Friday, February 25, 2011

Speaking to Student Groups

Renny Cushing is representing MVFHR today at a conference on human rights at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Titled Human Rights: Right Here Summit, the conference will look at human rights in a variety of contexts. Renny is participating in a panel called "Placing Philadelphia in the national and global human rights dialogue."

Haverford College is the school that Laura Wilcox - daughter of MVFHR members Amanda and Nick Wilcox -- attended, and it happens that the Wilcoxes are also speaking to student groups this weekend, at a conference organized by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. MVFHR member James Staub is also part of that event. Here's the description:

Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty’s fifth annual Student Conference on the Death Penalty will take place this Saturday at Middle Tennessee State University. The conference will feature nationally-renowned activists Nick and Amanda Wilcox. Nick and Amanda’s world was turned upside-down when their daughter, Laura, was killed in a rampage shooting by a man with severe and persistent mental illness. Feeling compelled to dedicate themselves to the goal of reducing violence, Nick and Amanda began advocating for improved mental health care and death penalty repeal. “Laura’s Law”, which allows for court ordered assisted outpatient treatment for persons with severe and persistent mental illness, was named after their daughter and was enacted in California in 2002.

The keynote address will begin at 10:00 a.m., followed by workshops, letter writing, and time for planning events to be held on participants’ campuses following the conference. This year’s workshops include Death Penalty 101 with special guests Joyce and Paul House (House was Tennessee’s 2nd death row exoneree); Mental Illness and the Death Penalty; and Murder Victim’s Families Speak, featuring James Staub, whose mother was murdered when he was 12 years old.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Legislators are listening

From today's Westport (CT) Patch, "Not in Their Names: The Death Penalty":

By Cathryn J. Prince
Some families of murder victims ask the state not to speak for them. Some legislators are listening.

Calling the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment for murder victims’ families, some opponents of the practice say they want it abolished.

“I find it tremendously disturbing that the state uses the names of victims to defend its position,” said Elizabeth Brancato, whose mother was murdered on May 9, 1979. “I believe if we are sincere about wanting to help the victims we will repeal the death penalty right away.”

Other death penalty opponents agreed. They argue capital punishment indefinitely extends courtroom proceedings, leaves victims’ families adrift, and costs the state more than $4 million annually.

That’s where H.B. 5036 comes in. It proposes Connecticut replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release. Like the last bill, this one is prospective; it will not apply to past murder trials.

Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee Gary A. Holder-Winfield, a Democrat representing New Haven in the 94th House District, introduced the bill. State Rep. Patricia Miller, a Democrat representing part of Stamford in the 145th House District was one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

That’s problematic, said state Rep. John Hetherington a Republican representing parts of New Canaan and Wilton in the 125th House District.

“Can you imagine in the Cheshire case if one defendant gets sentenced to death and the other one doesn’t because of timing?” said Hetherington, a ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know if that would even be constitutional.”

Recently a group of family members pressed for repeal. The Judiciary Committee will likely hold a public hearing this spring, Holder-Winfield said.

“Our direct experiences with the criminal justice system and struggling with grief have led us all to the same conclusion: Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families,” according to the letter signed by at least 75 individuals.

In 2009, the state legislature passed legislation to replace the death penalty with life sentence without the possibility of release. The Senate voted 19-17 to abolish the death penalty and the House voted 90-56. However, then Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

Because Gov. Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor, favors abolishing the statute, this legislature might succeed. Still the vote will be close.

Republicans favor the death penalty by an 80 percent to 12 percent margin and Democrats favor it by a 51 percent to 37 percent margin, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

In 2009, state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican representing Redding, Ridgefield, Westport, Wilton and parts of Bethel, New Canaan and Weston in the 26th Senate District, voted against repeal. So did state Sen. John McKinney, a Republican representing Easton, Fairfield, Newtown and part of Weston in the 28th Senate District.

Also opposed to a repeal were Republican state Reps. John Frey, who represents Ridgefield in the 111th House District and Tony Hwang who represents parts of Fairfield and Trumbull in the 134th House District.

By contrast, state Reps. Kim Fawcett a Democrat representing parts of Fairfield and Westport in the 133rd House District, and William Tong, a Democrat representing parts of New Canaan and Stamford in the 147th House District, support repeal.

Recent high profile trials will likely affect a vote, not something that escapes Holder-Winfield or the victims’ families.

“Of course it will color things. It would be ridiculous of me to pretend otherwise,” Holder-Winfield said, adding the Cheshire home invasion trial shouldn’t be used to push an agenda.

Currently the death penalty is reserved for ‘particularly heinous murders.’ To many victims’ families that defines some murders as merely ordinary. It also creates two classes of victims — one seemingly more important.

“Every murder is heinous,” Ridgefield Police Commissioner Dr. George Kain, said. “No one murder is more heinous. We operate in a criminal justice society where some murders are judged to be crueler and somehow more special than others.”

However, Hetherington said categorizing murder is Ok.

“It appropriately punishes the more heinous crimes,” Hetherington said. “It asks whether the murder carried was more cruel, whether torture was involved. Some are more cruel than others.”

Kain, an Associate Professor of Justice and Law Administration at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, didn’t always think this way. The former probation officer once thought capital punishment made law enforcement officers and the public safer.

“We know there is a more civilized response to murder than state-sanctioned murder,” Kain said.

That response can include forgiveness.

Every day the Rev. Walter Everett, formerly of Easton, thinks about his son Scott, shot in 1987. His was one of 60 homicides that year.

Everett now speaks with his son’s killer. He learned to forgive the killer so he might start healing.

“I forgave him because otherwise what killed my son would kill me,” Everett said, adding he believes the state must redirect its resources. “The state should abolish and take the money to use for victims services.”

According to the Hartford based- Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty the state spends $4 million annually on capital punishment related issues. Instead it could spend that money on police training and victims’ services, said Ben Jones, CNADP’s Executive Director.

Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only two New England states with the death penalty. Currently 10 male inmates sit on death row at the level five, maximum security Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. Since 1973 Connecticut has had more than 4,700 murders, 14 death sentences, and one execution. The sole execution took place in 2005 after Michael Ross refused further appeals.

Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist from West Hartford, called the death penalty injurious because repeated trials force families to constantly relive their loved one’s murder.

“Criminals could be put away and forgotten instead of becoming celebrities,” Canzano asked. “Where is the justice in that? Why do we do that to families? The death penalty doesn’t work. It’s archaic.”

Hetherington said he understands the anguish, and agreed interminable appeals are an issue.

“It kind of loses its meaning. I can understand that,” Hetherington said. “But if they try to speed the process and eliminate repeated and reduced appeals they can argue the accused wasn’t accorded his rights. It’s a real dilemma and I am not deaf to those arguments.”

According to a 2010 Quinnipiac University Poll, the majority of Nutmeg State voters support capital punishment. When presented with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison without release, 46 percent polled supported the death penalty while 41 percent supported life in prison.

Sunny Khadjavi of Shelton lives with the fact that her father’s 40-year-old murder remains unsolved.

“While I want to know more about why my father was killed, I never imagined that finding the perpetrator and enacting revenge would help me with my healing,” Khadjavi said. “The death penalty could not bring back my father.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Memoriam: Celia McWee

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Celia McWee, a victim's family member from Georgia whose voice and passionate energy made a difference to so many efforts to abolish the death penalty. Celia was an active member of The Journey of Hope, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

In 2009, Celia was featured in a compelling article from In the Fray magazine titled "The Forgotten Victims." Four years previously, Celia had helped MVFHR launch the No Silence, No Shame project, which draws attention to the ways in which the death penalty harms the families of people who are executed. Here is the statement that Celia gave in Austin, Texas in October 2005, at the press conference and public ceremony that marked the official beginning of the project:

In 1979, my daughter Joyce was murdered in Florida. Fifteen years later, my son Jerry was executed by the state of South Carolina for the 1991 murder of John Perry, a clerk in a convenience store.

In both cases, I lost a child, but there is such a big difference between the two kinds of losses. When they call you and say your child has been murdered, you don’t know anything about what happened. You don’t know if she suffered or if she tried to get help.

That’s how it was with my daughter. But with my son, I knew that the day was coming. I knew that he was going to be killed. In the weeks before, I went to visit him every single day, but even though we knew what was going to happen, it was so difficult to talk about it. We couldn’t even talk about things like, what hymn would you like them to play at the service. When somebody’s ill, you can discuss that sort of thing with them, but with Jerry, we just couldn’t do it. I had to fight with him because he didn’t even want me to be present at the execution. He didn’t want to see me cry. He said, “You’ve cried enough,” and I said, “I promise I won’t.”

When the day of the execution came, I kept my promise to Jerry. In the one instant that he turned to look at me, I wiped my tears away so he didn’t see them.

I don’t know how to explain to you that when the state executes someone, they are killing someone’s child. Jerry was my son, the child of my body, and I sat and watched him strapped to a cross – not a gurney, because what it looks like is a cross, with the arms straight out – and I saw him take his last look at me and then I saw all the blood drain from his face.

I know that this experience has had a big effect on me. A huge effect. Some days I wonder about my ability to go on. But I have seen that many families of death row prisoners withdraw from everyone after the execution takes place. I know that I don’t want to live it like that. I know that I want to help others who have gone through this. I know that we are stronger if we join together. I know that ending our silence and moving away from our shame will help us heal ourselves and help us bring about a better world.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A human face

MVFHR board member Bill Pelke is giving several public presentations in Mississippi this week. Here's an article from yesterday's Clarion-Ledger:

Murder victim's grandson on mission

Ruth Pelke, 78, was known throughout her Indiana town as a Bible teacher. And when four teenage girls came to her house in May 1985 asking for lessons, she opened her door and heart to them, an act that led to her murder.

Turning her back to gather information about Bible classes, one of the girls struck Pelke in the head with a vase, and she was stabbed 33 times before they took $10 and her car keys.

Ringleader Paula Cooper was convicted of the crime that happened 25 years ago last May. She is still in prison.

Pelke's grandson, Bill Pelke, fought to have her death sentence overturned and will present "From Death to Life: A Spiritual Transformation" at 5 p.m. today at Tougaloo College in the Berkshire Cottage Room 107.

Paula Cooper was 15 when she was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana in 1986, said Pelke. He originally supported her execution but underwent a spiritual transformation in 1996 and joined more than 2 million others, including Pope John Paul II, to ask that her life be spared. Cooper's sentence was commuted to 60 years.

"I became convinced that my grandmother would not have wanted that (execution) to happen, and would have had love and compassion for this girl and her family," he said. "It was something that I did not have. ... I asked my God in a short prayer to please give me love and compassion for Paula."

Pelke exchanged letters with Cooper every 10 days when she was on death row and every month or two when she was taken off it.

He said it took eight years before the Indiana Department of Corrections would allow him to visit Cooper, whom he met Thanksgiving Day 1994. He visited her nine times before moving to Alaska.

Pelke is now president and co-founder of "Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing," an organization of murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.

"We try to put a human face on the issue of the death penalty," he said. "The person might have committed a monstrous act, but they are not monstrous. They are God's creation."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An incredible cost

MVFHR board member Walt Everett has been among the many victims' family members actively participating in the death penalty repeal effort in Connecticut these days. Here's a recent news story from the February 9th edition of

Death penalty foes make their case
Ken Dixon, Staff Writer
February 9, 2011

Walter Everett knows the pain that family and friends of Tim and Kim Donnelly are going through, but the death penalty, he says, is just not worth it.

Everett, 76, whose son was murdered in Bridgeport in 1987, said Wednesday that closure will be impossible for those who knew and loved the Fairfield couple murdered in their jewelry store six years ago.

The expense of the death penalty and the decades-long courtroom procedures leading up to the potential execution of Christopher DiMeo, he said, will simply prolong the pain for survivors. DiMeo was found guilty of capital murder Wednesday, but a separate trial has to be held to determine if he'll receive the death penalty.

During an interview after a news conference to promote the proposed repeal of Connecticut's death penalty, Everett said he can understand how anguish and desire for justice can lead people to demand the death penalty for murderers like DiMeo. But years of appeals and court appearances are a grind on survivors, who are better left moving on with their own lives.

"There is no such thing as closure in something like this," said Everett, a retired minister who formerly lived in Easton.

"There is an incredible cost of the death penalty, both emotionally for families of victims because they tend to wait seemingly forever, for the execution," Everett said. "Somehow, families of victims need to find a way to heal and the long process of the appeals does nothing to assist the family in the healing."

Everett and other family members of homicide victims appeared at a morning news conference in the Capitol sponsored by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. They are pushing for repeal legislation, which new Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he'll sign into law if it is passed by the Legislature.

Everett said that with the average cost of $4 million to complete appeals and execute a murderer in Connecticut, it's far cheaper to lock them in prison for life without the possibility of release.

Everett's son Scott, 24, was shot dead in July of 1987 by another resident of his North End apartment house in Bridgeport, who claimed in court that he killed the young man while high on cocaine and alcohol.

Everett, who testified in favor of the assailant's application for early release from prison, later befriended the man.

"I realized I had to find a way out of my anger, and I couldn't let the offender take my life, too," Everett said.

Actually, she opposes it

Thanks to Donna Schneweis of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty for alerting us to this mention of victim opposition to the death penalty in a piece posted in yesterday's Topeka Capital-Journal online:

Death penalty repeal a hard sell
by Tim Carpenter

Topekan Carolyn Zimmerman's father was murdered in 1969.

Lingering anguish of that fateful January day would make her a likely supporter of capital punishment.

It does not.

“The death penalty continues to impact the victims’ families long after a crime has occurred. A capital trial only prolongs a family’s pain and trauma, and rarely brings the closure families long for,” she said.

Kansas adopted the death penalty in 1994. Men have been sentenced to die for their transgressions, but none have been executed. Kansas hasn't carried out a death sentence since 1965.

Zimmerman is supporting House Bill 2323, which would repeal the state's death penalty statute.

Read the rest of the piece.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Our grief will only be worsened

From Friday's Austin American-Statesman, this op-ed piece, "Will the governor heed a victim's family's plea for mercy?" by Columbus Adams, Jr.:

For nine years, my family has been mourning the death of Timothy Adams Jr., my precious baby grandson who was murdered in 2002. Now we are just over a week away from possibly enduring the death of another beloved family member. Timothy Adams, my son and Timothy Jr.'s father, is scheduled to be executed on Feb. 22 for the crime despite my family's pleas to spare his life.

As a family that has already suffered the loss of one child, we are united in our support for Tim's death sentence to be commuted to life without parole. He committed a horrible act, but our grief will only be worsened if he is executed. We were not given the opportunity to speak out at his trial, but it is our deepest hope and prayer that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry will hear us now.

Tim does not deserve to die. He acted strikingly out of character on that tragic day when he took the life of Timothy Jr. and attempted to take his own life, after an argument with his wife escalated out of control.

Since he was a child, Tim strived to do right by his family and by God. He had no criminal history — not even an arrest — before that horrible day. He was active in church and bible study and was a role model to his younger siblings, inspiring his brother to attend and graduate from college.

After high school, Tim followed a proud family tradition and enlisted in the Army to serve his country, where he was held in the highest esteem by his commanders and sergeants. Roger West, a sergeant first class in the Army and a Purple Heart recipient, has said that he wishes he could have "a whole platoon of guys like Tim."

Once Tim married and had children, he worked hard and held two jobs to support and provide for them.

From the moment the crime happened, Tim has been profoundly remorseful. We know that he would take back his actions in an instant if he could. He is a model prisoner who has spent his years on death row reflecting, seeking forgiveness, and devoting himself to prayer and to Jesus Christ.

Our strong opposition to Tim's death sentence has thus far gone unheard. Our voices were not heard at Tim's trial, so we were not able to tell the jury how, despite our pain and suffering, we still love Tim and could not bear to see him executed.

Perhaps if the jury had known that, Tim would not have received a death sentence.

Tim must be held accountable, but in doing so, we implore the State of Texas to keep the wishes of my already grieving family in mind. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor have the power to spare a life worth saving — and the power to spare us from further suffering.

Tim would still spend the rest of his days in prison, in constant remorse over what he did. He does not need to be executed for justice to be served.

We pray that state officials will hear our plea and grant clemency to Timothy, a man who is held dear by our church community, respected by his military commanders and work colleagues and loved by us — his family.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A false promise

From yesterday's Hartford Courant blog post, "Death penalty repeal efforts focus on the impact on victims' families":

Dozens of murder victims' families have signed a letter calling on lawmakers to repeal the state's death penalty.

"In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims' families frustrated and angry,'' states the letter signed by 76 mothers, brothers, daughters, and in-laws of murder victims. "And as the state hangs on to this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims' services.''

Instead of building a case that the death penalty constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," or asserting that the state should not be in the business of killing -- even in the name of justice -- or that mistakes can be made and innocent people could be put to death, repeal proponents gathered for a press conference at the Legislative Office Building this morning focused on the impact the death penalty has on victims' families.

"The death penalty ensnares people in the criminal justice system where mandatory appeals, constitutional challenges and never-ending media attention result in notoriety for the murderer and years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind,'' said Gail Canzano, a psychologist from West Hartford whose brother-in-law was murdered in 1999. She was one of dozens of family members who attended the press conference; many of them brought framed portraits of their slain loved ones.

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, the New Haven Democrat leading the repeal effort in the legislature, says he is confident a bill will pass this session, though the margin may be slimmer than the 90 to 56 vote in the House in favor of repeal in 2009. (That year, the Senate also voted in support of repeal, but then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.)

Changes in the make-up of the General Assembly aren't the only factor that could make it harder to pass a repeal bill. Another issue that could complicate the picture: the looming trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of two men accused of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, in their Cheshire home. Jury selection is scheduled to begin March 14; Holder-Winfield said he expects a Judiciary Committee public hearing on the repeal bill to be held in mid-March, although not date has been set.

The victims at this morning's press conference expressed profound sympathy for Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the home invasion, who spoke in favor of the death penalty in the past.

"The entire state was traumatized by those murders and the entire state, all of us, our hearts break for that man and his family,'' Canzano said. "I am so sorry we were not able to abolish capital punishment before those murders in Cheshire happened...we watched what that trial did to those elderly parents, we watched Dr. Petit weep in the courtroom...I can only say I am so sorry Dr. Petit has to go through this...they will go through appeals for decades. I think that they will never see these murders executed.''

As heinous as the Petit murders were, advocates for repeal of the death penalty said all murders are horrific and all family members suffer.

"Every murder is heinous, no one murder is worse than any other,'' said George Kain, an associate professor of justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University. "Yet the truth is that we operate in the criminal justice system where some murders are in fact judged to be crueler and somehow are more special than other murders."

Michael C. Culhane, the chief lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Connecticut, said his heart bleeds for Dr. Petit and his family. But the church will actively work to support the repeal effort. "The church's position is grounded in its firm belief in the sanctity of life, as we view life as being sacred from conception to natural death."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why would I want that?

Victim's family member testimony got some press yesterday in the coverage of Montana's Senate hearing on a death penalty repeal bill. Here is a story from the KULR8 news site:

By Kacey Drescher

HELENA - The Senate Judiciary heard emotional testimony Tuesday over a bill that would end capital punishment in Montana. It's similar to a measure that failed during the 2009 session.

One of the supporters of the measure is Diana Cote, whose teenage daughter was murdered in 2007. Cote says, "the thing that hurt the most was everyone kept asking me, 'oh are you going to go for the death penalty'? I just didn't get it, why after my own child being murdered would I want to go out and murder someone else?"

Cote supports Senator Dave Wanzenried's Senate Bill 185 which abolishes the death penalty, instead setting the maximum penalty as life in prison without parole. Wanzenried says the families of defendants who are put to death should also be considered.

He asked other lawmakers to spend 15 minutes inside a jail cell before forming an opinion on the death penalty. Since 1974, 3 Montana inmates have been executed and the bill would change the fate of two inmates currently on death row.

Randy Steid served 17 years in prison and was eventually proven innocent. He says abolishing capital punishment makes sure inmates who are wrongfully convicted aren't put to death by mistake.

He says, "let me tell you, when I was serving my sentence of life without parole and I would see those gurneys go by, if they would have asked me to jump on there I would have strapped myself in gladly."

But, opponents of Wanzenried's bill says the death penalty provides closure for the victims' families.

State Representative Tom Berry of Roundup knows firsthand about losing a loved one at the hand of another and he believes the death penalty needs to be an option. He says, "not a day goes by that I don't think about my son who is no longer with us."

Another part of the debate focused on the cost of incarceration versus putting someone to death. Wanzenried says it's actually costs the state less to lock someone up for the rest of their lives. He says it costs $36,000 a year to house an inmate at the Montana State Prison. He says due to the lengthy legal process over capital punishment, it can cost 6 to 7 times more.

Seventeen states have abolished the death penalty, but opponents of the bill say 33 states will have the option.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

VIctim's family urges clemency

Thanks to the Death Penalty Information Center for a link to this story, "Victim's Family and Jurors Urge Clemency for Texas Death Row Inmate:

On February 7, attorneys for Tim Adams filed a petition for clemency urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend sparing Adams' life and to ask Governor Rick Perry to commute his death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Adams, an army veteran with no criminal history, killed his son while planning his own suicide in 2002. He pleaded guilty and has taken responsibility for his actions.

Family members and three jurors from Adams' trial have also voiced strong support for his clemency. Columbus Adams, Adams' father and grandfather of the victim, said, "Our family lost one child. We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It only inflicts more pain

This wire story was posted on the New England Cable News site on Saturday:

Murder victim families urge death penalty repeal

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The latest call to abolish Connecticut's death penalty is coming from the families of some murder victims.

A letter signed by 60 people who have had loved ones killed will be presented to the Legislature on Wednesday by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The letter states that those who have dealt with the criminal justice system and struggled with the grief of having a loved one murdered have concluded the death penalty only inflicts more pain on survivors.

Governor Dannel P. Malloy, a former prosecutor, has said he is morally opposed to the death penalty. But he's facing a state budget deficit that's projected to top $3 billion and says repealing the death penalty is not an immediate priority.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A voice I would never have chosen

Here is the testimony that Margaret Hawthorn delivered in New Hampshire on Tuesday, in opposition to the bill that would expand the state's death penalty:

I am Margaret Hawthorn, mother of Molly Hawthorn MacDougall, who was murdered in her home ion April 29, 2010.

Molly was two weeks from graduating from nursing school at New Hampshire Technological Institute. She was married to a wonderful young man named Dan Paul – they lived in their small house on a corner of his family’s farm. She was a beloved wife, daughter, sister, niece, auntie, and friend to many. She was an avid gardener, a dancer, a potter, a gracious hostess, a fisherwoman, and so much more. Molly was a lover of life and a lover of people.

Our family lost a precious light on April 29. New Hampshire lost a good and responsible citizen.

As tragic and senseless as Molly's death is, I am relieved this is not a capital case. Another death would only increase my family’s trauma, and would not bring Molly back. I understand the bill being introduced today would make a case like hers capital because her murder was a home invasion.

As a child I came to my own conclusion that the death penalty was wrong. But, like anyone who believes the death penalty is wrong, I later had to consider the question, “Easy for you to talk of non-violence, but what if it were your loved one?”

Now it is my loved one. As a grieving mother, I have a voice I would never have chosen. ...

As the mother of a murder victim, I would like to give my thoughts on the best possible outcome I can imagine to my family’s overwhelming loss.

One day last fall I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while. She asked how I was doing, and said how sorry she was to hear about Molly. She added, “I hope he gets what he deserves.”

I must have looked confused. She said, “He doesn’t deserve to live.”

I explained it’s not a capital murder case, and that I’m relieved because I wouldn’t want to think about the death penalty.

Whoever killed Molly (there has been no trial, so I can’t speak in specifics)… whoever killed Molly now bears a responsibility for two lives – his own, and the life he stole from our daughter. The most positive outcome I can imagine is to see that person put his life to good use in whatever circumstances he is to live it out. That could bring a little light into this most awful situation. I wouldn’t want such a possibility eliminated through an execution.

My friend said, “You’re a better person than I am.”

I am not. I am self-protective. Revenge is tricky, self-destructive. It doesn’t turn out sweet, seldom plays out the way one thinks it will. Too often family members find the execution of their loved one’s murderer doesn’t bring the hoped-for closure. I don’t want to allow room for revenge to impose its disappointment on me.

I can’t begin to describe how painful it is to learn to live in a world devoid of Molly’s physical presence. I haven’t begun to approach forgiveness. Trauma still wraps its armor around me, protecting me from taking in more than I can survive. In the meantime, I trust the state to make reasoned decisions that show compassion for all while I ride an emotional roller coaster I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

There may never be a turn around in the murderer’s heart, and I know not to count on it. My healing can’t rest on what happens to or within another person. The state can best help me by funding ongoing private counseling and support groups with professional facilitators, and allowing me to go about the work of healing can happen, free from the specter of another death.

I do believe some people are so broken that for the safety of others they need to be contained, permanently. I am not na├»ve enough to think everyone can be rehabilitated and returned to society. On and off for nearly twenty years I have served as a facilitator with the Alternatives to Violence Program, a Quaker initiative that helps inmates – and groups on the outside – seek non-violent ways to respond to conflict. Having been inside New Hampshire prisons, I’m aware it is a grim existence. Eliminating the death penalty is not synonymous with letting people off the hook.

A woman who volunteers in the New Hampshire prison system read an article to some inmates on our family’s statement about not yielding to hatred. The woman’s co-facilitator was an inmate serving a long sentence. He promised her that when and if someone is convicted of murdering Molly, he would reach out immediately to help that person begin to make something better of his life. Please don’t eliminate the possibility of that promise.

When I think about how to best honor Molly, I am certain it is by living into the values she embraced. She trained to do life-supporting work. Her love for people and deep compassion led her to choose a career of caring for others. She would not want anyone killed in her name.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Taking it personally

MVFHR member Gail Rice was invited to contribute to ThinkChristian, a blog "about the intersection of faith and culture." Her post, "Why I Take the Death Penalty Personally," was published yesterday:

With both houses of the Illinois General Assembly having passed SB3539, the bill to repeal the death penalty now sits on the desk of Governor Pat Quinn.

It’s an issue Illinois has wrestled with for years, and one that is personal for me. In 1997 my brother, Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver policeman, was murdered during a botched burglary. The killer escaped a certain death sentence by committing suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Therefore, I escaped the nightmare most murder victims’ family members go through in death penalty cases — often decades of agony and putting their lives on hold, reliving the murder with every appeal and court decision, slowly waiting for an execution that may not come.

The 18 years I spent working in literacy and Christian ministry in jails and prisons prior to Bruce’s death showed me a different standard of justice for the rich and the poor. Believing the death penalty could never be carried out fairly, I opposed it. Later I became involved with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, abolitionist support groups for family members of murder victims and those who are on death row or had been executed. Gradually my opposition to the death penalty deepened far beyond my concerns over the fairness of the system.

Many Christians disagree about the death penalty. Why have I become so opposed to it? Lobbying alongside Randy Steidl (seen in the above picture with me), Illinois’ 18th innocent exoneree, gave me a glimpse of the hell blameless men suffer for decades on death row. It made me realize that most exonerees are cleared in spite of rather than because of our criminal justice system. There is no evidence to show that the death penalty is a deterrent and lots of evidence to show it is capriciously applied. It violates my Christian faith because it is a violent act of retribution and vengeance, an act that encourages the state to do what I have so abhorred in the murderer.

Because the death penalty is carried out primarily against the poorest and most powerless, it makes a mockery of God’s preferential caring for the poor. The death penalty asserts that not all people are made in the image of God, and it cuts off the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation that Christ wants me to work toward. And in the end, it creates a whole new circle of victims — the family of the executed — who will suffer as I have suffered. I encourage Bible-believing Christians to read “Capital Punishment and the Bible” by Gardner C. Hanks for a comprehensive Biblical view of capital punishment.

Gov. Quinn has said that he plans to study the bill before deciding to sign or veto it, and that he wants to hear from his constituents. Call him at 312-814-2121 or 217-782-0244 or fax him at 312-814-5512 or 217-524-4049. May this action of the General Assembly cause us to seriously question the death penalty, which I see as the antithesis of restorative justice in this world.

Gail Rice is an author, consultant and adult literacy specialist who has been involved in jail and prison literacy work and ministry for over 30 years.

Testifying Against Expansion

Several victims' families are testifying in New Hampshire today in opposition to a bill that would expand the state's death penalty. Here is the New Hampshire Coalition's press release:

Family Members of Murder Victims to Testify Against Death Penalty Expansion

CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE --- Renny Cushing, whose father, Robert Cushing, Sr., was murdered in his Hampton home in 1988, Margaret Hawthorne, who daughter, Molly Hawthorne-MacDougal, was murdered in her Henniker home in 2010, and Nancy Filiault, whose sister Nancy, nephew Kyle, and niece Rachel were murdered in their Connecticut home in 2000 will be among those who testify Tuesday against legislation that would make such crimes punishable by execution.

The public hearing on House Bill 147, before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, will begin at 10 AM in Representatives Hall at the State House.

Also expected to testify is Bob Curley, whose 10-year-old son Jeffrey was murdered by pedophiles in 1997.

“Every murder is a heinous crime to the loved ones of the victim,” said Cushing, a former State Representative and the Executive Director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. “Instead of filling more coffins and leaving more families grieving, we should support the families of murder victims and find ways to reduce violence,” he added.

The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said religious leaders and other opponents of the death penalty will also add their voices in opposition to the expansion bill.