Friday, January 27, 2012

In Georgia

Kate Lowenstein will be representing MVFHR this weekend at a statewide death penalty abolition summit organized by Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. You can see more about the summit, titled A Call to Action, here.
Kate will be speaking on a panel titled "Building Relationships with Those Directly Impacted by the Death Penalty."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Alabama

MVFHR Board President Bud Welch will be addressing students at Samford University's School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama today and will then be the keynote speaker at the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association's "Loosening the Death Belt" conference this weekend. Bud's 23-year-old daughter Julie was killed in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Here's an excerpt from his story that the Association has posted on its site:

Three days after the bombing, as I watched Tim McVeigh being led out of the courthouse, I hoped someone in a high building with a rifle would shoot him dead. I wanted him to fry. In fact, I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.

It wasn't long before I concluded that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the 167 others. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been against the US government for what happened to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Seeing what they’d done with their vengeance, I knew I had to send mine in a different direction.

Shortly afterwards I started speaking out against the death penalty.

After the bombing I’d seen a news report on Tim McVeigh’s father, Bill. He was shown stooping over a flowerbed, and when he stood up I could see that he’d been physically bent over in pain. I recognized it because I was feeling that pain, too.

About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.

Six months after the bombing a poll taken in Oklahoma City of victims’ families and survivors showed that 85% wanted the death penalty for Tim McVeigh. Six years later that figure had dropped to nearly half, and now most of those who supported his execution have come to believe it was a mistake. In other words, they didn’t feel any better after Tim McVeigh was taken from his cell and killed.

And here is coverage in the Birmingham News.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A change of heart

Last fall, when MVFHR board member Walt Everett gave a talk to a group at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, a writer from Drew University magazine attended and followed up with a long feature story about Walt in the Winter 2012 issue of the magazine. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The first-year seminar is titled “Timeless Questions, Difficult Times: Making Meaning of Uncertainty,” and you might have to search the darkest corners of the planet to find a guest speaker more qualified to hold forth on that topic than the Rev. Walter Everett C’56, T’60.

A retired Methodist minister, Everett is something of an authority on timeless questions and difficult times, and he’s spent years trying to make meaning of uncertainty. He’s come to Bucknell, where he sits at the head of a small classroom crammed with 15 students and two instructors, to weave his extraordinary tale one more time, a retelling that will leave some of those in his young audience questioning their very core. For he’s also come with some questions of his own.

“How many of you are in favor of the death penalty?” Everett begins.


“How many of you are opposed?”

A few.

“How many are not sure?”

All the rest.

The article then goes on to tell the story of the 1987 murder of Walt's son, Scott Everett.

Any death of a young person creates unspeakable trauma for the family, Everett tells the Bucknell students. A violent death, he says, “increases the trauma exponentially.”

And so it was that for the next 11 months Everett saw his life spiral downward, seemingly out of his control. He felt despair, rage, depression. His marriage, already on shaky ground, cracked under the strain. Everett prayed to God, beseeching him to show him a way out of the darkness. But Everett discerned no response. He attended a support group meeting with other family members of murder victims—the only people, he figured, who could possibly understand the anguish that consumed him. One night he heard a woman in the group say that anyone who committed murder “should be taken out and shot immediately.” Then he learned that the woman’s son had been killed 14 years earlier. He wondered if that’s what his life would be like for the next 14 years.

“I was ignoring mail. I was not paying attention to people,” Everett tells the students. “My thoughts were elsewhere.”

Eleven months and two weeks after the murder of his son, Everett sat in a courtroom in Bridgeport for Carlucci’s sentencing. Everett had never before set eyes on his son’s killer, who arrived at the courthouse three hours late, having indulged in one last cocaine binge before prison. The judge asked Everett if he wished to make a statement. Everett rose and spoke for 10 minutes, though he doesn’t remember a word of what he said. Then the judge asked Carlucci if he would like to speak. Carlucci stood. Everett tells the Bucknell students that he remembers every word Carlucci uttered.

“I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett. I wish I could bring him back. Obviously, I can’t. These must sound like empty words to the Everetts. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”

And from the end of the article:

The bell rings. A half-dozen students approach Everett, thank him for coming, shake his hand. Some, on their way out, reach for the anti-death penalty brochures that Everett brought with him. Everett leaves the building with instructor Deirdre O’Connor, who says the students will discuss the issues that he raised at a later class. Not until then could Everett know whether the timeless questions he’s posed really struck a chord with the students, whether he’d helped them to make meaning of uncertainty.

A few days later a neuroscience major from Bexley, Ohio, named Bridget O’Donnell wrote about Everett’s appearance in her course journal. O’Donnell grew up in a politically conservative home. Both her parents supported capital punishment. As a member of her high school political club, she took part in debates about the death penalty, arguing strongly in favor. Just two years earlier, as a high school junior, she’d written a research paper defending her position. “Today, however,” she wrote in the journal, “I questioned myself.”

O’Donnell says she left the class wondering whether her support for the death penalty was something she really believed in—“or something I learned to believe in.” And although she has a hard time articulating her change of heart, she is certain that a change has taken place. “I am not pro-death penalty anymore,” she says.

In Walt Everett’s long journey, another small step.

Read the whole article.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Speaking in Alabama

From today's Anniston (Alabama) Star, an article that features MVFHR board member Bill Pelke:

There are some images that Bill Pelke can’t erase from his memory.

For years the picture in his head that haunted him was of his beloved “Nana,” Ruth Elizabeth Pelke, a woman who taught Bible classes to local children in her hometown of Gary, Ind. In 1985 she was stabbed 33 times by a group of local teenagers who stole 10 dollars from the 78-year-old woman and let her bleed to death on her living room floor.

It was the image in his head when he sat through the trial of Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old female who ended his grandmother’s life.

“I remember when they asked me how I felt,” Pelke said Thursday at Jacksonville State University, recalling learning that Cooper was to receive the death penalty. “I said, ‘the judge did what he felt he had to do, but it won’t bring my Nana back.’”

Pelke, 64, was the first of three speakers during an anti-death penalty forum called “A Journey of Hope,” sponsored by the campus Ethics Club. More than 30 people at Houston Cole Library listened to Pelke, Callie Grier, and a representative of the Birmingham-based Justice and Mercy group, Brandon Fountain, all present their stance against the death penalty. The event doubled as the first meeting of the semester for the club.

“We’re all about dialogue,” said Scott Beckett, the faculty adviser for the Ethics Club. “Because we’re human, everybody here already has made up their mind, but we’re about dialogue.”

But Pelke hoped his dialogue could possibly persuade death penalty proponents to change their mind — much as he changed his own stance on capital punishment after his grandmother was murdered. Pelke said his Christian upbringing taught him the death penalty was an acceptable form of justice, but began to question that notion in the years that followed Cooper’s sentencing.

Over time, the image of his grandmother, the one he carried with him through the trial of Cooper, was replaced by another image he couldn’t shake — that of Cooper’s grandfather, shouting out “they’re going to kill my baby!” after her sentencing.

Like Pelke, Callie Grier lost a loved one through violence. Her son, Mercury, was murdered in Birmingham, and just like Pelke, sought for forgiveness.

“They kill this boy, give him life sentence or whatever, does that mean Mercury is going to come back?” Grier said. “Are you telling me I should put his family through this to get closure? Now I get closure? Uh-uh, I get nightmares.”

Not all the details of the two stories were the same, though.

“Black on black crime is just treated as another case,” said Grier, explaining her story didn’t “make it to Oprah” like Pelke’s more famous story.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"I will not rejoice in the death"

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, David Love, director of Witness to Innocence, has a great column at the Huffington Post about Dr. King's stance on the death penalty. Here's an excerpt that is particularly relevant to MVFHR:

... And the late Coretta Scott King--whose husband and mother-in-law both were assassinated--spoke out against the practice. "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation," Dr. King's widow proclaimed. "Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder".

Further, the death penalty is an international human rights issue as well. The European Union, which forbids the practice among its member nations, has imposed new restrictions on the importation of anesthetics used to execute people in the U.S.

Sadly, some would dilute Dr. King's human rights message, including his "radical revolution of values," in which he urged America to begin the necessary shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. Meanwhile, the "drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" as the inscription reads on his memorial--stands on the National Mall as a reminder of his dedication to human rights, including opposition to the death penalty.

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy," King said. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

If America truly wants to follow the teachings of Martin Luther King, we should end all executions now.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Speaking in Connecticut

A nice mention of MVFHR's Walt Everett in yesterday's Post-Chronicle (a Connecticut paper):

The Rev. Walter Everett experienced every parent’s nightmare: the murder of a child. In 1987, his son Scott was shot and murdered in Bridgeport. Everett will speak at the Hamden Plains United Methodist Church, sharing his story of loss, rage, and forgiveness, and calling for repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty, Sunday, Jan. 15. during the 10:15 a.m. service.

For almost a year after the murder, Everett’s emotional state had transitioned from rage to depression. He found it difficult to even go through the motions of his work as pastor of a United Methodist Church. Eventually, he came to recognize his need to move beyond his anger and he found healing through forgiveness.

Rev. Everett currently serves on the board of directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of family members of murder victims and family members of the executed who challenge the notion that executions are the way to achieve justice or closure for the family that murder leaves behind.

Everett has testified before legislative committees on numerous occasions, including the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee in 2005 and 2009.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Good news from Mongolia

We are so pleased that the Mongolian Parliament last week approved a bill to ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

When a Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights delegation visited Mongolia last October to hold a press conference, deliver public presentations, and meet with attorneys and victims' groups, we had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Ulziisaikhian Enkhtuzshin, Chair of the Standing Committee -- the Majority Party -- of the Mongolian Parliament. We commend Mr. Enkhtuzshin for taking the lead in advancing this recent legislation.

This photo shows the MVFHR group with Mr. Enkhtuzshin (third from left) and our colleagues from Amnesty International Mongolia.

Here is Amnesty International's news release.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We've lived it

Belatedly posting this letter to the editor that was published in the Kentucky State Journal on December 18th. The editorial to which we were responding is here.

To the Editor:

The State Journal’s Dec. 9 editorial, “No room for error,” suggests that “Staunch opponents of capital punishment should imagine members of their own families victimized by barbarous criminals ...”

Many opponents of capital punishment don’t have to imagine the horror of a family member’s murder. We’ve lived it – and we don’t feel that another killing is what will help us. Rather than a “proportionally irreversible response,” we want a response that truly addresses the many different needs victims’ families have and avoids the lasting trauma that executions inflict on the criminal’s innocent family members.

After two shotgun blasts took my father’s life in the doorway of our family home, many people assumed that my family and I would become proponents of the death penalty. A friend said to us, “I hope they fry those people so your family can get some peace.” But in the aftermath of the worst thing that had ever happened to us, my family and I did not feel that an execution would give us peace, and we didn’t want the killer, having taken our father’s life, to take our values too.

I founded the organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights so that victims’ families who oppose the death penalty would be recognized and supported in that belief, and so that we could join with families of people who have been executed to publicize the devastating effects of both murder and the death penalty.

Renny Cushing
Executive Director
Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
Boston, Mass.