Monday, October 24, 2011

Unlikely opponents?

MVFHR members Charisse Coleman and Gus Lamm are among those interviewed for the CNN story, "Death penalty's unlikely opponents," that ran yesterday. Here are some excerpts:

Charisse Coleman has no real compassion for the man who walked into the Thrifty Liquor Store in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1995 and put three bullets in her brother, Russell.

But she doesn't want Bobby Lee Hampton -- one of more than seven dozen killers on Louisiana's death row -- executed, either.

"My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with Bobby Lee Hampton," Coleman said. "He's a bad dude. He's never going to be a good dude. If I got a call that said Bobby Lee Hampton dropped dead in his cell last night, I don't think it would create a ripple in my pond."

She added, though, "I will be goddamned if I will let Bobby Lee Hampton make me a victim, too, by taking me down that road of bitterness and revenge."

Coleman, 50, is among the most unlikely opponents of the death penalty, people who lost loved ones to unspeakable violence yet believe executing the killer will do nothing for family members or society.

Their stance is backed by groups like Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, and their reasons aren't as religious or political as one might think. Some feel so strongly they've spoken against the death penalty even when it wasn't an option in their loved one's case.


Jan Brown of Houston said she can't pinpoint why she loathes the death penalty, but she always has, even when her 9-year-old daughter's killer was executed.

A Southern Baptist until 1984, Brown said capital punishment is tantamount to "legalized murder." She said she doesn't know when she developed her disdain. The first time she considered it may have been when she told a prosecutor she didn't want James Earhart to die, she said.

"Maybe I'm just selfish," she said. "Maybe he'd tell me what her last words were. Maybe he'd tell me why she had to die. Maybe because I think it's barbaric. Maybe if one of my children ended up in the same situation, I wouldn't want them to die."

Brown, 65, said the entire process leading up to Earhart's lethal injection was more about the perpetrator than the victim. Brown was a suspect until police found Kandy Janell Kirtland's deteriorating body, her hands bound, in a rubbish pile in Bryan, Texas. Brown said she was further devastated when protesters staged a vigil at Earhart's 1999 execution -- not for the innocent girl who never got to see fifth grade, but for her killer.

Brown said she went through 12 years of hell because a prosecutor seemed to care more about Texas' reputation for being tough on crime than about helping Kandy's family heal.

Gus Lamm said he felt the same way when his wife, Victoria Zessin, was taken at age 28. He and his daughter unsuccessfully sued the parole board -- and in the process alienated themselves from Zessin's family -- to make sure the state knew they felt capital punishment was repugnant.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

No Solace

The 10/23/11 Hartford Courant has this op-ed by MVFHR member Antoinette Bosco, "Capital Punishment No Solace To Survivors":

... I faced unspeakable torment when a Montana sheriff called in August 1993 to tell me that my son John and his beautiful wife, Nancy, had been murdered in their newly purchased home in Big Fork. We didn't know for five months who the killer was, but then we found out — it was the 18-year-old son of the people from whom John had bought the house. The killer entered through a basement window, sneaked up into their bedroom where they were sleeping and shot them to death.

Montana had only recently re-established capital punishment, and the boy, "Shadow" Clark, was facing death. I had always opposed the death penalty and my children were raised to believe as I had. I remember kneeling in that room of death with my surviving sons and we all grasped a truth so clearly — that unnatural death at the hands of another is wrong, except in a clear case of self-defense. The state is no more justified in taking a life than is an individual. Killing cannot be sanitized by calling it "official" and "legal."

And so, my then five living children and I wrote to the Montana judge asking him not to seek the death penalty for Shadow Clark. We knew it is only a delusion to believe that one's pain is ended by making someone else feel pain. We were relieved when the young murderer took a plea bargain and received a life sentence, avoiding the death penalty.

My daughter Mary expressed our belief well.

"The truth is, no one in my family ever wanted to see Shadow Clark put to death. We felt instinctively that vengeance wouldn't alleviate our grief. We wanted Clark in prison, removed from society forever, so he could never hurt another person. But watching Clark suffer and die would have done nothing to help us heal. Worse, wishing Clark would suffer and die would only have diminished us and shriveled our own souls. We had had enough pain already, dealing with the indescribable horror of our loved ones' brains and blood splattered all over their bedroom walls. We didn't need to increase our own torment by demanding more blood."

And Mary emphasized where we all stood: "Hatred doesn't heal. Mercy, compassion, moving on with life, turning toward good people, walking into the light of love as much as possible, that's what victims need. And our lawmakers have the capacity to help us do that by abolishing the death penalty and along with it, the fantasy that it will make the pain go away."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Connecticut victims' families

Connecticut member Elizabeth Brancato, whose mother was murdered in 1979, has been active in efforts to repeal Connecticut's death penalty, and she has recently started a blog, Connecticut Murder Victims' Families Speaking Out Against the Death Penalty. In her first post, Elizabeth wrote:

A few months ago, I stood with a group of individuals who had something very sad in common – we’d all lost loved ones to murder. That experience, and our subsequent experience with the criminal justice system, has convinced us that the death penalty is harmful to victims. Currently, over 80 of us have joined to together to say that if we really care about victims, we will end the death penalty.

This blog is for all victims’ family members who believe the death penalty is a policy that has failed victims. I will submit entries, but I will also ask other victims’ family members from around Connecticut to share their stories. We have different backgrounds and perspective, but are united by the belief that the death penalty system has hurt us and other survivors.

We welcome Elizabeth and other Connecticut victims' family members to the blogosphere, and look forward to linking regularly to their powerful testimony.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Speaking about how an execution affects a family

This past Sunday, Texas MVFHR member Rena Beazley and I (Susannah Sheffer) gave a presentation -- via telephone and Skype -- to law students attending a weekend training organized by the British group Amicus, which provides various kinds of assistance to capital defense attorneys in the United States. Rena, whose son was executed in 2002, spoke about her family's experience and about the effects of an execution on surviving family members. I spoke about MVFHR's No Silence, No Shame project, including some of the recommendations that we have made regarding legal recognition for families of the executed and regarding various kinds of help that should be made available. Thanks to Piers Bannister at Amicus for inviting us to make this presentation.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Glimpse of MVFHR in Mongolia

This item from Mongolia's English-language news service gives a glimpse of MVFHR's work there this week past week. More to come!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The London Declaration

One outcome of Penal Reform International's “Progressing toward abolition of the death penalty and alternative sanctions that respect international human rights standards" conference last month, at which Renny Cushing represented MVFHR, is a document called the London Declaration. The Declaration summarizes the recommendations that the participants agreed upon - participants which included government officials and representatives of civil society and inter-governmental organisations from 31 countries.

MVFHR contributed in particular to the inclusion of recommendations regarding victims' families and families of the executed. See the fourth point in this list of assertions that introduce the Declaration:

- Convinced that the death penalty undermines human dignity and can amount to cruel,inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;

- Noting that there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters criminal behaviour any more effectively than other punishments;

- Recalling that where the death penalty is retained at all, it should only be imposed for the “most serious crimes”, and after a fair trial has been granted to the accused;

- Mindful that the death penalty creates additional victims – the family members of those who have been executed – who are often forgotten, marginalised or stigmatised by society;

- Mindful that the essential aim of the penitentiary system should be the “reformation and social rehabilitation” of prisoners;

And the ninth recommendation of the Declaration says:

In recognition of the suffering of victims of violent crime and their loved ones, call upon states to:

a. ensure that all victims be treated with dignity, respect and equality throughout the criminal process, regardless of their beliefs about or position on the issue of the death penalty;

b. establish a victims’ compensation fund where there is none;

c. address the rights of victims to reconciliation or mitigation with the offender where appropriate, and provide any other psycho-social support.

We were interested to see that an Inter-Press Service article earlier this week focused specifically on the Declaration's urging of the Arab League and the African Commission on Human and People's Rights to consider developing regional protocols on the abolition of the death penalty. The Inter-Press Service article also quotes the portion of the Declaration that refers to families of the executed.

Video from South Korea interview

No photos yet from Mongolia, but we've just gotten a link to the short video that Amnesty International made during MVFHR's visit to South Korea last month, in connection with the country's 5,000th day without an execution. In this video, Renny Cushing talks about his father's murder, his opposition to the death penalty, the work of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, and why this is a crucial historical moment for South Korea.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

... and in Uganda

MVFHR members Bill Pelke and Bill Babbitt are traveling in Uganda with The Journey of Hope this week, speaking out against the death penalty at various events. They are there at the invitation of Journey of Hope member Mpagi Edward Edmary, who spent 18 years on Uganda's death row for a crime he did not commit.

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty reports that there were many events in African countries honoring World Day Against the Death Penalty yesterday:

One of the bigger events is the ‘Regional Conference on the Abolition and/or Moratorium on the Execution of the Death Penalty’ organised by the Government of Rwanda with Hands Off Cain and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, to be held in Kigali. The conference will have participants from at least 24 different African countries and representatives from the European Union and African Union. According to the organisers, “The conference aims to launch a major debate on the need to abolish the death penalty on the African continent or at least impose a moratorium on its execution across the entire Continent.”

Read the rest of the Coalition's article, which also mentions the Journey of Hope's visit.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Working for abolition in Mongolia

A delegation of MVFHR members is in Mongolia this week, working with allies to support efforts to abolish the death penalty in that country. We'll post photos and reports from the various events as soon as they're available. One of today's activities is a press conference in connection with World Day Against the Death Penalty. Here is the group's public statement:

Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty, a day when nations around the globe stand in solidarity against the use of capital punishment. Members of Murder VIctims' Families for Human Rights, a United States-based international organization, are in Mongolia on this day to lend support to those who are calling for an end to the death penalty in this country. We are meeting with other family members of murder victims to share our common pain, and we are meeting with public officials and others to explain why we oppose the death penalty. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions. Let us not respond to violence with more violence. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

Read MVFHR's general statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty.
Read about MVFHR's previous work in Mongolia.

World Day Against the Death Penalty

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is a U.S.-based international organization of family members of homicide victims and family members of people who have been executed. As survivors with a direct stake in the death penalty debate, and as people who believe in the value of basic human rights principles, we join today in the call for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

The most basic of human rights, the right to life, is violated both by homicide and by execution. We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence: let us not respond to one human rights violation with another human rights violation. Let us recognize that justice for victims is not achieved by taking another life.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of those lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

Now, over sixty years later, let us recognize that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty should not be permissible under any nation or regime. Working across state and national borders, united by our losses and our opposition to further killing, members of MVFHR call for abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Colorado

MVFHR's Renny Cushing will be the keynote speaker at the Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons conference this weekend, and will also meet with members of Coloradoans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Read MVFHR's newsletter article describing the work of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons.

Read MVFHR's newsletter issue with a feature on how unsolved murders affect victims' families.

Read more about Renny Cushing's legislation regarding victims' compensation and cold cases.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


MVFHR is mentioned in this column by Tom Hennessy in Saturday's Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram:

When Troy Davis was executed in Georgia last month for the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, opponents of capital punishment nevertheless took solace in hoping that the death penalty was on its way to being abolished.

After all, Davis had more going for him than almost any of the 1,270 U.S. prisoners put to death since 1976. About 650,000 Americans had signed petitions opposing his execution. Those pleading for his life included Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter and former FBI director William Sessions.

Seven of the original nine eyewitnesses had recanted their testimony. Thus, the possibility remained that Davis was innocent. But likely, we will never know. Once a suspect has been executed, the justice system does not encourage further investigation.

Some of those who favored the execution say they did so on the premise that the death of Davis will bring closure to the family of Officer MacPhail.

But Jeanne Woodford doubts that assessment. As former warden of San Quentin State Prison, she became so distressed by a lifetime of helping administer the death penalty that on May 12 she took on a radically different post: executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based group opposed to capital punishment. She was one of six ex-wardens opposed to the killing of Davis.

"The death penalty serves no one." Woodford has said. "It doesn't serve the victims. It doesn't serve prevention. It's truly all about retribution."

She is not alone. In the following paragraphs, 25 other notable people, widely quoted on a variety of websites, express their views on capital punishment, a subject that may well be on the California ballot next year.

A justice's view

1. "... the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr.

2. "I was eight years old when my father was murdered. It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless murder ... But even as a child, one thing was clear to me: I didn't want the killer, in turn, to be killed. I remember lying in bed and praying, `Please, God. Please don't take his life, too.' I saw nothing that could be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of another."

Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy.

3. "If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a pall of shame over our society for years to come. We cannot let it continue."

Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1990.

4. "You believe an eye for an eye until you are put in that situation. If they kill those guys, it really doesn't mean much to me. My father is gone."

Basketball player Michael Jordan on the murderers of his father, James.

5. "Government ... can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill."

Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking."

6. "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul."

Mark Twain.

Primitive nation?

7. "It's just really tragic after all the horrors of the last 1,000 years we can't leave behind something as primitive as government-sponsored execution."

Sen. Russ Feingold.

8. "To top it off, for those of you who are interested in the economics, it costs more to pursue a capital case toward execution than it does to have full life imprisonment without parole."

Ralph Nader.

9. "Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order."

George Will.

10. "A humane and generous concern for every individual, his health and his fulfillment, will do more to soothe the savage heart than the fear of state-inflicted death, which chiefly serves to remind us how close we remain to the jungle."

U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

11. "When you execute a man who has been on death row seven, eight, 10 or 12 years, you are not executing the same man that came in."

Don Cabana, former warden of Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary.

12. "Here I want to say that one must be careful in searching his soul ... one may just find that God is there and that he does not support the barbaric idea that man should execute man."

Ron McAndrew, former warden of Florida State Prison.

13. "To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn't really help anyone in the healing process."

Bud Welch, board president, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. His daughter, Julie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

14. "No man has the right to take God's place and say another man should die. It destroyed my life."

Perry Cobb, who spent eight years on Illinois' death row for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated in 1987.

District attorney's view

15. "California's death penalty is ... an incredibly costly penalty, and the money would be better spent keeping kids in school, keeping teachers and counselors in their schools and giving the juvenile justice system the resources it needs."

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti.

16. "Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders."

French philosopher Albert Camus.

17. "My overriding belief is that it is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this."

The Dalai Lama.

18. "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty."

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

19. "To say that the death of any other person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims."

Marietta Jaeger. Her daughter, Susie, age 7, was kidnapped and murdered in 1973.

20. "I do not think that God approved the death penalty for any crime, rape and murdered included. Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."

Martin Luther King Jr.

21. "I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don't think it's human to become an Angel of Death."

Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

22. "The reality is that capital punishment in America is a lottery. It is a punishment that is shaped by the constraints of poverty, race, geography and local politics."

Bryan Stevenson, death row lawyer.

23. "Most people approve of capital punishment, but most people wouldn't do the hangman's job."

George Orwell.

24. "I believe that no one should be executed, guilty or innocent. There are appropriate sanctions that protect society and punish wrongdoers without forcing us to stoop to the level of the least among us at his or her worst moment."

Actor and activist Mike Farrell.

25. "I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished."

Jack Kemp, Republican vice presidential candidate, 1996.