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.
TWICE A VICTIM: PRO-DEATH PENALTY BIAS IN US CRIMINAL JUSTICE
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.