Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
The death penalty involves many conflicting issues such as whether sentencing practices should be based upon the severity of the crime or upon the potential redemption of the offender; whether the value of the victim's life can be measured in terms of the offender's life; whether killing is ever justified; whether the popular expression of the community's will must always be implemented; whether people are totally responsible for their actions' whether people guilty of murder can be prevented from committing future murders short of executing them; and whether capital punishment is an attempt to attain a simple solution to what is really a complex problem.
In Don't Kill in Our Names, Rachel King presents the stories of ten members of a nationwide group, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), who have contemplated these issues and who have concluded that the death penalty is unnecessary. Two of the people featured in the book were strong proponents of the death penalty and four others had not formed strong opinions on the death penalty prior to the murders of beloved members of their families.
The people who appear in Don't Kill in Our Names have forgiven their loved ones' murderers. Some have befriended the offenders and have fought to save a few of them from execution. They chose reconciliation and healing instead of animus. The author weaves their stories into the context of the national debate over capital punishment and restorative versus retributive justice.
Vicki Zessin and her 2-year-old daughter Audrey spent the evening of March 28, 1980 at the home of Zessin's friend Janet Mesner in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sometime after the women had gone to sleep, Randy Reeves let himself into the house through a kitchen window. No one knows why but Reeves, who was a lifelong friend of Mesner, took a knife that he found in the kitchen and attacked Mesner in her bedroom. It is likely that Mesner's screams woke Zessin up and she went to her friend's assistance. Reeves stabbed Zessin in the liver, severing several arteries and killing her instantly. Mesner lived long enough to call 911 and to tell a rescue worker, "It was Randy, he had a knife. I don't know why he did it. I don't understand." The little girl apparently slept through the murders and was spared the horror of seeing her mother's bloody body.
Zessin's husband, Gus Lamm (Zessin maintained her maiden name in her marriage) did not attend Reeve's trial. "Randy had been identified by Janet and found covered with blood shortly after. His wallet was found at the crime scene. I knew he would be found guilty, so I didn't need to worry about that." At the time of his arrest, Reeves had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 percent, two and a half times the common threshold for driving-related intoxication. Reeves said that he did not remember the murders — that he must have been in an alcoholic blackout when the women were stabbed. Reeves was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death in the electric chair.
For the next 18 years, Lamm maintained employment, raised his daughter, played guitar, and spent time riding the whitewater waves. In November 1998, 19 years after the murders, Reeves had nearly exhausted his appeals. Lamm recalled, "The idea of the state putting to death this man nineteen years after the murders seemed absurd, and I knew right away that I opposed the execution. But I had some concerns about what would happen if I called Paula Hutchinson (Reeve's attorney). I knew that if I came out against the death penalty it was probably going to cause interfamilial problems with the Zessins. ... I also thought a lot about Randy's parents. I knew their names, Don and Barbara. I knew they were good people, and I knew that if Randy was executed they would go through the same hell that I did when Vicki died." So Lamm contacted Reeves's attorney, discussed the situation with his daughter Audrey, and father and daughter flew from Oregon to Nebraska to help save Reeves from the electric chair. Mesner's parents also spoke against the planned execution.
Gus and Audrey Lamm made numerous public appearances at churches and schools, spoke to community groups and gave dozens of press interviews. Lamm said that 'execution was the antithesis of what my wife would have wanted.' The Mesners and the Lamms asked the tough-minded Parole Board to recommend commuting Reeves' sentence to life imprisonment. The Parole Board made a non-binding recommendation to spare Reeves' life, but the final decision was left to the Board of Pardons, consisting of the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general. The panel decided not to hear testimony from the Mesners and the Lamms and denied Reeves' clemency request.
Having devoted two months to trying to save Reeves's life, Gus and Audrey wanted a face-to-face encounter with him. Unbeknownst to them, Reeves had written a letter to them. He gave the letter to his attorney and asked her to give it to the Lamms after his execution. But Hutchinson decided to give them the letter just before the encounter. Reeves wrote, "Your presence, your words, your actions, have brought your wife, your mother, alive to me in a away that has not existed for me before ... I have never been able to heal the pain inside me over my actions ... I would not ask for your forgiveness, let alone your pity. I do not have the right, nor the courage, to ask for it. All I can do is tell you of my sorrow. Thank you so much for what you have done."
When Gus and Audrey Lamm met with Reeves on death row, Reeves appeared to be, according to Gus Lamm's account, "a very contemplative and self-effacing man who was anything but" a monster. Randy was very subdued and very soft-spoken. We talked for forty-five minutes about philosophy, religion, and growing up. We didn't talk about the crime, really. The only time I mentioned it was to tell him that I would not have picked the circumstances under which I became a single parent but that I was grateful for the experience. I told him to 'rest easy'. From the letter and the visit I sensed that Randy lived with constant remorse for what he had done. In spite of the crime he had committed, Randy was very genuine and accessible ... Audrey's visit with Randy was enlightening as well. They also talked for about forty-five minutes. He asked her about all kinds of things — books, her childhood and what she wanted to do with her life. As we were leaving the prison I remarked to Audrey that Randy didn't -seem like a murderer. Audrey said, 'Well, you know, Dad, he was only a murderer for one night in his life.'"
In May 2000, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Reeves. Four months later, the Prosecuting attorney decided not to pursue the death penalty. A three-judge panel sentenced Reeves to two life sentences.
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Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights