Friday, April 27, 2012

The needs of victims

From a letter to the editor by Rae Giesing in Wednesday's Groton (CT) Patch:

This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week – a week to honor crime victims’ rights, and to advocate for our needs. I never expected this would be something I would observe, but six years ago my son and his stepbrother were murdered. I have a new perspective on a lot of things now.

This is also the week where it’s expected that Governor Malloy will sign the bill repealing Connecticut’s death penalty, leaving in place life imprisonment without the possibility of release. I worked with over 180 other murder victims’ family members to see that this law was passed.
I love that these two events are coinciding because they fit nicely together. The reason so many victims’ family members advocated for repeal is we saw the ways the death penalty harms us. It creates an arbitrary (if not racist and classist) distinction about which cases are “worthy” of capital punishment and which murders don’t merit the ultimate punishment.
To each of us who have lost a loved one, our experience was absolutely the “worst of the worst”. The system is also brutal to those survivors who do become embroiled in capital case. The trial is long, highly publicized and it takes decades of waiting before there’s even the hope that the execution will actually be carried out.
To me, one of the most troubling aspects of the death penalty is how it diverts financial resources and media attention. Connecticut usually has about 100 homicides a year. We used to spend upwards of $5 million annually on one or two capital cases.
Think about what a difference the state could make in the lives of those 100 families if we re-directed those $5 million to victims’ services. 
This is a week to advocate for the needs of victims -- having the death penalty off the books is an important first step.

But we’ve more to do. When my son was murdered I struggled with everything from getting out bed in the morning to surviving the criminal justice system. When you lose a child to murder, “overwhelmed” takes on a whole new meaning.
For four years I stumbled through my life from one court appearance to the next, 80 visits in all. There are a lot of things that could have helped me and my family, but we never received: additional court appointed victims’ advocates to help with both the emotional trauma and navigating the legal system, counseling or assistance caring for my sons left behind, or somehow feeling heard and empowered by the prosecutors.
I hope that with the death penalty out of the way we can focus on improving current programs and developing new programs to help families like mine cope with the horror of losing a loved one.
I am grateful this week for repeal, and I am grateful for the work of victims’ advocates and allies in Connecticut. Our work is far from over, but I am encouraged that we have taken this important step toward a more just Connecticut.
Rae K. Giesing

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Repeal in Connecticut!

Congratulations to our colleagues in Connecticut on the repeal of the state's death penalty yesterday!  The Connecticut Victims' Voices blog has some great photos and reflections.  Here is the text of Governor Dannel P. Malloy's statement:

“This afternoon I signed legislation that will, effective today, replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the highest form of legal punishment in Connecticut.  Although it is an historic moment – Connecticut joins 16 other states and the rest of the industrialized world by taking this action – it is a moment for sober reflection, not celebration.
“Many of us who have advocated for this position over the years have said there is a moral component to our opposition to the death penalty.  For me, that is certainly the case.  But that does not mean – nor should it mean – that we question the morality of those who favor capital punishment.  I certainly don’t.  I know many people whom I deeply respect, including friends and family, that believe the death penalty is just.  In fact, the issue knows no boundaries: not political party, not gender, age, race, or any other demographic.  It is, at once, one of the most compelling and vexing issues of our time.
“My position on the appropriateness of the death penalty in our criminal justice system evolved over a long period of time.  As a young man, I was a death penalty supporter.  Then I spent years as a prosecutor and pursued dangerous felons in court, including murderers.  In the trenches of a criminal courtroom, I learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect.  While it’s a good system designed with the highest ideals of our democratic society in mind, like most of human experience, it is subject to the fallibility of those who participate in it.  I saw people who were poorly served by their counsel.  I saw people wrongly accused or mistakenly identified.  I saw discrimination.  In bearing witness to those things, I came to believe that doing away with the death penalty was the only way to ensure it would not be unfairly imposed.
“Another factor that led me to today is the ‘unworkability’ of Connecticut’s death penalty law.  In the last 52 years, only 2 people have been put to death in Connecticut – and both of them volunteered for it.  Instead, the people of this state pay for appeal after appeal, and then watch time and again as defendants are marched in front of the cameras, giving them a platform of public attention they don’t deserve.  It is sordid attention that rips open never-quite-healed wounds.  The 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are far more likely to die of old age than they are to be put to death.
“As in past years, the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut has been led by dozens of family members of murder victims, and some of them were present as I signed this legislation today.   In the words of one such survivor: ‘Now is the time to start the process of healing, a process that could have been started decades earlier with the finality of a life sentence. We cannot afford to put on hold the lives of these secondary victims.  We need to allow them to find a way as early as possible to begin to live again.’  Perhaps that is the most compelling message of all.
“As our state moves beyond this divisive debate, I hope we can all redouble our efforts and common work to improve the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system, and to minimize its fallibility.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Boston screening of Incendiary, 4/22

MVFHR is co-sponsoring a showing of the film Incendiary, which is about the execution of Todd Willingham for the arson murder of his three daughters despite overwhelming expert criticism of the prosecution's arson evidence. Other co-sponsors are Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The film will be shown at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 22, 2012 at the Boston Common Theater, 175 Tremont Street in Boston. Join us after the film for a question and answer session with one of the film's directors, Steve Mims, who will be coming here from Texas especially for this screening.If you're in the area and would like to come, please pre-order your tickets today, April 17th. We hope to see you there!

Monday, April 16, 2012

In Montana

MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing just returned from several days in Montana, where he spoke at the Montana Abolition Coalition's annual summit and at public events that received some good press coverage. While there, Renny also offered a training for the Montana Abolition Coalition board and staff about working with victims, and met with local victims' family members at a gathering of the group Montana Family and Friends of Homicide Victims.

Read more about the Montana Abolition Coaltion here.

You know what it's like

This article in Saturday's Los Angeles Times features MVFHR member Vicky Coward:

Some survivors of murder victims have been part of the recent debate over capital punishment. Victoria Coward of Connecticut was one of them. Her 18-year-old son, Tyler, was shot and killed in New Haven in 2007.

"When you lose somebody to homicide, you know what it's like to lose somebody in one of the most hurtful ways possible," Coward said.

Prosecutors told her it would be too difficult to go through a trial and have to see photos of her son's body riddled with bullets, and suggested offering the killer a plea deal, which he took in 2010.

Coward lobbied lawmakers to end the death penalty and watched as state senators voted on the issue. Her son's killer, Jose Fuentes Phillich, was 25 when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She seems at peace with the decision.

"The death penalty doesn't help at all," she said. "If you have the nerve to kill somebody, you should be able to sit there every day and think about what you did."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Thank you from Robert Deans

We are thinking of Marie Deans, who died a year ago today. Marie's son Robert sent this note and asked us to post it here:

It was a year ago today that my mom passed.

Recently my wife and I collected a few things from Mom's house, and we found a box of cards and letters that were sent around the time word got out that Mom was dying, and after she died. Right now there are too many to devote time to a personal reply, particularly considering how late those replies are given that I only just found the notes. So, if you will forgive the global response, I just want to thank everyone who sent a card or letter to my mom or me a year ago. I appreciate the thoughts and well wishes, and I am sure Mom did as well in her last days. And, for the movement itself, keep your aim true, your goals simple, and your course honest.

Robert Deans

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Turning Point

This Associated Press story, "Victims' families boost Conn. death penalty repeal," has been printed in several newspapers:

HARTFORD, Conn. - (AP) -- The vote to repeal Connecticut's death penalty brought a moment of triumph for Elizabeth Brancato, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment despite the murder of her mother in 1979.

Brancato had lobbied lawmakers for years, becoming more resolved against capital punishment as she met families of other victims frustrated by endless appeals. She also started a blog to highlight the voices of other victims' relatives in favor of repeal that she felt were overshadowed in the debate.

She was at the statehouse Wednesday night as the state legislature gave final approval to a bill that will make Connecticut the 17th state to repeal capital punishment. A week earlier, she was in the gallery when it cleared its biggest hurdle with an early morning vote in the state Senate.

"It was one of the best moments of my life," Brancato said.

Brancato is among roughly 180 relatives of crime victims who pushed for repeal in private meetings with lawmakers, via petition drives and at news conferences. National advocates say the large size of their campaign sets Connecticut apart from other states, but relatives who oppose the death penalty are speaking up more often across the United States.

On the other side of the debate, death penalty supporters had perhaps the state's most compelling advocate in Dr. William Petit Jr., the only survivor of a 2007 home invasion in which two paroled burglars killed his wife and two daughters. Last year, Petit successfully lobbied state senators to hold off on legislation for repeal while one of the two killers was still facing a death penalty trial.

This year, many lawmakers said they were swayed by the stories of people who oppose capital punishment despite losing loved ones to horrific crimes.

Rep. Kim Rose, a Milford Democrat, said she decided to support repeal after speaking with a man who found peace by forgiving his son's killer.

"The moment I looked into his eyes and heard his story and I felt his pain, I got (it)," she said. "For him to finally come to some closure with it, was kind of a turning point for me."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said he will sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk, making Connecticut the fifth state in five years to repeal the death penalty. The legislation will apply only to future cases and not the 11 men already on the state's death row.

In more than half a century, Connecticut has executed only one person -- serial killer Michael Ross, who volunteered for the lethal injection in 2005.

Brancato, a Torrington resident whose mother was killed inside her Bantam home, wasn't forced to think about the death penalty in her own case because the killer was convicted of second-degree murder. But she said it did not sway her moral opposition to capital punishment.

"For those of us who believe killing is wrong, it somehow diminishes the deaths of our loved ones if we say in certain circumstances it is OK to kill," Brancato said. ...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Repeal in Connecticut!

Congratulations again to Connecticut, this time for the House's vote to repeal the state's death penalty. Here's a column in today's Hartford Courant that focuses on one victim's family member's support of repeal:

At a Wednesday press conference — before the House of Representatives' late-night, 86-62 vote to repeal the state's death penalty — the speakers included clergy, a man wrongfully imprisoned, and a woman whose mother was murdered in 1996.

Standing nearby was the dandelion-haired, sensible-shoed 76-year-old Sister Mary Healy, of West Hartford. For her, the discussion was personal.

And there she was, afterward, answering questions and explaining what brought her to Hartford. In 2000, Sister Mary's brother, a former priest, was enjoying his morning coffee at a Burger King in Wilkinsburg, Pa. It was his morning routine — Burger King, then off to tell stories on a school bus. Joey Healy was a grand storyteller, and the children loved him.

But before he could leave, a man came into the restaurant, fresh from killing two men and wounding two others, and shot Healy in the back of his head.

he storyteller gene is shared. As she gets to this part of the story, Sister Mary, a former teacher and a former prison chaplain, turns her hand into a gun, and points precisely to the place on her neck where the bullet entered her brother's body, and killed him.

He was dead, but the family kept him alive so his organs could be harvested. In the same random killing that took him, the former Father Joe randomly gave life to five strangers. He is, in short, his sister's hero.

During the killer's trial, Sister Mary traveled to Pennsylvania to testify for the defense. For the defense. Her brother's killer's action are and were indefensible, but her brother would not support the man's death, and neither could she. Nevertheless, the killer was sent to Pennsylvania's death row, where he remains.

After the press conference — and a quick afternoon nap — Sister Mary returned to the capitol around 2:30 to climb the stairs and sit in the gallery and listen to legislators, one after one, seek to speak for victims. Some, like Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, have lost family members. Butler talked at length about losing a brother to violence, and then he offered —- and rapidly withdrew —- two amendments, including an unusual one that offered $1,000 tax credits to survivors. There were amendments galore on Wednesday, including amendments to keep the state's death penalty for murders that occur during acts of terror, or a home invasion, or if the victim is a police or corrections officer.

Sister Mary sat through all of it in the gallery, with other women who are also survivors. Sometimes, she shook her head at the discussion. At one point, a representative said from the floor, "I want to talk about victims," and a woman sitting behind Sister Mary said quietly, "All right. We're right here." Sister Mary said she understood the passion of people who support capital punishment, and she understands survivors who support the death penalty. She's never wavered but it took her a while to get involved in the abolition movement. "I was doing my own grieving," she said.

She wrote a statement — her first attempt, she said, smiling — that included her thoughts about "the agony of complicated grief." She wrote about the closure that won't come from an execution. She wrote about the anguish of loss, the "outrageously expensive process" of capital punishment, and justice and pain.

She still grieves for "dear, dear Joey," but she felt the need to witness the discussion. Of the vote — which sends the bill to Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, who says he will sign it —she said she was "delighted, and I am thrilled seeing all these young people who have struggled and worked to bring this about."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spring/Summer Newsletter!

“Every day I went home and I think I grieved a little more,” Yolanda remembers. “When Greg was released, that was when I really grieved. I was happy for him and for his family, because it was terrible that he spent almost 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

"However, on my drive home, I was thinking, now I don’t know who killed my sister. It felt like I was reliving the day over 18 years ago when the phone call came telling me my sister was dead. For all these years, this is the person the state of North Carolina told me had done it, and now we’re here and we’ve got nothing.”

Check out our Spring/Summer newsletter, with its special feature, "After Exoneration: The Effect on Victims' Families," and reports about MVFHR's Seminar for new victims' family member activists, work in Asia, members' trip to Africa, and other news and updates about victim opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. and around the world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New MVFHR brochure

Here's a photo from MVFHR's beautiful new brochure, which is now available! Please let us know if you would like copies of the brochure to give out when you are speaking or staffing a literature table at public events.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"If I changed my position ..."

Congratulations to our colleagues in Connecticut on the Senate's passage of the death penalty repeal bill!

And in another state that has been working hard for abolition, here's an article about MVFHR Director Renny Cushing's upcoming visit. From yesterday's Billings (Montana) Gazette, "Murder victim's son works against the death penalty":

Renny Cushing is what some might call a conundrum: the son of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty.

The New Hampshire man held that stance on capital punishment before his father was shot to death in 1988. He didn’t alter it afterward.

“If I changed my position on the death penalty, it would only give more power to the killer,” Cushing, 59, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Not only would they take away my father, they would take away my values.”

Cushing, the founder and executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, will speak in Billings on April 14 as part of the Montana Abolition Coalition’s annual meeting. The meeting and the talks by Cushing and Sabrina Butler-Porter are open to the public.

Read the full article.