Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Statement from theologians

MVFHR is mentioned in a statement from Catholic theologians calling for an end to the death penalty. Here's the piece from Monday's National Catholic Reporter, "Over 150 theologians call for abolition of the death penalty":

More than 150 Catholic theologians have signed a statement calling on the United States to abolish capital punishment, and asking the church to work "unwaveringly" toward that goal.

The statement, issued this morning on the Catholic Moral Theology blog, comes five days after the controversial Sept. 21 execution in Georgia of Troy Davis. Amnesty International, along with a number of faith and justice groups, had said that “serious doubts” remained over Davis’ guilt in the 1989 murder of a police officer.

Signing their names along with the institution where they teach, overwhelmingly at Catholic colleges and universities, the theologians reference church teachings on capital punishment and say they “deplore and lament the killing of Troy Davis” and “decry the death sentences of the more than 3,200 inmates on death row.”

Tobias Winright, an associate professor in theology at St. Louis University who helped draft the statement, said in a phone interview that the number of theologians interested in adding their name to the list is growing by the minute. The high number, he said, indicates that the movement to abolish the death penalty is backed by professors across the country, of every age and political stripe.

“We’ve had signers from North to South, West to East,” said Winright. “We have first year teachers, and people who have taught for many, many years. That reflects that this is an important issue to a lot of Catholic theologians right now.”

The statement, which Winright said started as an exchange between professors on a listserv over the morality of the killing of Davis, notes that, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, 138 people have been exonerated from death row.

The number of people exonerated, the theologians write, reflects the fact that “execution is … irrevocable and innocent people have likely been victims of it.”

That probability of innocent victims of the death penalty speaks to the case of Davis, who maintained he was not guilty. His case garnered international attention when many of the witnesses who had implicated him in the murder recanted their testimony, and nine others signed affidavits implicating another man, whom Davis said was the actual killer.

Disproportionate among those who have been cleared of crimes worthy of the death penalty, the theologians’ statement says, are people of color, who “are from 3 to 5 times more likely to be executed if their victim was white.”

Citing the U.S. bishops’ 2005 statement “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” the theologians’ statement says that while church teaching does not outlaw capital punishment, it recognizes that there are now other ways to “protect citizens from threats to the common good.”

The application of the death penalty is “deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed,” the statement quotes the bishops’ 2005 document.

Another sign of the importance of the death penalty question to Catholic theologians, Winright said, is that today’s statement has drawn signatures of those who have in the past disagreed on issues of doctrine or liturgy.

“While we may have disagreements on some things, on this issue there seems to be consensus,” said Winright.

While Winright said the theologians hadn’t specifically reached out to bishops to sign today’s statement, he noted they had received one bishop’s signature, Bishop John Michael Botean of the Eparchy of St. George in Canton, Ohio, and would welcome others.

Beyond practical questions of innocence or guilt of those on death row, the theologians say in their statement that the example of Christ, who himself was put to death, points to a “theological stance” that the death penalty is always wrong.

Acknowledging that the “Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge” to those who have experienced murder in their families, the theologians write: “The Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being.”

As an example of such forgiveness, the statement points to the work of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an international group of families who have experienced a murder, yet publicly oppose the death penalty.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Victim's son objects

This Reuters story, "Victim's son objects as Texas sets execution date in hate crime death," was published on September 21st:

As Texas prepares to execute one of his father's killers, Ross Byrd hopes the state shows the man the mercy his father, James Byrd Jr., never got when he was dragged behind a truck to his death.

"You can't fight murder with murder," Ross Byrd, 32, told Reuters late Tuesday, the night before Wednesday's scheduled execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer for one of the most notorious hate crimes in modern times.

"Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can't hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."

Brewer is scheduled to die by lethal injection after 6 p.m. local time in Huntsville, Texas.

His pending execution comes 10 years after Governor Rick Perry signed into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, strengthening punishments for hate crimes.

An avowed white supremacist, Brewer, 44, was one of three white men convicted of capital murder in the kidnapping and killing of Byrd Jr., in June 1998.

John King, another white supremacist, is on death row awaiting an execution date. Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence.

Brewer would be the 11th man executed in Texas this year. In Georgia, the execution of Troy Davis, convicted of killing a police officer, is scheduled for the same night.

If both executions go forward, Brewer and Davis would be the 34th and 35th executions in the United States in 2011.

In Texas, a vigil in Huntsville began at midnight with civil rights activist Dick Gregory.


Gregory has joined Ross Byrd and Martin Luther King III in the past to publicly protest Brewer's execution.

Ross Byrd, a recording artist studying for his MBA at nearby Stephen F. Austin University, said Tuesday that he wouldn't attend the execution but will "be there in spirit."

He says he doesn't want to "waste my time" watching anybody die, even a man who killed his dad.

"Life goes on," said Byrd, who has a son. "I've got responsibilities that I have every day. It's not on the front page of my mind. I'm looking for happy times."

In a crime that touched off a nationwide effort to tighten punishments for hate crimes, Brewer, King and Berry were convicted of offering Byrd Jr. a ride on his way home from a party, and then attacking him while they were standing outside the truck smoking on a country road near Jasper, Texas, according to a report by the Texas Attorney General's Office.

They beat him, and then chained his legs to the back of their pick-up and dragged him for several miles, the report said. By the time they stopped, his head and arm had been ripped off. They left his body on the country road.

Brewer maintained his innocence, saying Berry had killed Byrd Jr. by cutting his throat. But prosecutors said Brewer and King were prison buddies bent on starting a racist organization in Jasper and "intended the killing to be a signal that his (King's) racist organization was up and running."

The crime touched off a firestorm of support in Texas and the United States for laws that would enhance punishments for crimes motivated by race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.

The jury sentenced the three men as the nation was still reeling from a second hate crime that same year -- the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, beaten and left to die on a fence in Wyoming because he was gay.


In 2001, Texas passed its hate crimes bill named after Byrd Jr., and its symbolic signing by Perry was a "watershed moment" in Texas and one of Perry's "finest moments in office," said Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, who helped move the bill through the Texas Senate in spite of staunch Republican opposition.

Eight years later, President Obama signed into law a similar federal bill named after Byrd Jr. and Shepard.

"James Byrd's murder certainly changed Texas and, in many ways, the nation," Ellis told Reuters.

"It was a wake-up call that evil and hate, while no longer considered mainstream views, are more prevalent and virulent than we pretend."

Ellis said the death sentence in Brewer's case "will close a chapter in this tragic story."

"I cannot say for certain that it is a requirement in order for justice to be served but, as Mr. Brewer was a ringleader in the most brutal hate crime in the post-Civil Rights era, it is certainly a very appropriate sentence," he said.

Unlike Byrd's children and wife, all of whom oppose the use of the death penalty against his killers, other family members have been supportive of it.

"I'm not down on them at all for the fact that they support the death penalty," said David Atwood, a good friend of Ross Byrd's and founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "They've gone through a traumatic experience, and there's a history in our country of horrible things happening to African Americans, so it's understandable that a number of them would say finally we're getting some justice."

He called Ross Byrd's stand "powerful."

Byrd says the execution of Brewer is simply another expression of the hate shown toward his father on that dark night in 1998. Everybody, he said, including the government, should choose not to continue that cycle.

"Everybody's in that position," he said. "And I hope they will stand back and look at it before they go down that road of hate. Like Gandhi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Progressing toward abolition

The MVFHR seminar in New Orleans over this past weekend was a powerful experience. The participants came from 21 states, and many were quite new to the abolition movement and to gathering with other victims' family members who oppose the death penalty. Participants had a chance to hear presentations about the history of the death penalty and of victims' voices within the abolition movement, victims' rights with respect to the death penalty, working with other victims' groups, ways that victims' voices can be amplified within the death penalty debate, and telling one's story publicly. In addition to the large-group presentations, there were opportunities for the family members of the executed, and family members of victims in unsolved murder cases, to meet and share experiences.

Today Renny Cushing is representing MVFHR in London at Penal Reform International's conference on “Progressing toward abolition of the death penalty and alternative sanctions that respect international human rights standards." Other speakers include a representative from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and from human rights groups in Africa and Russia.

Friday, September 16, 2011

In New Orleans

We are in New Orleans this weekend, where MVFHR is holding a seminar and training about speaking out against the death penalty. This gathering brings together, from around the U.S., about 40 family members of murder victims and of people who have been executed, many of whom are new to anti-death penalty activism. We're looking forward to a powerful experience of learning and fellowship.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It will not help

From yesterday's Mississippi Clarion Ledger, "Victim's sister: no death penalty"

The beating and killing of James C. Anderson has drawn national outrage, but his sister said his killer or killers shouldn't be executed.

"Those responsible for James' death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man," Barbara Anderson Young wrote in her letter Wednesday to Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith. "They also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. But our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another."

The June 26 slaying of Anderson in Jackson has sparked attention across the country as an alleged hate crime.

Smith said the letter resolves the question of the family's wishes, which he said would "weigh heavily" in deciding whether to pursue the death penalty against 19-year-old Deryl Dedmon Jr. of Brandon, who is charged with capital murder. Another defendant, John Aaron Rice, 18, of Brandon, is charged with simple assault.

A capital murder conviction carries the death penalty or life without parole. Those convicted of murder can petition for parole starting at age 65.

In her letter, Young quoted Coretta Scott King in explaining her opposition to capital punishment: "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life."

Young wrote that the family's opposition to the death penalty is "deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James' life as well. Our Savior Jesus Christ rejected the old way of an eye for an eye and taught us instead to turn the other cheek. He died that we might have everlasting life and, in doing so, asked that the lives of the two common criminals nailed to the crosses beside him be spared. We can do no less."

She said the family also opposes any execution "because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James' killers will not help to balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment."

The killing is being investigated by Jackson police, the U.S. Department of Justice and Smith's office.

Young thanked them Wednesday for their investigations.
"We hope that the criminal prosecutions will send a strong and clear message to those with hate in their hearts. We simply ask that that message be tempered with the love of our Savior," she wrote.

The family has started the James C. Anderson Foundation for Racial Tolerance "to help build bridges between the races," she said. "We appeal to men and women of goodwill to join hands with our family in launching a renewed movement of reconciliation, acceptance and hope."

Radio Islam

Renny Cushing was a guest on Radio Islam last night with host Abdul Malik Mujahid, speaking on the topic "Justice, the Death Penalty, and Rick Perry." You can listen to the show here

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Inter-Press Service interview

This interview with Renny Cushing was published today by the Inter-Press Service (IPS):

"Filling Another Coffin Will Not Bring Our Loved Ones Back"
Kanya D'Almeida interviews RENNY CUSHING, founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)

WASHINGTON, Sep 13, 2011 (IPS) - With the death penalty still a fixture in the criminal justice apparatus of many U.S. states, the voices of murder victims' families who oppose capital punishment are bringing a deeply personal perspective to the debate.

IPS spoke with Renny Cushing, founder and executive director of
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), whose father's murder in 1988 set him on a tireless course of human rights advocacy.

A declared victim-abolitionist, Cushing has been a pioneer in the movement to link death penalty abolition groups with the victims' rights movement. He lives by the dictum that "filling another coffin will not bring our loved ones back – it will only give birth to yet another broken, grieving family."

Co-author of "Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims' Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty", and "I Don't Want Another Kid to Die", a collection of homicide victims' family members' testimonies against the juvenile death penalty, Cushing tours the U.S. and the world, demanding universal dignity and human rights for all.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What was the vision behind MVFHR?

A: MVFHR was founded on Dec. 10, 2004 – International Human Rights Day – by a group of families and survivors of homicide victims who had seen their loved ones murdered by serial killers, attacked by terrorists, disappeared or fallen victim to state-sponsored executions.

We oppose the death penalty on human rights grounds and believe that it's a fundamental violation of the right to life, of Articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though we are U.S.-based, we're committed to the concept of "abolition without borders", so we've always strived to have a presence outside the country, to make public that we are working in solidarity with other countries and peoples who are struggling to end the death penalty.

Q: What has some of this international solidarity looked like?

A: For example, representatives of MVFHR gathered in South Korea last week to commemorate the country's 5,000th day without an execution. Korea is also a 5,000-year-old country, nation and culture and it was a wonderful occasion on which to celebrate the fact that, though the death penalty has remained in place since South Korea's independence in 1948, a zero execution policy since 1997 has created a de facto abolitionist nation.

Since we first traveled to South Korea in 2004 to meet with lawmakers who had then drafted a death penalty abolition bill, we have been mindful of the importance of international solidarity in this matter, of adding our voices to the growing international movement for abolition. Already MVFHR is a member of the Asia Death Penalty Abolition Network and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Once you become the survivor of a murder victim, you immediately assume an identity within society that can be leveraged to advocate for human rights. We have an important stake in decision-making and policy on capital punishment, about what society does in the aftermaths of murder. And though there are significant cultural differences when working transnationally, there is also a universal element to grief and pain that should be mobilised in our struggle.

Q: What are some of these universalities?

A: Well, we have worked with victims, in South Korea particularly, who have expressed similar sentiments to those of us who fight the death penalty in the U.S., that society places a burden on survivors to go out and seek revenge. One survivor of her own daughter's death told me that she was often made to feel like a sinner, fighting against the death penalty even after her own child had been murdered.

Another man I met, whose mother, wife and son were all murdered by a serial killer, has had to change his address and phone number in order to avoid the social repercussions of attempting to work for abolition. There's a terrible stigma attached to this kind of activism in our society, and our work often leads to us being isolated or ostracised.

Often I find myself, or people in my position, being depicted as either psychos or saints. The reality is that we are people who have lived through unspeakable horror, whose lives have unfurled rapidly, and we've come to the conclusion that filling another coffin doesn't bring our loved ones back, it just gives birth to another broken, grieving family.

Q: What are your thoughts about a society that supports the death penalty?

A: One of the things that people have to realise is that if you give your government the power to kill its people, it will use it. And as long as the government kills its own people, it sets the example that people and institutions have the right to take life.

In fact, governments should be setting the example that vengefulness will never be a symbol of democracy. I think South Africa is a great example in this regard. Its great leader Nelson Mandela once faced the death penalty and spent 27 years in prison. When he finally got out, he didn't keep looking over his shoulder seeking revenge. He understood that it was much more important for him to once and for all lift the burden of apartheid from his nation. When he finally became the president, it was of a new South Africa, one that had abolished the death penalty.

It is only by ending the death penalty that we will be able to safeguard, respect and uphold the rights of every individual.

Fall newsletter

“Seeing my brother executed just tore me apart. I knew that my life had changed at that point. I felt as if I was separated from other individuals, and that I was forced into a state of manhood. Compared to most kids at 18, I had seen something they couldn’t imagine.”

That's a quote from Stan Allridge in MVFHR's fall newsletter, which is now available. Stan is one of the MVFHR members quoted in the article, "My Brother's Execution: From Silence to Speaking Out." Other special features in this newsletter include a section on September 11th families, an interview with Tom Mowen and Ryan Schroeder discussing their research which shows that victims' families are increasingly rejecting the "death penalty as closure" argument but news coverage doesn't accurately reflect this, and an essay about murder as a human rights violation. We've also got our usual MVFHR news briefs, a roundup of victim opposition to the death penalty in the news, and a message from the executive director.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years

On September 11, 2001, Terry Greene's brother Donald was a passenger aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers aborted attempts to reach Washington, DC. In MVFHR's fall 2011 newsletter, Terry says,

It has been 10 years since the attacks of 9/11. I recall those dark days. It was as if I, myself, were collapsing into an abyss. How would our family ever be the same without my brother? How could this senseless violence have ripped Don from his wife and children? Don’s conversations, with me or with anyone for that matter, would be filled with the latest anecdotes about his family, which he adored to no end. Don’s children, close in age to my son, were so young at the time of the attacks; Charlie had just turned ten only days before and Jody was only seven.

Ten years later and that deep love Don gave to his family has not ended. We have all continued with Don in our hearts to strengthen us. His presence there is so gentle and caring.

Some people are surprised that I don’t want revenge against those who perpetrated the attacks. For one thing, I don’t want to displace Don from my heart to harbor hatred. The perpetrators have not earned a place in my heart; it is reserved as a place to nourish my memories of Don that dwell there.

Read the rest of Terry's comments and words from other MVFHR members in the fall 2011 issue of our newsletter Article 3, which contains a feature "September 11th Families: 10 Years Later."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Her words changed me

From the speech that Jennifer Bishop Jenkins gave at MVFHR's public event at the Franciscan Education Center in Seoul:

I am deeply grateful to be here in Seoul on this observance of the important 5,000th day without executions for your nation. This is an important achievement in your nation’s leadership for human rights and against murder.

I am a murder victims’ family member. My sister, her husband, and their unborn baby were murdered near Chicago, in the United States, in 1990. I came face to face with horrors no person should ever see. Since that time I have been dedicated to making sure that no family ever has to endure what our family had – to have three family members murdered. Killing is the deepest violation of our humanity possible.

My sister was 25 years old, a beautiful young wife, and she was pregnant with their first child. But Nancy, Richard, and the baby were murdered because a teenager just wanted to “see what it would feel like to shoot someone” for the “thrill” of it.

My sister watched the killer shoot Richard point blank in the back of the head. Her husband's head blown off in front of her, the killer then turned the gun on her as she begged for the life of her unborn child. And as she crossed her arms over her pregnant belly, sobbing “please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt my baby," the killer shot her directly in the abdomen, aiming for the baby.

The last thing she did before she died was to pull herself over by her husband, and with her finger in her blood she drew a Heart and a “U” – Love You – and then she died. With the last ounce of life she had in her body she told us she loved us. Nancy’s last act was to say, in the only way she could, that love was the most important thing in the world.

My sister’s dying words now define my life. Her words of love changed me. She taught me how wrong killing is – killing of all kinds.

Korea is filled with love. You are honorable people. You have already stopped executions. You know killing is wrong. Your people can now stand up to do what is right, what is loving, and abolish the death penalty.

Tragically, if I were living in Korea when this happened, my whole family would have to live in a shameful way after my sister’s murder. We would live without community support and the rights that all innocent crime victims should have. Murder victims’ family members are often pushed away here. They are not cared for as they should be. We should support them all. Victims’ Rights are Human Rights.

The USA has begun to realize, as I have, that it is not good for murder victims’ family members to have the offender executed. It does not bring justice or healing. It prolongs their agony and adds more bloodshed. It focuses attention on the offender and requires them to participate in more murder in order to finalize their justice. Life sentences for dangerous killers are the right thing to do.

Korea can be so proud of having a man who led your country now lead the world as Secretary General of the United Nations. His leadership against the death penalty is also very admirable.

It will honor the importance of love to abolish the death penalty. It will honor the fact that killing is wrong if you all abolish the death penalty. It will honor South Korea to become an international leader in Human Rights by finally and officially abolishing the death penalty.

Thank you for embracing murder victims’ families and for standing up against the evils of executions.

The eyes of the world are on Korea

Following up on yesterday's post: In his speech to the Korean National Assembly yesterday, marking the country's 5,000th day without an execution, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Woo Yoon Keun included mention of MVFHR and the importance of working with our organization to help bring the voices of Korean victims' family members to the effort for abolition of the death penalty. Later that evening, Renny Cushing, Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, and Toshi Kazama met privately with a group of Korean victims' family members for a very emotionally powerful sharing of stories.

Here is an excerpt from Renny Cushing's speech to the National Assembly yesterday:

... Members of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, in the U.S., here in Korea, and around the world all know the pain and the emptiness that comes from a homicide. There are not words in any language that can fully explain the experience. How we respond in the aftermath of murder is not an intellectual exercise for us. It is part of the reality of our daily lives. It is what we do when we wake up each morning wishing that we could change our personal history and bring back our loved one. As survivors of crime we are reconciled to the fact that much as we wish that we could, we can't change the past. What we can do, what we strive to do, is try to control and shape our future, and do so in a way that honors and celebrates the lives of our loved ones lost to violence.

My personal journey to my appearance before you today was shaped by the murder of my father, Robert Cushing Sr. On June 1, 1988, two shotgun blasts ripped my father’s chest open before my mother’s eyes. They were alone together as he died on the floor inside of their own home where they had raised their seven children. From that instant members of my family entered that world of pain that words can’t quite capture. It’s a world of autopsies and funeral ceremonies, of fears and questions and investigations and police and prosecutors and sometimes arrests and trials and juries and verdicts and sentences and appeals. But it is mostly about emptiness—empty spaces where someone once sat, empty sounds in the wind, empty hearts.

I thought that my family had known our share of pain. And yet 5 months ago, in a crime very similar to my father’s killing, my brother-in-law was murdered. Once again my family is in grief, and as I stand here today I am still grieving both the murder of my father and of my brother-in-law.

The act of murder may be over in an instant, but that does not mean the hurting ends. For myself, for all survivors, we grieve and try to heal forever.

I am glad that in Korea Article 30 of your constitution provides that victims of crime may receive aid from the state. But I also have been told by people here in Korea who have had family members murdered that there remains a great stigma attached to being victims of crime in this country. Many feel abandoned and ostracized. Korean victims who oppose the death penalty tell me they are fearful of speaking out in public against capital punishment

Those of us who are concerned about human rights need to be concerned about victims, about preventing further harm, about victims’ rights. We need to not just abolish the death penalty; we need to help victims.

In addition to being an advocate for victims and human rights, I am a former three-term member of the House of Representatives in my home state, and I have a special appreciation for the challenges and demands that must be addressed by those who serve as parliamentarians in a democracy. During my time as a lawmaker I was an advocate for laws for benefits for victims of crime at the same time that I was a proponent of ending the death penalty. I believe for an individual, for a society, to have a consistent human rights ethic, it is a necessity to be both pro-victim and anti-death penalty.

It must said that dealing in the public arena, in the political arena, with the subject matter of death, of homicide and executions, is crucial human rights work, but it is not easy. For a lawmaker to take on the abolition of the death penalty as a cause means that inevitably he or she will touch upon real pain and devastation, and I know that to rise to the call of history to shape human rights policy in this area is a trust that, on some occasions, can weigh heavy upon a lawmaker.

I will share something with you about being a survivor of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty. In my culture, some people think that if you don’t want the death penalty for a person who killed your family member you must be either a crazy person or a saint. While there are times when I am playing with my three daughters that they tell me I act a little crazy, I can assure you that there is never a time anyone has accused me of being a saint. I, and others like me who have had a family member murdered, are ordinary flawed human beings who have experienced a horrific loss and who, after going through layers and layers of pain, have come to conclude that another killing will not bring back our loved one, it will only add to the pain in the world. And as victims, we don’t want more pain.

The most widely translated document in the world is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a document that was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the experience of the suffering, the denial of the life to millions of civilians under brutal regimes of the Second World War. I know here in Korea the denial of human rights under the period of Japanese occupation is not a distant memory. You feel it today. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of millions of lives, a way to give meaning to the loss, to help heal if you will, by asserting that such violations as were not humanly moral, were not permissible under any nation or regime. That Declaration establishes that human rights are not granted by governments, they can not be denied or abrogated by governments, they are an entitlement of one's humanity.

The most fundamental of all human rights, is the right to life itself.

As a guest in your country, I do not presume prescribe to you or tell the people of Korea what to do. I do want to praise the people of Korea, and the government for 5,000 days without an execution. This is an international moment., and the eyes of the world are on Korea. Murder Victims Families for Human Rights belongs to the World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Yesterday, on behalf of the 121 NGOs from across the world, I delivered a letter to Chairman Woo supporting Korea’s effort to end the death penalty. With your countryman, Ban Ki Moon, heading up the United Nations, which is committed to ending the death penalty, with a vibrant human rights community and leaders and lawmakers who embrace human rights, and with legislation pending before the National Assembly to abolish capital punishment, the world waits and watches, hopeful that Korea will take legal steps to permanently end executions. ...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Meeting in South Korea

As part of their visit to South Korea this week, Renny Cushing, Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, and Toshi Kazama met with Woo Yoon Keun, Chairman of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the South Korean National Assembly (pictured above, second from left).

Renny writes:

We had a very productive meeting and discussed a number of issues relating to the death penalty in Korea. Chairman Woo shared some of the history and current political context for the effort to pass legislation through the National Assembly to abolish capital punishment. Chairman Woo recalled his meeting last year with MVFHR members Bud Welch and Bob Curley, and emphasized the need to have MVFHR working with Korean victims and the importance of having the voices of Korean family members of murder victims supporting the abolition effort. I handed Chairman Woo the letter from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty which, on behalf of the 121 member organizations around the globe, praised Korea for marking 5000 days without an execution and supported his work and the work of others to abolish the death penalty in Korea. He was very grateful for the international support for abolition.

Today is South Korea's 5,000th day without an execution, and Chairman Woo, along with other parliamentarians supporting the abolition of the death penalty, will speak at an event at the National Assembly that will highlight that milestone. The EU Ambassador to South Korea, Tomasz Kozlowski, and Renny Cushing will also speak to provide international support for Korea's efforts to advance human rights and abolish the death penalty.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Initially we wanted the death penalty

From the 9/4/11 Seattle Times , this op-ed by Karil S. Klingbeil , "Death penalty costly -- for families of victims too":

A RECENT Seattle Times story educated us about the soaring financial costs of the death penalty ("Death penalty dilemma: Is soaring cost worth it?" page one, Aug, 15). I would like to address the other soaring cost, the emotional and psychological impact on family, friends and the community, which may be even greater than the financial costs.

Sept. 17 marks the 30th anniversary of my sister Candy Hemmig's murder. She had just celebrated her 33rd birthday at our family home in Olympia the previous Sunday. Candy and her co-worker, Twila Capron were gunned down in an Olympia bank by Mitchell Rupe, a man later dubbed "too fat to be hanged."

Candy left a husband and three children, ages 7, 13 and 16. Twila, too, had a husband and two young children. In an instant, there were two widowers and five children left motherless, not to mention the loss to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends. Murder, like death, wracks the entire family including the community.

I have had 30 years to grieve and think through this horrible crime and major insult to our family. My sister Gail and I were enraged yet felt helpless, dependent on the criminal-justice system to deliver justice. Initially we desperately wanted the death penalty, which seemed to be the "worst punishment" that a murderer could receive. My emotion arose out of the terrible pain this man caused my entire family.

After Candy's service, it was all about Mitchell Rupe. It remained so through three trials. I attended all them and listened to the heinous accounts over and over. At the end of each trial, I was left with the same empty feeling. Time passes and begins to heal the wounds and emptiness, but there is no such thing as closure.

Rupe received the death penalty after the first two trials. The third jury had one holdout for life, so Rupe received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Over 20 years, he had been found guilty by 36 members of three juries and given the death penalty by 35 jurors. We were disappointed but not surprised. Rupe died in prison in 2006.

After years of reflection, my opinion about the death penalty has fully evolved. I now oppose the death penalty in favor of life in prison without parole — still a substantial penalty — for murderers like Rupe.

I have spent my professional career working to prevent interpersonal violence and protect its victims. I oppose all forms of abuse. I am opposed to wars. I realize that opposing the death penalty is in line with my philosophy about other issues of nonviolence I have supported my entire life.

I have come to believe that no one has the right to take another person's life for whatever reason. To kill someone for killing someone makes little sense. It speaks of anger, frustration, revenge, retaliation and a fallible law. It answers violence with violence.

All studies I have read make it clear that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. Murderers don't pause at the critical moment they are killing and think, "Gee, I wonder if I'll get the death penalty?"

But I have explored many other issues beyond deterrence including questions of morality, constitutionality, retribution and revenge, irrevocable mistakes, costs, race, income levels, attorney quality and finally issues of physicians at executions.

Victims' families, like our family, relive the horror of their loved one's murder with every court proceeding. Our system cannot seek this ultimate punishment without a great deal of procedure to avoid and correct errors, and still errors are made. The more hearings and trials there are, the more emotional trauma there is for the surviving family members.

The death penalty should be abolished. We should join the many countries that have long ago banned the death penalty. Capital punishment remains a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society. It does constitute a cruel and unusual punishment at odds with our culture and way of life in the United States. We should be putting the money we spend on the death penalty on the front end of crime and apply it toward prevention.

I don't believe calling for someone's death makes any of us a better person. I strongly believe working to end violence makes each of us a better person. Opposing the death penalty makes my philosophy of nonviolence a more powerful belief.

The emotional and financial costs are too great for this country to bear.

Karil S. Klingbeil is the former director of social work at Harborview Medical Center and a retired associate professor in the University of Washington's School of Social Work.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Press release: MVFHR in South Korea


Seoul, South Korea – Members of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) are in South Korea this week to help mark the country’s 5,000th day without an execution and to bring the voices of murder victims’ family members to the effort to abolish the death penalty in this country.

Renny Cushing, founder and director of MVFHR, whose father was murdered in 1988, Jennifer Bishop, whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 1990, and Toshi Kazama, the group’s Asia liaison, will address the Korean National Assembly, meet with members of the Legislative and Judiciary Committee, present their stories to church audiences, and hold a gathering with local family members of murder victims.

Although South Korea has retained the death penalty since its independence in 1948, no executions have been carried out since 1997. Death sentences continue to be imposed, however, and executions could resume at any time. Joining a growing movement now pressing for legislative abolition, MVFHR offers the critically important testimony of murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty.

“Around the world there is a growing group of family members of murder victims who are saying that we don't want executions carried out in our names," Cushing, a former three-term member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, explained. “We are at moment of global history when the Republic of Korea can take the lead in the Asia-Pacific region on human rights, and I urge members of the National Assembly to vote to end the death penalty and to focus on meeting the needs of crime victims.”

MVFHR has been active in South Korea since 2004, when Renny Cushing first addressed the National Assembly and spoke at a series of public events. In 2010, Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and Bob Curley, whose young son was kidnapped and murdered in Massachusetts, traveled with Toshi Kazama to deliver public presentations, meet with public officials, and meet with family members of murder victims. MVFHR is a member of the Asia Death Penalty Abolition Network and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Families talk about witnessing executions

MVFHR members TIna Duroy and Jamaal Beazley are among those whose voices are included in this podcast, produced by the Texas After Violence Project, titled "Witnessing an Execution in Texas."

The podcast offers some powerful spoken testimony about how the death penalty affects the families of those being executed.