Victims News and Developments: 2007
NEW VOICES: Prosecutors Ambivalent About the Death Penalty
In a recent front-page article in the New York Times,
Joshua Marquis, the district
attorney in Clatsop County, Oregon, and a vice president of the
District Attorneys Association, indicated that most prosecutors with
experience in death penalty cases are ambivalent about it: “Any sane
prosecutor who is involved in capital litigation will
really be ambivalent about it,” said Marquis, who has long supported
the death penalty. According to the Times, he said the families of murder victims
suffered needless anguish during what could be decades of litigation
and multiple retrials. “We’re seeing fewer executions,” Mr. Marquis added. “We’re seeing
fewer people sentenced to death. People really do question capital
punishment. The whole idea of exoneration has really penetrated popular
The article also noted that 62% of the country's executions this year occurred in only one state--Texas--and that 40 out of the 50 states had no executions in 2007.
(A. Liptak, "U.S. Disparity in Executions Grows as Texas Bucks Trend," N.Y. Times, Dec. 26, 2007.) See New Voices and DPIC's 2007 Year End Report.
NEW VOICES: 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). See Victims and New Voices.
A History of Violence By ELIZABETH BENEDICT
November 11, 2007
New York Times
HAPPY families are all alike. Every happy family touched by murder is shattered in its own distinctive way. For me, the news last summer of the savage killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in Cheshire, hurled me back to the infamous murder that has haunted my own Connecticut family for more than 50 years.
Two months before my parents’ wedding in 1950, my mother’s older brother was shot to death in a botched hold-up in the package store he owned in West Hartford, leaving a wife and two daughters. In 1960, Joseph Taborsky, the man who killed him — and later six more people after his release from jail — became the last man executed in Connecticut — and in all of New England, for the next 45 years.
As a child, my father told me a pared-down version of this story that favored capital punishment. All around me were the legacies of Taborsky’s crimes: my mother’s unbearable sadness and my father’s unending outrage at the injustice of what happened. After being sentenced to death for my uncle’s murder, Taborsky was let out of jail on what my father called a “technicality” and went on a killing spree in central Connecticut in late 1956 and early 1957 that left six people dead and a dozen seriously wounded. For my father, the death penalty was not a tool of vengeance but a matter of practicality, an ironclad guarantee that a murderer would murder no more. He knew that had Taborsky been executed in 1951, many lives would have been spared.
Now in the Petit case, members of the family’s politically engaged church are in a bind because of the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty for the two men accused of the killings. The pastor and many congregants are actively opposed to capital punishment — Ms. Hawke-Petit is said to have been herself — but many in the church are understandably reluctant to oppose the prosecutor’s goal in deference to the survivor, Dr. William Petit, who has not spoken publicly about the issue since the killings.
A friend of his reports that Dr. Petit favors executing the men if they are found guilty. And, after so much brutality so close to home, some church members are said to be reconsidering their views on the issue.
I am saddened by this news but not surprised. It’s only in the last few years, after studying the details of my uncle’s murder and talking to legal experts, that I can comfortably oppose the death penalty despite my parents’ experience and perspective.
The “technicality” my father spoke of that freed Joseph Taborsky involved the testimony of his brother, who had driven the getaway car, disposed of it and later testified against Joseph in exchange for a life sentence. While in prison, the brother had a psychotic breakdown and was institutionalized. Taborsky’s lawyer spent years trying to convince the courts to disqualify the testimony of a man now deemed insane. In 1955, the State Supreme Court agreed and overturned lower court decisions. Taborsky was set free. He was not paroled, and he was never tried for the robbery that preceded the murder.
A law professor explained to me the nuanced responsibilities of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, and pointed out that my father’s use of “technicality,” suggesting a trivial detail, wasn’t quite right for a case involving disputed testimony in a murder. Nor was my father’s support of the death penalty the only conclusion he could have reached. Killing Taborsky hadn’t been necessary; keeping him in custody had been. The criminal justice system could have saved those six lives without resorting to the electric chair.
This understanding gave me permission to do what I had known all along was the right thing, to oppose the death penalty. As an atheist, I cannot say that we are all God’s children or that my opposition has anything to do with forgiving people who commit heinous crimes. It has only to do with the fundamental inhumanity of state-sponsored killing.
Connecticut did not have to choose to execute Joseph Taborsky in 1951 or 1960. It would have been sufficient to have locked the door and thrown away the key.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of many books, including the novels “Almost” and “The Practice of Deceit.”
NEW RESOURCE: The Angolite Examines Death Penalty, Its Impact on Families of the Condemned
The most recent edition of The Angolite,
the nation's largest prison news magazine, contains an article
detailing national death penalty trends and developments. The piece
also highlights the impact of capital punishment on family members and
close friends of those facing execution. It notes, "Lost in the shadows
of these central arguments is something that defines us human beings:
Taking care of our own. Unseen, unheard family members and close
friends of those on death row have committed no crime, have done no
wrong, yet they must suffer the sterilized and calculated execution of
their loved one. When the state shuffles a mother's son into the death
chamber, her heart hurts just the same as the loved ones of the person
her son murdered. She becomes another in a long line of grieving human
beings -- victimized by a system unintentionally designed to spread a
wide net of emotional pain."
The 10-page article, authored by Lane Nelson, also provides an in-depth look at the death penalty in the U.S., including a review of ongoing litigation, lethal injection challenges, and executions. In addition, it examines the issue of innocence and the impact that doubts about the fairness and accuracy of capital punishment has had on state policies and public opinion.
The Angolite is an award-winning bi-monthly prison news magazine produced by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
(The Angolite, January/February 2007). Read more about The Angolite. See Resources, Victims, Lethal Injection, and Innocence.
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'
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). See Victims and Life Without Parole.
Fewer Death Sentences as Victims' Concerns Are Considered
When weighing whether to seek the death penalty, Tulsa County First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond says
that he tries to determine how future juries will assess the evidence,
as well as how a death penalty case will impact victims' family
members. He observes, "Life without parole without appeals might be a
better situation for a lot of victims' families. There are some
positive things about that. . . . A lot of people, at first blush when
a loved one is killed, want the death penalty. (But) going through a
death-penalty case is a lot of stress (and can produce) a lot of
frustrations with the system."
During the past year, six Tulsa County murder defendants were eligible for the death penalty, but not one received a death sentence. In four of the cases, the District Attorney's office agreed to withdraw requests for the death sentence prior to trial, decisions that were made after a careful review of the evidence and in consultation with murder victims' family members. In the remaining two cases, prosecutors did pursue death sentences, but jurors failed to return a death verdict. In one of these cases, jurors acquitted the defendant, a rare outcome in death penalty trials. Drummond and Tulsa County Chief Public Defender Pete Silva both acknowledged that there are "tough hurdles" for prosecutors to secure a death sentence that will not be overturned at the appellate level.
Defense attorney Kevin Adams added that Tulsa County prosecutors "see the death penalty as a justifiable punishment, but are willing to consider some other result if the defendant is willing to accept responsibility." He notes that a prosecutor's decision to not seek the death penalty can save years of court proceedings and "a lot of waiting and a lot of anguish" for victims' families. Adams notes, "We do a pretty good job of assigning blame in the justice system. We don't do as good of a job of helping people cope with a loss."
(Tulsa World, July 30, 2007). See Victims and Life Without Parole.
NEW VOICES: Former Alabama Prosecutor Questions Value of Capital Punishment
Billy Hill spent seven years as a district attorney in Shelby, Coosa, and Clay counties in Alabama,
and has reconsidered his stance on capital punishment. Mr. Hill says
that he would welcome a moratorium on executions in Alabama while a
study commission examines the state's death penalty to evaluate whether it is "a wise and humane use of our resources." Wrongful
convictions, the arbitrary nature of capital punishment, poor
representation, and the long-term suffering of victims' family members
are among Hill's main concerns about current death penalty laws. He
believes that life without parole is a better alternative for violent
offenders. Hill now works as a Shelby County public defender.
In his criticisms of Alabama's death penalty, Hill notes that two innocent men have already been freed from the state's death row and that many others continue to await their execution without the benefit of "top-flight representation." With regard to the arbitrary nature of the states' capital punishment statute, Hill observes, "Do you realize that if two people are arguing on a street corner and one of them pulls a gun and kills the other one, that is simple murder? But, take the same scenario and put one of them in a car, and it becomes a capital case. . . . [I]n 30 years of observing violent offenders, I find 3 factors present in almost all of them: some kind of childhood abuse, either physical or sexual; some type of chemical dependence, either alcohol or drugs; and neurological damage." Hill also believes that the death penalty fails to serve the needs of victims' family members because execution dates are often set and then canceled several times during repeated appeals. "It just never goes away for the victim's family," said Hill.
Noting that the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nation in the world to use the death penalty, Hill said that he believes that life without parole is the more appropriate sentence for violent offenders. "A lot of people do not realize that in Alabama life without parole means you are not leaving prison except with your toes turned up," he said. If the state insists on keeping capital punishment, Hill observes that lawmakers should be prepared to pay to high costs associated with creating a system that is more fair and accurate.
(The Birmingham News, July 30, 2007). See New Voices, Innocence, Victims, Costs, and Life Without Parole.
NEW VOICES: Victims Organizations Issue Joint Statement for National Victims' Rights Week
Three organizations whose memberships include family
members of murder victims recently issued a joint statement in
conjunction with National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which takes place April 22 - 28, 2007. The statement, issued by the leaders of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and Journey of Hope, called for governmental policies that serve the true needs of family members. The groups called for an end to the death penalty,
noting that alternatives to capital punishment "provide the certainty
and punishment that many families need while keeping our communities
Their statement read:
April 22 – 28, 2007 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The theme for this year is “Victims’ Rights: Every Victim, Every Time.” As victims, and survivors, we strongly support efforts to ensure that the needs of victims’ don’t fall through the cracks or fall prey to politics.
The death penalty does not serve victims’ families. It draws resources away from needed support programs, law enforcement and crime prevention. And the trials and appeals endlessly re-open wounds as they are beginning to heal, and it only creates more families who lose loved ones to killing.
Alternatives to the death penalty provide the certainty and punishment that many families need while keeping our communities safe. Critically, alternatives ensure attention is cast where it is needed most – on the survivors – and not on sensational trials or suspects.
As murder victim family members we also share the same concerns as other Americans with the death penalty. We are concerned about innocent people being sentenced to death, about racial and economic disparities and about arbitrariness. But for us the stakes are higher because an innocent person might be executed in a misguided attempt to give us justice. Losing one innocent life to murder is one too many, the taking of another innocent life because of the first is beyond comprehension.
Those who argue for the death penalty often claim to do so on behalf of us, the victims’ families. They say it will give us “closure.” We don’t want the death penalty, and closure is a myth. Every victim, every time needs help, understanding, resources, and support. We don’t need more killing.
Since 1981, the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crimes has helped lead communities throughout the country in their observances of National Crime Victims' Rights Week (NCVRW). Rallies, candlelight vigils, and a host of commemorative activities are held each year to promote victims' rights and to honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf.
(MVFHR, MVFR, and Journey of Hope Statement, April 19, 2007). See Victims.
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
(The Courier-Journal, March 12, 2007). See New Voices and Recent Legislative Activity.
BOOKS: In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families
In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families
is a new book by Professors Elizabeth Beck, Sarah Britto, and Arlene
Andrews that examines the debilitating effects that a death sentence
can have on the families of the offenders. With a forward by Steve Earle, the book provides an in-depth analysis of restorative justice,
which focuses on crime as an act against an individual or the
community, rather than the state.
In their examination of how capital punishment impacts the families of the accused, the authors use real stories to illustrate how the feelings of anguish and powerlessness are compounded by the prospect of their loved one's execution. The book contends that these individuals should have a more influential voice within society because they play an important role in the nation's death penalty debate.
(Oxford University Press, 2007). See Books and Victims.
Colorado House Committee Advances Bill to Abolish Capital Punishment
The Colorado House Judiciary Committee recently voted to abolish
the state's death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of
life-without-parole, and use the money currently spent on capital
punishment to help solve 1,200 cold-case homicides in the state. The
7-4 vote followed four hours of testimony from murder victims' family
members, state law enforcement officials, and death penalty experts,
including DPIC Executive Director Richard Dieter. The bill's sponsor,
Rep. Paul Weissmann (pictured), noted that during the past three
decades, the state has spent an estimated $40 million on the death
penalty, has carried out one execution, and has two people on death
row. "We in this state spend a lot of money on a death penalty that's
rarely used. [This bill would give] families an opportunity to have
their cases solved," Weissmann noted. The bill now moves to the House
Appropriations Committee for consideration.
(Rocky Mountain News, February 8, 2007). See Recent Legislative Activities and Victims. Read Richard Dieter's testimony.