Saturday, March 13, 2010

The defining moment

Victims' family members Nancy Filiaut, whose sister was murdered, and Bob Curley, whose son was murdered, attended yesterday's hearing of New Hampshire's death penalty study commission yesterday to express their opposition to the death penalty. This Concord Monitor article, "Despite grief, he opposes the death penalty," focuses on Bob Curley's story:

Bob Curley wasn't always against the death penalty.

But he is now.

It doesn't matter that his 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was killed, then sexually abused, 13 years ago. It doesn't matter that Curley still wakes up every so often and thinks about killing the killers, Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes. And it doesn't matter that his ex-wife and their two sons believe in the death penalty.

"After what happened with Jeff, I don't see how I could feel any other way than being in favor of the death penalty," Curley said yesterday. "But after a period of time . . . that changed."

Curley is a 54-year-old firefighter from Cambridge, Mass. He came to Concord yesterday to address the Death Penalty Study Commission, which is researching whether capital punishment, on the books in New Hampshire, makes more sense than life without parole.

The committee and some invited to speak were longwinded, forcing Curley to leave without speaking after 2½ hours so he could get to work on time.

Too bad. Curley had plenty to say, at least outside the meeting room; he spoke in calm, measured tones, not much louder than a whisper.

He sees discrimination in our court system based on

race and money, with some criminals receiving the death penalty and others life in prison.

"You find out very quickly it's a great system, but it's not always fair," Curley said. "If you have money and can afford to go to court with a good defense lawyer, you have a better chance than some guy that doesn't."

He learned these inequities the hard way, after the murder of his son.

Jeffrey loved baseball. He loved going to dad's office, the fire station, and climbing on the trucks.

"He was a funny little kid who liked to have a good time," Curley said. "He was a city kid growing up in East Cambridge. He was funny and outgoing and liked mechanical things. He liked to hang out with the guys at the firehouse. He was kind of a showoff, a good kid."

On Oct. 1, 1997, Jeffrey was lured away from his neighborhood by Sicari and Jaynes, who promised him a new bike.

They smothered Jeffrey with a gasoline-soaked rag, sexually abused him, then stuffed his body into a concrete-filled container and dumped him in a Maine river.

News stations began showing a picture of Jeffrey in his blue Little League uniform, a bat resting on his right shoulder. Divers found him six days later.

"Prior to that I think I was like most people, never gave the death penalty much thought," Curley said. "One way or the other, whatever way the wind blows. Yeah, there should be the death penalty when you hear something horrible happened, and the other way around when you hear someone was wrongly convicted."

His opinion on the death penalty when Sicari and Jaynes were convicted?

"I wanted them dead," Curley said.

His opinion, though, began shifting two or three years after Jeffrey's death. Curley read about Manny Babbitt, who had been wounded in Vietnam and was considered a war hero. Babbitt, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed a California woman in 1980 and was executed by lethal injection in 1999.

And then there was Harvard graduate Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. His mail bombs between 1978 and '95 killed three and wounded 23. He's serving a life sentence without parole.

"The poor black man Manny Babbitt gets executed, and the white educated guy from Harvard gets life," Curley said. "That was the defining moment for me."

Curley also cited the men who killed his son. Jaynes gagged Jeffrey, leading to his death, then sexually assaulted him; Sicari drove the car. Yet Jaynes was convicted of second-degree murder, with parole possible, and Sicari of first-degree murder.

Curley said he knows why.

Jaynes "hired a good defense lawyer," Curley said. "(Sicari), who was a tagalong stooge, got life without the possibility of parole. That stood out to me, how the system plays out."

Has money played a role in sentencing here, in New Hampshire? What about race?

Michael Addison killed Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006 and was sentenced to death in late 2008. John Brooks was convicted on two counts of capital murder in 2008 and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Addison is poor and black, Brooks a white millionaire whose legal team was the best money could buy.

The murder Brooks committed was planned, but Addison killed a cop. Who deserved what? You make the call.

Meanwhile, Curley's crusade for justice in our system is limited, although he traveled to Geneva two weeks ago to speak at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty. "They invited me," he said, "so I went."

He throws himself into his work these days. He's got two sons, 31-year-old Robert, a pipe fitter, and 29-year-old Shaun, a carpenter. He and his wife have divorced since the death of their son. Curley said the killing had nothing to do with the split.

"I'm fine, relatively speaking," Curley said, adding a subtle laugh. "It's crazy, but I really feel Jeff died for a reason, to highlight a lot of different things as far as sexual abuse of kids and things that are wrong in the world. I try to live in a dignified way and carry Jeffrey's memory."

Curley then paused for at least five seconds, choking back tears and collecting his thoughts on yesterday's hearing.

"This," he said finally, "is bigger than me."

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