Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Victims families speak out against the death penalty

The following is a Dallas Morning News guest blog post by MVFHR's Susannah Sheffer about the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.

Robert Curley

On October 1, 1997 my 10-year-old son Jeffrey was kidnapped and murdered from our neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is right outside Boston. One of the men who murdered him was a member of a group that advocates sex between men and children. It's called NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The two men lured Jeffrey into their car by promising to get him a new bicycle.

After Jeffrey was murdered, you can imagine the pain and the anger that my family and I felt. For a while I wondered if the pain would destroy me - that's how bad it was.

I had never given much thought to the death penalty one way or the other. Jeffrey's murder was such a horrible crime that it sparked an outcry in the state of Massachusetts to reinstate the death penalty. At that time, Massachusetts was one of 12 states that did not have the death penalty at all. I knew that if we did get the death penalty reinstated in Massachusetts, it wouldn't apply to the men who killed Jeffrey, but I thought maybe if we had the death penalty, people would think twice before doing this kind of thing to some other child. I wanted to prevent this from happening to someone else. And I think at some level, working for the death penalty offered me a kind of distraction from my own pain. It gave me something else to focus on, a goal, an idea that I might be able to do something good.

I led the effort to bring the death penalty back to Massachusetts, and it came very close, but ultimately did not pass. Over a period of time, I was able to step back and take a look at the death penalty, and I started to have second thoughts about it. I remember picking up a copy of the local newspaper and reading about Manny Babbitt, who had grown up in Massachusetts and was about to be executed in California. You will hear Manny's brother Bill tell his story this evening. I began to learn more about how the justice system really works, and it didn't seem fair to me. I saw it with the two men responsible for Jeffrey's murder: the one who was really the leader in the crime got a sentence of second-degree murder, and the other one, who was tagging along, was given a sentence of first-degree murder. The difference was that one had a better, more expensive attorney.

So the system didn't seem fair to me, and my views on the death penalty started to evolve. I was really confused, and I agonized over where I stood.

Then I met a man who is now a good friend of mine and who is here with us in Geneva, Bud Welch. Bud's daughter was killed in 1995 in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. I met him when we were on a television show together. Bud was the first person I had ever met who was in a similar situation and who was opposed to the death penalty. Up until that time, I thought I was supposed to be a supporter of the death penalty.

There was a long period of time when I actually had changed my view on the death penalty and decided it wasn't right, but I didn't say that publicly. When people came up to me, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the death penalty, and I got tired of that and I stopped speaking out at all. But after a while I felt like a coward; I felt like I wasn't being honest. I wanted to get it off my chest and publicly state that I was no longer in favor of the death penalty.

A news reporter heard that I had changed my mind and she called me every few months and asked if I wanted to speak out about it. Each time I said no, but one day I called her and said I was ready to speak out, and we did an interview that was picked up by all the news media. Two days later, a conference of victims who were opposed to the death penalty was taking place in Boston. Bud Welch and Renny Cushing and many others were there. I had had absolutely no idea that this was taking place. I was pretty amazed at the way things come full circle. Bud asked me to come speak at that conference, and I did.

It so happens that that day was also Jeffrey's birthday. Our family has a tradition on that day: we meet at Jeffrey's grave and say a prayer and wish him a happy birthday. That particular birthday was tense for our family, because they had just found out that I had publicly spoken out against the death penalty. But we move on, and everything is fine between us now; we respect each other's views.

I'm very glad that I have changed my view and I'm very proud to speak out against the death penalty. I try to carry on Jeff's name and to live in my life in a decent, dignified, and caring manner. I originally supported the death penalty because I wanted to prevent something like Jeff's murder happening to another family, and that is still what motivates me today - working for child safety and violence prevention and trying to make the world a better place.

Bill Babbitt
My brother Manny served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps. He fought in five major battles. During the siege at Khe Sanh, Manny suffered a serious head wound, was mistaken for dead, and was loaded hurriedly into a helicopter and placed on a pile of dead bodies, even though he was still alive.

When he returned home, he struggled in many ways. He was often homeless and living in a cardboard box. He lived through two marriages that failed.
He suffered from post-traumatic symptoms. It was like he never really left Vietnam. He would hallucinate; he would act as if he was still on the battlefield. At that time, there was not the same understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder or resources for returning war veterans that exist in at least some places today.

Manny was sent to two mental hospitals hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After he was released, he came to live with my wife and me in our home in the state of California. We gave him money and tried to help him get work. But I was worried. He was acting strange. I saw that his demons were coming to the surface.

Then something terrible happened. A 78-year-old woman died during an intrusion into her home. When I began to suspect that Manny was responsible for that woman's death, I agonized over what to do. One option I thought I had, as the older brother who loved him, was to give Manny a bus ticket and just get him out of there. But if I did that, I would have blood on my hands, too. I owed the victim's family the truth about what had happened. and I couldn't take the risk that there was someone else out there who might become a victim of my brother and his war-induced demons.

I went to the police and told them what I suspected. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed, and I agreed to help lead them to him. After they arrested Manny, an officer said to him, "You're not going to go to the gas chamber or anything like that.'

I believed that. My mother believed it. We never really thought he would be executed, right up until the last half hour when I watched my brother be executed by the state of California.

When I turned my brother in to the police, I wanted to prevent another killing, not cause one. As a citizen I was trying to do the right thing and help ensure public safety. Now I have to live every day with the guilt that my actions sent my own brother to his death.

I wish we had been able to get Manny the help he needed. I wish that as a society we would devote our resources to treating people like Manny instead of imposing the death penalty and creating more funerals, more grief, more tears.

The death penalty creates a new set of victims: the families that each execution leaves behind. I will always remember the look on my mother's face on the night of Manny's execution. She suffers to this day from the effect of losing her son to execution. Manny's children suffer too. His daughter Desiree testified before the clemency board that she felt as if Manny had raised her from prison. She said if he remained in prison, serving a life sentence, he would still be able to play an important role in her life. Today, Desiree says she wishes people could understand how her father's execution traumatized her and how she still suffers because of it. My mother, my niece Desiree, other members of my family - these are innocent people who have been harmed by the death penalty.

I supported the death penalty until it came knocking on my door. Believe me, I wish I didn't know what it's like to experience the execution of a beloved family member. But now that I do know it, from my own experience and from the experience of the fellow members of my organization, I have to share that knowledge with you. The death penalty compounds the tragedy of murder by harming another set of families.

I promised my brother that I would work to end the death penalty. I'm proud to do that by working with Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, an organization that recognizes the grief caused by all kinds of killing, and by participating in this wonderful international effort as so many dedicated people gather together here in Geneva.

Renny Cushing

On a June night 22 years ago, I stopped to visit my mother and father at their home in a small town in New Hampshire, the town where I grew up and where I live with my family today. When I left that night, my father was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and my mother was on the couch watching the basketball game. I could not have imagined that a little while later there would be a knock on the front door and that when my father got up to answer it, he was met by two people who shot him right in front of my mother's eyes. He died in the doorway of the home that he and my mother had lived in for thirty-five years and where they had raised their seven children.

For families like mine, the question of what to do in the aftermath of a murder is not an intellectual exercise. After my father was murdered, I didn't think right away about issues related to the death penalty. I was worried about how to get my father's blood off the walls of the house. I was consumed with trying to understand how someone could have deliberately taken my father's life. More than what should be done about the killers, I was concerned about what to do with the empty chair at the table and emptiness in my heart.

But something happened a couple of days after my father's killers were arrested. I went to the corner store and an old friend came up to me and said, "You know Renny, I hope they fry the bastards, so your family can get some peace."

This is the common assumption, and it exists all over the world: if someone in your family has been murdered, you will want the death penalty for the person responsible, and you will be a supporter of the death penalty in general. Unless they hear an alternative view, lawmakers believe that they are under a moral obligation to provide the option of the death penalty, to address victims' pain. They assume that opposing the death penalty means opposing victims, and that's not a stance that lawmakers want to take or believe it is politically wise to take.

I had opposed the death penalty before my father was murdered, and that terrible event didn't change my position. It was pretty clear to me that an execution was not going to bring my father back or give me or the rest of my family any peace. It was also clear to me that if I let my father's murder turn me into a supporter of the death penalty, the killers would have taken not only my father but also my values, and I didn't want that to happen.

I began to meet other victims' family members who oppose the death penalty, and by now, as director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, I have met and worked with hundreds throughout the U.S. and in several other countries around the world. Having all suffered a tragic loss, these victims' family members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help them heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims.

The assumption that all victims' family members support the death penalty is a false assumption, and we have seen that victims' voices are essential to effective efforts to abolish the death penalty. Early last year, a lawmaker in the state of Montana was asked what most sways legislators to support abolition of the death penalty. He responded, "Number one would be murder victim family members who have stepped forward in opposition to the death penalty."

We have seen lawmakers change their minds and become opponents of the death penalty as a result of victims' testimony. And it's not just lawmakers; we've seen all kinds of audiences come to a new understanding after hearing testimony like the testimony you will hear this evening.

But that's not the only reason this testimony is so valuable. All of us who are already dedicated to abolishing the death penalty need to hear from victims, need to understand victims' experience and remember that the death penalty -- as an issue, a problem, a societal challenge -- is not only about the prisoner facing an execution.

A death penalty story does not begin with an execution or a death sentence or even with an arrest. It begins with a murder victim's loss of life and the devastating impact that that loss has on the surviving family members. That killing should concern us just as much as the killing that occurs when the state carries out an execution.

Working for abolition of the death penalty - in other words, working for an end to state killing - should also mean working for prevention of murder. As one of our members said, "If we truly cared about victims, we would put all our knowledge and resources into saving them. Crime prevention, not retaliation, should be our number one goal." This is at the heart of a victim-centered approach to abolishing the death penalty.

No comments: