New Voices - Victims' Families

Learning More About Killer After His Execution, Missouri Murder Victim's Family Urges Governor to Commute Death Row

When Missouri executed Jeff Ferguson in 2014 for the rape and murder of Kelli Hall, the Hall family, her father said, "believed the myth that Ferguson’s execution would close our emotional wounds." At the time of Ferguson's execution, 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 appeal 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, "Potosi: God in Death Row," 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."

(J. Hall, "Commute all death sentences," Columbia Daily Tribune, December 27, 2016.)

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."

(S. Risher, "My mom was killed in the Charleston shooting. Executing Dylann Roof won’t bring her back." Vox, June 15, 2016.)

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, shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent in an article in the Omaha World-Herald in April 2016. “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 Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, which is expected to make recommendations in 2017 on reforms to Oklahoma's death penalty.

(D. Hendee, "Death penalty opponent says her 'guilt was awful' after men convicted of cousin's murder were proven innocent," Omaha World-Herald, April 1, 2016.)

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 February 2016 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." Farah asked Duval County prosecutors to accept a 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."

(D. Farah, "My Daughter’s Killer Should Not Get the Death Penalty," TIME, February 19, 2016; L. Robbins, "Victim's mother urges State Attorney Angela Corey to take death penalty off the table," WTLV First Coast News, February 24, 2016; Image by Darlene Farah, via WOKV News.)

Murder Victim's Daughter Says "Broken" Death Penalty Doesn't Bring Closure and is "A Waste"

Dawn Mancarella, whose mother, Joyce Masury, was murdered in 1996, called the death penalty "a waste of energy and money [that] doesn’t bring justice or closure." Sharing her views on the death penalty in a column for Connecticut's Register Citizen, Mancarella expressed support for the Connecticut Supreme Court's 2015 decision declaring the death penalty "incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut."

Mancarella said that the death penalty forces victims' family members to "go through the pain of reliving their loved one’s murder over and over again, year after year" through the lengthy appellate process. This, she says, "is the opposite of justice and closure — even if the convicted offender is put to death in one, ten or twenty years, the anguish of losing your loved one never goes away and a state appointed execution doesn’t make you feel any better." She contrasts the energy and money expended on the death penalty with the state's treatment of programs to help victims' families heal: "it is beyond frustrating to see millions of dollars invested into a single capital case," she says, "while victims’ services are perpetually underfunded." She concludes, "It is time to give back our misplaced time and energy to the survivors of homicide for their healing and truly honoring their loved one."

(D. Mancarella, "FORUM: Capital punishment a waste of energy and money," The Register Citizen," January 21, 2016.)

Family Members of Victims Killed in the Boston Marathon Bombing Express Opposition to Death Penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

In April 2015, family members of two of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombers, including the police officer who was killed by the Tsarnaevs, spoke out against the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Bill and Denise Richards, parents of 8-year-old Martin Richards, the youngest victim killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, issued a statement calling on federal prosecutors to drop the death penalty in exchange for termination of all appeals in the case. In their statement in the Boston Globe, the Richards wrote:  "the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family."

Jennifer Lemmerman, the sister of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was killed in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, also said Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison. "Whenever someone speaks out against the death penalty, they are challenged to imagine how they would feel if someone they love were killed. I’ve been given that horrible perspective and I can say that my position has only strengthened," Lemmerman wrote. She went on to say, "I also can’t imagine that killing in response to killing would ever bring me peace or justice. . . . I choose to remember Sean for the light that he brought. No more darkness."

Robert Curley (pictured, l.), whose 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was murdered in 1997, discussed his views on capital punishment and the Tsarnaev case on necn news on April 13, 2015. Curley said he came to oppose the death penalty after the trials of the men who murdered his son convinced him that "the system is just not fair" and could not be trusted to reach the right result in capital cases. Curley expressed his belief that Tsarnaev should receive life without parole because a death sentence would mean endless appeals, but a life sentence would mean he would, "go away never to be heard from again." 

Tsarnaev was convicted of 30 charges, including 17 that carried a possible death sentence, and was sentenced to death..

("Life Sentence Vs. Death Penalty for Tsarnaev," necn news (video), April 13, 2015; J. Ellement, "Sister of slain MIT officer opposes death penalty for Tsarnaev," Boston Globe, April 13, 2015; "To end the anguish, drop the death penalty," Boston Globe, April 16, 2015.)

Father of Slain Corrections Officer Reverses Course on Death Penalty

In a 2013 op-ed, the father of slain Colorado corrections officer Eric Autobee (pictured) explained why he no longer supported the death penalty and is working for its repeal. Writing in the Pueblo ChieftainBob Autobee, himself a veteran corrections officer, said the pursuit of the death penalty in his son’s case caused an "unspeakable emotional toll" on his family.

He wrote, “Given what I know now, I can no longer support Colorado’s broken death penalty system. What’s more, I will work to end it to ensure that our resources are better used and no family ever has to go through what my wife and I have endured.” A sentence of life in prison, he wrote, would have been a better option: “If the ultimate punishment in our case had been life without parole, my wife and I could be focusing on more important things like our healing and working to stop violence in our prisons.”

Officer Autobee suggested using the money spent on the death penalty to make prisons safer for corrections officers: “As a victim’s father who has been trapped in the labyrinth of the death penalty, and after seeing the real misuse of resources, I am begging our elected officials to do away with our broken death penalty system. Colorado can do better by our corrections officials, and we can do much better by victims.”

(B. Autobee, "A terrible burden to victims' families," Pueblo Chieftain, op-ed, February 10, 2013).

Social Work Professionals Whose Family Members Were Murdered Say Death Penalty Insufficiently Cares for Victims' Families

Mary Healy and Jane Caron are social work professionals who also experienced a murder in their families. In a February 2012 op-ed in the Litchfield (Connecticut) News, they highlights their concerns about the death penalty insufficiently cares for the needs of victims' families: “As both homicide survivors and professionals who help those dealing with grief, we are less concerned with what is deserved by the murderer than we are by what is deserved by the families of murder victims. We believe that justice is only served when the needs of those who have been harmed are met. The problem with the death penalty is that it maintains a focus on the murderer when the focus rightly belongs with the people the murderer has harmed. The misplaced emphasis is evident by the fact that, while crucial victims’ services and crime prevention programs are not funded to their optimal level, the state spends between $4 million to $7 million annually on a death penalty system where the focus is primarily on the murderer.” 

Healy and Caron further explain the pain murder victims’ survivors endure during trial and appeals: “Capital cases receive greater media attention and increased public scrutiny. When a death sentence is handed out, to the public, it seems like the case is over and ‘justice’ has been served. However, this sentence sets into motion a decades-long process that the survivors must continue to live through. Being entrenched in a legal system can be harmful to anyone; to those suffering from traumatic grief, the injury is compounded.”

Healy and Caron concluded, “The death penalty is not what victims need. If we are serious about caring for the needs of victims, we will abandon the pretense of the death penalty and work for real solutions.”

(M. Healy and J. Caron, "Time to eliminate the death penalty?" Litchfield News, February 23, 2012).

Victim's Brother says Execution Left Him with "horror and emptiness"

Ronald Carlson wanted vengeance when his sister was murdered in 1983 in Texas.  But when he witnessed the execution in 1998 of the person who committed the murder he changed his mind. In aa op-ed ten years later in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Carlson said he  had no opinion on capital punishment before his sister’s death and remembers feeling hatred and “would have killed those responsible with my own hands if given the opportunity.” But he later discovered that, “Watching the execution left me with horror and emptiness, confirming what I had already come to realize: Capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful, corrosive effect on society.”

Carlson said he sympathizes with other victims’ families, understanding how they would want to see those who killed their love ones suffer the same fate. But, he said, “[O]ur justice system should not be dictated by vengeance.” He asked, “As a society, shouldn’t we be more civilized than the murderers we condemn?” Carlson has spent over half of his life examining this issue and has come to believe, “We as a society should not be involved in the practice of killing people.”
(R. Carlson, “Time to end the death penalty’s cycle of violence,” Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, August 3, 2008).

Murder Victims' Families Testify in Maryland on the Death Penalty

Family members of murder victims testified before the Maryland Senate Judiciary Committee on March 6 about the painful toll the death penalty has taken on their lives, stating that the resources spent on seeking death sentences could be better used elsewhere. "I've watched too many families go through this to make me believe the system will ever work," said Kathy Garcia, whose nephew was murdered 20 years ago. She continued, "The death penalty divides families at the very time they need each other the most." Other family members of murdered victims agreed, suggesting that the money spent on the death penalty could be better used in providing counseling and other support to survivors. Vicki Schieber (pictured), whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, told the committee that years of death penalty appeals are excruciating to families. "The system is just too painful," she said.

A study released the same day showed that Maryland taxpayers have spent at least $186 million on the death penalty since 1978. Senator Lisa Gladden (D), the chief sponsor of the bill to repeal Maryland’s death penalty, said that the $186 million could instead go to social services. "What could we purchase with [$186 million]? We could cover all the uninsured. We could provide tuition assistance or drug treatment two or three times over."

(“Murder victims' families say death penalty exacts toll on their lives,” by George P. Matysek, Jr., Catholic News Service, March 12, 2008). See Recent Legislation and Victims.

Faith in Texas Criminal Justice Sytem Shaken After Exonerations

Two recent articles in the Dallas Morning News detail the lives of those affected by the wrongful imprisonment of Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger in Texas. For some, their faith in the criminal justice system has been shattered. Twelve years after being sentenced to life in prison for a 1988 rape and murder, Ochoa and Danziger were exonerated by DNA evidence. At the time of his arrest, Ochoa, after 15 hours of interrogation, gave a false confession to the police, who fed him facts and edited his final typed confession to match details of the crime. In order to avoid the death penalty, Ochoa also told police that his friend Danziger was the one responsible for the murder.

Another person, who was already in prison for other crimes, later confessed to the rape and murder in 1996 after a religious conversion. He wrote to the Austin Police Department and the Austin American-Statesman saying that Ochoa and Danziger did not belong in prison.

In 1999, the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin tested DNA evidence in the case and found that the DNA tests implicated the new defendant and not Ochoa or Danziger. John Pray, co-director of the Innocence Project in Wisconsin, noted that false confessions are "a leading cause of wrongful convictions."

"In the end, justice did prevail," Pray said, "You look at both those [men] and you don't know what to make of it. ... One is very exhilarating, and the other is just downright depressing."

Ochoa, 41, used the money from his civil settlement to pay for law school and an office in Wisconsin. Danziger, however, was severely beaten in prison and now suffers brain damage. He lives in Florida, under his sister’s guardianship. His settlements pay for his medical care.

Jeanette Popp, the victim’s mother, was shocked when she heard that the wrong people had been convicted. "My legs just gave way," Ms. Popp says. "I can't do this again," she remembers sobbing. "Please, God, don't make me do this again." "Chris' [Ochoa's] mother and Richard's [Danziger's] mother lost their child for 12 years, as surely as I lost Nancy," she thought. She wrote to both men, telling them how sorry she was.

Ms. Popp asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty against the new defendant because she did not want her daughter's memory stained with someone's blood. She is now an opponent of the death penalty, and told the Morning News, “I don’t think we have learned anything.”
(“Two men's DNA exonerations in '88 Austin murder reveal triumph, tragedy” and “Mother of '88 murder victim says her faith in justice system shattered after exonerations,” by Dianne Jennings, The Dallas Morning News, February 24, 2008).

Mother of Murder Victim Testifies at California Death Penalty Hearing

At a hearing of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice held in Los Angeles, the mother of a murder victim testified about why she believed the death penalty does not serve victims' needs. Aba Gayle’s daughter, Catherine Blount, was a teenager when she was murdered in 1980 by Douglas Mickey. At first, Gayle (pictured) told the Commission, "The district attorney assured me that the execution of the man responsible for Catherine's murder would help me heal, and for many years I believed him." But in 1988, Gayle changed her mind and now no longer wants the defendant to be executed. Mickey’s death sentence was overturned in 2006 due to the ineffectiveness of his defense lawyer, but the D.A. is still seeking the death penalty against him.

During the hearing on how to address the problems in the death penalty system, prosecutors stated that they need quicker appeals and would like to amend California’s Constitution to transfer initial reviews of death penalty cases to state appeals courts. Defense attorneys stated that transferring initial reviews would only make the process more cumbersome, and suggested that the state shorten the list of crimes that qualify for the death penalty instead.

With 669 inmates, California has the largest death row population in the country, and it can take as long as two decades for some inmates to complete their appeal.

Gayle testified about her experiences with the death penalty at the hearings, including her requests to the D.A. to forgo the death penalty on retrial. 

Gayle, who is an Oregon resident, later testified in February 2013 hearings before the Oregon House Judiciary Committee in favor of repealing that state's death penalty. She told the committee that those in her situation will never experience closure and executing the killer would not honor her daughter’s life. She said, “Do not tarnish the memory of my beautiful child with another senseless killing.” 

(“Lawyers divided on death penalty system,” by Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2008; H. Jung, "Oregon death penalty 'indefensible,' says man who last carried it out," Oregonian, February 26, 2013.)

Murder Victim's Father Share Story on NPR

National Public Radio (NPR) recently featured a segment in its StoryCorps series in which a father describes how he came to forgive the man who murdered his daughter. Patricia Nuckles was murdered by Ivan Simpson in 2001 when she caught him robbing her home. Though devastated by his daughter’s murder, Hector Black wanted to learn more about his daughter’s killer. He learned that Simpson was born in a mental hospital to a woman who later attempted to drown him and his siblings. Simpson and his brother escaped, but his mother succeeded in killing his sister.

After learning this, Mr. Black and his wife asked the district attorney not to seek the death penalty against Ivan Simpson. At his sentencing, Simpson apologized to Nuckles’ family.

The link below has both the audio and text of Hector Black's statement.

(“Father Finds Peace in Forgiveness,” NPR, Feb. 8, 2008).

Judge Calls Death Penalty "an outrageous way to penalize victims"

Maryland Judge Joseph P. Manck sought to lessen the pain and frustration to the victims' family by sentencing a defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty. In choosing a life sentence for Brandon Morris for the murder of correctional officer Jeffrey Wroten, Judge Manck noted that appeals in death penalty cases can stretch on for years. He cited one case that has been going on for 25 years and said that victims' families often must sit through painful retrials, listening to defendants "again, again and again." Judge Manck told Wroten’s family that his mother was also murdered and that he understood their need for closure. However, Judge Manck noted, death penalty trials and appeals can last many years with multiple painful rehashings of the crime. He said, "It is an outrageous way to penalize victims."

At the time of the crime, Morris was in Roxbury Correctional Institution, serving an eight-year sentence for assault and robbery. He shot Wroten to death as he escaped from prison. Morris was apprehended by police shortly after his escape. In making his decision, Judge Manck also cited mitigating factors in the case, including Morris’ abusive childhood. Morris had waived his right to sentencing by a jury.
(“Inmate Given Life Without Parole In 2006 Slaying of Roxbury Guard,” by Raymond McCaffrey, Washington Post, January 29, 2008).

Father of Murder Victim Urges New Jersey Legislature to Abandon the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Daily Record, Jim O’Brien detailed his experiences with the legal system as the father of a murder victim. His daughter Deidre was murdered in 1982, and the capital trials and appeals for the man convicted of the crime lasted another 8 years. O’Brien stated, “I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill [a murderer], and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.” Because of the “horrendous toll” the process took on his family and the little closure it gave them, O’Brien asked the New Jersey legislature to abolish the death penalty. Over the past year, a bipartisan commission has conducted a study of New Jersey’s death penalty. The commission investigated many aspects of the death penalty including its impact on the families and friends of murder victims. O’Brien and his family’s painful experience was not unique, according to a Department of Justice study. About 70% of husbands and wives in the same situation divorce, separate, or develop a substance abuse problem. O’Brien said that many death penalty proponents believe that the punishment is necessary to bring closure to the victims’ families, but he disagrees. Some closure does come with time; however, “the death penalty forces that closure further away than any other punishment on the books.” Based upon information such as this and testimony from victims’ family members, the New Jersey commission recommended that the death penalty be replaced with a sentence of life without parole. The legislature is likely to vote on this issue next month.

(“Death Penalty Punishes Victims’ Families, Too” by Jim O’Brien, The Daily Record, Nov. 25, 2007).

Victim's Family Members Seek Closure Through Life Sentence

Nearly two decades after the 1988 robbery and murder of James Scanlon, his family now says that a sentence of life without parole for his killer - Ronald Rompilla - will end years of emotional strain resulting from the death penalty and will help them to start the healing process. "It's time to start remembering my dad for the good person he was and not always affiliating it with Ronald Rompilla and the death penalty. ... (I)t was time. I didn't think going after it again would be good for us as a family. A life sentence is as much closure as we can hope for," said Timothy Scanlon, James' son.

Rompilla originally received a death sentence for the brutal crime, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated it in 2005, finding that his attorneys failed to properly research his history of childhood neglect, alcoholism, and mental retardation. In its 5-4 decision, the Court told prosecutors to either agree to a life term for Rompilla or convene a new sentencing hearing where a new jury could decide death or life. Scanlon's family made the final decision to seek a life sentence in exchange for Rompilla's agreement to waive all appeal rights in any court. "Basically it was our decision not to proceed with the death penalty again. ... (M)y family has been through this for 20 years. We didn't want to go through another appeals process for another 20 years," observed Timothy Scanlon, who voiced frustration with the death penalty appeals process and said he still supports the death penalty. Rompilla received his life sentence plus consecutive 10- to 20-year sentences for robbery and burglary during a sentencing hearing on August 13. Stephen M. Van Natten, Lehigh County chief deputy district attorney, said the sentencing agreement was reached based on the Scanlon's family wishes. (The Morning Call, August 14, 2007).

Victims and Law Enforcement Support Kentucky Death Penalty Review

Legislation to establish a commission to examine Kentucky's death penalty and report its findings to the General Assembly has gained support from former law enforcement officials and victims' family members. The bill, proposed by Rep. Tom Burch, would require the task force to review whether capital punishment deters crime, is applied fairly, and is still acceptable to the public. It would mark the first time in four decades that the state has examined its death penalty laws.During a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the measure, Nancy Rowels, whose brother was murdered, said, "My personal preference would be that there be no more violence in my name." She said she favors life without parole over the death penalty. Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, a former prosecutor who once supported capital punishment, said he supports Burch's measure. Crenshaw said his doubts about capital punishment came after defending a young man who was charged with capital murder but was cleared before trial. "We want to make sure we are not making mistakes," he stated. Burch's bill has sparked conversation about whether Kentucky should retain capital punishment. Former Kentucky Chief Justice John Palmore said he supported capital punishment when he was a young prosecutor, but now he's "not so hot for it anymore." Noting that he is not sure the death penalty accomplishes anything, Palmore said, "It wouldn't bother me at all if executions were abolished. I still have that feeling that comes from childhood that some people are so bad, that they have done such bad things, that we ought to get ride of them. But there are some things you can't get rid of." Currently, there are 40 people on death row in Kentucky. The state has executed two people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1974. (The Courier-Journal, March 12, 2007).

New Book Explores Effect of Executions on Collateral Victims

"Living With the Death Penalty" is a new book that examines the impact of executions on correctional officers, offenders, chaplains, attorneys, and victims' family members. In this book, author Courtney Vaughn, a rape victim and an Educational Leadership and Policy Studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, offers first-person accounts of what it is like to experience the death penalty from a variety of perspectives. She explores the sacrifice, alienation, and resiliency that are common traits among the various groups impacted by executions, and uses their stories to provide readers with a better understanding of the "circle of violence" associated with the death penalty. (Published by Courtney Vaughn, 2006)

Victims' Advocates, Prosecutors Caution Against Expansion of Texas Death Penalty

Victims' advocates and prosecutors are urging Texas legislators to exclude the death penalty from new legislation designed to toughen penalties for repeat child molesters. Those opposed to the measure fear that threatening death sentences for sex offenders could lead to fewer reported cases of sex crimes and might even give incentive to offenders to kill their victims to prevent the child from testifying in court.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, noted that ninety percent of child-sex victims know their offenders. "We're definitely not concerned with the intent. We're concerned with the unintended consequences. . . . Imagine the pressure the family would experience if grandpa could be given the death penalty," Burrhus-Clay said. Shannon Edmonds, a former prosecutor and director of governmental relations for the Texas District and State Attorneys Association, added, "[J]ust being tough on crime doesn't necessarily advance the ball for public safety." Prosecutors also fear allowing the death penalty for repeat sex offenders will make offenders less likely to plead guilty, which could clog courts and force child victims to take the stand in extended jury trials. Sen. Bob Deuell, one of several legislators to file a bill that includes the death penalty for repeat child-sex offenders, said, "My goal, of course, is that there be no more victims. But I'm open-minded, and I don't have any delusions that mine is the perfect bill. These are the people we really want to do this for, so we need to hear from them." Victims' rights groups and prosecutors have vowed to work with legislators to craft a bill that protect child-sex victims without including capital punishment as a sentencing option. (Dallas Morning News, January 5, 2007).

Death Penalty Will Not Be Sought for Killing at Jewish Federation

Following an announcement that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty for Naveed Haq, who is accused of killing one woman and wounding five others at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, two of Haq's victims said they supported the decision to seek a life sentence. "The death penalty most likely promulgates further violence and revenge," said Cheryl Stumbo, who was wounded in the attack. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng classified it as "one of the most serious crimes that has ever occurred in this city." Layla Bush, who was also wounded by Haq during the July shooting, noted that she believes life in prison will be a tougher punishment than execution, adding, "I think this guy is someone who could feel remorse in prison. Two wrongs don't make a right." Maleng decided against seeking a death sentence because of Haq's long history of mental illness. Haq's acquaintances say he struggles with bipolar disorder, which is generally characterized by drastic mood swings. Haq's defense attorneys say their client has "extensive medication and mental health issues" and has sought treatment from more than one place during the past ten years. Haq's trial is expected to start by the end of 2007. Haq's parents expressed shock about what happened and offered condolences and prayers for the victims and their families. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 21, 2006).

Life Without Parole Offers Prosecutors, Jurors, and Victims an Acceptable Alternative to the Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Utah have stated that the sentencing option of life without parole has been very helpful in giving jurors and family members of victims a viable alternative to the death penalty. Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom noted that life without parole is often a better option to present to jurors: "It's a tool for juries as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, too," Yocom said. "It's an alternative to avoid asking a jury of 12 people to make that decision," to impose the death penalty. "I've talked to a lot of jurors in death-penalty cases, and the hardest thing you could ask a citizen to do is sit in judgment of life or death over an individual. It's a very difficult job to do," he added. Robert Stott, another prosecutor with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said the life-without-parole sentence is seen as just by many victims. "What we found is that oftentimes what the families of victims want is to ensure the person not be able to commit the same kind of crime," Stott said. He noted that many crime victims don't crave revenge, but simply want to make sure that there are no more victims and that the perpetrator never leaves prison. "I don't mean to speak for all of them, but I've dealt with many who find this satisfies their needs and desires," Stott said. Utah has 22 prisoners serving life without parole and 9 inmates on death row. (Deseret News, Nov. 13, 2006).

"Death penalty isn't the justice I seek"

Bonita Spikes' husband was murdered 12 years ago. She now works to end the death penalty in Maryland. She recently wrote about her perspective on capital punishment in the Baltimore Sun. She stated, in part:

I know that my late husband, Michael, who was an innocent bystander in a 1994 convenience store shooting in New York City, would be proud of me because he, too, opposed the death penalty.

. . . [M]ost relatives of murder victims drop their guard when I tell them that I experienced the grief-driven impulse for revenge when the hospital curtain was pulled aside, revealing my husband's body with a bullet wound in the chest.

But Michael's killers were never found, and I eventually realized that my desire to see the murderers brought to justice was prolonging my pain. I know I was a basket case until I decided to "let go and let God," as they say. I also know that it is wrong to kill and, therefore, punishing a murderer with death is as wrong as the original crime.
. . .
As an African-American woman, my opposition to capital punishment deepened when I learned how race infects who gets sentenced to life and who gets sentenced to death. . . . The murders of white Marylanders are more than twice as likely to bring death sentences, a disparity that only increases when the defendant is black. The vast majority of murder victims in our state are black, but all the men currently sitting on our death row were convicted of killing white people.
. . .
We may be moving toward ending the death penalty. We will all be better for it. (Baltimore Sun, Nov. 7, 2006). Read the article.

NJ Assemblyman Changes Position on Death Penalty - Legislator Also Lost A Family Member

State Assemblyman Nelson T. Albano of Cape May, New Jersey, announced at a forum on the death penalty that he has changed his mind and now opposes capital punishment. Albano said that his change of heart came after reading a book about Kirk Bloodsworth, the 1st death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. The book led him to the insight into that the capital-punishment system is flawed and should be put on hold. "I think we owe it to the people in our prisons who are innocent to stop executing," he said. Albano noted that his 19 year-old son was killed in 2001 by a drunken driver who was a 5-time repeat offender. He considers his son's killing an act of murder. Nevertheless, he said a life sentence was more appropriate than the death penalty. "I know what it feels like to want revenge," he said. “Let the guilty truly suffer and live their lives without freedom." The state currently has a moratorium on executions while a commission is reviewing all aspects of the death penalty system. (Atlantic City Press, Sept. 19, 2006).

Mother of September 11 Victim Opposes Death Penalty for Moussaoui

Alice Hoagland's son, Mark Bingham, was killed on September 11 as he joined with fellow United Airlines passengers to ground a plane that may have been headed toward the White House. Hoagland is urging a life sentence for Zacarias Moussaoui, who faces the death penalty for his role in the terrorist events of that day. In an interview with The Advocate, Hoagland noted that sparing Moussaoui's life would honor "a reverence for all life" and that it would prevent some from viewing him as a martyr. Hoagland, a former flight attendant who is now active in transportation safety issues, stated:

We Americans have the opportunity to keep him from becoming glorified as a martyr. . . . Al Qaida, other fundamentalist Muslim groups - even mainstream Muslims - would be tempted to view Moussaoui's death as a martyrdom. This man does not deserve that honor.
. . .
We Americans have the opportunity to demonstrate our compassion toward a man who has shown no compassion for America. We are a nation of laws, of justice, and of mercy. By sparing his life, we can demonstrate our humanity by acknowledging the humanity of a human being who badly needs compassion. By sparing his life, we will have overcome the sort of hatred that he displays toward us.
. . .

It is difficult to imagine a more despicable human than Zacarias Moussaoui has shown himself to be. But he, like all of us, is a bundle of traits and attitudes. His lower self has dictated his present low behavior. I hope we as a nation can demonstrate our higher impulses by sparing his life - while keeping him safely behind bars for the remainder of his life. If we can do that, we will honor our own high standard of reverence for all life, and we will model a better standard of behavior for Zacarias Moussaoui to take to heart. (Advocate.com, April 8, 2006. Hoagland's comments will appear in the May 9, 2006, edition of The Advocate (Calif.)).

Victims Do Not Necessarily Want Revenge

Victims of violence and terror are not necessarily well served by a system that promises "closure" in the form of the death penalty, according to a recent Washington Post column by Dahlia Lithwick. Among other cases, the author questions the assumptions in the federal government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui as it relates to the needs of the family members from the September 11th attack:

The death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui has been touted by the government as a way to bring resolution to bereft families. Hundreds watch the proceedings on remote, closed-circuit televisions. Dozens will testify about their losses. This will be their "day in court." Since as far back as 2002, when then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced he'd seek the death penalty for Moussaoui to "carry out justice," it's been assumed that this outcome would bring closure. Just as, in 2001, when Ashcroft decided that family members of the Oklahoma City bombing victims could witness the execution of Timothy McVeigh on closed-circuit television, he said it would "meet their need for closure."

Why? What's the empirical basis for the government assumption that all, or even most victims of terrible tragedy will find "closure" through protracted trials and executions?
. . .
In a seminal 1985 law review article, law professor Lynne Henderson examined the relationship between victims' rights and criminal justice policy. Looking carefully at the psychological data on the needs of victims, Henderson discovered a wide array of responses to tragedy -- responses that differ widely from victim to victim, and that change significantly over a victim's lifetime. More crucially, Henderson's research reveals that "common assumptions about crime victims -- that they are all 'outraged' and want revenge and tougher law enforcement -- underlie much of the current victim's rights rhetoric. But in light of the existing psychological evidence, these assumptions fail to address the experience and real needs of past victims."

Criminal trials and the promise of an execution offer a seemingly appealing tool for assigning blame and channeling rage. But many crime victims have reported that the endless repetition of their tragic stories, the formal legal rules, and the years and years between appeals only serve to increase stress and delay healing.
. . .
Many, many victims of violent tragedy object to this assumption that their interest in justice is congruent with that of state prosecutors seeking the death penalty. Just last month, Vicki Schieber, the mother of Shannon Schieber, a Wharton Business School student murdered in 1998 by a serial rapist, testified before the U.S. Senate's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights. As she told the committee: "The word closure is invoked so frequently in discussions of victims and the death penalty that victims' family members jokingly refer to it as 'the c word.' But I can tell you with all seriousness that there is no such thing as closure when a violent crime rips away the life of someone dear to you." Schieber testified that a single-minded government focus on executions shifts the focus away from other, more meaningful legal reforms that might better honor victims and support their families. (Washington Post, March 26, 2007, Outlook Section (emphasis added). Dahlia Lithwich covers legal affairs for the online magazine Slate). Read the full text of Lithwick's column. See other Sept. 11 material.

Death Penalty Not Sought in Three High-Profile Cases

Prosecutors in Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware have all chosen to seek life sentences in three high-profile murder cases. Among other concerns, they noted their wish to bring comfort to victims' families and to secure the public's longterm safety. The prosecutors expressed confidence that not seeking the death penalty was the right choice in these cases. Maryland prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty for sniper John Allen Muhammad, who will go on trial in May. Muhammad is charged with killing six people in Maryland. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said that he will seek a life sentence for Muhammad, noting: "We wanted to make sure the person who alledgedly committed these crimes never roams our streets again. Secondly, we wanted to provide an opportunity for the victims in this case to have their day in court," Gansler said. Nelson Rivera, whose wife was a sniper victim, said he understood the state's reasoning for not seeking the death penalty. He stated, "It's something that won't return anything to us, but justice is going to be served. I'm satisfied by the way the state of Maryland has handled this." Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said that the state's decision would also decrease his department's expenses during the trial. Muhammad was sentenced to death in Virginia for related crimes. (Washington Post, March 3, 2006).

On March 2 in New Jersey, nurse Charles Cullen received 11 consecutive life sentences for killing as many as 29 intensive-case patients with fatal injections. The life sentences are the result of a 2004 plea agreement Cullen made with New Jersey and Pennsylvania prosecutors. In the agreement, Cullen offered to provide information about his crimes and the names of his victims in exchange for the states' agreeing not to seek the death penalty. Many of the victims' family members spoke at Cullen's sentencing. David Agoada, whose mother Cullen tried to kill, said, "You can still do something good in your life. Tell us, how did you do this? How did you kill all these people?" (New York Times, March 3, 2006 and Press Release from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, May 19, 2004).

On the same day as Cullen's sentencing, Thomas Capano of Delaware was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mistress more than a decade ago, a crime that drew national attention because Capano was a wealthy lawyer and political powerbroker. After the Delaware Supreme Court overturned Capano's original death sentence last month and ruled that the process used to arrive at it was unconstitutional, the state Attorney General's Office decided not to seek a new sentencing hearing and to not contest Capano's being sentenced to life without parole. "The death penalty was always a secondary issue," said Colm Connelly, one of the original prosecutors in the case. Kathleen Fahey-Hosey, sister of Capano's victim, Anne Marie Fahey, said the family is satistifed with Capano's life without parole sentence. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 2006).

Victim's Family Urges Life For Florida Man

After more than two decades of working to spare the life of Florida death row inmate James Floyd, the family of the woman he murdered has succeeded in getting prosecutors to reduce Floyd's sentence to life in prison for the murder of Annie Bar Anderson.

"I did not want him to die, and I didn't want his family to suffer the murder of their father or their brother or their son. What good is anger and hatred," said Elizabeth Blair, who took up the family's effort to spare Floyd's life after Annie Anderson's daughter, Angie, died several years ago. Twenty-two years ago, Angie Anderson had begged a judge to not condemn her mother's killer to death, noting, "Mother believed and I believe that we must be instruments of the peace of God, which includes justice and mercy. This young man must be punished, but give him life, a chance to become somebody, a chance to change." Despite Angie Anderson's request, the judge sentenced Floyd to die.

In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court determined that evidence had been withheld from Floyd's attorneys during his trial and granted him a new trial. At that time, Blair called prosecutors and told them she did not want Floyd to return to death row. Prosecutors and Martin McClain, Floyd's defense attorney, later came to an agreement that would reduce Floyd's sentece to life in prison in exchange for his guilty plea. (St. Petersburg Times, January 19, 2006).

Virginia Legislators And Victims Speak Against Death Penalty

Two Virginia lawmakers who have had a family member murdered recently spoke in opposition to the death penalty. During a senate committee hearing on a bill to impose a moratorium on executions, Senators Henry L. Marsh III and Janet D. Howell noted that their opposition to the death penalty was based in their experience of losing a loved one to murder. Howell's father-in-law was murdered in his home eight years ago. She noted, "Up until then, I was in favor of the death penalty. But when my father-in-law was murdered, I discovered that the possibility of a death sentence on someone did not unify my family; it splintered my family. One of the reasons that I had always supported the death penalty was suddenly not there anymore." Marsh added that his brother was shot eight years ago. Though Marsh momentarily questioned his opposition to the death penalty, he stated that his brother's murder and the events that followed made him even more convinced that there could be innocent people sentenced to death. The legislation failed to pass out of committee. (Washington Post, January 17, 2006).

Maryland Families Urge Prosecutor to End Death Penalty Bid

Expressing their desire to end emotionally straining court proceedings, the families of Maryland murder victims Betina "Kristi" Gentry and Cynthia V. Allen recently urged Anne Arundel County's top prosecutor to end his 3rd attempt to get a death sentence for the man accused of killing the two women 10 years ago. "They've been through so much. I can't look them in the eye and say, 'Nah, you have to relive it again.' I can't do that," said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee after agreeing to seek a sentence of life without parole instead of a capital conviction for Darris Ware, the man convicted of the crime. Ware's 1995 death penalty conviction for the crime was vacated in 1997, when Maryland's highest court found that prosecutors failed to reveal information about a key prosecution witness who was in jail and hoping to reduce his prison term. Ware received the death penalty again in 1999, but that sentence was voided in 2002 because of inadequate representation by Ware's defense attorneys. Gentry's eldest brother, Keith, a retired Maryland state trooper, noted that the route to execution is a torturous one for families. His experiences over the past decade led him to approach other victims' family members from the case to recommend that they advocate for a sentence that would put Ware behind bars for life and end the cycle of trials, appeals, and overturned sentences. (Associated Press, August 8, 2004)

Murder Victim's Family Members Join Call for North Carolina Death Penalty Moratorium

In a letter to the North Carolina House of Representatives, 21 family members of murder victims voiced their concerns about the state's error-ridden death penalty system and urged members to pass legislation that would impose a two-year moratorium on executions while a study is conducted. "We are troubled by cases in which inadequate representation or prosecutorial misconduct led to innocent people being sent to our North Carolina Death Row. We are troubled by the ongoing evidence that our death penalty system is plagued by class and racial bias," the family members wrote. "The criminal justice system cannot assuage the sorrow of a murder victim's family, but the system should demonstrate to us that it is just and fair." The 21 victims' family members join a lengthy list of moratorium proponents, including 8 former North Carolina Supreme Court justices, religious leaders, and other community leaders. Last Spring, the North Carolina Senate passed companion legislation to the House bill. A statewide poll showed that North Carolinians support the moratorium by more than two-to-one. (North Carolina Moratorium Now Press Release, July 7, 2004, with letter from family members).

Victim's Family Requests Life Sentence for Death Row Inmate

After consulting with the family of the murder victim, Maryland prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty against Kenneth Collins during a recent resentencing hearing. Collins' death sentence was overturned because of an inadequate defense at his originial trial. Margaret Breeden, the victim's widow, noted that seeking the death penalty for Collins would result in years of agonizing appeals and that her family is "tired of reliving the memories of his death every time a new hearing is scheduled." The prosecutor, Stephen Bailey, noted that the Breeden family is among a growing number of victims' families who have dropped their pursuit of a death sentence. "Fewer people, though very supportive of the death penalty, are willing to put themselves through a process that many of them see as never ending and not necessarily guaranteeing the results that the system promises," Bailey stated. Collins will serve a life sentence instead. (Baltimore Sun, February 6, 2004).

Australian Judge and Parent of Bombing Victim Rejects Death Penalty

Brian Deegan, a magistrate in South Australia who lost his son in the October 2002 Sari nightclub bombing in Bali, recently stated that he believes the terrorists who commited that crime should not receive the death penalty, but should be sentenced to a term of life in prison without parole. In an opinion piece in The Australian, Deegan noted:

The Bali bombers who murdered my son last October are evil extremists, but they don't deserve the death penalty. . .
Indeed, I have no problem with the idea that he [Amrozi] and his accomplices should remain in prison for the rest of their lives. But the prospect of their judicial murder is something I want no part of. . .
As a measure employed to dissuade potential criminals, the death penalty has been an abject failure. This is borne out by statistics that point to the commensurate rise of murders and executions in countries where capital punishment is awarded.
The argument in favour of executions remains difficult to reconcile with the universal revulsion generated by periods in history when society thought nothing of hanging a child or burning a witch. We read with disgust or perhaps with guilt of the stoning of adulterers, the removal of a thief's hand or the decapitation of a blasphemer. Yet we find it palatable to break a man's neck, to poison his veins or to electrocute him.
The suggestion that Amrozi and his fellow evildoers should face an Indonesian firing squad is unconscionable because that would make the punishment as barbaric as the crime. What the Bali bombers did to my child and to the hundreds of others defies description. But the October 12, 2002, terrorist attacks do not give anyone the right to repeat such a vile act. (The Australian, July 9, 2003).

Murder Victim's Mother Speaks Out Against Death Penalty

When Aba Gayle's 19-year-old daughter was murdered in 1980, she found herself seeking revenge and consumed by bitterness. Although the district attorney assured her that she would feel better when the murderer was convicted and, in turn, executed, Gayle was not convinced that the death penalty would quell her anger and lead to the healing she desired. Today, Gayle shares her story with the public and speaks out against the death penalty. "I knew that I didn't need the State of California to murder another human being so I could be healed, " she notes. "It's time to stop teaching people to hate and start teaching people to love. The whole execution as closure idea is not realistic." A member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, Gayle states, "Anger is just a horrible thing to do to your body. Not to mention what it does to your soul and spirit. Forgiveness is not saying what he did was right - it's taking back your power." (Silverton Appeal Tribune, March 12, 2003)

Victims' Family Members, Prosecutors Agree to Not Seek Death Penalty

Several Utah death penalty cases were recently resolved short of trial after victims' families agreed with prosecutors to not seek the death penalty. Some family members believed that execution was too quick and too easy a punishment, and some were exhausted by pre-trial hearings and wanted to move on with their lives. Others expressed forgiveness and compassion for the defendant and his family. Salt Lake District Attorney David Yocom noted that families have a large stake in the outcome of cases because those that go to trial will require the families' "personal involvement through who knows how many years of appeals." Deputy Salt Lake District Attorney Robert Stott believes the ability to sentence a capital murder defendant to life without the possibility of parole has made it easier to resolve cases short of trial. "If families are assured they (the defendant) will never get out, it seems much more appropriate a penalty," he said. Since Utah added the sentencing option of life without parole in 1992, only 5 defendants have been sentenced to death. (Associated Press, September 30, 2002)

Byrd Son Fights for Life of Father's Murderer

Ross Byrd - son of James Byrd, Jr., a black man whose racially motivated 1998 dragging death in Texas drew national attention - is fighting to commute the death sentence of his father's murderer to a sentence of life in prison without parole. Ross Byrd initially supported the death sentence of John W. "Bill" King, but recently joined dozens of anti-death penalty activists to hold a 24-hour fast and vigil at the Huntsville prison where King is awaiting his execution. "When I heard King had exhausted his appeals, I began thinking, 'How can this help me or solve my pain?' and I realized that it couldn't," said Ross Byrd before the vigil. A date has not been set for King's execution. (Houston Chronicle, July 4, 2002).

September 11th Family Members Express Opposition to Death Penalty

In a letter to the New York Times, Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son Greg died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, expressed their opposition to the death penalty:

We can understand why victims' families would look to the death penalty as a justifiable punishment for convicted terrorists, but we feel that it is wrong to take a life. Nothing will erase the pain and loss that we must learn to live with, and causing others pain can only make it worse. . . .
If any good can come out of the disaster of Sept. 11, perhaps it will include examination of how we can maintain our humanity in the face of terrorists' threats. (New York Times, letter to the editor, 1/4/02)

Louisiana Victims' Group Supports State Funding for Death Row Appeals

Victims' advocates in Louisiana want the state to adequately finance capital post-conviction appeals, saying that a sloppy legal process only drags out the appeals. "It doesn't do the victim...any good to have someone who is not guilty convicted or even a guilty person convicted with an improper trial," said Sandy Krasnoff, director of Victims and Citizens Against Crime. Currently, 14 of the men on Louisiana's death row are without attorneys. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 8/20/01) "Before my daughter Julie Marie was killed in the Murrah Building [in Oklahoma City], April 19, 1995, I was like most people; I didn't give the death penalty too much thought. But I can tell you that it is a very important issue to me now. . . . Vengeance is a strong, and natural human emotion. But it has no place in our justice system. . . . I ask each of you to reconsider your position. If you really care about victims and their families, then please tell the public the truth about the death penalty and invest your time and energy in alternatives that might truly reduce violence." - Letter from Bud Welch to the California gubernatorial candidates (1998). The entire letter will be published in the July, 1998 issue of The Champion. For more information about victims' families members who oppose the death penalty, see Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.