Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
Review by Jennifer
The Power of Mercy and Forgiveness
If you're looking for a book that dispassionately examines the death penalty, D.C.-based American Civil Liberties Union attorney Rachel King's Don't Kill in Our Names is not for you. Yet it effectively argues the view of death penalty abolitionists and is spellbinding and highly emotional reading.
More emotional than rhetorical, the book does not provide a strong legal argument against the death penalty. But that doesn't seem to be King's goal. Each of the book's 10 chapters focuses on an individual family that has suffered the loss of a loved one through murder. King tells the stories of these families and of their remarkable ability to forgive the murderers and work to save them from death row. She wants her readers to see the death penalty through the eyes of the forgiving murder victims' families rather than through the intellectual eyes of the law. If capital punishment should be argued on an emotional level rather than a legal one, then King is effective in her argument.
She pleads with her readers to put down the law books and to suspend intellectual thought just long enough to humanize the murderers and see them also as victims, capable of remorse, of change, and of being productive members of society, even behind bars. To execute them, she claims, is to repeat the cycle of violence that caused them to murder in the first place.
The book focuses on four main themes-forgiveness, executing the vulnerable, grave injustices, and restorative justice. The first unit of the book is devoted to forgiveness. King contends that victims find closure not in execution, but rather in forgiveness. She acknowledges that many people find it hard to understand how the victims' families can forgive such a horrible and tragic act.
Each of the families featured is a member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a national group committed to the abolition of the death penalty. King says that MVFR members are treated either as saints or lunatics, but, she says, they are neither. They are instead "ordinary people who responded to extraordinary circumstances with tremendous courage and faith."
King does not argue her point focusing on hard-core criminals who have yet to express remorse. Instead, she focuses on families who were able to rise above their grief to forgive and reconcile with their loved ones' assailants, if not directly, at least emotionally. Most of the murderers in these accounts eventually expressed remorse for their actions.
Religion plays a prominent role in many of the stories. Most of the families have deep religious convictions that influence their desire for forgiveness over retribution. Marietta Jaeger Lane, whose daughter Susie was kidnapped and then murdered, said that by forgiving her daughter's murderer, she was able to help other people find forgiveness in their own lives. "What I saw happening was people looking at their own lives and finding places where they needed to forgive...I believe it was God's way of redeeming Susie's death," she says.
In another account, a woman named Maria tells of her brother's murder at the hands of Dennis Eaton, who while in prison, was overcome with self-pity and bitterness over the life he had created for himself, but then realized that he had to make a change in his spiritual and mental life if he was going to survive the rigors of prison life. "He is to me a living example of redemption and the subsequent transformation that it brings into our lives," Maria says. "Many of us who are Christians take our redemption for granted because we have always been Christians and thus we aren't as aware of its effects. But in Dennis it is so evident."
The second unit of the book focuses on the vulnerable criminals-juveniles and the mentally disabled. King cites several statistics to promote her contention that these groups are particularly vulnerable to the death penalty.
Since 1973, King says, 200 death sentences have been handed down to juvenile offenders, at least half of which were in Texas, Florida, and Alabama. She goes on to say that minorities, another vulnerable group, made up two-thirds of the juveniles sentenced to death.
In addition, says King, since 1990, only five countries besides the United States have made it a practice to execute juvenile offenders-Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. This, she says, puts the United States "in the company of some of the world's most notorious human rights violators."
King asks her readers to see juvenile offenders particularly as victims of society. Keith Medved, a public defender from Lake County, Ill., tells her: "[W]hen you see kids raised with no father or no mother, or parents who can't read and write, the kids seem predestined to have problems. It's not a defense for killing anybody, but if from Day One you have that type of life, it seems the cards are stacked against you."
In the third unit, on grave injustices, King discusses wrongful conviction. She points out that as of 2001, 98 people from 22 states had been released from death row after they were able to establish their innocence through DNA or other evidence. And while death penalty proponents say this proves the criminal justice system does work, King argues that it was not the system that exonerated these prisoners, but rather family members, filmmakers, and journalists. "Most death row inmates are not fortunate enough to have this type of extra-legal help," she says. "One can only speculate on the number of innocent people who have been executed."
As with juvenile offenders, a vast majority of adult death row inmates are from minorities. King quotes the following statistics: 11 of the 13 prisoners executed in Alabama from 1976 to 1997 were African-American; at least 50 percent of inmates on death row in North Carolina, Ohio, Delaware, Mississippi, and Virginia are African-American; more than three out of four persons on death row in military prisons are people of color; and 60 percent of prisoners on death row in California and Texas are either black, Latino, Asian, or Native American.
In the final unit of her book, King addresses one solution for this problem. Restorative justice, King says, is a problem-solving approach to crime that involves the community, the victims' families, and even the offenders' families. King says restorative justice is based on the assumption that crime "originates in social conditions and relationships in the community and that effective crime prevention depends on communities taking some responsibility for remedying the conditions that cause crime."
Mediation is a major component of this philosophy, allowing inmates and their victims' families to come together in an attempt to understand the crime and the criminal and to foster forgiveness. King again offers statistics to prove the effectiveness of this system but as with the previous chapters, she lets the stories do most of her talking.
After her daughter was murdered, Linda White asked, "How much good can be done just through punishment if there is no intentional rehabilitation of efforts to restore relationships? Punishment with no other purpose has immense negative consequences."
King concludes by turning the spotlight on herself, admitting that she has struggled with the idea of forgiveness. After writing her book, however, she has looked to the inspiration of these families' stories to deal with life's daily injustices.
"Each person in this book faced a situation of unbelievable grief, and all not only survived but used it to improve their lives of the lives of people around them, she says. "Perhaps the enduring lesson is that love and forgiveness are more powerful than any amount of hate and revenge."
This is hardly a strong legal argument for the abolishment of the death penalty, but again, that is not King's goal. She asks the reader to see the murderers as human beings and to learn to forgive just as the family members of the victims have. Whether this emotional appeal is enough to sway the general public and the courts remains to be seen.
royalties go to:
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights