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.

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