Victims

Bishops Ask Georgia Prosecutor to Respect Wishes of Murdered Priest, Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Augusta, Georgia are seeking the death penalty against a man accused of murdering the Rev. Rene Robert (pictured), despite their knowledge that the Franciscan priest had requested that the death penalty not be used "under any circumstances" if he were killed. On January 31, Catholic Bishops from Georgia and Florida traveled to Augusta to meet with Hank Sims, the acting district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, asking him to respect Reverend Robert's wishes and to withdraw capital charges against Steven Murray. They also delivered a petition signed by more than 7,400 people from Rev. Robert's diocese in St. Augustine, Florida, asking that the Reverend's wishes be honored. In his work as a Catholic priest, Rev. Robert had devoted his life to serving people convicted of crimes and those struggling with addiction and mental health problems. He had worked with Murray through his ministry. Twenty years before he was killed, Rev. Robert signed a "Declaration of Life" that stated: "I hereby declare that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime, or how much I have suffered." His declaration also requested that the Declaration of Life be admitted as evidence at trial if the prosecution sought the death penalty for his murder, and asked that the Governor “take whatever action is necessary” to prevent any person convicted of his murder from being executed. “During my life," he wrote, "I want to feel confident that under no circumstances whatsoever will my death result in the capital punishment of another human being.” At a press conference before the meeting, St. Augustine Diocese's Bishop Felipe Estevez expressed the bishops' opposition to capital punishment. "Imposing a death sentence as a consequence of killing wrongly perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community," he said. "The death penalty only contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life. … Societies remain safe when violent criminals are in prison for life without parole." The views of Rev. Robert and the bishops reflect the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, which Pope Francis reiterated in an address to Congress in 2015.

NEW VOICES: Regretting Execution, Murder Victim's Family Urges Governor to Commute Missouri's Death Row

When Missouri executed Jeff Ferguson in 2014 for the rape and murder of Kelli Hall, her father said the Hall family "believed the myth that Ferguson’s execution would close our emotional wounds." At that time, Jim Hall told reporters "It's over, thank God." But, he now says, it wasn't. In an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Mr. Hall writes that his family has "come to deeply regret [Ferguson's] execution" and appeals to Governor Jay Nixon to commute the death sentences of the 25 men remaining on the state's death row. Hall says that several weeks after Ferguson was executed, his family viewed a documentary film that featured comments from Ferguson that "conveyed such genuine remore for the pain he caused both our family and his because of his horrible actions." A few months later, the Halls also learned that Ferguson had been a leader in the prison's hospice, GED, and restorative justice programs, including one in which prisoners listened to victims share the devastating impact the crimes had on their lives.The Hall family was able to forgive Ferguson as soon as they saw the film, and Mr. Hall says "my family wishes we had known of his involvement in these programs and been invited to participate. ... I'm convinced significant healing would have occurred for us all if our family had engaged in a frank conversation with him at the prison. I wish I had had the chance -- consistent with my Christian beliefs -- to have told him in person that I forgave him for what he did to our innocent and precious daughter." While applauding Governor Nixon for "his strong advocacy of restorative justice," Mr. Hall writes "[t]he death penalty ... stands as the concept's polar opposite." Commuting all of Missouri's death sentences to life in prison without parole, he says, "would be a true gesture of restorative justice."

STUDIES: Death Penalty Adversely Affects Families of Victims and Defendants

The death penalty adversely affects both families of murder victims and families of the accused, according to two recent journal articles. In his Psychology Today blog, Talking About Trauma, psychologist Dr. Robert T. Muller (pictured) reports that psychological studies have have found that the death penalty produces negative effects on families and friends of murder victims (referred to as "co-victims"). One University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of co-victims reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. That may be because, as one co-victim described it, "Healing is a process, not an event.” A 2012 Marquette University Law School study reported that co-victims had improved physical and psychological health and greater satisfaction with the legal system in cases where perpetrators received life sentences, rather than death sentences. The authors of that study said co-victims, "may prefer the finality of a life sentence and the obscurity into which the defendant will quickly fall, to the continued uncertainty and publicity of the death penalty." Lula Redmond, a Florida therapist who works with family members of murder victims, said, "More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this." A number of co-victims expressed sympathy for family members of the condemned, but the death penalty process also can polarize the families, obstructing healing for both. An article for the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform by Professor Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado at Boulder describes the retributive effects of the death penalty on the family, friends, and attorneys of death row prisoners. Radelet compares these impacts to the effect of life without parole and argues "that the death penalty’s added punishment over LWOP often punishes the family just as much as the inmate, and after the execution the full brunt of the punishment falls on the family. This added impact disproportionately punishes women and children." These effects on people other than the inmate, he writes, "undermine the principle that the criminal justice system punishes only the guilty and never the innocent. The death penalty affects everyone who knows, cares for, or works with the death row inmate."

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Oklahoma Case Over Improper Victim-Impact Testimony

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the death sentence imposed on Shaun Michael Bosse. In a unanimous per curiam decision issued October 11, the Court held that Oklahoma prosecutors had improperly presented testimony from three members of the victims' families asking the jury to sentence Bosse to death. The Court had ruled in 1987 in Booth v. Maryland that the use of victim-impact testimony in determining whether a capital defendant would be sentenced to death violated the 8th Amendment. Four years later, after a personnel change on the Court, it retreated from part of that decision, holding in Payne v. Tennessee that the presentation of testimony relating to the effect of the victim's death on his or her loved ones was constitutionally permissible. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then ruled that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety, permitting Oklahoma prosecutors to present highly emotional pleas from victims' family members asking juries to impose the death penalty. Oklahoma was the only jurisdiction in the country to interpret Payne in that manner, and Bosse's petition for review argued that "Oklahoma stands alone" and that its "outlier" practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Oklahoma court, writing that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibits victims' family testimony offering "opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appro­priate punishment." The Court further declared that its decision in Booth "remain[s] binding prec­edent until we see fit to reconsider [it]." While the Bosse decision prevents Oklahoma prosecutors from presenting this type of testimony in the future, its impact on the numerous other cases in which Oklahoma prosecutors presented this testimony is less clear. The Court remanded Bosse's case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which may consider whether the improper testimony constituted harmless error. Similar harmless error review may be required in other Oklahoma cases.

Daughter of Charleston Shooting Victim Opposes Death Penalty for Accused Killer

Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance (pictured), and cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, were killed in the racially-motivated shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church one year ago, says she has not foregiven Dylann Roof, the accused perpetrator, but does not think he should be sentenced to death. In an article for Vox, Risher shared her experiences since the shooting, discussing her emotional reactions to her mother's death and her views on gun control, the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's statehouse, and capital punishment. Risher, who is a church chaplain, says that "[t]here is no right way to grieve." Unlike her sister, Nadine Collier, who publicly voiced her forgiveness of Roof just days after the shooting, Risher is "still in the anger stage" of grieving and says she has not forgiven Roof. Still, she does not believe a death sentence is appropriate. "Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother’s death, I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her. That’s my conviction because of my faith," she said. "I don’t believe as human beings that we should take away someone’s life just because we have the power to do so." A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of black South Carolinians prefer a sentence of life without parole for Roof if he is convicted.

Victim's Cousin in Oklahoma Death Penalty Case Speaks of "Awful" Guilt Upon Learning Defendants Were Actually Innocent

After Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982, police and prosecutors told her cousin, Christy Sheppard (pictured) that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were guilty of the crime. In 1988, Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death; Fritz received a life sentence. Eleven years later, the pair were exonerated when DNA testing excluded them as perpetrators and pointed to another man who had once been a suspect. Sheppard, now a criminal justice counselor and victim advocate in Ada, recently shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent. “The guilt has been awful,” she said. “It is horrible to think that you prayed, wished, helped and condoned to bring harm to someone else and then to find out that it wasn’t deserved and later learn what they went through.” Sheppard said her family was shocked, "It was like being in a Twilight Zone. It fit nothing we knew to be true." The experience changed her views on the death penalty, which she had previously supported. "In theory, it seems like that’s the way it ought to be: The punishment fits the crime. But when you pick it apart, it’s just a mess," she said. Sheppard is serving on the recently-announced Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and is also campaigning on behalf of Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to defeat a ballot initiative that would reverse that state's legislative repeal of the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Former Utah Prosecutor Urges Death Penalty Repeal

Creighton Horton spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office before retiring in 2009. In a recent op-ed, he said his experience handling capital cases led him to believe Utah should abolish the death penalty. Horton noted the negative impact the death penalty can have on victims' families. "If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades," he said. "From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure." He said a life without parole sentence for the perpetrator was often the best outcome for the families of victims: "When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives." He also raised concerns about wrongful convictions, stating, "No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed." The Utah legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty for future offenses. The bill passed the Utah Senate, and is likely to face a vote in the House on March 10.

Mother of Murder Victim: "The Death Penalty Would Inflict Additional Pain on Us"

Duval County, Florida prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 2013 murder of Shelby Farah (pictured), over the objections of Ms. Farah's family. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade prosecutors to non-capitally resolve the case, Darlene Farah, Ms. Farah's mother, publicly expressed her views in a recent column in TIME. Farah said, "I do not want my family to go through the years of trials and appeals that come with death-penalty cases." Instead, she wants her family to be able to, "celebrate [Shelby's] life, honor her memory and begin the lengthy healing process." Darlene Farah says her daughter would not have wanted the death penalty to be sought on her behalf, and "more killing in no way honors my daughter’s memory or provides solace to my family." Duval County is among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for a majority of U.S. death sentences and is represented by a prosecutor's office that has sent more people to death row since 2009 than any other prosecutor's office in the state. Farah has asked prosecutors to accept the defense offer to plead guilty to all charges, but she says "[prosecutors'] desire for the death penalty in my daughter’s case seems so strong that they are ignoring the wishes of my family in their pursuit of it." Farah said the use of the death penalty is impeding the healing process: "Death-penalty cases are incredibly complex and drawn-out. It’s been two and a half years since my daughter’s murder, and the trial hasn’t even started...[W]e can’t start to heal and move beyond the legal process, which never seems to end." "I have seen my family torn apart since my daughter’s murder, and the idea of having to face the lengthy legal process associated with a death-penalty case is unbearable. We have endured enough pain and tragedy already."

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