Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Change of Heart

Yesterday's Hartford Courant has a column by Susan Campbell, "A Change of Heart on the Death Penalty." The columnist refers at the end to the murder of Paul Laffin, brother of MVFHR member Art Laffin.

I remember my step-cousin Bobby as a heavy-set, fun-loving kid devoted to collecting and selling stamps and coins. He was a wheeler-dealer who probably could have been a fabulous businessman, given the right choices.

We lost track of one another. I went off to college, and Bobby went off dealing drugs. For a while, he sold cocaine, and in the summer of '94, he ended up battered and stabbed in an Oklahoma ditch. Two men attacked him at his home, then chased him across the street to continue beating and stabbing him, at one point with a broken bottle.

Court documents say Bobby was left to "languish and die," although he was able to rise up on one elbow and tell police the name of one of his attackers. The cause of death was exsanguination. He bled to death.

The men were found guilty of first-degree murder, and Bobby's family — his parents and brother — asked that they be put to death. In her victim-impact testimony, my Aunt Gayle — a lovely, churchgoing woman from whom Bobby got his sense of humor — talked about the futility of nursing her twin 3-year-old grandsons through their nightmares. She spoke of how difficult it was to explain that, no, Daddy wasn't coming home, but, yes, he could see them from heaven.

Of her dead son, she said that he had loved God and had even gone on church crusades as a youth. "And in his adult years," she said, "he strayed from God, but we had always hoped he would come back to what he was taught and what he believed. God does promise us that."

One of Bobby's killers was given life without parole. The other sits on Oklahoma's death row. A friend of mine covered the trials for the local newspaper and sent me the stories. The dead man in the newspaper bore little resemblance to the stout, laughing boy I remembered, and the details of his death were too gruesome to stomach.

It's never easy, talking about the death penalty. Last week, when the Connecticut House of Representatives finished a long and impassioned argument by voting to abolish the state's death penalty, it did so in the wake of the fatal shooting of a Wesleyan University student.

But then, is there ever a time when we can talk about our most heinous crimes without passion?

The governor has reiterated her stand that some crimes are too heinous to punish with anything but the death of the perpetrator, and for years I agreed with her.

Then, five years after my step-cousin was killed, my friend Paul Laffin was stabbed and killed behind the Hartford homeless shelter where he worked, and his loving family asked to pray for and with the killer. We were still standing in the hospital hallway waiting to hear if Paul had pulled through, and even when he didn't, his family insisted on forgiveness, and they asked that we redirect our anger from Paul's killer to a health-care system that doesn't provide nearly enough care for the mentally ill.

Paul's killer was mentally ill, and the death penalty wouldn't have been an option, but as I stood listening to Paul's wounded family, I had to lean against the hospital wall. The Laffins opened a door to grace, and those of us who witnessed that had to step through.

I would never take from my step-cousin's family their anger or hurt. That wasn't just a battered corpse in the ditch. That was their son, brother, father.

But while we're talking about the death penalty in the next few weeks, I am sitting quietly with this: Fifteen states do not have the death penalty on their lawbooks. I hope Connecticut joins them.

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