Victims

VICTIMS: Death Penalty Dropped at Request of Victim's Mother

Cynthia Portaro, whose son, Michael (pictured), was killed in 2011, stood before a Nevada courtroom on February 23 and asked prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty for the man convicted of her son's murder. Prosecutors agreed to the request and said they would ask the judge to sentence Brandon Hill to life without parole. Portaro said, “I personally didn’t want to see another person die. I got what I wanted — an apology from Brandon. I felt a sense of relief that there is no hatred, animosity, anger.” Joseph Abood, Hill's defense attorney, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. ... I’m just happy that the healing for everybody can start today. … He’s matured a lot since this killing, and I’m glad he’s finally able to recognize that he made a grave error and to know that he needs to apologize.” In the years since her son's death, Portaro has started a support group to help others through the loss of loved ones. “I just help other families through trauma, give them hope, give them tools, guidance, comfort, love, support, knowing that if they can see me being able to do it, they can do it, too,” Portaro said. “It helps me to help others."

BOOKS: One Woman's Journey After Her Sister's Murder

Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer tells Bishop's personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister's killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, "When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois's death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims' families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: 'I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.' Jeanne Bishop's compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister's killer .... She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy."

EDITORIALS: St. Louis Post-Dispatch Voices Death Penalty Opposition Even in Murder of Fellow Journalist

A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reiterated its opposition to the death penalty, even as Missouri prepares to execute the man convicted of killing a former Post-Dispatch reporter. Marcellus Williams is scheduled to be executed on January 28 for the murder of Lisha Gayle (pictured), who left her job as a journalist three years before she was killed. The paper noted Gayle's likely opposition to the death penalty: "It would be surprising, in light of her other causes and passions, if Lisha herself was a death penalty supporter." It then catalogued its own reasons for opposing capital punishment: "It is expensive — each case costs about $1 million more to prosecute than a capital case where the death penalty is not sought, according to one study. It serves no deterrent purpose. It can’t help but be imposed arbitrarily and capriciously. Occasionally innocent people are put to death. Occasionally, executions are botched and inmates suffer cruel and unusual pain."

VICTIMS: Boston Bombing Trial Could Cause More Trauma

In an op-ed in the Boston Herald, Michael Avery, professor emeritus at Suffolk University Law School, whose sister and niece were murdered 30 years ago, suggested that a plea bargain might be a better ourcome for all concerned in the case of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the defendant in the Boston Marathon bombing. A trial, he said, would be painful for victims and survivors: "Boston will relive every tortu[r]ous moment of the bombing, over and over, probably for weeks...if Tsarnaev is convicted, we’ll have a second trial on the penalty. The defense lawyers will present evidence in mitigation of the death sentence. We’ll suffer through two Chechen wars, a Russian occupation, and a psychoanalysis of the defendant.” He reflected on his own experience when his sister’s killer was put on trial: "Although I’m a lawyer, I didn’t go, and I didn’t read the Florida papers reporting the evidence. I couldn’t have handled it. My heart goes out to the people who won’t be able to handle the Tsarnaev trial. They won’t be able to avoid the massive publicity.” He urged Attorney General Eric Holder to spare all of Boston further trauma by accepting a guilty plea and a sentence of life in prison. Read the full op-ed below.

VICTIMS: Troubling Aspects of the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, a victim's family member in Missouri described her mixed feelings about the death penalty and the executions that have occurred there. Laura Friedman wrote, "Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings." Friedman said many aspects of the death penalty were disturbing: "I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used." She concluded with the uncertain hope that the process "will finally bring an end to killing in our lives."

NEW VOICES: Former Oklahoma Warden Says Death Penalty Fails on Many Fronts

Randy Workman (pictured) is a former warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he oversaw 32 executions. In a recent interview, he was critical of many aspects of capital punishment. He said the death penalty failed the victims' families and wasted money: "We spend millions of dollars on these cases and going through the process and the end result is the family, do they feel vindicated? I’d say 90% of the time the people I’ve seen don’t." He shared the advice he gave to a murder victim's mother (a relative) who asked for his thoughts on whether to seek the death penalty: "I said here’s the deal, if you get the death penalty and you[’re] successful, you're going to spend the next eight to 12 years back and forth in court and you’re going to relive your son’s death, because he has all these appeals....I’ve seen some mothers that had some serious broken hearts that said this doesn’t end it for me.This isn’t justice to me. This doesn’t do it.” He also said the threat of execution does not deter people from committing murder: “I can tell you the people that I’ve executed, when they committed crimes, they didn’t, wasn’t thinking about the death penalty and a lot of them were high, or a lot of them in the generation of people we’re dealing with today don’t have a lot of forethought about the end result.” Workman said he still supported the death penalty, but would not want to "push the button" on the chance the defendant might be innocent: "I would never take that chance with my life,” he said.

New Hampshire House About to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal

UPDATE: The repeal bill passed the House 225-104 on March 12. On April 17, the Senate voted 12-12 and then tabled the bill. The New Hampshire House of Representatives has scheduled a vote on repealing the death penalty for March 12. The bill, HB 1170, would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole for future offenses. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee in February by a vote of 14-3, including supportive votes from several legislators who had previously opposed repeal. Six other states in the past six years have ended the death penalty. Rep. Renny Cushing, the sponsor of the bill, said "The death penalty does not protect public safety, it does not shield our police officers, it does not meet the needs of many families of murder victims, it is not consistent with the values we hear from our religious leaders...those who commit first-degree murder will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance for parole." A death penalty repeal bill passed the legislature in 2000, but was vetoed by the governor. The current governor, Maggie Hassan, opposes the death penalty. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939 and has only one person on death row. 

Controversial Colorado Case Ends With a Plea and Life Sentence

Edward Montour, the defendant accused of killing correctional officer Eric Autobee (pictured) in a Colorado prison, agreed to plead guilty on March 6 to first degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Autobee's family had opposed the prosecution's decision to seek the death penalty for Montour, standing in witness in front of the courthouse during jury selection, and asking the judge to allow them to testify at the trial. Montour pled guilty to the crime in 2003 and was sentenced to death by a judge, but his conviction was overturned when an appellate court ruled the jury needed to be involved in sentencing to death. At his second trial, Montour initially pled not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing that he was wrongfully convicted of the crime that first put him in prison, and that his mental illness had gotten worse in prison. Montour was serving a life sentence for killing his 11-week-old daughter, though evidence recently emerged indicating she might have died from an accident.

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