Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cities for Life

Today, 1307 cities around the world are participating in "Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty", an annual event organized by the Italian Community of Sant'Egidio. This international event commemorates the 1786 abolition of the death penalty by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first such abolition by a European state.

For Italian readers, here is an article about the event, describing the participation of murder victims' family members Marietta Jaeger Lane, Bud Welch, Bill Pelke, and Ron Carlson.

This write-up, posted yesterday at the online version of America magazine, a Catholic weekly, gives a good, brief description of Cities for Life:

Tomorrow is the the anniversary of the first ever abolition of the death penalty by a state -- the Grand Duchy of Tuscany on 30 November 1786 -- celebrated for the past few years as the International Day of the Cities for Life campaign organised by the Rome-based Catholic community of Sant'Egidio. It begins tonight with a vigil in Rome; 1,300 other cities across the world -- 61 of them capital cities -- in 85 countries will light up a monument or a square, to declare themselves against the death penalty. It is the largest international mobilisation against the death penalty there has ever been, bringing together local governments and civil society organisations under the slogan, "No justice without life".

Monday, November 22, 2010

Knowing too clearly

From yesterday's Northwest (Illinois) Herald, this guest column, "Time to Repeal the Death Penalty in Illinois":

The death penalty in Illinois, currently under moratorium, is broken.

People sentenced to death sit on death row for years and years with no execution in sight. Murder victim family members wait for something to happen and suffer years of uncertainty. Whether you support the death penalty or not, we all know that this simply is not working.

So the question is what to do about it. Should we lift the moratorium, shorten the process and execute at a faster pace? Or should we drop this failed policy once and for all?

I have the strange and unique position of truly being able to view it from all sides. My husband, Gary Gauger, was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of his parents, a crime he did not commit. The state of Illinois, having no physical or eyewitness evidence, convicted Gary based on an alleged confession obtained after hours of interrogation filled with lies and omissions intended to get him to confess.

Gary was sentenced to death despite having no prior incidents of violence. The funny thing is, when there is scant evidence to convict, there is nothing to show a mistake was made either. Gary’s innocence was proven by mere happenstance. A totally unrelated federal investigation of a violent biker gang revealed facts from an informant as to the real killers of Gary’s parents.

Two men eventually were convicted of committing their murders. Since Gary’s brush with death row, our family has met dozens of other death row exonorees who spent decades in jail before their innocence was revealed.

If we were to shorten the process, we would clearly increase the number of executions of innocent people in our state. It is so hard to undo a conviction once it is obtained, and I wonder if there are others who have been wrongly imprisoned but have no federal investigation to happen to set them free.

On the other hand, my family lost two vibrant beautiful human beings to senseless violence. We are glad that the real killers were apprehended and convicted. We also are glad that they did not receive death sentences.

Knowing too clearly why the death penalty process can’t be shortened, we would not want to go through years of appeals and constant media attention that death sentences deliver. A sentence that assures our safety and ends our involvement with the legal process allows us to begin to move forward with our lives.

Resources that would be spent in endless appeals could be given to surviving family members who have very serious long-term needs with little available help.

It is time to admit that the death penalty cannot be fixed, and that the moratorium causes additional pain to murder victim family members.

The legislature should repeal the death penalty and increase funds available for homicide survivors.

• Sue Rekenthaler and Gary Gauger live on their family farm in Richmond.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A kairos moment

Today at the Kairos Conference in Atlanta, MVFHR members Bud Welch, Renny Cushing, Marietta Jaeger Lane, and Bonnita Spikes are speaking on a panel titled "Healing and Restoration After Loss: Murder Victims' Family Members and How Faith Communities Can Foster Restorative Justice."

The Kairos Conference is sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Here's a description:

Now is a kairos moment on the death penalty. It’s a new day – a special time – to which more and more religious communities are awakening. The Kairos Conference: Discerning Justice and Taking Action is a national conference marking this kairos moment for the religious community and all concerned people in the United States to learn, discern, pray, and choose to act on the death penalty. It is the first interfaith conference on religious organizing on the death penalty in the United States this century.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Advocating for Treatment, Not Execution in Tennessee

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt and David Kaczynski were speaking in Tennessee last week. Here's coverage from the November 10th edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, "Justice system fails those with mental illness, advocates say":

In 1995 after David Kaczynski read the anti-technology manifesto of the Unabomber -- a mysterious mailbomber wanted by the FBI for nearly two decades -- he recognized the writings of his older brother, Ted.

The idea that his brilliant yet increasingly isolated brother could commit murder was beyond belief, David Kaczynski recounted Tuesday to more than 220 attendees at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's University Center.

"I was literally considering the possibility that my brother was the most wanted man in America," he said.

But David Kaczynski argued Tuesday that justice is not applied equally.

In 1999 California executed a decorated yet traumatized Vietnam War veteran, who'd been turned in to police by his brother, Bill Babbitt.

On Tuesday Bill Babbitt said he'd hoped his brother -- who had post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia -- would receive treatment for his mental illness after he assaulted an elderly woman, who then died of a heart attack.

But Manny Babbitt spent 20 years in prison before he was executed in California on his 50th birthday.

The speakers pressed for a criminal justice system that recognizes people with severe mental illness are more likely to make false confessions and more commonly fire their lawyers and represent themselves in court.

Advocates with the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Chattanooga urged attendees to support a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly to exclude people with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty.

Amnesty International estimates that 10 percent of people who have been executed in the U.S. have serious mental illness, David Kaczynski said.

"I was always a believer in the death penalty ... until it came knocking on my door," Bill Babbitt said.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Heightened attention

From yesterday's Boston Globe, "N.H. trial fuels death penalty debate":

The horror of the 2009 machete slaying of a New Hampshire nurse, recounted in grisly testimony during the recent trial of Steven Spader, has stoked passions over the death penalty in a state that last held an execution in 1939.

“It’s an awful murder, one of those iconic, high-profile murders that really touch people,’’ said state Representative Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton, N.H., who opposes the death penalty. “It’s an atmosphere of heightened attention in what we do in the aftermath of the killing.’’

Cushing sits on a state commission that has been charged with studying whether the death penalty is sound public policy. Its recommendations are scheduled to be released Dec. 1, and supporters of capital punishment hope large Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature renew its use and expand its applicability.

Read the rest.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Texas

Visiting Austin, Texas this week, I've had a good opportunity to catch up with Virginia Raymond and Walter Long, whose work with the Texas After Violence Project we featured in MVFHR's newsletter last year. The project has added several new interviews with murder victims' family members to its website, and they are very much worth viewing.

I also welcomed the chance to support our colleagues at the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty by attending one of their events last night and learning about the valuable work they are doing to end the death penalty in Texas.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A big concern

From today's Deutsche Welle, "U.S. must tackle human rights issues, says former UN torture investigator":

Manfred Nowak served as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 until October 2010. He is the director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna and a professor for international human rights protection at the University of Vienna. From 1996-2003, Nowak was a judge at the Human Rights Chamber in Bosnia.

Deutsche Welle: Last year President Barack Obama reversed his predecessor's decision not to join the UN Human Rights Council and on Friday the council reviewed the US for the first time. Was Obama right to join the group?

Manfred Nowak: I certainly welcome very much that the US joined the Human Rights Council. It is the most important political body of the United Nations dealing with human rights and it is important that all the major member of the Security Council are also members of the Human Rights Council. There are also some positive developments which the US brought into the policy making of the Human Rights Council.

In its required report prior to the council's review, the US admitted problems with discrimination and immigration. What are the other human rights issues involving the US?

First of all, the US has a very bad reputation in ratifying UN and other human rights treaties and accepting monitoring procedures. It's one out of two countries in the world which has not yet ratified on the rights of the child, similarly the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, even the Inter-American convention on human rights.

There is no individual complaints procedure. No US person can ever bring a complaint to an international body whether within the United Nations or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It has not accepted the statute of the International Criminal Court and that is of course a matter of major concern.

Another big concern is of course capital punishment. The death penalty is still fairly widely practiced in 35 states and in the federal jurisdiction and the General Assembly of the United Nations issued a strong appeal to all states to at least take action for a moratorium with the final aim of abolishing the death penalty. ...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Marching in Texas

"Hundreds of people march against the death penalty," says this KVUE news piece from October 30th. The story covers the march that participants in the Journey of Hope took to the Texas State Capitol on Saturday, and quotes from several death row exonerees and from MVFHR board member Bill Pelke:

Bill Pelke's grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls. One got the death penalty.

“Originally I supported the judge's decision,” Pelke says. “But I went through a transformation and became convinced that execution is not the solution.”