Thursday, June 30, 2011

Radio Interview

MVFHR board member member and Journey of Hope co-founder Bill Pelke was interviewed on the radio show The Path to Justice earlier this week. In the interview, which lasts for about 40 minutes, Bill talks about his grandmother's murder, his initial support for the death penalty, his experience of changing his mind, and his eventual work against the death penalty, including, specifically, his involvement in the campaign to save the life of Paula Cooper, who had been one of the four teenagers responsible for the murder of Bill's grandmother and who became the youngest woman to be sentenced to death in the U.S. (Her sentence was subsequently reduced to 60 years in prison.)

Listen to the full interview here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

They might need help too

MVFHR member Bill Babbitt is featured in this article published in the 6/25/11 Albuquerque Journal, "Families of Murderers Also Are Victims for Life," by Diane Dimond:

How wonderful to see the recent photos of a smiling Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she left the hospital five months after being viciously shot in the head by 21-year-old Jared Loughner. Our hearts went out to Giffords and to the families of the 19 other victims, six of whom died.

But what about the family of Jared Loughner? Did you stop to think about them? The pain and suffering of Jared’s parents makes them victims, too. And, in the end, if Jared is declared fit to stand trial, Arizona’s death penalty might be used to take away their only son.

It is easy to forget about the plight of the families of those who commit these murders – Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Oklahoma City to name just a few of the most infamous.

When families are remembered, it is often with pointed fingers of blame and condemnation.

Whether the offense makes national headlines or not these ghastly crimes have two things in common: Nearly all involve shooters who have been clinically diagnosed with mental illness, including Loughner.

And, second – their families will never shake the shock, guilt and embarrassment of having a relative who kills.

In addition, these families have usually struggled for years trying to manage their loved ones psychological deterioration only to be told by medical experts to take them home, give them their medication and hope for the best. When the worst arrives these folks are often left on their own to cope. Victim assistance programs don’t consider the killer’s family might need help, too.

You likely never heard of Bill Babbitt, but as he told me his story the other day we both cried.

“It is the epitome of suffering,” he said as he told me about his little brother, Manny. “I’ve lost the love and support of much of my family over it.”

You see, Bill, now a 68-year-old war veteran living in California, was the first to realize his brother had caused someone to die – and he turned him over to police.

The story of Bill and Manny is too rich in detail to adequately fit in this small space, but the summary is this: Manny’s mental problems began in 1962 when his bike collided with a car and the boy was thrown into the air. He escaped death but was never “right” after that.

At 17, Manny joined the Marines. He wasn’t bright enough to pass the written test, but during the Vietnam War the military needed every good man.

Handsome Manny did two tours of duty and was so badly wounded during the bloody 77-day siege at Khe Sanh that his seemingly lifeless body was rescued from an active battlefield and medevaced out among a pile of corpses. Manny had sustained another major head wound.

Once home, post-traumatic demons set in and Manny was sent by the VA to two different mental institutions.

Finally, big brother Bill brought him to live at his house. Bill could tell from the frequent nightmares that his brother still was not “right.”

One rainy night in December 1980, Manny was out drinking with friends, some PCP-laced marijuana was passed around and on the walk home Manny’s demons returned.

The wet weather reminded him of Vietnam, a wide street morphed into the airstrip back in Khe Sanh and a loud TV set blaring a war movie sent him over the edge. He opened the homeowner’s unlocked screen door, as if to get closer to the war action, and encountered 78 year old Leah Schendel.

There was a violent scuffle and the elderly grandmother died of a heart attack.

He wouldn’t remember, but Manny grabbed a piggy bank and some rolls of coins as he fled. Bill and his wife found the unexplained money, along with a cigarette lighter bearing Schendel’s initials.

After reading about their neighbor’s death, the Babbitts knew what they had to do to get Manny the help he desperately needed. Bill turned in his own brother and, he told me, as the squad car pulled away, “I ran alongside and said, ‘Manny, Manny. Please forgive me!’ And he said, ‘Billy, I already have forgiven you.’”

Manny didn’t get the mental health treatment he needed. He got a bad lawyer who never mentioned post traumatic stress or head injuries during the trial. On May 14, 1982, Manny was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Upon hearing of his situation the U.S. Marines sent officers to San Quentin prison where they pinned a Purple Heart on Manny as he stood shackled before them. He was executed one day after his 50th birthday.

His brother Bill was on hand to watch. “It seems like it was just yesterday,” he told me through tears, “or just an hour ago.” Being a victim often lasts a lifetime.

This is the other side to the too-frequent stories we hear about “mad gunmen” who seemingly kill for “no reason.” There is almost always a reason. And most often it's family members who plead the loudest for help. Let’s remember them, too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Against Violent Extremism

MVFHR members Bud Welch and Jo Berry have been invited to participate in the Summit Against Violent Extremism, held this week in Dublin and convened by Google Ideas. Here's Google's description of the event:

Why does a 13-year old boy in a tough neighborhood in South Central LA join a gang? Why does a high school student in a quiet, Midwestern American town sign on neo-Nazis who preach white supremacy? Why does a young woman in the Middle East abandon her family and future and become a suicide bomber?

In order to advance our understanding, Google Ideas is today convening the Summit Against Violent Extremism, bringing together former gang members, right-wing extremists, jihadists and militants in Dublin for three days of debates and workshops. All these "formers" have rejected violence and are working for groups recognized by governments and law enforcement that fight extremism. Extremists have taken advantage of new Internet technologies to spread their message. We believe technology also can become part of the solution, helping to engineer a turn away from violence.

We're also inviting survivors of violent extremism who are engaged in some of the most important activism around this issue. They will remind us of the horrors and loss associated with the challenge of violent extremism. Representatives from civil society, along with a stellar group of academics, will participate and provide additional texture.

Our partners in this venture are the Council on Foreign Relations, which will look at the policy implications, and the Tribeca Film Festival, which emerged out of the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the the World Trade Center and which will explore the role of film and music on and in fighting extremism.

Together, we aim to initiate a global conversation on how best to prevent young people from becoming radicalised and how to de-radicalise others. The ideas generated at the Dublin summit will be included in a study to be published later in the year. We are undertaking this project without preconceptions. We aren't expecting quick answers or "silver bullets." Instead, we're looking to increase understanding of a critical problem and find some new approaches to combat it. Stay tuned as we attempt to marry ideas and action.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New MVFHR board member

We are delighted to welcome Stanley Allridge to the MVFHR Board of Directors. Stan, who lives in Texas, has been an active participant in MVHFR's "No Silence, No Shame" project, was part of our panel at the U.S. Human Rights Network conference a couple of years ago, spoke at a press conference in Jamaica, and has made several other presentations throughout the years, helping audiences to understand the effects of the death penalty.

Stan is a family member of murder victims (both his mother's parents were murdered, in separate incidents, and his maternal aunt was murdered as well) and also a family member of the executed (two of his brothers were executed in Texas). Stanley was just 18 when his brother Ronald was executed in 1995. His brother James was executed nine years later. Stan witnessed both executions, and he says, “After the first execution, I knew my life had totally changed. I had witnessed something most 18 year olds can’t imagine. I didn’t plan on being an activist, but I feel like I’m obligated to talk about the death penalty and what happened in our family. I don’t think we need to be ashamed. We are marching and protesting and trying to put an end to the death penalty, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to be part of that.”

After working with Stan as an MVFHR member for several years, we are honored to have him join our board of directors.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Halifax

I (Susannah Sheffer) am in Halifax, Nova Scotia today, at the International Institute for Restorative Practices conference. With Walter Long of the Texas After Violence Project, I'm presenting a session on "How Should Communities Respond to Those Harmed by the Death Penalty?" Here's the description:

The death penalty has a traumatic impact on many people involved in capital cases in addition to the individual sentenced to die. Drawing on the presenters’ extensive experience, this session will focus on how two groups in particular are emotionally harmed by death sentences: families of the offender and capital defense attorneys. We will consider what obligations society has toward members of these groups and what possibilities exist for addressing the harms they experience. Our session is rooted in restorative justice’s basic questions: who has been harmed, what are their needs, and who is obligated to address those needs? Families of the executed and capital defense attorneys are harmed by executions in ways that have not yet received significant attention, and the time is ripe for an exploration of their experience within the context of restorative justice practices.

Walter C. Long founded the non-profit Texas After Violence Project, an independent oral history project designed to listen empathetically to people directly affected by criminal violence and state executions in Texas and to engage all voices in the creation of a less violent, more just community. As a criminal defense attorney, he has represented Texas death row inmates in their final appeals for many years.

Susannah Sheffer is staff writer and project director for the Massachusetts-based international non-profit Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. She works closely with survivors of homicide victims and families of the executed, and is co-author of the report Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind. She is at work on the book Fighting for Their Lives, about the emotional experience of capital defense attorneys.

Monday, June 13, 2011

In Brussels

Renny Cushing will be representing MVFHR over the next couple of days at a gathering in Brussels sponsored by the European Instrument on Democracy and Human Rights. Others from around the world, including our colleagues at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, will be discussing the global fight against the death penalty.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Not necessary or even desirable

From yesterday's Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Families of eight of the 11 women whose remains were found in and around Anthony Sowell's Cleveland home in 2009 are asking Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason to spare them the agony of a lengthy trial by ending his pursuit of the death penalty for Sowell and accepting a guilty plea for a lifetime behind bars.

Jim Allen, the father of victim Leshanda Long, hand-delivered to Mason's office Thursday afternoon a petition signed by 18 members of the eight families. In the petition the families assert that they do not believe a long and expensive trial, followed by decades of appeals, would bring them any degree of closure or comfort.

"We do not want to be witnesses to a media spectacle where our loved ones' lives and the details of the horrendous criminal acts inflicted upon them are spotlighted," the petition reads. "The death penalty for Anthony Sowell is not necessary, or even desirable, in comparison to the grief we families will continue to suffer under the realities and uncertainties of the criminal justice system."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Murder is a human rights violation

Several MVFHR members and friends are speaking this week at the 3rd National Conference on Restorative Justice in Raleigh, North Carolina this week. For example, Bill Pelke and Bess Klassen-Landis will join other victims' family members in a round table discussion, "Listening to Crime Victims: Their Journeys Toward Healing." And our colleague at the Texas After Violence Project, Walter Long, sent us a copy of the talk he is giving at the conference, which includes a passage that is extremely relevant to MVFHR's concerns:

Murder – intentional homicide – is a human rights violation. ... It is one of the worst human rights violations, and a component of or companion to all the worst violations (genocide, apartheid, torture). Okay, I’ve made that assertion. After this talk, go out and google “murder — human — rights — violation.” You’ll find a bunch of entries about execution and the death penalty. You’ll find a good many articles on murder by government agents, or “sanctioned murder.” You’ll find very little about murder committed by non-state actors. You’ll even find an odd “” entry that asks “Is murder a human rights violation?”

What? Why did someone feel the need to ask that? After all, Article 3 of the foundational document of modern human rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights requires, in Article 6, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.” The United States has ratified the Covenant and is bound by it. How absolutely insulting it must feel to survivors of murder victims and to prosecutors to be bombarded by anti-death penalty human rights rhetoric, while nothing is said about the human rights violation that set them on the course of being victims or the advocate for victims in the first place. Why isn’t that acknowledged?

This passage from Walter's talk brings to mind a piece that Renny Cushing and I (Susannah Sheffer) wrote for Peacework magazine a few years ago, titled "Human Rights and Victim Justice." Here's an excerpt:

It's interesting to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, 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 these lives by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

In more recent times, however, it has sometimes seemed as though the victims' rights movement and the human rights -- or death penalty abolition -- movements are speaking different languages. Historically, the victims' movement has asserted that every human life has value and that the taking of any one life by murder represents a theft whose impact will be felt forever. Victims' rights are, therefore, a way of trying to counterbalance that original violation with a reassertion of human dignity. Historically, the death penalty abolition movement has recognized that every human life has value and that the taking of any one life by the state replicates the very violation it is supposedly designed to redress. These are in fact both human rights claims, yet abolitionists and victims' rights advocates often fail to recognize these commonalities or to internalize each other's perspectives.

For MVFHR, both the death penalty and individual murder are violations of fundamental human rights. We believe that those who are outraged when the state kills should be equally outraged when an individual kills, and should therefore make a real effort to understand the effects of murder and to consider and incorporate the victim's perspective into their work. We believe that those who are outraged by an individual murder should likewise be outraged when the state takes another human life, and should therefore make a real effort to understand and consider the effects of a state system of execution.

Justice for victims -- whose human rights have been so completely violated -- does not come from violating the human rights of others. Justice, instead, must come in another way, and that way must include a recognition of the worth and dignity of all and a willingness to work toward a world that upholds, rather than denies, the value of human life.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

It demeans our dignity

MVFHR member Marietta Jaeger Lane is featured in the Summer 2011 issue of Yes! Magazine, in a story told to writer Lynsi Burton. Here's an excerpt:

Eventually [the man who kidnapped and murdered my 7-year-old daughter] was arrested, and irrefutable evidence was found to charge him with kidnap/murder, a capital crime with a sentence of the death penalty.

But I realized that to kill him in Susie’s name would not restore her life; it would only make another victim and another grieving family.

So, I asked the prosecutor for the alternative sentence of mandatory life without parole. Only when he was offered that was he willing to confess to the murders of a 19-year-old and three children, including Susie.

Using the same mindset as killers to solve our problems demeans our own worth and dignity. Victims’ families have every right initially to feelings of revenge. But the laws of our land should not be based on bloodthirsty, gut-level state-sanctioned killings: They should call us to higher moral principles more befitting our beloved victims.