Friday, April 29, 2011

I'm still against it

From the April 25th Tennessean, "Executing brother's killer would be the second wrong," by William W. McDermet:

I vividly remember that November 1994 phone call from our Vermont brother. Following a brief greeting, Stewart said: “We think Jim is dead.” My response was, “What you mean, you think?”

He related he had just received a call from the Topeka, Kan., police that a body had been found in Jim’s apartment, and they believed it was Jim, but had yet to do fingerprinting. I recall putting my head down on the desk and crying. Stewart could only say, “I know, I know.” Indeed it was Jim’s body. On Nov. 12, 1994, the day after what would have been Jim’s 45th birthday, we remembered him with a memorial service. The following Monday, we buried his broken body next to our grandmother in a small cemetery in Kiowa County, Kan. That weekend was painful beyond what any words could describe.

Another brother, Staley, and I attended the trial of Jim’s murderer. The trial began on March 28, 1995. The facts were that on Nov. 9, 1994, Jim was murdered in his Topeka apartment. The district attorney termed it “one of the most brutal murders ever in this county.” In the trial, the coroner testified that Jim received 63 blows with a knife and iron tools, and that he was “still alive” when he received those blows. Listening to that god-awful account, something within me died that day.

To put a face on this tragedy, I’ll tell you about Jim. James Turner McDermet was born in Lincoln, Neb., the youngest of four sons. Jim grew up in a kind and loving family. He was happy, yet reserved. He participated in activities, but was not a leader. He lost sight in one eye early in his life, yet he read everything, especially history.

Jim was the person you wanted on your side when you played Trivial Pursuit. “What was King George III eating for lunch on March 10, 1819?” Jim knew. Jim would never, ever harm anyone. When I phoned two of our daughters to tell them their Uncle Jim had been murdered, they softly wept and said, “Why would anyone kill Jim? He was so kind.” The New Testament would call him “meek,” one of God’s special people.

No chance for rehabilitation

Since the 1960s, I have maintained an attitude against capital punishment — a concept that says: “We kill people who kill people to prove that killing people is wrong!” As a clergy person, I believe the Christian gospel is a redemptive gospel. The “old” concept of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is one that makes for a blind and toothless society. Even while Jesus of Nazareth was being killed, he said, “Father, forgive them.”

There is much evidence that the death penalty is unequally applied, falling mainly on the poor, the friendless, the mentally unstable and minority groups. There is always the possibility (as has been the case, especially with DNA testing), that the innocent are on death row or are killed. The possibility of rehabilitation is gone.

Following Jim’s death, and the sad experience of the trial, and knowing my beliefs, a relative asked me, “Now, what do you think about capital punishment?” I responded, “I’m still against it.” And I am. How do I feel toward the person who murdered Jim? Anger. Anger, with a capital “A.” Yet, would I feel better, or satisfied, if Jim’s murderer was killed? No.

So, the state of Tennessee does not have enough “death” drugs to kill anyone on death row. I, too, feel the pain of having a loved one murdered. However, this is a good time for Tennesseans to consider getting rid of capital punishment.

William W. McDermet III is a retired Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor who lives in Pleasant Hill in Cumberland County.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Remembering Marie Deans - Part 3

We conclude our series of remembrances with reflections from victim-abolitionists Pat Bane and Renny Cushing. In this photo, Pat shares a moment with Marie at the Healing the Wounds of Murder conference at Boston College in 2001.

Pat writes:

In 1980, I was living in Syracuse, N. Y. and corresponding with Paul Ruiz, a man on Arkansas’s death row. One day he sent me a copy of an article printed in the Fellowship of Reconciliation newsletter with a note attached that simply said, “This woman is as crazy as you are.” The article was about Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and the woman was Marie Deans. I read it and immediately dropped a note to Marie telling her that my uncle, my father’s brother, died as a result of a mugging and that I was a member of a local group called People Against the Death Penalty. Within a short time, Marie phoned me and that call began a friendship which spanned over three decades.

Marie was a woman who lived her convictions every day of her life. She worked tirelessly on behalf of people on death row. I collected signatures for her in her efforts to save the life of Joe Giarratano, and later met Joe when MVFR sponsored the Peace Studies program he began at Augusta Correctional Facility in Virginia. Joe’s life was spared when Gov. Doug Wilder commuted his sentence to life, but Marie never gave up hope that one day he would be free. During a Journey of Hope, Marie left the MVFR group to fly home and be with Dennis Stockton at his execution in Virginia. She arrived at the prison but was not allowed to see Dennis and was deeply upset that he died without knowing she had kept her promise to be with him at the end. She suffered with a migraine headache for days after.

These and so many more efforts were more than the work of an abolitionist; rather, they were the work of a friend. Marie’s friendship with Joe continued until her death. She knew so many MVFR members personally and remembered their stories. For her, there was no difference between families of people executed by the state and families of murder victims. Despite objections by some, she was always a friend to both.

That is the way I remember Marie, as a dear friend. We traveled together, I slept on her couch many weekends and smile as I remember her referring to my white nightshirt as my “mental patient gown.” During my years as executive director of MVFR, we often talked late into the night planning events, strategizing, venting our frustrations, laughing and just sharing our feelings. When my friend Paul Ruiz was put to death in a triple execution, it was Marie I called because I knew she truly understood the horror of such a travesty in the guise of justice .

In recent years though we saw less of one another, we kept in touch with phone calls and emails sharing important events in our lives. I visited her in Charlottesville when she bought her home there. Her wry sense of humor came through when she always sent just the right birthday card, and I cherish the thoughtful gifts she sent. These last few years, Marie gave me a magazine subscription for Christmas so I thought of her each month when it arrived and sometimes dropped her an email about a great article or recipe in it. On the day her son Robert called to tell me about her illness, a copy arrived.

We never got to say goodbye, but we didn’t have to. She knew how I would feel.

The people we love may leave us physically, but they are always close at hand. Every member of a murder victims’ family understands that and never stops feeling the connection with those who have gone on before us.

And Renny writes:

I first met Marie Deans at the 1998 “National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty” at Northwestern University. It was my first time at a death penalty abolition event. Marie gave me an overview of the movement and of victims’ role within it. She told me a lot about what it had been like for her to be a pioneer as a victim interacting with both the abolition movement and with victims’ organizations.

As I got to know Marie, I always appreciated that she had a broad sense of social justice, not limited to the death penalty. I appreciated that she saw her death penalty work in the context of other social justice concerns.

I remember Marie’s keynote speech at the “Healing the Wounds of Murder” conference at Boston College in 2001, the first and so far only national gathering of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. In that speech, Marie described the continuity and growth of the role of victims within the abolition movement. She talked about how you build a movement and about her awareness that the abolition movement historically had a difficult time really understanding victims and their role within the movement.

Marie said to me once, “If you’re going to be a victim who speaks out against the death penalty, you have to be prepared sometimes to be the only one.” I thought of that often when I found myself sitting among a group of victims and being the only one to speak against the death penalty. Along with Pat Bane, Marie was my mentor in this work, the pioneer who taught me and shared experiences with me and provided the foundation upon which I’ve tried to work.

In recent years, Marie was always a helpful resource for Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. We consulted with her when preparing our Double Tragedies report about mental illness and the death penalty, and on other matters related to victims and the abolition movement. She was always there to offer advice and wisdom.

Marie’s death is a tremendous loss to the abolition movement and especially to those of us who have a victim identity. Part of her legacy, though, is that today there is increased awareness of the importance of victims within the larger discussion of the death penalty and of what public policy should be in the aftermath of murder. I doubt this greater awareness would exist had Marie Deans not initiated the conversation.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Remembering Marie Deans - Part 2

Here are remembrances from two long-time capital defense attorneys who worked with Marie. First, from Dick Burr:

I had some contact with Marie for several years before 1987 through the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, but my most intense experience with her was in connection with Joe Giarratano’s case, from 1987 – 1991. I took on Joe’s representation in 1987 when much of the litigation had already occurred. I did not think much more could be done – even though I was faced with a client who insisted he was innocent. Marie had worked on Joe’s case as an investigator and a mitigation specialist and a strategist long before I became involved, and along the way she became Joe’s friend and came to believe in Joe. Over time, she opened my eyes to the very real possibility that Joe was innocent and doggedly helped pursue and develop the evidence of Joe’s innocence. At every turn, Marie helped me and the rest of the team see clearly that which had before been murky. Marie was persistent, usually (but not always) patient, and seemingly indefatigable.

Though we ultimately failed in the courts, we succeeded in part in clemency proceedings, persuading then-Gov. Doug Wilder to grant clemency to Joe in 1991. Thus, Joe joined the cast of other innocents who were saved from execution but were not provided the remedy they really deserved. Along the way, Marie had the vision and the pull to get Mike Farrell involved in Joe’s case. Mike’s stirring advocacy for Joe provided a new voice that got attention in Virginia like no other had before, and Mike’s support became a critical factor in Gov. Wilder’s decision to commute Joe’s death sentence.

The role that Marie played in Joe Giarratano’s case was what she did so often and so well. She got to the truth of the matter and helped others get there, too, facilitating and bringing out the best in others along the way. She was a catalyst that brought out the best in the people with whom she worked.

We will miss Marie dearly. She made us all better for having known her and worked with her. Marie was a rare and truly extraordinary human being.

And from Marshall Dayan:

Marie Deans was one of my mentors in the work to abolish capital punishment in the United States. I will miss her greatly. I met Marie shortly after she moved from South Carolina to Virginia, after her mother-in-law was killed in a homicide. Marie was working for the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons to ensure that Virginia death row inmates had post-conviction counsel, because the Commonwealth of Virginia did not, and still does not, as far as I know, provide counsel to indigents who wished to file state habeas corpus petitions challenging their convictions and/or death sentences. She worked to ensure that the habeas lawyers for Virginia’s death row inmates raised issues of federal constitutional dimension so that they could litigate those issues in federal habeas corpus proceedings.

Before there were Capital Habeas Units, or even federal death penalty resource centers, Marie in Virginia, Patsy Morris in Georgia, Scharlette Holdman in Florida, and Lao Rubert in North Carolina, made sure that death row inmates had able counsel for post-conviction proceedings. But for Marie’s work, and Patsy’s, Scharlette’s and Lao’s, far more executions would have taken place, and more quickly. Their work, and especially Marie’s in Virginia, saved lives, and made the prosecuting agencies work harder at getting the executions they sought by helping poor people get quality counsel. Additionally, Marie publicized the errors that beset Virginia's capital sentencing system, raising public consciousness of the flaws in that system.

I was a law student at that time, and I transferred to Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. I occasionally drove to Richmond, Virginia to attend vigils that Marie had organized on the nights that executions took place in the now-closed state penitentiary in Richmond. At the vigil preceding James Briley’s execution in the spring of 1985, Marie asked me to take a Virginia capital post-conviction case when I graduated from law school. Marie was absolutely and completely committed to the men on Virginia’s death row, and often was with them in the days and hours before their executions. I promised her I would; I never learned how to say “no” to Marie. Scharlette, Patsy, and Lao were all good at pleading with attorneys for help in representing death row inmates, but none was better than Marie, who was able to make Virginia's situation seem so much worse than anywhere else in the country. Sure enough, my first case as an attorney was the pro bono representation of David Pruett, whom I represented from October, 1986 through December, 1993, when he was executed.

I remember when Marie called me on July 4, 1990. She asked me to handle a second round of post-conviction litigation on behalf of Ricky Boggs, who was scheduled to be executed on July 19, 1990. There was new evidence, she said, that Ricky had fetal alcohol syndrome. I never worked harder in my life. For the next two weeks, I worked at least 20 hours a day. Marie and I were on the phone daily, talking about the evidence of FAS, what trial counsel had failed to do, and how to integrate the FAS claim into Boggs' clemency package for the governor.

We did not prevail, and Ricky Boggs was executed as scheduled. If I am not mistaken, Marie was at the prison with Ricky when the word came from the U.S. Supreme Court that it was not going to issue a stay of execution in the case. Marie and I talked on the phone just after she got that news. We spoke at about 8:30 that night. We cried together on the phone, after which I went to sleep, not waiting for the inevitable. Boggs’ cert. petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied on July 19, 1990, just before his execution. The next day, Justice William Brennan, Jr., announced his retirement from the Court. Boggs's case was the last capital case in which Justice Brennan joined Justice Thurgood Marshall in their regular and famous dissent, “[a]dhering to our views that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, I would grant certiorari, reverse the death sentence and remand for sentencing consistent with this opinion.”

Many have written about Marie within the last week since she passed away, and all of those remembrances describe the passion, commitment, humor, faith, and perseverance that marked her character. I will always remember her gravelly laugh and ribald sense of humor, her sparkling eyes, and her humility. She rarely took or accepted credit. John Kennedy said that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. While many can claim significant roles, Marie was hugely responsible for saving the lives of Joe Giarratano and Earl Washington, two former Virginia death row inmates.

I spent a good deal of time around Marie in the midst of the struggle to develop the evidence to convince Governor Wilder to grant clemency to Joe Giarratano. I learned a lot from her during that campaign. She was adamant that the campaign be local; she made it clear that beyond national and international figures of respect, such as the Pope, the campaign had to be led and driven by Virginians who became convinced that the case against Joe was flimsy. She did not want, and dissuaded people from garnering, a lot of correspondence from outside of Virginia. She understood that Governor Wilder would have to be persuaded that Virginians wanted him to grant clemency to Joe. I remember how excited she would get as she would reiterate over and over the facts that led to the conclusion that Joe was probably innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. As happy as she was that Governor Wilder commuted Joe's death sentence, she was always frustrated that Joe had to remain behind bars, a frustration she avoided with Earl Washington's case. Beyond saving those lives, he enriched the lives of many, many others, including one abolitionist and capital litigator who can only hope to leave a shadow as large as the one left by Marie Deans.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In the Easter season

Manya Brachear from the Chicago Tribune contacted MVFHR a few weeks ago, and this piece, "Radical forgiveness in the Easter season," was published yesterday. The online version includes several photos.

Their loved ones were murdered. Suddenly. Horrifically. Needlessly. Yet none of them wanted the killers to die too.

Inspired by their Christian faith, they fought capital punishment in Illinois, and on March 9, they saw that goal fulfilled and the death penalty abolished.

Christians view Easter's triumph of life over death as a particularly poignant reminder of what Christ's resurrection means for humanity, the scope of God's love and our own capacity for forgiveness.

But the journey has not been the same for everyone. One woman has finally summoned the strength to utter the name of the man who killed her sister 21 years ago and pray for him on Easter for the first time. Another woman, remembering the childhood lessons of Easter, immediately forgave her father's killers, but she can't forgive God six years after the murder.

'Safe in God's arms'

On Palm Sunday, April 8, 1990, Jeanne Bishop was standing in the aisle of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, holding a palm and a choir folder when the call came in that her sister Nancy, brother-in-law Richard and their unborn child had been slain by an armed intruder.

Weeping in the church office, she started to question God.

"I know Nancy would have been praying from the moment she walked into her home and saw his gun," she said. "I wasn't so angry at the killer. I get that people have free choice and choose to do evil. I was more mad at God for not hearing her prayer and answering it and saving her life."

But when details from the Winnetka crime scene emerged a week later, Bishop's anger subsided. As her sister lay dying, she had scrawled a heart and the letter """U""" in her own blood.

"I knew they were safe in God's arms at that moment," said Bishop, 51. """In her dying moments, she is thinking of love, giving a message of love. She's not thinking bitterness and revenge. God had to be so present with her at that moment. She was going to the love that created her, sustained her and gave his son for her. That was such a big help for me."

Bishop, a Cook County public defender, had always opposed the death penalty. The death of her sister energized that opposition. She couldn't support putting more families through the same grief. After all, the killer, 16 at the time, was somebody's son, Bishop thought.

Until this year, she had never once allowed the name of her sister's killer to cross her lips. But when she visits her sister's grave on Easter Sunday, she will pray for David Biro, who is now 37 and serving three life sentences.

"Easter is always such a reminder that violence and death are not the last word," she said. "They don't have power over us. Love and the love of God is the most powerful force on Earth and are eternal. This year as never before, I'm seeing that I not only need to love Nancy and Richard and the baby, I need to love the person who took their lives, love them the way God loves them. That's so brand new to me and makes me see so many things differently. … I feel a stone has been rolled away from my heart."

'So much doubt'

Hannah Yoo isn't sure her father went to heaven. She scorns God for that uncertainty — if there is a God. She's not even sure about that anymore.

But because her Christian upbringing reinforced forgiveness every Easter, Yoo, 28, has been able to absolve his killers. She sought support from death penalty opponents Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and soon became a spokeswoman.

"It came naturally to me," said Yoo, a tax attorney who now lives in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. "Christ died for our sins. The whole thing about Easter is he paid the price so we could be forgiven for everything. … If I hadn't embraced that doctrine and embraced that truth, I don't think I would have been able to forgive the murderer as easily as I have."

But Yoo can't forgive God for taking her father, Kenneth — the one family member who, as far as she knows, had not accepted Christ as his savior. In Seoul, South Korea, on family business, Yoo's father was stabbed in the neck, chest and back in the parking lot at Olympic Stadium in May 2005.

"I don't know where his soul will be,""" Hannah Yoo said. """My last conversation with him about his salvation didn't give me any assurance."

Since her father's murder, Yoo's faith has not been the same, she said.

"I haven't been able to go to church or listen or sing the praise songs without breaking down," Yoo said. """I read the Bible every day when I was a child. I don't know how I went from there to having so much doubt."""

Though Yoo can't shake her doubts about God and other people, the one thing she does not question is the value of sacrifice — both for strangers and those she loves.

"The characteristic I respect the most is being able to sacrifice and give and not expect anything in return,"" she said. "On Easter, God didn't have to do that, but it's a beautiful story of how he loved us so much that he gave the ultimate sacrifice — his only son. … I grew up with that and always aspired to be like that. I've held on to that."

As Yoo goes through the sacred motions of Easter this year with her mother at a church in Mount Prospect, she will continue to mourn her father. But she will celebrate the legal victory of life over death, in the form of Illinois' decision to ban the death penalty.

'Coming back to life'

Gail Rice lost her brother Bruce VanderJagt to 10 shots in the head and torso with an assault rifle on Nov. 12, 1997, in Denver. But when Rice became a voice against the death penalty, she eventually lost a close bond with his wife and daughter.

Many death-penalty opponents face rejection for taking a stand that can be so misunderstood.

"I certainly would have done anything I could to prevent (his murder)," said Rice, 63, of Palos Heights. "I am fully in favor of having the strongest possible punishment short of the death penalty to anyone who kills police or correctional officers."

A longtime prison literacy volunteer, Rice already opposed the death penalty. She had seen the different kinds of justice doled out to the rich and poor and wasn't convinced that the death penalty could be administered fairly.

When she lost her brother, who was a Denver police officer, she decided to choose love and forgiveness rather than revenge. But that choice didn't necessarily come from compassion for the woman who was the killer's accomplice, Lisl Auman. (The killer, Matthaeus Jaehnig, committed suicide at the crime scene.

"You forgive for yourself," said Rice, a member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest. "I don't know if (Auman) would care at all whether I've forgiven her or not. All I know is that it's given me the ability to lead a different kind of life than if I was holding on to hatred."

Timid at first, she became a strident voice for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, another group that opposes the death penalty.

This Easter is a celebration of restoration on many levels, Rice said. Victims' families can move on with their lives. Convicted men and women can spend the rest of their lives seeking justice, mercy or both. Rice said she is particularly pleased that state money set aside to cover capital punishment litigation now will be donated to hire more police officers and support victims' families.

"Easter is about restoration," she said. "With the death penalty abolished, murder victims' family members will really be freed to get on with their life. They won't be going back and forth , carrying this false hope that can only be cured with this execution.

"Because of it, people are going to live. People are going to find hope. People are going to find it easier to forgive. People are going to be able to love and not hold on to hate. Easter is about coming back to life."

Continue reading.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Remembering Marie Deans - Part 1

Sister Helen Prejean sent us this poem that she wrote when she learned of Marie Deans’s death:

Oh no.
We have lost Marie.
We mourn our loss,
But God has gained her,
wrapped her round in luminous
darkness. Now, in faith we know
she abides in the hearts of us all.
Now, in hope we work and strive
In her zesty, indomitable spirit for
Justice to come to the downtrodden,
the despised, the disposed of in prisons
Across this land. Thank you, Marie, for
the gift of your precious life.

Sending us the poem, Sister Helen wrote, “Add to the list of downtrodden, etc, what she has done to help give victims' families a voice. She was one of the first to do that in honor of her mother-in-law Penny.”

Todd C. Peppers’s piece, “Celebrating the Life of a Death Penalty Pioneer,” was posted on the Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty site earlier this week. It begins:

On April 15, 2011, the death penalty community lost one of its pioneers with the death of Marie McFadden Deans. For three decades, Marie fought on multiple fronts – from working to bring basic conditions of decency to the men who inhabited Virginia’s death row and refining the use of mitigation evidence in death penalty trials to struggling to exonerate factually innocent men. Her contributions to the fight against the death penalty cannot be exaggerated.

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Marie came to social activism at an early age as she joined protesters who dared to integrate lunch counters in the South. Her devotion to abolishing the death penalty was sparked by the brutal murder of her beloved mother-in-law Penny Deans by an escaped convict. In the face of such a horrific loss, Marie responded by founding Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization, in Marie’s own words, designed to give those who opposed the death penalty “a voice” and “a safe place from which they could speak out.” Marie also joined Amnesty International and toured some of the more notorious death rows across the country - documenting the widespread abuses and providing needed data to litigate the cruel and unusual conditions routinely imposed on the rows’ forgotten inhabitants.

Read the rest of the piece here.

MVFHR board member and Journey of Hope co-founder Bill Pelke posted a remembrance on the Journey of Hope blog, looking back at Marie’s involvement in the Journey’s first speaking tours.

Victim’s family member Aba Gayle, who remembers speaking together with Marie on one of those early Journeys, writes now:

Marie was without ego and was reluctant to take credit for her work. I remember when we were in the Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia. The place was jammed. Marie was introduced and the place went wild. She just stood there humbly and accepted the applause. I am very sad that we have lost such a beautiful light. I will always remember Marie for her courage and love for all of us. The world is a far better place because Marie Deans was part of it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Don't execute in our name

From Friday's Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, this letter by Jean Parks, "Don't execute people in the name of victims' families":

There are lots of reasons for our great state to abolish the death penalty. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. It drains our budget of millions of dollars more than life without parole. Innocent people have been exonerated after spending years on death row, and problems in evidence handling continue to emerge. State executions violate the sanctity of life.

Death penalty supporters often respond to these reasons with an emotional trump card. They say the murder victims deserve to have the killers executed, and their families want the death penalty. The conversation usually stops there.

But wait a minute. A growing number of murder victim family members oppose the death penalty. I know, because I am one of them. My sister was murdered in Raleigh in 1975. We believe that executions do not bring honor to our loved ones. Instead, executions continue the cycle of violence and create another grieving family.

Instead of arguing about the Racial Justice Act, legislators should repeal the death penalty. If they won't do that, at least let them stop supporting it in my name and the name of other victim family members.

In Memoriam: Marie Deans

We were deeply saddened to learn that Marie Deans died this past Friday, April 15. Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch has this obituary.

Marie was a writer, organizer, and fierce advocate who dedicated herself to almost every aspect of death penalty abolition work. She ran the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, assisted in hundreds of capital trials, investigated – as a mitigation specialist – the life stories of defendants facing the death penalty, and served as a companion to almost three dozen prisoners in the final days before their executions.

Marie’s mother-in-law, Penny, was murdered in 1972, and Marie was clear that she did not believe in the death penalty for the person responsible for taking Penny’s life. As she put it years later,

Raised as a Lutheran, I was taught and wholly believe that I cannot justify my sins by the sins of another, and we cannot justify executions by the acts of those who kill. Such actions only take us deeper into imitating and becoming that which we despise.

The death penalty is a false God promising to bring justice and closure to victims’ families. We did not seek closure. We sought healing, a way to get beyond the ‘legal case’ and back to the memories that honored Penny. As for justice, there is no justice for murder. You cannot give enough time in prison and you cannot kill enough people to make up for the precious, unique human life that murder takes. Instead, we must put the vast resources we spend on killing a small percentage of murderers into preventing homicides.

Marie saw that the common and unquestioned assumption was that family members of murder victims would be in favor of the death penalty. “People expected victims’ family members to prove their love for their murdered family member by seeking revenge through the death penalty,” she recalled in 2003. “We needed help in dealing with our anger, pain, and fear, yet we were isolated by the assumptions of others. Breaking out of that isolation meant challenging those assumptions publicly.”

Marie founded and began to organize a group of families of murder victims who opposed the death penalty, a group that later took the name Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. She had been powerfully affected by a personal message she had received from the sister of the man who had murdered Penny, and she wanted to include families of people who had been executed in the new organization. When she put that idea to the victims’ families she was talking with, “They all agreed. None wanted to extend their pain and grief to another family, and what better way to make that point than to have both families working together.”

Another example of bringing people together was the story Marie often told about a talk she gave to a historically pro-death penalty victims’ group in the 1980s. Having heard that the speaker was opposed to the death penalty, several of the audience members arrived at the talk carrying nooses. But as Marie began to speak, the nooses came down and the audience began to listen. At the end, one audience member came up to Marie and said, “I had no idea you’d been where we are. I had no idea you felt the same things.”

There is a great deal more to say about Marie, and we hope that more of her own writing will be available in some form even though she was not able to complete the book she had been working on in recent years. We are aiming to post some further recollections of Marie here in the coming days.

For now, our thoughts are with Marie's family and the many people whose lives she affected. We'll end this post with a comment from Marie that sums up so much of her thinking and, of course, is at the heart of the “for victims, against the death penalty” message: “If we truly cared about victims, we would put all our knowledge and resources into saving them. Crime prevention, not retaliation, should be our number one goal.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New page in Gallery of Victims' Stories

We've added Kathy Dillon's story to our online Gallery of Victims' Stories. Kathy, whose father, a New York State trooper, was murdered in 1974, was also featured in our newsletter story about families of law enforcement who oppose the death penalty.

Kathy says, “Perhaps if I truly believed that [the death penalty] protects police officers, then in some ways I might feel differently about it. But I don’t believe that it does. Even in the case of my father’s murder, the death penalty was in place in New York State for first-degree murder of a police officer, but it didn’t protect him that day. And for me, it always comes down to my belief that humans shouldn’t have the power to decide who lives and who dies. I feel that it is wrong for one person to take the life of another, either in an attack of violence or in response to violence.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

It harms survivors

From the April 14th Stamford (CT) Advocate, "Death penalty harms survivors":

I know all too well the horror of murder. My brother David Froehlich and four of his friends were murdered by their landlord, Geoff Ferguson in Georgetown, Connecticut in 1995. My experience with the prosecution of my brother's killer and my observance of our state's use of the death penalty has led me to the conclusion that Connecticut's death penalty divides and harms surviving family members.

First, the death penalty can divide the family and friends of victims at a time when they need each other the most. I can assure you that all family members who lose a loved one to murder want to recover their shattered sense of safety. We all want to know that the person who caused such irreparable harm is held accountable and kept from harming others. However that doesn't mean we're all on the same page about whether we'd favor the death penalty over life imprisonment.

When my brother was killed, I was very concerned that the case would become a capital case and potentially create a division between those of us who reject the death penalty and those who believe it is useful. All families represent many viewpoints about many issues, including capital punishment. No family needs to engage in the traumatic death penalty debate when we are at our most vulnerable. This can cause real additional lasting pain.

Second, the death penalty in Connecticut divides victims by attempting to reserve it for the "most heinous" crimes. I just don't know what that means. Every family who loses a loved one to murder sees their crime as the most heinous. How do we choose which victims are worthy of seeking the ultimate punishment? I was against the death penalty before my brother's murder and remained so after, but I must share that it was baffling and hurtful that his case, where five young men were murdered, was not deemed worthy of the death penalty. We as human beings are just not capable of deciding the "worst of the worst," and it is insulting to victims that we try.

So what are we left with? We have a death penalty in Connecticut that spends millions and millions of dollars a year to try to execute a handful of people. The press's obsession with death penalty cases puts the victims' families through decades of constant media attention with no end in sight. Meanwhile, most of us never hear about the rest of the murder victim family members in the state -- the silent majority of victims deemed unworthy of sensational capital cases. These families need our help and support, too. There are many who need help with funeral expenses and important services to help them process and begin to heal from the trauma. It is offensive to me that these needs are unmet while an expensive, failed death penalty policy remains on our books.

The death penalty in Connecticut fails all victims. It fails the very few who obtain a death sentence and are subjected to a never-ending judicial process, and it fails the rest who are not noticed and could use the resources being wasted.

Catherine Ednie is a Stamford resident.

Executions fail to deliver closure

From Kentucky's Public News Service; thanks to Pat Delahanty in Kentucky for passing this along:

KY Study: Executions Fail to Deliver Closure for Victims' Families

April 15, 2011

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two University of Louisville sociologists say justifications for the death penalty are relying less on traditional arguments of crime deterrence, perceived cost-savings and public safety – and more on the notions of serving justice and offering closure to the victim's surviving family members.

However, their study shows a backlash against that rationale in a growing victims' clemency movement, as well as recent data that indicates a death sentence rarely eases the emotional pain for families. Coauthor Ryan Schroeder, assistant professor of sociology, says states justify executions by shifting the onus onto victims.

"And, instead of abandoning their support for the death penalty, they've now turned to the justification of closure - that we need the death penalty to help the families. That the families need the death penalty in order to obtain to this emotional catharsis, that we call 'closure.'"

Schroeder says studies reveal most victims' families don't earn that peace of mind during the death penalty process, or even after an execution. The researchers analyzed newspaper accounts of capital offense trials from 1992-2009 to track the trends. The study is found in a recent edition of Western Criminology Review, and online at

The study's lead researcher, Thomas Mowen, is a graduate student and University of Louisville instructor. He says a murderer's execution is not a soothing salve for many surviving family members, as they still feel victimized, and cites a 2007 study that makes that point.

"Only 2.5 percent of co-victims actually reported that the death penalty brought them closure. And, that includes people that were advocates for the death penalty from the very beginning. At the conclusion, it turns out that almost no one experienced closure at the end of the death penalty process."

In fact, adds Mowen, the expectation of closure from a death sentence is shown to cause even more suffering by surviving family members, and they often turn in opposition to the measure.

"And, so there's been this rise of co-victim opposition, but it's gone relatively unnoticed by the justice system and the American public."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Kentucky is among 34 states with the death penalty. Illinois recently repealed its death penalty, and several other states have considered similar legislation this year.
Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spring Newsletter!

MVFHR's Spring/Summer newsletter is in the mail and also available online. In it you'll find

* An interview with Jeffrey Dion, who was 14 years old when his sister, Paulette, was murdered by a serial killer. Jeff talks about how this tragedy affected him as a child and how it informs his work as a victim advocate. He also discusses how the death penalty abolition movement is viewed by the organized victims' community.

* Testimony from victims' families against the death penalty in Lebanon

* Kate Lowenstein writing about the courage it takes for victims to speak publicly, and how the abolition movement can support victims as speakers

* And our usual roundup of victim opposition to the death penalty in the news, testimony from our members, and updates about MVFHR's work around the world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Today in Connecticut

Today in Connecticut, religious leaders are holding a news conference at the state capitol, calling for abolition of the death penalty. They are presenting to lawmakers a letter signed by 350 religious leaders.

As part of a series of events that the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty has organized this week, MVFHR's Bud Welch will be speaking at venues around the state over the next three days. CNADP has the info.

Here's the Post-Chronicle's story about tonight's event:

MILFORD - The father of an Oklahoma City bombing victim, Bud Welch, will speak against the death penalty, Tuesday, April 5, 7 p.m., at St. Gabriel Church Hall, 50 Broadway.

On April 19, 1995, Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie, and 167 others were killed in the bomb blast that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. Bud had always opposed the death penalty but Julie’s death prompted bouts of anger, pain, hatred and revenge. He longed to see Timothy McVeigh (who was eventually tried and convicted of the bombing and executed) dead.

After months of agony Welch began to question his desire for revenge. He realized that nothing positive would arise from McVeigh’s execution. “It was hatred and revenge that made me want to see him dead and those two things were the very reason that Julie and 167 others were dead,” he said. He also remembered Julie’s comments that executions were only “teaching children to hate.”

Mr. Welch was moved to reach out to McVeigh’s family. Since this experience, Welch has traveled the country speaking out against the death penalty. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America, and has written pieces for both Time and Newsweek.

Welch is a board member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation and met with President Clinton at the White House to present the plans for the national memorial.

The toll it inflicts

From today's Baltimore Sun, this letter to the editor by Vivian Brown Penda, "Death penalty punishes families of victims":

As a mother who lost a son to murder, my heart goes out to the family of Sarah Haley Foxwell, who was killed in December 2009. I am sure it is a relief for them that Sarah's murderer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. ("Convicted sex offender pleads guilty in killing of 11-year-old," March 30.)

Having the legal case finally resolved allows the family to focus on healing. Contrast this outcome to what would have happened if prosecutors had continued to pursue a death sentence. The case would surely have dragged on for years — decades even if a death sentence had resulted.

Each appeal would summon up memories of the crime and cause her family to relive her tragic death. And each delay in court would hinder the family's ability to move forward from the crime.

At a recent hearing in Annapolis, I spoke for 59 Marylanders who have lost family members to murder, urging legislators to end the death penalty in our state. We know that capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process. A life without parole sentence keeps society safe, holds killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts and starts as soon as we leave the courtroom.

There is a broader lesson here for prosecutors and Maryland legislators. It's time they recognize the toll that the death penalty process inflicts on the loved ones of murder victims. Maryland should stop wasting huge resources seeking death in a tiny fraction of murders and instead focus on meeting the needs of the vast majority of our murder victims' families.

Vivian Brown Penda, Silver Spring

The writer serves on the board of directors of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Friday, April 1, 2011

To make positive change

Vicki and Syl Schieber spoke at Pennsylvania's Lycoming College last night and this morning's Williamsport Sun-Gazette has this story, "Daughter murdered; couple still oppose the death penalty":

"If you can't stand by your principles when things are difficult, then they're not your principles," Vicki Schieber, opponent of capital punishment, told an audience at Lycoming College on Thursday night.

In 1998, Schieber's daughter, Shannon, was raped and murdered in her Philadelphia apartment by a serial rapist.

She said police were called to the scene but, hearing nothing, the two officers left, while the rapist strangled Shannon.

The Schiebers, of Maryland, decided to use Shannon's death as an opportunity, in their opinion, to make positive change in society and advocate for the elimination of the death penalty throughout the country.

"People don't expect the story to come from a murder victim's family," she said. "We have been through hell. This story is about the journey."

Schieber and her husband, Sylvester, were raised in large Catholic families and took to heart the Christian principles with which they were raised, particularly that life is sacred.

Even the life of the man who raped and murdered their daughter.

In 2002, after the man had been apprehended in Fort Collins, Colo., the district attorney in Philadelphia wanted to make the Schieber's tragedy into a capital case.

But, the Schiebers did not wish to seek the death penalty, and the man pleaded guilty in late April. He was sentenced life in prison without the possibility of parole a month later.

Sylvester Schieber said the average tenure of a capital punishment case in the state of Pennsylvania is 17 years. Had the Schiebers pursued the death penalty, they still would be working through the process, unable to receive closure and put Shannon's death behind them.

"We could let go and move on with our lives because we got what we were looking for," he said.

The couple said victims' families who pursue the death penalty often are consumed with anger and hatred because of how many times they have to relive the crimes throughout the lengthy court process.

The process, they said, costs more than keeping someone in prison for life and the money could be used more effectively to rehabilitate the criminal.

"We have been able to heal in so many different ways," Vicki Schieber said. "We are asking you to think about this issue and really examine it."

According to her, the United States ranks fifth in the world for the number of executions performed. North Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia rank ahead of the U.S.

"You are known by the company you keep," she said. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that company."

The couple said prosecutors often pursue the death penalty to give peace of mind to the victims' families, but society should limit the input victims' families have in the punishment process.

"Society needs to be very careful ... you don't want people making life and death decision when passions are running high," Sylvester Schieber said. "Asking someone in the passion of the moment isn't appropriate. Why would you ask me what I think the appropriate punishment is for the man who murdered my daughter?

"You can kill anyone you want, but we will never have Shannon back," he said. "Are we any better than the people murdering others?"