Friday, October 8, 2010

A fervent advocate

More great coverage of Vicki Schieber's talks in Connecticut this week, this time in yesterday's Fairfield Patch. The link has some very good photos, too.

Vicki Schieber, whose only daughter was brutally raped and murdered in 1998, took Sacred Heart University students on a personal journey with her Wednesday evening as she told them why she is a fervent advocate of abolishing the death penalty.

When she was finished, many of the students flocked to sponsors of the talk to add their names to a growing pile of postcards that will be sent to Connecticut legislators in a campaign to end capital punishment in Connecticut.

"We'll have a new governor after the fall election and we may have an excellent shot at getting it passed," said Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, who brought Schieber from her home in Maryland to join his group's campaign.

Gubernatorial candidate Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor, opposes the death penalty. His opponent, Republican Tom Foley, is an advocate of the death penalty.

Last year, both houses of the General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut, but Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

"Over the past 10 years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty," Jones said. "In Connecticut, legislative opponents of the death penalty are on the rise."

Schieber's daughter, Shannon, a 23-year-old who was on a full scholarship at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was stalked by a serial rapist, Schieber related to the hushed audience of nearly 100 students in SHU's Shine Auditorium.

On the eve of her last final exam before graduation, 22-year-old Troy Graves entered her second-floor apartment by shimmying up an outside wall and breaking a screen-door lock on a tiny balcony as she showered.

Emerging from the shower, Shannon screamed when she encountered the stranger.

"For Shannon, everything went wrong that evening," Schieber said.

The scream was heard by her second-floor neighbor, who called 911.

But when police arrived shortly thereafter, officers discounted neighbors' reports of a disturbance after the officers knocked on Shannon's door and received no response. Graves had secured the screen door when he entered and police concluded there was no sign of a forced entry. Within five minutes, they left the scene, Schieber said.

Unbeknownst to the police, Graves was secreted inside the apartment.

He entered the apartment with an intention to rape, but he strangled Shannon to quiet her to avoid police intrusion, Schieber said.

The following morning, Shannon's brother, Sean, arrived at her office on campus to meet her for a prearranged luncheon date. When she could not be found, and her fellow students told him she had not appeared for her final exam, he went to her apartment.

The second-floor neighbor buzzed him in and together they broke the door to her apartment after she did not answer their knock.

When Sean saw the bloodied apartment and his sister lying naked on her bed, he fainted, Schieber said, tears welling in her eyes.

The Philadelphia police had failed to alert the four-block community in which Graves had stalked potential victims and raped at least two other women before he zeroed in on Shannon.

Schieber's initial reaction, shared by her husband Sylvester - "She was Daddy's girl," she said - was one of rage and hatred, driven by a fever to exact revenge on the cold-blooded killer who had stolen the life of their talented, treasured Shannon.

"My husband said if he'd been within five feet of him, he would have strangled him," she said.

But both she and her husband were brought up in the Catholic faith in the Midwest and, over time, they found themselves on a journey of peace, believing in the power of redemption and transforming their justifiable anger into positive acts.

"If you are raised with a set of principles," she said, it's necessary to honor them in practice.

"The death penalty diminishes us all," she said.

When Graves was arrested four years later in Colorado after resuming his serial raping, even after marrying and being hired as a high-security-clearance weapons specialist with the U.S. Air Force, DNA tests linked him to Shannon's rape and murder.

The Philadelphia prosecutor called for the death penalty.

But the Schiebers opposed it and eventually Graves pleaded guilty to Shannon's murder and 14 cases of sexual assault in an agreement by which he would serve life in prison with no possibility of parole.

"At the sentencing hearing, he turned to us and said, 'I wish to thank the Schieber family for believing in the sanctity of human life,' " said Schieber, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a retired professor.

At age 26, Graves was put in solitary confinement for the first 18 months of his sentence, a customary prelude for a criminal imprisoned for a life term.

Graves - like others serving life terms for capital felonies - is paying for the crime in a "hellish" way, Schieber said, referring to the bleak conditions of a maximum security prison.

Schieber said she has overcome the anger she felt at first and has not allowed it to destroy her and her family as she said it has many other families of murder victims torn apart by pain and anger.

Schieber has sought to meet with Graves in prison as part of her journey of peace.

"What would you say to him?" asked a student.

"I hope to have a conversation with him before I die," she replied quietly. "I would tell him how I reached out to his mother and how she cried for hours. He grew up amidst violence."

"I hope he has that journey of peace, too," she said.

Schieber said prison rules and budgetary constraints - no funds to hire a social worker intermediary as the prison would require - have so far made such a conversation impossible.

Schieber began her talk by displaying a black-and-white photograph of Shannon to the audience.

"She's always sitting on my shoulder, wherever I go," Schieber said.

Schieber said Shannon was an exceptional child and young woman.

Shannon recited the alphabet at 18 months and was reading at the third-grade level when she was 3 years old, her mother said. She headed the equestrian team at Duke and led the student body as freshman president. She graduated from college in three years.

"But the best part of her, apart from her great brain, was that she was absolutely beautiful inside," Schieber said.

Schieber knew that Shannon was devoted to social justice issues and wanted to make a difference with her life.

Shannon volunteered one day a week to mentor inner-city children while she pursued her demanding graduate studies and was known to lend a hand to the elderly in her neighborhood on a whim - aspects of Shannon's life in Philadelphia that Schieber discovered only when her daughter's shaken acquaintances rose to speak at her memorial service.

Schieber praised the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer for taking on the issue of why the police left the scene of the crime as it was unfolding. The Inquirer's dogged investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department led to a change in police procedures that mandates police officers remain at a potential crime scene on 911 calls until they have contacted superior officers and gained clearance to leave, she said.

"Shannon possibly would be alive," she said, if the police had heeded the complaints of Shannon's neighbors who alerted them and had forced their way into her apartment.

She said the newspaper's investigation led the department to reopen 2,000 sexual assault cases that had been closed as mere "investigatory complaints" – possibly to lower crime statistics – and reclassify 60 percent of them as active felonious assault cases subject to prosecution.

Schieber, a founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Life, has testified before Congress, addressed legislators and editorial writers and spoken out across the country against the death penalty.

She attended the celebration when New Jersey abolished the death penalty.

"Shannon was with me, cheering me on with 'Go Mom!' " she said, expressing hope to return to Connecticut for its own celebration after the death penalty is outlawed.

She's especially gratified to share her story with students who, unlike many in adult audiences, may not yet have formed their own opinions.

When she concluded her talk, after a round of applause, a stillness filled the auditorium. Then students began slowly to approach Schieber to give her a hug and express their sorrow at her tragedy and awe at her fortitude.

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