Friday, January 28, 2011

I've looked at both sides

From today's Oklahoma news site, KJRH, "Death penalty documentary features woman from Tulsa":

"I don't hate him anymore after 17 years."

Edith Shoals understands a mother's need for justice.

In 1992, her teenage daughter Lordette was gunned down as she talked with Edith on a pay phone because the shooter, Eric Berry, wanted Lordette's car.

In the wake of her daughter's death, Edith wanted Berry to pay with his life.

At the time, she says she thought, "this guy has to die."

But with time, and working with both victim's and suspect's families through her organization "Families of Murdered Children," Edith's stance on the death penalty softened.

Berry was convicted. The death penalty was taken off the table by prosecutors at her request.

"I've looked at both sides. I've talked with both sides. So it's not who -- itt's what they did, and the motive behind what they did."

It was that change of heart that landed Edith in the national spotlight.

She is featured in a new documentary by the English language channel of Aljazeera called "Fault Lines: Behind the Walls of Oklahoma's Death Row."

It features those opposed to the death penalty.

"I don't, for the love of God, know how someone who calls themselves a Christian could support killing someone else!"

And those who support it, such as former Governor Frank Keating.

"It's stepping in those shoes saying and saying you've done it once. We're not going to let you do it again."

Shoals found sharing her story therapeutic.

She hopes it will bring comfort to other victim's families who are facing the same difficult decisions she struggled with.

According to the department of corrections, there are currently no executions scheduled in Oklahoma in the immediate future.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Families reaching out

Several MVFHR members -- Lois Robison, Bud Welch, Bill Babbitt, Renny Cushing -- are mentioned in this story from Saturday's New York Times:

In Tucson, Solace From Relatives of Past Killers

TUCSON — Few visitors make their way past the cactus garden and into the dark ranch-style home where Randy and Amy Loughner have spent much time grieving alone. The rampage in which their troubled 22-year-old son is accused opened a fault line between them and the rest of this recovering city.

But beyond Tucson, two people who have never met the Loughners are now seeking them out, and others are likely to follow.

When Jared L. Loughner was identified as the gunman who shot 19 people here two Saturdays ago, his parents joined a circle whose membership is a curse: the kin of those who have gone on killing sprees. Now, others in this circle of relatives are beginning to issue invitations to the Loughners.

David Kaczynski, brother of Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber, left a message with Mr. Loughner’s public defender offering his ear if the parents wanted to talk to “someone with a similar experience,” he recalled.

Robert P. Hyde of Albuquerque had the same instinct. The brother of a mentally ill man who killed five people, two of them police officers, Mr. Hyde looked up the Loughners’ address and mailed them a letter inviting them to contact him. The gist of his letter, Mr. Hyde said by phone, was that “what happened is not your fault.”

After killing sprees in American towns and cities, the relatives of the gunmen face the intense scrutiny of neighbors who wonder how far the apple fell from the tree, or if the home environment was abusive, shaping a killer. Grief from these relatives can provoke a complex reaction as the outside world ponders whether they are victims in their own right, or the gunman’s enablers, or both.

While the actual victims of crimes and their relatives “have people pulling for them,” Mr. Hyde said, “we on the other side don’t want to even broach that subject. I will never say, ‘I lost my brother, too — I’ll never go fishing with him again.’

“It would look cold and callous,” he added. “People don’t understand. And you don’t want to offend anybody.”

So, he concluded, “you just suck it up.”

If that gets to be too much, the relatives of killers have been known to find comfort in one another, creating a fragile and fraught emotional network among the nation’s most isolated families.

After his brother’s daylong rampage in 2005, Mr. Hyde called David Kacynzski, by then a prominent campaigner against the death penalty. At the time, Mr. Hyde was in such a daze, so consumed with questions — How did this happen? What could I have done differently? — that he could hardly even get dressed in the morning.

“We talked,” Mr. Hyde, 50, recalled. “It was very helpful, a spiritual kind of thing. The fact is we were both brothers who had a brother who did this.”

A need for legal advice — such as how to help a brother or son avoid the death penalty — can prompt these phone calls. In 1999, William Babbitt, the brother of a mentally ill man on death row in California, contacted Mr. Kaczynski because he felt his brother should be spared the death penalty, just as Theodore Kaczynski had been.

The loose network among relatives offers the grim solace of knowing that others too have suffered the same curse.

Mr. Kaczynski recalls feeling reassured more than a decade ago — while his brother was still under prosecution — upon receiving a note from the parents of John C. Salvi III, who had murdered two abortion-clinic receptionists. “We’re thinking about you, we’re praying for you, and we understand,” was the message, Mr. Kaczynski said.

“At first, you feel like you’re the only person this has ever happened to,” said Lois Robison, whose mentally ill son was executed in Texas in 2000 for the murder of five people. “You’re no longer Ken and Lois Robison, the two schoolteachers. You’re Ken and Lois Robison, the parents of a mass murderer.”

Ms. Robison, 77, now regularly speaks with the families of other men the state has executed.

Reflecting on the Tucson shootings, Ms. Robison was reminded of her reaction to learning about her son’s rampage: she could not stop sobbing until she was given sedatives. She said she expected the Loughners now felt like “pariahs”; she, too, struggled with the feeling. After her son’s crimes, some parents sought to have their children transferred out of her class.

Even though the pack of reporters outside the Loughner home has gone, the parents still live in virtual hiding. Until Monday, when the Loughners emerged and stepped into a waiting car, there had been so few signs of life inside that neighbors had assumed the couple had left town.

Since then, Mr. Loughner, a tall man with a bushy mustache, has occasionally been seen speeding away from his house in a black El Camino. On Thursday afternoon, he had a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes as he hustled out of the car, hastened to his house and quickly disappeared behind a wooden gate without saying a word.

Capt. Mark E. Kelly, the husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in the attack, has told ABC News that he was open to the idea of meeting with Mr. Loughner’s parents, adding, “They’ve got to be hurting in this situation as much as anybody.”

Captain Kelly’s comments have prompted plenty of reflection among those who have already gone through this familiar healing ritual, in which the family of the murdered meet the family of the murderer.

Bill McVeigh, the father of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, in a phone conversation Thursday with Bud Welch, the father of a victim of that attack, ventured that “this was quite soon for one of the victim’s family members to be talking about that,” according to Mr. Welch’s account. In their case, Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Welch, who talk every few months, did not meet for more than three years after the younger McVeigh’s act of terror.

While Mr. Hyde and a few others sought out the relatives of other killers on their own, many do not. In fact, the relatives of perpetrators are such pariahs that it was a crime victims’ group that first organized a formal meeting of them. In 2005, a group of relatives of murder victims, all opposed to the death penalty, held a conference for the relatives of some 20 people who had been executed for capital crimes.

It was “the first time in the modern era there was ever assembled in a room a couple of dozen people who had all shared the experience of having a family member executed, and found a little empathy and solidarity for a group that has had none,” said Renny Cushing, the executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, which organized the meeting.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Religious Leaders Dialogue

Yesterday was the Religious Leaders Dialogue on the Death Penalty in Houston; MVFHR's Vicki Schieber was one of the moderators. I meant to post this yesterday and didn't, but here now is the press release about the event, which gives a good summary:

The Arts and the Religious Join Forces to Take On the Death Penalty Houston, the leading city in death sentences, convenes leaders to open public discourse and promote awareness through the Arts. On January 18, 2011, a panel of Houston’s Religious Leaders will participate in The Dialogue of Religious Leaders on the death penalty at the Hobby Center’s Zilkher Hall in downtown Houston.

This unprecedented event precedes the Houston Grand Opera’s performances of the award-winning Dead Man Walking Opera January 22- February 7, 2011. This public event will bring together Houston's top religious leaders including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Bishop Janice Hui, Bishop Michael Rinehart, Rev. Michael Cole, Rev. Harvey Clemens, Jr., Rabbi David Lyon, Sr. Helen Prejean, author of the book, Dead Man Walking, and Vicki Schieber, national spokesperson and the Board Chair of Murder Victims for Human Rights to discuss issues surrounding the death penalty.

The organizers are expecting a sold-out event of community groups and individuals from across the city. The program will include an aria performance from the Dead Man Walking Opera, the nationally acclaimed opera, which will be opening just days later at the Wortham Center. Like the film, the opera, explores the effects of vengeance and reveals all of the victims of the death penalty. The Houston Chronicle has called it "a hard-hitting contemporary opera". According to the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, "We hope that this is a seminal event for discussions surrounding the death penalty. It is a topic that should be discussed in the context of our lives of faith in order for healing and reconciliation to take root."

Here is coverage of the event in the Houston Chronicle, and here is more information about the Catholic Mobilizing Network Against the Death Penalty, which organized the event.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Back home

Our thanks go to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for putting on another wonderful conference this past weekend. NCADP's annual conferences offer geographically scattered abolitionists a chance to come together and talk, listen, put faces to names we've known only over email, deepen connections and form new ones. and generally have a great time together.

MVFHR speakers contributed to a variety of workshops and panel presentations. Bill Jenkins led a workshop on "The Impact of Homicide on Families of Murder Victims"; Kate Lowenstein, Bob Curley, and Vicki Schieber spoke on a panel titled "Families of Murder Victims as Speakers: How to Support them when you ask them to speak," moderated by NCADP's Rachel's Fund director Mary Achilles; Renny Cushing spoke on a panel giving the History of the VIctims' Rights Movement, along with Kerry Naughton from the Partnership for Safety and Justice and Vicki Smith from the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Bob Curley and Brian MacQuarrie were the focus on a morning plenary session. (Brian's book The Ride chronicles Bob Curley's journey from supporter of the death penatly to opponent, in the aftermath of the murder of his son Jeffrey.)

At Friday evening's Murder Victims' Family Members "meet and greet" gathering, hosted by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, victims' family members from all around the country had the opportunity to be together in a relaxed setting and to share good food and conversation. The experience of standing together in a circle, each briefly stating where they were from and who they had lost, was powerful both for the participants and the supporters who witnessed it.

At Saturday evening's awards dinner, we were all thrilled to watch MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber receive the Abolitionist of the Year award for the tremendous amount of public speaking and meeting with lawmakers that she has done in an array of states over the past year. Vicki accepted the award with her husband Syl at her side and against a backdrop of beautiful photos of her daughter Shannon, who was murdered in 1998 at the age of 23. Vicki told the audience that she did this work to honor Shannon and carry her spirit forward, and in the audience that evening we could all feel how true that was.

Congratulations again to Vicki, to all the other victims' family members who gave their hearts and their energy to the public presentations throughout the conference, and to all the abolitionists who work so hard to carry this work forward.

Images of abolition work

Gail Rice gave us some great photos of the Illinois repeal effort. Here, Gail (second from left) and Cathy Crino pose with Jeremy Schroeder (far right), director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Senator Kwame Raoul, sponor of the Senate Bill, just after the Senate vote last week. As victims' family members, both Gail and Cathy were actively involved in the effort to pass this repeal legislation.

And here, Gail, Cathy, Jeremy, and Randy Steidl are on their way to deliver cards to Governor Quinn's office from people asking him to sign the legislation. Randy, who was the 18th person to be exonerated from Ilinois' death row since 1977, has been absolutely central to the repeal effort.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A palpable presence

A part of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference each year is a concurrent capital defense legal training, and this year MVFHR's Jeanne Bishop gave a presentation about speaking with victims (Jeanne is a criminal defense attorney as well as a victim's family member). Jeanne's co-presenter was Professor Mark Osler, who has written a great post on his blog about that presentation and the party to benefit MVFHR that was held later that evening. Our thanks to Jeanne Bishop and Vicki Schieber for organizing that party and to Mark Bereyso and Leslie Ventsch for providing such wonderful hospitality as the party's hosts.

Here's the excerpt from Professor Osler's blog:

... I had one of the most remarkable days of my life last Thursday ... On Thursday, I spoke at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Chicago ...

Before any of that, though, something bold and striking and nearly miraculous happened— the Illinois legislature, in the very wake of the killings in Arizona, voted to abolish the death penalty in that state. Think about what that means: We had a conference where the goal of the conference was actually fulfilled in some concrete and meaningful way. How often does that happen? Not. Too. Often. But this time... we had a conference on abolishing the death penalty, and got to celebrate the death penalty actually getting abolished in that very place.

Regular readers will remember that my own presentation was challenging on two counts: My audience included people who had litigated dozens of capital cases, and my co-presenter was Jeanne Bishop, sister of Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who lacerated me in Congressional hearings back in 2009. (Believe me on that—there’s video).

Despite the fact that Jeanne Bishop refused to give me a heads-up on what she was going to discuss and appeared for our session dressed like Pickles the Cat, things ended up going wonderfully. Her presentation was inspiring and passionate, and my section was at least consistent with her message. It was one of my favorite speaking opportunities: challenging, important, and humbling.

My parents and my sister Kathy came for the presentation, and afterwards the Jenkins sisters invited us to a party to celebrate on the 78th floor of the Hancock Building. Their organization, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, played an important role in lobbying for the change (the president, Vicki Schieber, was celebrated on Saturday as “abolitionist of the year”), so they had good reason to pop the champagne. My family and I were welcomed warmly and richly enjoyed the celebration, but there was also something running very deep in that room. There was no mistaking the depth of commitment of the people there-- many (if not most) had lost a family member to murder, and had then come out against the death penalty, an incredible act of grace that is now successfully challenging the very institution of capital punishment. As Jeanne put it in addressing that group, there was a cloud of saints in that room—those who had been killed through heartless violence, and who had nonetheless been remembered with an act of love and courage. It was a palpable presence, and there was a mood of true joy that filled the room.

As I left the party and walked next to my father and mother down the broad sidewalks of Michigan Avenue into the night, I realized there had only been one mistake in what had been said—the saints in that lovely apartment in the sky were not only those who perished, but those who survived, who had acted from love with such stunning results.

Victim Testimony in Illinois

Here is the testimony that MVFHR member Cathy Crino delivered before the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Earlier posts about the repeal vote in Illinois are here and here.

I thank you for the opportunity to appear here today. I am not alone, as the family member of a murder victim who is opposed to the death penalty. You have received written testimony from other family members, and a letter signed by 35 murder victim family members.

My sister Stephanie was murdered almost sixteen years ago in Texas. Before she was killed, I was an opponent of the death penalty. I spoke about it, on occasion, as part of my work. And I would get the criticism that “You would feel differently if it happened to you.”

When Stephanie was killed, I did indeed learn many things. What I learned is that the death of the perpetrator was gruesome, and grisly. And that it didn’t fix a thing. It didn’t make us feel better. It didn’t solve anything. A murder leaves a void that never goes away, is never completely healed. The death of the perpetrator doesn’t bring closure. It doesn’t fill the void.

You may hear from other victims in your consideration of this. You will hear of shock, anger, the trauma of the loss, the inability to forgive. We all share in these feelings. We have all known what it is like.

We talk about ways to help the victims, and that the death penalty is that way. But, I found out a lot, as I became the survivor in a family.

The death penalty affects less than one percent of murder cases. What are we doing for the 99 percent of other victims?

The death penalty holds out the false promise of making it better. But, it doesn’t. It can never fill the void or make up for the loss.

Instead, the process we have drags families through years and years of court proceedings, and every time, it retraumatizes them. We need this lengthy process to ensure that we are not executing the innocent, but it works against families as well.

Families are given the hope of ‘closure’, but there is no closure. You just have to learn to live with it. And if that realization is delayed by years of court proceedings, families are harmed.

What would help victims? Broad based services that help them to manage the effects of trauma, the dislocation and the turmoil that follow a violent death.

Effective law enforcement would help victims. They want the police to find the perpetrator, the right person. God forbid an innocent person is arrested while the real criminal creates havoc for another family.

Chief Charles Gruber, with forty years of law enforcement background and the former president of two associations of chiefs of police wrote a letter to the editor published in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. He urges passage of this bill precisely because it frees up needed funds for more effective police training.

I often hear the argument about keeping the death penalty for the ‘worst of the worst.’ As I said earlier, less than 1 percent of murders in Illinois result in a capital sentence. What does that say to the rest of us? Your loss was not severe enough? Your loved one wasn’t important enough? Your sister, brother, mother, husband didn’t suffer enough? The crime wasn’t horrible enough? The publicity wasn’t sensational enough?

To the family who has lost a loved one, there is no replacement, but there is also no comparison. We have all suffered equally. It is the ‘worst’ when it happens to you.

I stand here for many victims in Illinois, including the thirty five who signed this letter. I’d like to conclude with the last paragraph:

It is vitally important that Illinois 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. Illinois doesn’t need it and victims’ families like ours don’t want it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In Chicago

MVFHR staff and board members are in Chicago this weekend, participating in the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's annual conference and celebrating the recent passage of the death penalty repeal bill here in Illinois. We welcome this annual opportunity to spend time with members and colleagues from around the U.S.

Several MVFHR members are speakers on panels and workshops throughout the conference, and our board Chair Vicki Schieber will be honored tomorrow night as Abolitionist of the Year. We'll have a fuller report on the conference soon.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

There are better ways to help us

Here, from the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, is the letter that 35 murder victims' family members signed and submitted to lawmakers in support of the death penalty repeal bill:

Murder Victims’ Families Support Repealing the Death Penalty

Dear Members of the Illinois General Assembly,

We are family members and loved ones of murder victims. We desperately miss the parents, children, siblings, and spouses we have lost.

We live with the pain and heartbreak of their absence every day and would do anything to have them back.

We did not choose to be involved in the criminal justice system, but our experience compels us to speak out for change.

We are writing today to ask for your support in eliminating the death penalty from Illinois Criminal Code. Though we share different perspectives on the death penalty, each one of us agrees that Illinois’ capital punishment system doesn’t work for victims’ families and that our state is better off without it.

To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. Capital trials drag victims’ loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, which often does not result in the intended punishment. A life without parole sentence right from the start would keep society safe, hold killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts, and would start as soon as we left the courtroom instead of leaving us in limbo.

At the same time, eliminating the death penalty would save scarce funds. As Illinois taxpayers, we have spent millions of dollars and diverted endless hours of court and law enforcement time since capital punishment was reinstated. What has it brought us? Years of appeals in all cases, wrongful convictions in some cases, a process that has clogged our courts, and a system so broken that it cannot be fixed.

Those resources could be spent in better ways. Illinois could put more police on our streets and provide them with the best equipment available. Law enforcement programs that work might have prevented the tragedies we suffered at only a fraction of the cost of pursuing capital cases. A legal system that wasn’t bogged down with committing tremendous resources on capital cases could prosecute and sentence countless other crimes and take dangerous people off the streets before they commit murder. Dollars saved could be put toward counseling for victims of crime or other services we desperately need as we attempt to get on with our lives.

Only a handful of arbitrarily selected murderers are sentenced to death. In 2008 there were 790 murders in Illinois and 3 death sentences. Instead of investing our resources in a punishment that affects very few offenders, we should focus on programs that can help many survivors. It is vitally important that Illinois 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. Illinois doesn’t need it, and victims’ families like ours don’t want it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Repeal Passes in Illinois

Congratulations to our members and colleagues in Illinois on yesterday's passage of a bill that repeals the state's death penalty! That legislation now goes to the Governor for his signature.

Victims' family members were crucial to this effort. MVFHR member Gail Rice writes this morning, "I know that murder victims' family members provided a crucial voice in the debate. Prosecutors working against us weren't able to say 'All victims want the death penalty' or 'We haven't heard from the victims' because a very well-written letter giving our major points, signed by 35 murder victims' family members in Illinois, was distributed repeatedly to legislators."

As well, MVFHR member Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins reports that victims' testimony was repeatedly cited during yesterday's floor debate in the Senate. We will post yesterday's testimony from member Cathy Crino and other victim statements as soon as we get them.

Here is the Death Penalty Information Center's news brief about the vote, which includes the important information about the link between death penalty repeal and support for victims' family members:

On January 11, the Illinois Senate, by a vote of 32-25, joined the House in voting to repeal the state’s death penalty and re-allocate funds in the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement. If signed into law, Illinois would become the 16th state to stop capital punishment and would mark the fewest states with the death penalty since 1978. Since 1976, Illinois has carried out 12 executions. In the same period, 20 inmates have been exonerated from the state’s death row, the second highest number in the United States. The state has not had an execution since 1999, and since then, use of the death penalty has declined sharply. In the 1990s, the state averaged over 10 death sentences a year. In 2009 and 2010, the state imposed only one death sentence each year. The bill must be signed by Governor Pat Quinn in order to become law.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The last thing we would want

From the 1/8/11 San Jose Mercury News, "Police officials argue death penalty doesn't make us safer">

Over the past decade, executions have dropped by more than 50 percent and the number of death sentences has steadily declined, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. As police and law enforcement officers with decades of experience in fighting crime in the United States and Europe, we believe that societies are better off without the death penalty. We recently came together in Washington, D.C., for the first international dialogue among law enforcement professionals about the death penalty and found important areas of agreement.

Europe has abandoned the death penalty, but European countries have lower murder rates and higher rates of solving homicides than the United States. In the United States, states with the death penalty generally have higher murder rates than states without it. For example, southern states have the highest murder rates and account for 82 percent of all U.S. executions. The deterrence argument is weak and it goes against our experience investigating serious crimes: the majority of offenders do not think through the consequences of their actions. In fact, they do not think they will ever be caught.

The death penalty, as it is applied, is too random to effectively deter potential offenders. If you execute a contract killer, for example, it would not deter a terrorist. If you execute a terrorist, it would not deter a young man who breaks into a house, gets startled, and shoots the owner.

U.S. politicians sometimes argue that the death penalty is needed to deter the killing of police officers. But if one of us were murdered, we would not want the perpetrator to receive the death penalty. The most important thing would be taking care of our families and helping them heal. We have seen how painful it is for families to go through years of death penalty trials and appeals and that would be the last thing we would want for our own families. The idea that the death penalty provides "closure" for victims' families is a myth.

Another myth is that only the guilty are executed. We can tell stories about times experienced officers were certain they had the right guy, only to find out later they were wrong. Even when police do their jobs professionally and in good faith, mistakes will be made and innocent people will be convicted. It is hard to imagine a greater tragedy. At least with life without parole, there is a chance to reopen cases if new evidence becomes available. Death is irreversible.

Especially as budgets tighten in the United States and around the world, the death penalty may be a system governments can no longer afford. The death penalty costs far more than the alternatives. In California, for example, the death penalty costs $125 million more -- every year -- than life without parole, which also takes the offender off the streets permanently. All of the money that states spend on the death penalty could be used to hire more police officers, train them better, solve cold cases, and prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. We should spend our limited resources on programs that work.

Europe has the same violent offenses that the United States has, but has found ways to protect its citizens without capital punishment. For example, Portugal abolished the death penalty in 1864 and has never seriously considered reinstating it. Even when the country experienced political violence and organized terrorism during a revolution in 1974, the death penalty was not brought back. Had the terrorists been sentenced to death, they might have become martyrs and the violence might have continued.

Do some murderers deserve the death penalty? Maybe so, but that is an emotional reaction. It is not the basis for creating public policy or finding the best ways to keep citizens safe. More states should follow New Jersey's lead, and the example of 15 U.S. states, repeal the death penalty, and adopt life without parole in its place. As a growing number of Americans recognize, life without parole is a harsh punishment, protects the public, and eliminates the risk of an irreversible mistake, while freeing up funds for more effective crime-fighting programs. This is a better way to serve victims' families and prevent violence.

James Abbott is the police chief of West Orange, N.J., and served on the state's Death Penalty Study Commission. António Cluny is the senior attorney general and public prosecutor in Portugal. Bob Denmark is a 30-year veteran of the British police force and a former detective superintendent of Lancashire Constabulary, England. Ronald Hampton is the executive director of the National Black Police Association International Leadership Institute and a 23-year veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Twice a Victim

Renny Cushing was invited to contribute to the Inter-Press Columnist Service, which makes short opinion pieces available to news publications around the world. Below is his column, which is copyright IPS.


By Renny Cushing (*)

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS, Dec (IPS) Losing a family member to murder is one of the most traumatic experiences an individual can undergo. In the aftermath of their terrible tragedy, survivors must deal not only with the loss of their loved one but also with the criminal justice system -a system that does not always put victims first.

As a state lawmaker in the US, ensuring victims' right to be treated with dignity, fairness, and respect has always been paramount to me. I have learned, however, that when the death penalty is at issue, victims are not always treated equally.

Ten years ago I met Gus Lamm, whose wife Victoria had been murdered years before, leaving him to raise their 2-year-old daughter Audrey. The man responsible for the murder had been sentenced to death. When I met them, Gus and his now adult daughter were clear that they opposed the death penalty. "It pains me to think that in some indirect way, my mother's death could cause another person to lose his life,' Audrey said. 'Killing another person would not do any honour to her memory.'

When a hearing was scheduled regarding the perpetrator's pending execution, Gus and Audrey wanted to testify. They were told they could not speak. A relative who supported the execution was permitted to testify, but Gus and Audrey were denied that opportunity.

When Gus and his daughter filed suit against the state pardon board, charging that they had been unlawfully denied the right to speak, the judge ruled that because they wanted to speak in opposition to the perpetrator's death sentence, Gus and Audrey were 'not victims, as that term is commonly understood'.

I knew that Gus and Audrey were victims. They were the surviving husband and daughter of a woman who had been brutally murdered, and they would feel the impact of that loss for the rest of their lives. Their opposition to the death penalty didn't make them any less victimised and did not justify this discrimination against them.

Over the years I continued to meet victims who were denied the right to speak, or to get information, or to receive assistance from court-appointed victims' advocates, because they were against the death penalty. As I documented these instances of discrimination, I realised there was a need for legislation that would ensure equal treatment of victims regardless of their position on the death penalty.

In 2009, I introduced the Crime Victims Equality Act, a piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination against victims on the basis of the views on the death penalty. That Act passed in my home state of New Hampshire, becoming the first of its kind in the United States and anywhere in the world.

Specifically, the law ensures 'the right to all federal and state constitutional rights guaranteed to all victims of crime on an equal basis, and notwithstanding the provisions of any laws on capital punishment, the right not to be discriminated against or have their rights as a victim denied, diminished, expanded, or enhanced on the basis of the victim's support for, opposition to, or neutrality on the death penalty'.

The goal of this law is equitable treatment for all victims. It is unacceptable to have hierarchies of victims within the criminal justice system, with those who favour the death penalty receiving more favourable treatment than those who oppose it. The legislation is about the right of everybody to hold their own position on the death penalty and not be denied victims' rights because of it.

In New Hampshire, the Crime Victims Equality Act received support from a range of groups, including members of law enforcement and victims' advocates. It offered an opportunity for supporters and opponents of the death penalty to come together in favour of upholding victims' rights. Survivors of homicide victims, having already suffered immeasurably, should not be re-victimised by the criminal justice process. Ensuring equal treatment of all victims is a goal everyone can support. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Renny Cushing is executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and a former New Hampshire State Representative. His father, Robert Cushing, was murdered in 1988.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not easily healed

As Illinois considers a bill that would abolish the state's death penalty, we continue to see victims' family members speaking up in favor of abolition. Here's a letter published in yesterday's Chicago Tribune by MVFHR member Cathy Crino:

Thank you for Steve Chapman's column on the trends in capital punishment. Right now, Illinois has the best chance it has had in years to abolish the death penalty. SB3539 will come up in the January session next week.

The bill abolishes the death penalty and uses the funds now spent on capital litigation for victims' services and law enforcement training.

I am the sister of a murder victim. Sixteen years later, I can tell you that it is still a wound that is not easily healed (if it ever will be).

Victims are so much better served by channeling scarce state funds toward counseling and other services. Instead, as a state, we are spending tens of millions of dollars to prosecute 1 percent of murders as capital crimes. This doesn't serve to reduce the crime rate, and it leaves victims to fend for themselves in most cases.

Abolishing the death penalty and redirecting the funds would be a much more responsible and meaningful solution.

-- Catherine Crino, Chicago

Monday, January 3, 2011

Because we prioritize victims

From the 12/31/10 Illinois Journal Star, this op-ed piece by Jennifer Bishop Jenkins and Kathleen Bishop Becker:

When our family members were murdered, issues like crime prevention, victims' rights, and the death penalty stopped being merely hypothetical. Since then, both of us have advocated for victims' rights and worked to build safer communities. It's because we prioritize victims and public safety that we support replacing the Illinois death penalty with life without parole sentences for convicted murderers.

Twenty innocent men have been released from Illinois' Death Row in the last decade.

In 2003, the Illinois General Assembly created a broad commission, comprised of state's attorneys, victims' family members and others to examine the reforms made to Illinois' flawed death penalty. For seven years the death penalty was carefully scrutinized. One of us, Jennifer, was asked to serve on this body as an advocate for victims' families. The commission and its subcommittees met over 80 times, held four public hearings around the state and solicited input from a broad cross-section of experts and everyday citizens. This thorough, transparent and democratic process generated thousands of pages of minutes and transcripts.

All of this extensive study and participation by the people of Illinois paid off. After a decade of scrutiny, reforms, proposals and legislative debates, we now believe that the death penalty can't be fixed. We note that Illinois has tried harder than any other state to make it work. But it can't work, and enough is enough. Those who claim we need more study simply don't like the truths revealed from our extensive review.

We still find innocent men on Death Row in our state. We still spend millions of dollars to keep this broken system limping along.

And the death penalty remains a harmful albatross for victims' families. In capital cases, family members are forced to endure years of trials and appeals that last at least twice as long as in non-capital cases, not to mention a long string of possible reversals because the system didn't get it right. The offender becomes a household name and the victim is forgotten. We are frequently denied legal finality. The state ends up spending millions, which are then not available to help victims or family members. We haven't executed anyone in over 10 years and won't anytime soon. Victims' families are the ones caught in limbo.

For these reasons, dozens of murder victims' family members presented a letter to the Illinois Legislature and testified before the House Judiciary Committee in November calling for passage of SB 3539, a bill to repeal the death penalty and use the millions saved for much-needed services for victims' families. We assure you, families like ours need these services much more desperately than we could ever need the death penalty.

The process has been nothing but fair and thorough. It's time for repeal.

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, a leading advocate for victims and violence prevention since three members of her family were murdered, served on the Illinois Capital Punishment Reform Study Commission. Jennifer's family is from Pekin. Kathleen Bishop Becker, her cousin, lives in Bartonville and is co-owner of R & K Photography.