Friday, May 27, 2011

Against expansion of NH death penalty

MVFHR member Margaret Hawthorn is quoted in this article in the 5/19/11 Nashua (NH) Telegraph:

Opposition to this bill [which would expand the state's death penalty] dominated testimony during Wednesday’s two-hour Senate hearing.

Margaret Hawthorn said that if the bill was current law, it could have been applied in the murder of her 31-year-old daughter, Molly Hawthorn-MacDougal, at her Henniker home in April 2010.

She spoke forcefully against it along with capital punishment in general.

“Another death would only increase our family’s trauma and would not bring Molly back,” Hawthorn said.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The bigger picture

Thanks to the Death Penalty Information Center for alerting us to this op-ed from Connecticut victim's family member Victoria Coward:

In 2007, there were more than 100 people murdered in Connecticut. The murders of the Petit family women rocked our state to its core. However, the murder of my 18-year-old son, Tyler, went virtually unnoticed.

Dr. Petit’s loss was horrible, but so was mine, and so were those of every single one of those other 100 murders — each a tragedy in their own right. Each leaving behind loved ones whose lives can never be the same.

For the last few months I have been speaking against the death penalty. I’ve been joined by 82 others who have lost children, siblings, parents, and spouses and have said that the death penalty hurts victims’ family members – all of us – because of how it treats those entrenched in the death penalty system, as well as those who are left on the outside without the attention and care that capital cases receive.

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to acknowledge that the death penalty in our state is a cruel hoax. In 50 years we have executed one person. Despite good intentions and earnest efforts to reform the system, we have remained unable to find a way to have a fair trial without torturing the victims’ families. With any other sentence, the surviving victims walk away confident that the offender is serving his punishment. With the death penalty, the promised punishment never comes, but surviving families vigilantly wait and fight. How absurd that in a quest to help them we would sentence them to this purgatory.

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to face the ugly truth that the death penalty sets some crimes and some victims apart as more important than others. How do we make these decisions? Is it quantity of lives lost? The location of the murder? The death penalty attempts to identify “the worst” crimes. There is just no way for us to reasonably do this, and it is hurtful that we try.

I feel for Dr. Petit, and I understand his pain better than most. The last thing I want is to appear to be “against” Dr. Petit – and I assure you, I most certainly am not. But that is the illusion that the death penalty system creates. It has said to us that some cases are different, some cases are worthier of our attention, some hurt is deeper. And this just adds to my pain.

If our legislators are serious about helping us — all of us — they will repeal the death penalty and do so as soon as they possibly can.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cannot be predicted

As victims' family members who oppose the death penalty increasingly make their voices heard and their views known, journalists increasingly recognize that it's impossible to predict or assume how a victim's family member will feel on the issue. In his Texas Death Penalty blog for the Dallas Morning News, Michael Landauer wrote yesterday, "Families reactions cannot be predicted":

Some people who support the death penalty say they just want the nightmare to end for the victims' families. Some who oppose the death penalty say the same thing. How can both sides claim to have families' best interests at heart?

Easy. They are both wrong. And both right. Sometimes.

In Houston, the family of a slain police officer is upset about the killer getting life.

Amy Hamilton, Jesse Hamilton's widow and the mother of the couple's two young daughters, had something more emphatic to say to Robles: "I hope your life is so miserable that you look forward to death."

Amen, I say to that. God Bless Amy Hamilton and her family. If I were in her shoes, I would also hope for this killer to find nothing but misery in his cell day after day.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, there is
the opposite situation. A death row inmate there is ready to call it a day, and the state will assist in his suicide. He is waiving all appeals and asking for an execution date. It will be the first time the state has taken a life since the last time an inmate formally expressed a similar death wish. The widow of the victim in that case takes a different tack:

Clarinda Perez married David Polin in 2007, just four months before he was stabbed dozens of times in a prison recreation area by two other inmates."I think that's just an easy way out. He's sitting in a cell since 2004, 23 hours out of the day without a window. That would be miserable for anybody," said Perez. "I'm not going to get any relief from him being put to death."

The reality is that, not only are co-victims unpredictable in whether they seek a death sentence, but that their views shift, evolve and sometimes even reverse over time. Can such human emotions be the compass we use to decide just punishment? I don't see how.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A cruel hoax

From yesterday's Hartford Courant, "Execution won't ease pain, I know," by Gail Canzano:

This past week, the repeal of the death penalty was jettisoned by the misguided but sincere hope of a few lawmakers that they could ease the pain of Dr. William Petit, whose wife and daughters were slain in a home invasion.

But what is an appropriate response to the anguished pleas of someone in the throes of homicide grief? Someone reeling from unimaginable trauma? As a clinical psychologist I ask this question every day in my work with victims of trauma. I also ask it as someone who has been there.

Some years ago I sat in a courtroom 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 quite fortunate because ours was not a death-penalty case. We appeared in court only a few times. The sentence, when handed down, was final and it began immediately. Two years after the murder, we were finished with the criminal justice system and we were free to focus on healing our broken hearts

That is the way the legal system is supposed to work. The death penalty does not work this way.

Despite our best intentions, the death penalty throws fuel on the already raging fires of a family's trauma and pain through a decades-long battle for justice in which every single court appearance re-traumatizes the family. Because death is irreversible, every issue is litigated and re-litigated – and with good reason because mistakes can't be undone once the sentence is carried out. The perpetrator becomes famous while the families left behind must suffer years of uncertainty.

And all of this for a false promise, because in the end we execute almost no one in this state.

Our lawmakers know this. That is why they were ready to repeal the death penalty and end the charade once and for all.

So what did this one-year delay do for us? My heart goes out to Dr. Petit. He believed that waiting another year would make the pending trial in his family's gruesome murder case a little easier. And I hope, for his sake, that it does. But I know that it won't.

This delay only puts off the inevitable. Believe me, when a death sentence is handed down in the
Cheshire case, the cruelties of our legal system will have only just begun. Connecticut has executed only one man in nearly 50 years, and he had to fight with the state to carry out his wish to be executed. We have people on death row who have been there for more than 20 years with no execution in sight. This case will be no exception.

Our legislators need to be honest about this with the people of Connecticut. From a professional standpoint, I can assure you that the death penalty is nothing but harmful to the families of murder victims. It is a cruel hoax that accomplishes nothing. It wastes millions of dollars and it further victimizes families who are already broken with grief.

If we have any real empathy for the families of murder victims, we'll stop putting them through this. We'll see to it that we replace capital punishment with life in prison and no possibility of release. We need to give families of murder victims' real justice — not an empty promise — and the tools they need to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of tragedy. That is what Connecticut should be about.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Walk for Peace

MVFHR is glad to support the Mother's Day Walk for Peace, which is organized by member Tina Chery. Here's an article about the event from yesterday's Boston Globe:

Yet again, families torn by violence walk for peace

It was just under a year ago that Marilyn Thomas-YisraEl’s son was shot to death as he sat in his wheelchair on their front porch. A bullet had hit Jihad Watters, 24, two years before, leaving him paralyzed. Last spring, he was enjoying a sunny afternoon and planning to barbecue before he was gunned down.

Yesterday, on a day meant to honor mothers and bring families together, Thomas-YisraEl could only think of the day her family was ripped apart.

“This is my first year without my son,’’ she said. “It’s really hard.’’

Early yesterday, she joined thousands of mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, and other supporters in the 15th annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, a 3.6-mile fund-raising walk through the heart of Dorchester.

Thomas-YisraEl and her daughter, Angelena, 21, carried signs bearing Watters’s face and the words “Gone but not forgotten.’’ Many marchers wore T-shirts bearing photos of lost loved ones, while others carried signs with messages of peace and unity.

“This march really means a lot to me, especially on Mother’s Day,’’ Thomas-YisraEl said. “We’re losing too many of our children out here.’’

The walk was started by Dorchester mother Tina Chery, whose son, Louis, 15, was caught in crossfire and killed on his way to an antiviolence-themed Christmas party in 1993.

Her son’s death inspired her to found the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which supports violence prevention efforts and services for survivors. Organizers said yesterday’s event raised more than $45,000 to benefit the peace institute.

In remarks before and after the event, Chery said that the walk was a way for mothers and other survivors of violence to come together for support and also to make a stand against the killings that continue to plague the community.

“We’re not going to stop. The more violence that continues, the more we’re going to be walking. Yesterday a 19-year-old was shot. I’m sure we all heard,’’ Chery said, referring to the man who was killed at the Savin Hill MBTA stop Saturday afternoon. “Families in our community are now suffering again, so we must continue, we must continue.’’

While the event was focused on mothers, this year’s march featured a special call to men, asking male family members to become a more active and vocal part of the healing process.

The Rev. Gerald E. Bell, pastor of the Strong Tower Church in Roxbury, spoke to the crowd before the march about being a survivor of violence and asked men to stand together for peace.

“I’m a victim of violence,’’ Bell said. “My father was shot in a pool room when I was 7 years old. I’ve been blessed to do a lot in my life, but it didn’t start out that way.’’ Bell said. “I think often we forget the impact of what families have to go through to overcome senseless violence.’’

Before the walk, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said: “We want peace in our streets. This is about people working together. We want to send a strong message out there we’re not going to tolerate the violence in the streets of America.’’

The Rev. Kim Odom of the True Vine Church in Dorchester, whose son, Steven, 13, was shot to death on Evans Street in 2007 walking home with friends after a basketball game, said the march was a way for families to celebrate the lives of lost loved ones and acknowledge the shared pain of those left behind.

“It’s become important for us to be a part of all the circles and places that are addressing peace and a solution to violence in our community,’’ Odom said. “We are here today to honor Steven’s memory. We want to carry on his voice.’’

Odom said that though it is a bittersweet occasion for her, she believes the march is a source of comfort from the heartache and loss.

“The scripture says ‘beauty for ashes,’ ’’ Odom said. “Ashes represent the devastation. Even in death and devastation, there can be hope, and that hope is the beauty.’’

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

To be a survivor

From Texas's news site,, "Son of murdered woman opposes death penalty," by Marcy Martinez, posted yesterday:

In 1991, Chris Castillo had to bury his 52 year old mother Pilar.

The Brownsville registered nurse had moved to Houston where she was the President of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce and served on a review board for the Houston Police Department.

Chris drove from Beaumont to Houston to find out that his mom had been brutally murdered inside her home..

"She was strangled to death in her bed and one of the things they did was they robbed the home and they had her sign some checks so she knew what was going on," said Castillo.

His mom's murder case has gone cold with the alleged killers fleeing the country possibly back to Honduras, but if they are ever found, Chris does not want them to be executed.

He's in his mom's hometown of Brownsville speaking out against the death penalty.

"It costs 2 to 3 times more to execute somebody on death row, versus, life in prison and I'd like to see that money spent on cold cases and victims rights and services."

Chris went through years of depression after his mom's murder and then found an escape, mentoring inmates in prison.

"It really changed the hatred inside of me to peace, and that's all I can do so that I can live day by day."

Now he spends his days telling his mother's story as part of the Texas Coalition to Abolish The Death Penalty in hopes of getting more people to see as he does, that taking another life is not going to bring Pilar back, and will only make more people suffer as he did.

It's something he believes his mom would have encouraged, that's to be a survivor and not a victim.

"I think she was for righteousness."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

With the support of victims' families

From the New York Times Editorial page, 4/29/11, "Co-victims against the death penalty":

As the country has increasingly turned against capital punishment as barbaric and horrifyingly prone to legal abuses, defenders are pointing to the emotional needs of the families of murder victims — “co-victims” to those who study crime — as justification. Many family members, however, have said they want no part of that.

When New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007 and New Mexico did in 2009, each did so with the support of co-victims. In Connecticut, the Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee has now approved a bill that would repeal that state’s death penalty, again with the support of victims’ families.

The family members say that rather than providing emotional closure, the long appeals process in death penalty cases is actually prolonging their suffering. They also say it wastes money and unjustifiably elevates some murders above others in importance. In an open letter to the Connecticut Legislature, relatives of murder victims — 76 parents, children and others — wrote that “the death penalty, rather than preventing violence, only perpetuates it and inflicts further pain on survivors.”

Their arguments were a moving and effective part of the effort that led to the committee’s repeal vote. Now Connecticut’s leaders need to bring these arguments to a wider state audience. A March opinion poll in Connecticut showed that 48 percent of residents favored the death penalty over life without parole, up from 37 percent in 2005.

The increase is not surprising, since news in the state has been dominated by the trials of the murderers in the 2007 home invasion killings in Cheshire. Dr. William Petit Jr., who lost his wife and two children, is an outspoken advocate for the death penalty, arguing that vicious killers should pay with their lives.

We do not minimize the suffering of family members, wherever they stand on the issue. But the facts are undeniable. The death penalty does not deter crime and the long history of legal abuses is well documented. Connecticut’s full Legislature should pass the repeal bill and Gov. Dannel Malloy should sign it into law.