Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
Review By Mary Stewart Atwell for
"How do we respond to evil?" The question raised by Jennifer Bishop, sister of a murder victim, is the central subject of Rachel King's new book, Don't Kill in Our Names: Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty. Our current criminal justice system has offered us a retributive response to Jennifer's question. But the fatal flaws in our capital system, as well as the high rate of recidivism among other offenders, have led many of us to seek a more nuanced way of understanding matters of good and evil, mercy and retribution.
King profiles ten people, all members of the group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, an affiliate of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Each of these ten individuals has looked past his or her feelings of grief and anger and discovered the strength to offer their loved ones' murderers a message of forgiveness. Frustrated by a society that urges retribution and prosecutors who often presume that they will support the death penalty, they have persevered in the belief that people who have been wounded by violence have a unique obligation to respond with compassion.
Some of those profiled, like Gus and Audrey Lamm, were able to develop personal relationships with the person who killed their family member. Others, like Jennifer Bishop, have translated a wish for reconciliation into advocacy for other death row inmates. Many of the members of MVFR, having experienced firsthand the inequities and barbarity of the capital system, have spoken out nationally against the death penalty. Bill Pelke inaugurated the public-speaking tours known as Journey of Hope, as well as the Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty, held in July in front of Supreme Court. Ron Carlson founded a website devoted to abolition. Marietta Jaeger Lane wrote a book, The Lost Child , telling the story of her daughter Susie's murder and her own journey to forgiveness. Lane credits her capacity to forgive to the emphasis on mercy in her religious tradition, a view not uncommon among MVFR members.
But if reconciliation between murderers and victims' family members offers such great returns, why isn't it encouraged by law enforcement? Why do so-called victims' rights groups, like the Texas-based organization Justice for All, make support for the death penalty a prerequisite for counseling and legal assistance? One cannot deny that compassion for offenders can lead to a greater understanding of the causes of crime, thereby increasing the opportunities for prevention. Unfortunately, King's book shows that police and the prosecutors are often too constrained by inertia and the desire for revenge to examine alternatives to retributive justice. Even victims' rights groups may fall into this trap. When Maria Hines was asked to speak on a panel with others who had lost loved ones to murder, she was told by the moderator, "I wouldn't say too much about the death penalty if I were you." In MVFR, Maria has found a community where empathy and tolerance are promoted rather than hindered.
All the stories King's book evidence the power of forgiveness, and the last two in particular offer hope for the future. After the death of her daughter Cathy, Linda White opposed the execution of her killers, but she didn't stop there. Her experience with grief led her to complete a PH.D. in psychology, accept a position teaching in the Texas penal system, and become a trained volunteer in a victim/offender mediation program. Azim Khamisa, angered by the endemic violence that allowed a fourteen-year-old boy to murder his son, joined with the 14-year-old perpetrator's grandfather to establish the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, which presents conflict-resolution programs aimed at middle school children. Azim Khamisa says, "Every time I speak about [my son], I heal the wound caused by his death a little more." For both of these parents, the losses they suffered led not only to reconciliation with the killer, but to a new examination of the causes of violence. By working for others, they contributed to their own healing process.
When Gus Lamm remarked that the person who killed his wife, Randy Reeves, "didn't seem like a murderer," his daughter Audrey responded, "Well, you know, Dad, he was only a murderer for one night of his life." Don't Kill in Our Names highlights the injustice of a policy that forces us to abandon hope in the human capacity for remorse and rehabilitation. Through their experiences, MVFR members demonstrate just how misguided the death penalty can be.
Atwell is a communications intern at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
royalties go to:
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights