Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New members in Gallery of Victims' Stories

We've added two new pages to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories: Margaret Hawthorn, whose daughter Molly was murdered in New Hampshire in 2010, and Charisse Coleman, whose brother Russell was murdered in Louisiana in 1995.

Margaret recently testified against the death penalty before New Hampshire lawmakers, and Charisse, who lives in North Carolina, has been active in efforts to oppose the death penalty there.

We will be adding more pages to the Gallery in the coming weeks, so keep checking back. With over 70 victims' family members and family members of people who have been listed, the Gallery is a powerful collection of testimony against the death penalty, and it keeps growing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Among other reasons

We were pleased to see Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights mentioned in The Nation's "Ten Reasons Why The Death Penalty Should Be Abolished," posted yesterday in their monthly "Ten Things" feature.

From the intro: "What can we do to build on the success in Illinois? We can get involved by joining abolitionist groups, signing petitions and contacting our elected officials. But, as Gov. Quinn did, we must also listen to those who have grappled with this system firsthand: former prisoners, death row lawyers, prisoners' family members, activists and victims of violent crime."

And here is reason #9:

Bob Curley, lost son to murder, member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

When something like this (the murder of a loved one) happens, you feel violated, and your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong gets thrown out the window for a time. It’s not something that you get over, and there’s no closure. I have channeled my anger in a positive way by working to prevent child sexual abuse, and the death penalty convictions of innocent people. Read The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption, by Brian MacQuarrie. Go to Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights for more information.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gathering human rights leaders

This weekend, Renny Cushing will be participating in the "Unimpeachable Voices Against the Death Penalty" panel at Amnesty International's Annual General Meeting in San Francisco. It's Amnesty's 50th Anniversary Annual General Meeting and the agenda is full of many different presentations and meetings covering a range of human rights issues.

From Amnesty's info about the event:

Fifty years ago, dignitaries from around the world gathered at the Fairmont Hotel to sign the UN Charter. The UN Charter explicitly refers to human rights seven times throughout the document and the preamble reads, “We the people of the United Nations, determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Today, Amnesty International returns to this historic site to gather activists, students and human rights leaders to reflect on the progress and impact Amnesty has made thus far. The significance of the environment in which we will gather over these three days, will help launch us into a discussion about how our efforts have championed human rights, as well as allow us to look towards the future and how we will shape the discourse and action of human rights for the next fifty years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't expand death penalty

Renny Cushing and MVFHR are mentioned in this editorial in the 3/15/11 edition of Seacoast Online, "Don't expand death penalty out of rage":

New Hampshire is moving in the wrong direction on the death penalty and it is moving there fast.

At a time when many states are repealing death penalty laws because too many innocent people are being sent to death, a New Hampshire House Committee voted last week to expand the state's existing narrow death penalty law to include murders committed during home invasions.

This death penalty expansion was proposed by House Speaker William O'Brien in direct response to the 2009 murder of Kimberly Cates in her Mont Vernon home.

The brutal murder of Cates and the vicious attack on her daughter make us yearn for revenge. We want to punish the monstrous young men who dared commit this atrocity on an innocent mother and child. Somehow we feel that revenge will restore the balance of justice in the world.

But it won't.

As the great Indian leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi noted: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

The House Committee has passed this law because it is blind with rage.

We understand the rage but reject the idea that the monstrous behavior of some sociopathic teenagers should cause the state to seek more opportunities to kill in the name of justice.

New Hampshire last put a man to death under death penalty laws in 1939. Since that time, the law has been narrowed to apply almost exclusively to the killing of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.

While we disagree with the death penalty in any form, we understand that some officers feel the death penalty offers them some protection as they place themselves in harm's way to keep us safe.

Michael Addison is on death row today for the 2006 murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. The existing law didn't protect Briggs as it has not protected many officers who have tragically been killed in the line of duty in states with death penalty laws. That said, it's hard to deny this perceived protection to officers who are putting their lives on the line to keep the public safe.

The New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission did an excellent job between October 2009 and December 2010 exploring all aspects of this highly charged issue. It was an excellent commission with representatives from law enforcement, families of murder victims, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and mental health advocates. In the end, the commission voted to support the existing law, to continue sentencing to death those who kill law enforcement officers in the line of duty.

Robert "Renny" Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, served on the study commission. His father was shot to death outside his Hampton home two decades ago. While disappointed with the final vote Cushing expressed respect and gratitude to all commission members.

In a letter dated Dec. 1, 2010, Cushing, who is a member of the Hampton Union editorial board's community advisory board, wrote: "I served on the commission with two other family members of murder victims: Bob Charron, whose son Officer Jeremy Charron was murdered in Epsom in 1997, and Brad Whitney, whose father Eli Whitney was murdered in 2001. Although we ended up disagreeing about the death penalty, their presence on the Commission was important to me. At times when a witness or a member of the Commission would embark on an explanation of legal intricacies or the theories and arcane points about statistical analysis, I would get a sense that somehow the reality of the murder of real people was getting lost in the process. It was good to know I was not the only person in the room who felt in his gut that this was not just a theoretical discussion."

The death penalty is too important an issue to tackle when we are still feeling rage over a horrible crime. Our sense of justice has been dealt a blow by the murder of Kimberly Cates, and we want to strike back. But we should control ourselves and think before we take another step in the wrong direction.

"At the end of the day, the death penalty is not about those who kill, it is about us," Cushing wrote. "We, as a society, become what we say we abhor, killers. I don't want the state killing in my name."

We strongly agree with Cushing and urge lawmakers not to seek speedy vengeance.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In Montana and Maryland

Both Montana and Maryland are holding hearings on death penalty repeal legislation today, and victims' family members have been playing an active role in both state's efforts. Laura Porter of Equal Justice USA reports that at the Montana Abolition Coalition's press conference yesterday, 53 murder victims' family members were calling for repeal. The Coalition has also organized a series of speaking events around the state for MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt and New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty's David Kaczynski.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from the testimony that MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber is delivering today in support of the state's death penalty repeal legislation:

Discussions of the death penalty typically focus on the offender, the person convicted of murder. My focus, and the focus of those whom I am representing through this testimony, is on the victims of murder and their surviving families.

Losing a beloved family member to murder is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. The effects on the family and even on the wider community extend well beyond the initial shock and trauma. The common assumption in this country is that families who have suffered this kind of loss will support the death penalty. That assumption is so widespread and so unquestioned that a prosecutor will say to a grieving family, “We will seek the death penalty in order to seek justice for your family.” A lawmaker introduces a bill to expand the application of the death penalty and announces that he is doing this “to honor victims.” A politician believes that he/she must run on a pro-death penalty platform or risk being labeled soft on crime and thus unconcerned about victims.

As a victim’s family member who opposes the death penalty, I represent a growing and for the most part under-served segment of the crime victim population. Along with the other members of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, I have come to believe that the death penalty is not what will help me heal. Responding to one killing with another killing does not honor my daughter, nor does it help create the kind of society I want to live in, where human life and human rights are valued. I know that an execution creates another grieving family, and causing pain to another family does not lessen my own pain.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Abolition in Illinois!

Congratulations to our members and colleagues in Illinois, where today Governor Quinn signed legislation that abolishes the state's death penalty. In the Governor's statement, he spoke about victims and victims' families with these words:

I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims' families in overcoming their pain and grief.

To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims' families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold. But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain. Nothing can do that. We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims' families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.

Here is MVFHR's statement:

Statement of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights congratulates Illinois Governor Quinn on signing into law the recently passed legislation abolishing the state's death penalty. We applaud the state's decision to redirect funds formerly spent on the death penalty to services for families of homicide victims and training of law enforcement personnel. As family members of murder victims, we know that each homicide is a theft of a unique, irreplaceable, deeply loved human life, representing a world of devastation for the victim’s surviving families. A commitment to helping these victims' families and law enforcement personnel who work to protect us is a positive step forward for Illinois.

More Connecticut Testimony

From Anne Stone:

Our son, Ralph, was brutally stabbed to death while being robbed in his condominium in Washington, D.C., thirteen years ago.

The perpetrator or perpetrators were never found, but we have been able to dedicate our life to the wonderful memories of our son rather than dwelling on the horrendous crime. This transition would have been much more difficult if we were entrenched in a capital case or waiting for an execution to take place. Ralph was a peace-loving young man who had served for three years in the Peace Corps, and at the time of his death was the Director of Training for the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a large non-profit agency which for thirty-five years has worked in developing countries training women in community organization, increasing educational opportunities and promoting access to health information and services.

At the same time, Ralph was completing his dissertation for the Ph. D program in Executive Leadership in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University. He was given his degree posthumously, but the dissertation on the role of women leaders in non-government organizations in Kenya had not been completed. Since the research would be valuable to CEDPA as well as to other organizations, I asked the faculty at The George Washington University if I might be allowed to complete the dissertation, and after consultation they agreed to let me. I spent the next winter listening to the tapes of Ralph’s interviews with these women leaders in Kenya, then wrote the analysis and findings, and submitted the completed document to the University. I had to defend the dissertation in front of a panel of professors, and they subsequently accepted the dissertation. It was later summarized and published by CEDPA. This was an extraordinary experience for me and my family, and we have continued to remember Ralph in other constructive ways.

My husband and I and our four surviving sons are all against the death penalty. From the outset, we certainly hoped for the justice of having the murderer or murderers found and arrested, but one of our first questions to the detectives at the time was, “Does Washington, D.C. , allow the death penalty?” Since we have never believed in one killing justifying another, we were relieved to learn that the death penalty is not allowed there, and our grieving family would be spared the prolonged agony of dealing with a lengthy death penalty trial and a possible death sentence if there were a conviction.

As a Connecticut resident, I believe that the death penalty should be abolished in Connecticut and that life without the possibility of release effectively removes a murderer from society. I do not believe the death penalty process helps families like mine. Our experience has been that rather than being consumed with the violence that took our son’s life, we have been able to remember him in the ways that he would have wanted.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Testifying in Connecticut

At a hearing before the Judiciary Committee of Connecticut's General Assembly yesterday, several victims' family members testified in favor of a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty. The hearing lasted until 2:00 this morning -- kudos to those who stuck in out both to listen and to testify. Here are excerpts from some victim family member testimony:

From Gail Canzano:

I’m here today speaking to you on behalf of 80 individuals who have joined me as signatories in a letter to the General Assembly asking for repeal of the death penalty. We have all lost family members to homicide in the state of Connecticut and we are united by our shared belief that Connecticut’s death penalty fails the families of murder victims.

Some years ago I sat in a courtroom not far from here and stared down the man who savagely murdered my brother-in-law. It brought me not one moment of solace and it’s not something I ever wish to repeat. My family was actually quite fortunate because ours was not a capital case. We appeared in court only 2 or 3 times before a plea bargain sent the murderer to prison for 30 years with a guarantee that he would serve every day of his sentence. Two years after the murder, we were finished with the criminal justice system and we were free to focus on healing our broken hearts.

From Elizabeth Brancato:

My mother was 53 years old when she died. She was brutally beaten, raped, and bludgeoned to death, in her home. Her death was horrible, and it was a horrible loss for those of us who loved her. Death is difficult enough to deal with, but death accompanied by this brutality is a whole different thing. This kind of death leaves behind living victims.

Today, I'd like to talk to you briefly, about how the criminal justice system, in general, and the death penalty specifically, further victimize the families of murder victims.

I experienced the nightmare of being trapped in a criminal justice process.   For  five years my family and I endured the trial and appeal process of my mother's killer.  Throughout this period, I was completely unable to deal with the huge emotions that were flooding over me.  The pain, loss, and confusion that I experienced in the wake of my mothers’ murder were too big to handle while I also had to navigate the legal system. The trial demanded all my attention, and not knowing what was coming next, or when it was coming made it impossible to try to take the time to grieve and heal. My healing was put on hold.  The uncertainty of when it would be over made it necessary to postpone attending to my grief, my pain, my anger, and all the other emotions that such a brutal loss creates.

Only after the trial was over could I begin to process my emotions and take care of myself, and my children. My children were 8 and 11 years old when they lost their grandmother. Although I tried to be there for them, and I worked hard to help them through their grief and fear, I know now that I wasn't fully present for them in this. I couldn't be.

Our letter states: “The reality of the death penalty is that it drags out the legal process for decades. In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system.”  I would add that I believe it further victimizes the loved ones of murder victims.

From Renny Cushing:

The hardest thing for victims to do is accept that they cannot change the past. But what they can do, what they need to do, is make decisions about the future, about how they live their lives in the future. Sometimes victims get so fixated on how their loved one died that they almost forget how their loved one lived. Our broken death penalty system, with its years of delays and other problems, holds a victim’s focus, and society’s focus, on the killer, anticipating and expecting an event, the event, the killer’s execution. If and when an execution occurs, another coffin is filled and another family grieves a killing, but, sadly, very little changes for the victim. Their loved one is still dead. What sometimes ends up happening is the murder claims two victims: the person killed by the murderer, and the person who is the survivor of that person who was killed, whose life gets claimed by a system that is a set up for failure.

Friday, March 4, 2011

To Japan's Minister of Justice

Several organizations around the world have recently sent letters to Japan's newly appointed Minister of Justice regarding Japan's death penalty. Here is the letter that MVFHR sent:

Minister Satsuki Eda
Minister Seiji Maehara

On behalf of the international non-governmental organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, I am respectfully writing to urge the Japanese government to reconsider the use of the death penalty.

Members of our organization, who have lost beloved family members to murder or to state execution, visited Japan last June to deliver public presentations and meet with government officials, religious leaders, attorneys, and families of murder victims. From a range of different experiences and perspectives, each of our speakers explained how they had come to believe that the death penalty was not the way to honor the loss of their loved one.

All of our presentations were extremely well received, confirming for us that the time is right for a new examination of the issue of the death penalty in Japan. When our group addressed the Japan Federation of Bar Associations at Bengoshi Kaikan in Tokyo, attorneys who work on behalf of victims and attorneys who work on behalf of defendants came together for the first time in the Federation’s history. This event was broadcast live to bar associations throughout the country.

At a Tokyo press conference where our members spoke about their losses and their reasons for opposing the death penalty, Stefan Huber, head of the European Union’s delegation to Japan, offered these remarks:

“Many members of the public do not have access to a fully informed understanding of the complicated issues involved [with the death penalty]. This is probably one of the reasons why Japanese public opinion is still in favour of the death penalty and why studies show a high public support rate. …
“There is a widespread assumption, and not just in Japan, that victims’ families favour the death penalty. As today’s main speakers have previously stated, executions are presumed to meet survivors’ need for justice and closure and to oppose the death penalty is often seen as somehow being ‘anti-victim’. But this is not necessarily the case.”

Within the United States, there is a growing awareness that not all victims’ family members favour the death penalty. Victims’ families are leading the movement toward abolition of the death penalty in several states. Meanwhile, there is international movement away from the death penalty, as demonstrated by the United Nations General Assembly’s recent resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. More nations than ever before voted to support a moratorium, including Mongolia, a country that had previously voted against it.

As family members of murder victims and of people who have been executed, we urge Japan to join this growing group of nations and abolish the death penalty.


Renny Cushing
Executive Director

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Listen to a webinar

In February, Renny Cushing, MVFHR Executive Director, and David Kaczynski, New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Executive Director, participated in a "webinar" organized by Patricia Fennell of Albany Health Management Associates. You can listen to it here.

The press release from Albany Health Management Associates says:

MARCH 1, 2011, ALBANY, N.Y. -- What would you do if a close family member were murdered? What if you discovered that a loved one had killed? How would you react? What would your response be? And how are lessons learned in the aftermath of tragedy applicable to people confronting any number of losses and tragedies?

These questions are the subject of a recorded webinar facilitated by clinical social worker Patricia Fennell in February, in the shadow of Jared Lee Loughner's attack on a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. The webinar, freely available on Fennell's website, under the "Webinars" tab, features activists Renny Cushing and David Kaczynski discussing how their experiences with violence and trauma have informed their work helping others in similar situations.

Renny's father, Robert, was violently murdered in his home in 1988, and David's brother, Ted, was arrested by the FBI in 1996, accused as the Unabomber responsible for a series of bombings that caused three deaths and numerous injuries over 17 years.

Through their experiences, both men were surprised to discover that the families of victims and perpetrators have more in common than expected. Both groups are facing similar emotions, such as loss, guilt, anger, betrayal and fear, and asking similar questions to try to understand the situation they are in. As Renny and David told the New York Times in January, the families of Loughner and his victims are asking the unanswerable questions that they each confronted: why, how, could it have been prevented, and what do I do now?

During the webinar, both men describe their experiences, lessons learned, and what they are now doing to help families who have been harmed by violence and tragedy. Their words are instructive to people facing any number of losses -- death of a loved one, health and medical stability, personal safety, or otherwise, said Fennell.