to Connecticut legislators in a campaign to end capital punishment in Connecticut.

"We'll have a new governor after the fall election and we may have an excellent shot at getting it passed," said Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, who brought Schieber from her home in Maryland to join his group's campaign.

Gubernatorial candidate Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor, opposes the death penalty. His opponent, Republican Tom Foley, is an advocate of the death penalty.

Last year, both houses of the General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut, but Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

"Over the past 10 years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty," Jones said. "In Connecticut, legislative opponents of the death penalty are on the rise."

Schieber's daughter, Shannon, a 23-year-old who was on a full scholarship at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was stalked by a serial rapist, Schieber related to the hushed audience of nearly 100 students in SHU's Shine Auditorium.

On the eve of her last final exam before graduation, 22-year-old Troy Graves entered her second-floor apartment by shimmying up an outside wall and breaking a screen-door lock on a tiny balcony as she showered.

Emerging from the shower, Shannon screamed when she encountered the stranger.

"For Shannon, everything went wrong that evening," Schieber said.

The scream was heard by her second-floor neighbor, who called 911.

But when police arrived shortly thereafter, officers discounted neighbors' reports of a disturbance after the officers knocked on Shannon's door and received no response. Graves had secured the screen door when he entered and police concluded there was no sign of a forced entry. Within five minutes, they left the scene, Schieber said.

Unbeknownst to the police, Graves was secreted inside the apartment.

He entered the apartment with an intention to rape, but he strangled Shannon to quiet her to avoid police intrusion, Schieber said.

The following morning, Shannon's brother, Sean, arrived at her office on campus to meet her for a prearranged luncheon date. When she could not be found, and her fellow students told him she had not appeared for her final exam, he went to her apartment.

The second-floor neighbor buzzed him in and together they broke the door to her apartment after she did not answer their knock.

When Sean saw the bloodied apartment and his sister lying naked on her bed, he fainted, Schieber said, tears welling in her eyes.

The Philadelphia police had failed to alert the four-block community in which Graves had stalked potential victims and raped at least two other women before he zeroed in on Shannon.

Schieber's initial reaction, shared by her husband Sylvester - "She was Daddy's girl," she said - was one of rage and hatred, driven by a fever to exact revenge on the cold-blooded killer who had stolen the life of their talented, treasured Shannon.

"My husband said if he'd been within five feet of him, he would have strangled him," she said.

But both she and her husband were brought up in the Catholic faith in the Midwest and, over time, they found themselves on a journey of peace, believing in the power of redemption and transforming their justifiable anger into positive acts.

"If you are raised with a set of principles," she said, it's necessary to honor them in practice.

"The death penalty diminishes us all," she said.

When Graves was arrested four years later in Colorado after resuming his serial raping, even after marrying and being hired as a high-security-clearance weapons specialist with the U.S. Air Force, DNA tests linked him to Shannon's rape and murder.

The Philadelphia prosecutor called for the death penalty.

But the Schiebers opposed it and eventually Graves pleaded guilty to Shannon's murder and 14 cases of sexual assault in an agreement by which he would serve life in prison with no possibility of parole.

"At the sentencing hearing, he turned to us and said, 'I wish to thank the Schieber family for believing in the sanctity of human life,' " said Schieber, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a retired professor.

At age 26, Graves was put in solitary confinement for the first 18 months of his sentence, a customary prelude for a criminal imprisoned for a life term.

Graves - like others serving life terms for capital felonies - is paying for the crime in a "hellish" way, Schieber said, referring to the bleak conditions of a maximum security prison.

Schieber said she has overcome the anger she felt at first and has not allowed it to destroy her and her family as she said it has many other families of murder victims torn apart by pain and anger.

Schieber has sought to meet with Graves in prison as part of her journey of peace.

"What would you say to him?" asked a student.

"I hope to have a conversation with him before I die," she replied quietly. "I would tell him how I reached out to his mother and how she cried for hours. He grew up amidst violence."

"I hope he has that journey of peace, too," she said.

Schieber said prison rules and budgetary constraints - no funds to hire a social worker intermediary as the prison would require - have so far made such a conversation impossible.

Schieber began her talk by displaying a black-and-white photograph of Shannon to the audience.

"She's always sitting on my shoulder, wherever I go," Schieber said.

Schieber said Shannon was an exceptional child and young woman.

Shannon recited the alphabet at 18 months and was reading at the third-grade level when she was 3 years old, her mother said. She headed the equestrian team at Duke and led the student body as freshman president. She graduated from college in three years.

"But the best part of her, apart from her great brain, was that she was absolutely beautiful inside," Schieber said.

Schieber knew that Shannon was devoted to social justice issues and wanted to make a difference with her life.

Shannon volunteered one day a week to mentor inner-city children while she pursued her demanding graduate studies and was known to lend a hand to the elderly in her neighborhood on a whim - aspects of Shannon's life in Philadelphia that Schieber discovered only when her daughter's shaken acquaintances rose to speak at her memorial service.

Schieber praised the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer for taking on the issue of why the police left the scene of the crime as it was unfolding. The Inquirer's dogged investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department led to a change in police procedures that mandates police officers remain at a potential crime scene on 911 calls until they have contacted superior officers and gained clearance to leave, she said.

"Shannon possibly would be alive," she said, if the police had heeded the complaints of Shannon's neighbors who alerted them and had forced their way into her apartment.

She said the newspaper's investigation led the department to reopen 2,000 sexual assault cases that had been closed as mere "investigatory complaints" – possibly to lower crime statistics – and reclassify 60 percent of them as active felonious assault cases subject to prosecution.

Schieber, a founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Life, has testified before Congress, addressed legislators and editorial writers and spoken out across the country against the death penalty.

She attended the celebration when New Jersey abolished the death penalty.

"Shannon was with me, cheering me on with 'Go Mom!' " she said, expressing hope to return to Connecticut for its own celebration after the death penalty is outlawed.

She's especially gratified to share her story with students who, unlike many in adult audiences, may not yet have formed their own opinions.

When she concluded her talk, after a round of applause, a stillness filled the auditorium. Then students began slowly to approach Schieber to give her a hug and express their sorrow at her tragedy and awe at her fortitude.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Closure or Peace?

From today's Hartford Courant, "Death Penalty Vs. Life: An Issue of Closure Vs. Peace", by Susan Campbell:

Shannon Schieber was one of those brilliant lights, an honors student who finished college in three years with three majors, then earned a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where she hunkered down to shine as well.

She told her mother she intended to use her education to reach out to the poor, among whom she volunteered as a doctoral candidate despite her challenging course load.

And then in May 1998, a serial rapist broke into her Philadelphia apartment. Shannon cried out, and that, investigators said later, may have proved fatal. Her attacker, Troy Graves, would eventually be found guilty of a series of sexual assaults and home intrusions in Pennsylvania and Colorado; Shannon was his only murder.

Her cries brought a concerned neighbor, who knocked on her door, heard nothing and then summoned police, who used their nightsticks to knock on the door as well. After finding no sign of a break-in, they left the scene.

Meanwhile, Graves choked Shannon Schieber to death.

When she didn't show up for work the next day, her brother, who had planned to meet her for lunch, went to her apartment and, with the neighbor who had earlier called police, broke in to find his sister's battered and bloody body.

Devastated, her family — brother Sean and parents Sylvester and Vicki — felt cushioned (if one can be cushioned after such a horror) by their loved ones and their Catholic faith. Vicki Schieber found herself relying on a lesson she had learned in church, that life is sacred. If this man who took her daughter's life could not live by that precept, she could. The family began to lobby for life without parole instead of the death sentence. Now, Graves is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.

The district attorney was stunned and even asked Vicki Schieber if she loved her daughter. Because if she did, wouldn't she want her killer dead?

But, as Schieber told a small but rapt audience Monday at St. James Catholic Church in Rocky Hill: "If you don't pass the test and live up to your principles, were those ever your principles in the first place?"

Schieber spoke along with Robert Pallotti, director of the Archdiocese of Hartford's office of the diaconate, and Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network To Abolish the Death Penalty. The 20 or so people sat quietly as Schieber spoke passionately about the peace she seeks and the peace she's attained.

On Tuesday, a New Haven jury found Steven Hayes guilty of 16 of the 17 charges he faced in the Petit murders. Hayes is eligible for the death penalty; Connecticut is one of 35 states that retains that option for its most heinous crimes. The jury will decide Hayes' fate beginning Oct. 18. After that, the state — and, more pointedly, the Petit family survivors — will face the trial of Hayes' accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky.

Vicki Schieber knows how passionate people can be during trials like these. Her voice was quiet but emphatic Monday when she said, "We call 'closure' the 'c-word.' Closure is kind of a deceptive word."

If we can't find closure, may we find peace.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Survivors don't all agree"

Years ago, when Timothy McVeigh was about to be executed for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, there was an article in the New York Times with the headline, "Victims' families not of one voice on the death penalty." We consider it an important sign of growing awareness when media coverage demonstrates recognition of the fact that murder victims' family members have a range of opinions on the death penalty and can't automatically be assumed to be in favor of it. Here's an article from this past Saturday from the San Francisco Chronicle, with the headline "Murder victim survivors split on the death penalty":

Murder is the ultimate crime, and the loved ones left behind to mourn are the ultimate survivors. But when it comes to contemplating the ultimate punishment - the death penalty - those survivors don't all agree.

For Judy Kerr, whose 43-year-old brother, Bob, was dragged out of his house and strangled in 2003, the very idea of putting another person to death even in the name of justice is an abomination.

La Wanda Hawkins would like nothing more than to see the man who fatally shot her 19-year-old son, Reginald, in 1995 breathe his last breath in an execution chamber.

The two women share a few emotions around the subject, such as rage and sorrow. But when it comes to compassion or a desire for revenge, the differences spread wide.

Those feelings came to the fore again this week, as they did for thousands of other murder victims' relatives in California, when the state came close to conducting its first execution at San Quentin State Prison in nearly five years.

The lethal injection of rapist-murderer Albert Greenwood Brown was barred by the California Supreme Court on Wednesday, the day before it was to happen. But the debate over the morality and necessity of execution hasn't died down a whit.

There's no doubt where the family of Brown's victim, 15-year-old Susan Jordan of Riverside, stands.

"This execution must take place," Susan's mother, Angelina Jordan, wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month. "No more clemency. No more appeals. No more delays. No more stays due to technicalities and legal loopholes.

"Where is our clemency? How much longer must we endure this injustice?"

To kill or not to kill

"I didn't have a lot of sympathy, and still don't, for killers," said Judy Kerr, 55, a registered nurse who lives in Albany. "But I don't think killing somebody will bring my brother back.

"It's not going to help me, and it's not going to make me safer."

Kerr is an outreach coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an advocacy and support group for those who feel as she does.

Hawkins founded Justice for Murdered Children, which pushes the opposite agenda.

"Why should we give these murderers health care, feed them, clothe them, give them dental care and education?" said Hawkins, 50, a bookkeeper who lives in San Pedro (Los Angeles County). "Do you know how much it costs to go to school? So many of us can't afford it out here, but they're giving it to someone who took someone's life?

"Isn't that outrageous? Kill them."

Support is flexible

Recent surveys reflect this divide in the general population.

A statewide Field Poll in July found that 70 percent of Californians support the death penalty. That's up from 67 percent in 2006, but down from a mid-1980s high of 83 percent. And when asked what sentence they preferred for first-degree murderers, 42 percent said life in prison without parole and 41 percent said death.

The debate is as old as capital punishment itself, dating in California back to 1851, when hanging was instituted as the preferred method of execution and capital punishment abolitionists were already hoisting picket signs.

With at least 2,000 homicides every year in the state - and wait times on Death Row of as long as 30 years for execution dates - there is a never-ending source of discussion.

'People have spoken'

The thugs who killed Bob Kerr and Reginald Hawkins aren't among the 708 condemned inmates in California - they've never been caught. But even among those who know who killed their loved ones, there's no agreement on the right thing to do.

Harriet Salarno's 18-year-old daughter, Catina Salarno, was shot to death by a jilted lover in 1979 in Stockton. She says it is "cruel to make people wait so long for these killers to be executed.

"The people have spoken, they've said they want capital punishment, and obstructing it is just harassment," said Salarno, 77, a retired dental hygienist. "For the victims to wait so long, 20 or 30 years, for justice is cruel and unusual punishment to them."

Steven Burns, the man who killed her daughter, was given a life prison sentence instead of death, and Salarno has channeled her rage over the crime into working for Crime Victims United, the group she founded.

Unlikely friends

Aba Gayle, 76, has taken the opposite tack.

Her 19-year-old daughter, Catherine Blount, was stabbed to death in 1980 near Auburn by Douglas Mickey, who was in a paranoid delusional rage. For eight years, Gayle wanted Mickey put to death. Then she found Christianity, wrote Mickey a letter - and was "amazed" to get a letter back expressing "gentleness and kindness."

They became the unlikeliest of friends. And today, as head of the Catherine Blount Foundation to promote forgiveness, Gayle wants Mickey's term commuted to life in prison.

"It's horrible to live with all that anger, wanting someone to die," said Gayle, who moved from Santa Rosa to Oregon nine years ago. "You can't be a good mother, a good employee, a good anything. The only way to heal is forgiveness."

No such forgiveness springs from Doris "Trudie" Anderson, 77, of Yuba City (Sutter County).

Donald Beardslee, the man who stabbed Anderson's 19-year-old goddaughter, Stacey Benjamin, to death in Lake County in 1981, was lethally injected in San Quentin five years ago - and Anderson said that deeply satisfies her.

Like many relatives of victims whose killers were executed, Anderson acknowledges that Beardslee's death did not bring the full "closure" of which so many speak. But it was better than the alternative.

A bit of closure

"It does give you at least a certain amount of closure knowing that he's gone, but that pain of loss never really goes away," Anderson said. "I'll tell you this, though: Some might think it's wrong to execute people - but just watch their attitudes change when a loved one is tortured and butchered.

"The only reason they could think it's wrong is because they've never been in that situation."

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Honor My Father's Legacy

The Montana Abolition Coalition is sponsoring a series of events this week that feature victims' family members and exonerated death row inmates. Yesterday MVFHR member Ziggy Ziegler spoke with exoneree Ray Krone at an event in Billings titled "Beyond Repair: True Stories of the Death Penalty," and Ziggy published this op-ed piece in Saturday's Billings Gazette:

As a victim of violent crime, I am committed to the abolition of the death penalty.

In 1973, my 78-year-old father was murdered in a foiled robbery attempt. He was sitting in his car in a grocery store parking lot reading his evening newspaper when he was shot and left for dead in the front seat of his car. The perpetrators fled to a waiting automobile. My mother finished her shopping and was returning to her car when she witnessed the ambulance attendants removing my father’s body from the vehicle. Witnesses were able to identify two teenage youth who were apprehended within a matter of hours and charged accordingly.

No words can adequately describe the emotions and trauma when one receives “that” telephone call. There is first disbelief, then sheer physical grief of a loss, then reality, then hatred. Three days earlier I had spent the holiday with my father. I had not realized that I would never see him alive again nor would I be able to tell him I loved him or to say goodbye. I became angrier.
I addressed the hate issue for some time. It was only with the gift of my family, my faith and my friends that I was able to overcome that consumption and release it before it destroyed my life and that of my family. You can forgive the sinner but not the sin.

In 1978, I was asked to participate in a four-day retreat program for the inmates held at our prison in Deer Lodge. My initial response was a definite “no.” Why do I want to go to a prison and be with all those “people?” Eventually, I went, then I went again, and soon I became consumed with sharing the testimony of my family struggle. Many of my listeners were guilty of a similar crime and had never heard from a victim, let alone experienced the discourse of what happens to a victim’s family. Some have apologized to me, perhaps for the first time, realizing what they have done to others.

Nothing yesterday, today or tomorrow will bring my father back. I accept that. Taking the lives of the two minors who murdered my father will satisfy nothing. I believe perpetrators should be held responsible for their actions with a sentence of life in prison, no years of pleadings or hearings or extensions — simply life without parole.

Today and every day, I wear my father’s wedding band as a reminder of the many fond memories of him in our 40 years together. He lived life to the fullest and set many a good example as a man of deep faith. By his death he would not seek vengeance to those who took him from us. I seek to honor my father’s legacy by supporting the abolition of Montana’s death penalty.

The speaking series continues: on Wednesday, Ray Krone will be joined by MVFHR board member Marie Verzulli. Friday's Great Falls Tribune had an article announcing that event. Here's an excerpt:

Krone's world was turned upside down in 1991 after a woman was murdered in a Phoenix bar. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to death for her murder.

After more than 10 years in prison, Krone convinced an appeals court that DNA found at the murder scene indicated another man was guilty. When prosecutors dropped the charges, he became the 100th person exonerated from death row in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973.

Verzulli will speak about the circumstances regarding her 29-year-old sister, Catherine, who was one of eight women murdered by a serial killer in New York between 1996 and 1997.

That murderer is serving eight life-without-parole sentences, a sentence that Verzulli supports.

She said the death penalty system is costly, unjust and only prolongs suffering of grieving families.

The Montana Abolition Coalition is an umbrella group of faith, civil and human rights organizations that support abolition of Montana's death penalty. The coalition has brought a bill to the Montana Legislature that would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. The bill passed the Senate in 2007 and 2009 and will be proposed in the 2011 session.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Overwhelming support

The New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty continues to hold public hearings around the state. Last night's was at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and today's Foster's Daily Democrat has this story:

There was one common theme at Thursday's public hearing of the state Commission to Study the Death Penalty on the University of New Hampshire campus.

That theme was overwhelming support to abolish the death penalty.

Among the people who spoke against the death penalty were a murder victim's father and a former Florida Supreme Court Justice who oversaw numerous death penalty cases.

Robert Curley's son Jeffrey was killed in 1997 by two pedophiles that had targeted him. His son's body was found in South Berwick, Maine.

"Up until that time I never really gave the death penalty that much thought one way or the other," Curley told the 12-member panel at Thursday's hearing at Murkland Hall.

But his son's death enraged him and forced him to take a hard look at the death penalty, he said

"I really didn't know how I could feel any other way but to be in favor of the death penalty," he said.

However, as time passed Curley said he continued to take a close look at the death penalty and began to see flaws in the legal system that made the death penalty seem unfair.

The example he gave was the case of Manny Babbitt, a U.S. Marine Veteran of the Vietnam War who was convicted of the murder of a 78-year-old woman during a burglary in Sacramento, California. Babbitt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the murder wasn't premeditated.

Curley said he was surprised that someone like Babbitt could be executed, while Unabomber Ted Kaczynski could serve life in prison.

Read the rest of the article.