Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A more useful approach

Today Amnesty International has posted this piece about MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing, "Don't let those who kill turn us into murderers":

One warm June evening in 1988, Robert Cushing and his wife Marie were at home watching a basketball game on TV, when they were interrupted by a knock.

As the retired New Hampshire school teacher answered the front door of the house where he and Marie had raised their seven children, two shots rang out, ripping his chest apart.

He died instantly in front of his wife.

Later that night, a police officer broke the news of his father’s murder to then 34-year-old Renny Cushing, who had visited his parents less than an hour before the shooting.

“For me, at that moment, thinking about what you do in the aftermath of murder stopped being an intellectual exercise and became part of my life,” says Renny Cushing, speaking to Amnesty International from the house where his father was murdered. Renny now lives there with his wife and three daughters.

For some, the instinct after losing a loved one to murder might be to want to see the perpetrators executed.

But since his father's death, Renny Cushing has become a leading voice against the death penalty, travelling throughout the USA. and Asia speaking with and on behalf of victims who oppose capital punishment.


As executive director of MVFHR, he often meets families of murder victims who support the death penalty. But he doesn’t think wagging a finger at them to persuade them to become abolitionists is the right approach.

“I can understand other victim-survivors who support the death penalty, but I am never prescriptive to them. I find myself working in the death penalty abolition movement, often knowing that I have much more in common with a family member of a murder victim who supports the death penalty than I do with all my colleagues in the death penalty abolition movement who don’t know what it’s like to bury a relative who has been murdered.”

A more useful approach, he believes, is to provide support and counselling for families of murder victims.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

In Connecticut

Congratulations to our colleagues in Connecticut on yesterday's passage of the death penalty repeal bill in the Judiciary Committee.

Victims' family members have been integral to the efforts to pass repeal legislation in Connecticut. Elizabeth Brancato maintains the Connecticut Victims' Voices blog, where you can see several pieces of testimony. Take a look!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Maryland

MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber is one of the victims' family members quoted in this CBS article about yesterday's hearings in Maryland:

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — The end of the death penalty in Maryland. That’s what some lawmakers and advocates are hoping to accomplish by the end of this legislative session. Derek Valcourt explains they’ve got some hurdles to clear first.

They made their case to a House committee Tuesday but it’s a Senate committee that could give them the most resistance. Supporters say they are one vote shy of getting out of a Senate committee to the full floor, where they say they have enough votes in both chambers to pass it.

Erricka Bridgeford says justice for the 2007 murder of her brother won’t come by lethal injection.

“It’s not justice to me to have another dead body in place of my brother’s dead body,” Bridgeford said.

She’s one of several advocates calling on lawmakers to repeal Maryland’s death penalty. She’s joined by the NAACP, which points to the outrage over the September execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis as proof that attitudes toward the death penalty are changing.

“It’s a known fact that racism exists. We know that our system is not foolproof, so in that sense of the word, we need to move forward at this time not to have another Troy Davis,” said Gerald Stansbury, NAACP.

“It can happen like that,” said Kirk Bloodsworth.

Bloodsworth knows about wrongful convictions; he was released from Maryland’s death row after he was exonerated by DNA.

“I don’t want to see anybody executed,” Bloodsworth said.

“My daughter was murdered in 1998,” said Vicki Schieber.

Schieber argues the lengthy appeals in the death penalty process can be cruel to crime victims.

“It puts them through hell. There’s no better word. They can go on for years and years and years,” Schieber said.

Read the full article.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Against our wishes

This commentary by Deldelp Medina of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, "When Murder Gets Personal," is posted in the California Progress Report, 3/19/12:

When my aunt was murdered by her own son, my cousin Manuel, the local DA pushed for a death sentence against my family's wishes. I know what it’s like when a DA just doesn’t listen.

Now, District Attorneys are turning a deaf ear on California voters. Even though SAFE California submitted more than enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, each and every day, 58 District Attorneys continue to wield the power of death sentences in every county across California.

That’s why I’m speaking out to urge every California District Attorney to stop seeking death sentences until voters can decide for themselves this November.

I first heard about my aunt’s murder while watching the evening news in Spanish. Manuel was in the midst of a psychotic break related to a terrible illness. But we never got the sympathetic calls that we expected from authorities. Instead, we got a low blow from a DA who wanted the death penalty.

We couldn’t afford a private attorney so we worked day and night alongside public defenders. Eventually the obvious became clear to everyone -- including the DA -- and Manuel was sentenced to spend the rest of his life locked up. It may sound strange, but that was a gift for my family.

This November, the people of California should have the same opportunity to choose real justice over the death penalty's hollow promise. In the meantime, I hope you'll join me to ask California’s District Attorneys to hear voters out before seeking any more death sentences.

Death penalty trials re-open deep wounds for families like mine with court dates, autopsy photos, and reenactments. More often than not, cases end with an inmate’s death from old age or natural causes even after families are forced to revisit terrible events and even if a family does not want it. It’s just not right.

Life in prison without the possibility of parole offers real justice for victims -- justice that is sure and swift. Trials with a sentence of life without parole are over in a matter of months. SAFE California also requires inmates to work in high-security prison and to pay restitution into a victims’ compensation fund. And it sets aside $100 million in budget savings to solve some of the many unsolved rape and murder cases and to protect our families.

The people of California will decide on November 6, 2012 whether to keep the hollow promise of our broken death penalty, or replace it with life in prison with no chance of parole. California's DAs must listen.

Compelling Arguments

MVFHR members Walt Everett and Victoria Coward are quoted in this opinion piece by Rev. Allie Perry from the 3/16/12 New Hampshire Register, about the hearings on Connecticut's repeal bill:

AS I write this, I am watching the live-streaming of testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 280, which calls for repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty. Into the hearing’s eleventh hour, those testifying now are all, excepting one, in support of repeal.

Their arguments are many. Most compelling to me has been the testimony of victims’ family members, such as Victoria Coward, whose 18 year-old son, Tyler, was murdered in New Haven in 2007, or the Rev. Walter Everett, whose 24-year-old son, Scott, was murdered in Bridgeport in 1987.

Not in spite but because of their anguish and heartbreak, they adamantly support repeal.

Coward explained that she will not be party to the state’s taking of another life.

The death penalty does not bring closure for families, Everett argued. The protracted process creates additional trauma, its own cruel and unusual punishment, for victims’ families. “I did not want my son’s murderer to take my life, too, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and even physically,” testified Everett.

This is a critical time for our state to join 16 other states that have abolished the death penalty: most recently New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009 and Illinois in 2011.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Urging Repeal in Maryland

MVFHR Board Chair Vicki Schieber is quoted in this post in the "Maryland Politics" blog of the Washington Post, "MD lawmakers urged to repeal death penalty":

Continuing a perennial debate in Annapolis, advocates of ending capital punishment told Maryland lawmakers on Wednesday that the death penalty is morally wrong, racist in its application and provides no comfort to grieving families.

But a bill to repeal the death penalty under consideration this session shows no sign of movement, legislators say.

“I think the vast majority of legislators down here that I speak with are very comfortable with where it is right now,” said Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Three years ago, during debate in the Maryland General Assembly over abolishing capital punishment, Zirkin helped craft a compromisethat restricted the death penalty to murder cases where there is conclusive DNA evidence, video evidence or a videotaped confession.

Zirkin said he is seen as a swing vote on the judicial committee, where the other members are either clearly for or against capital punishment.

“Personally, I’ve always been troubled by the death penalty. I see both sides of it,” he said.

During a press conference and bill hearing on Wednesday, opponents and supporters of the death penalty expressed unhappiness with the three-year-old reform. Opponents made clear they won’t be happy with anything short of a repeal, while Scott Shellenberger, Baltimore County’s chief prosecutor, said the reform prevents him from seeking the death penalty in heinous murder cases where the evidence does not meet the tightened evidentiary standards.

Zirkin said the opposition from all quarters “suggests to me that we have a pretty good compromise.”

Benjamin Jealous, president of the national NAACP, spoke at a press conference in support of this year’s repeal bill, which would also allocate any savings to victims’ services.

“The reality is that when we spend money killing a killer we’ve already got in a cage, we have less money to get the killers who are still on the streets off the streets,” Jealous said.

Another speaker was Vicki Schieber, the mother of a murder victim and a board member of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Schieber said her experience and those of other murder victims’ relatives have convinced her that the prolonged process of seeking the death penalty only adds to grieving families’ problems. “They find that it gradually and completely starts to tear their family apart,” she said.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In Anchorage

MVFHR board member Bill Babbitt will be speaking in Anchorage this evening, along with David Kaczynski, at an event organized by Alaskans Against the Death Penalty. Bill, whose brother Manny was executed in California in 2001, often speaks together with David, brother of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynksi and director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Both men speak about the painful decision they had to make to turn their brothers in to the police and about the inequities surrounding the criminal justice system and the application of the death penalty in the U.S.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Rally in Connecticut

From Wednesday's New Haven Register, "Families of slaying victims rally against death penalty in Connecticut":

HARTFORD -— In early 2011, Brian Patterson was killed in Virginia.

A little more than a year later, Patterson’s cousin Khalilah Brown-Dean came forward to protest the death penalty in Connecticut.

Brown-Dean was one of six speakers, all of them family members of slaying victims, who took part in a press conference and rally Wednesday to end the death penalty. Those six speakers are among 179 family members of slaying victims who signed a letter to legislators arguing against capital punishment.

“There is simply no justice in taking the life of another,” Brown-Dean said.

A bill to abolish the death penalty was raised by the Judiciary Committee.

All of the speakers at Wednesday’s rally had tragic stories to tell. Torrington’s Elizabeth Brancato’s mother was killed in 1979. In New Haven, Victoria Coward’s 18-year-old son was killed in 2007. The brother of Stamford’s Catherine Ednie was killed in 1995.

Many of the speakers choked back tears as they recounted their losses, but all agree that the state’s death penalty should be repealed.

Calling the state’s application of the death penalty “arbitrary and capricious,” Ednie called the idea that only the “worst of the worst” criminals get put on death row, “insulting."

“It divides murders into two classes, the worst and the not-so-bad,” she said.