Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
If people whose family members have been murdered oppose the death penalty, then how much moral ground is left to stand on for those who support it?
That question is one of the most intriguing in the U.S. debate about capital punishment. It fascinates because it raises the issue of the role of morality in the death penalty debate. Most Americans who question the practice are not doubtful because of its moral status.They are disturbed by the prospect of executing innocent people. (Indeed, since 1973 at least 108 people on death row have been exonerated because they were wrongly convicted.) Those who categorically oppose capital punishment for religious or moral reasons are fewer. Yet, most movements for social justice have had at their core devout religious people who recognize and act against injustice, even when they face overwhelming odds.
Don’t Kill In Our Names may become a crucial resource for the religious movement against the death penalty, much like Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking. It offers the stories of people who oppose the execution of killers of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. But more provocative is the fact that almost all of these family members underwent what in Christian terms is called a conversion. They not only oppose capital punishment. Most of them met the killer of their loved one and offered forgiveness. In almost each case presented by author Rachel King, these people have been converted to forgiveness as a way of life.
Maria Hines’ brother Jerry was a Virginia state trooper who was murdered on a roadside. Hines, a Catholic, eventually contacted David Eaton, who was convicted of the murder. She befriended and forgave Eaton, helping him with his ultimately unsuccessful requests for clemency. "For when we have forgiven, we truly have no need to kill."
In December 1986, SueZann Bosler and her father Billy Bosler, a pastor, were attacked by James Campbell in their Church of the Brethren parsonage. Her father died and SueZann was stabbed repeatedly. Her recovery required months of rehabilitation, but she forgave Campbell and pleaded for his life.
In November 1986, Cathy O’Daniel was abducted and murdered by two boys who asked her to give them a ride. Cathy’s mother, Linda White, gradually decided to work on prison reform and restorative justice, and she became a volunteer mediator. But 13 years passed before she and Cathy’s daughter, Ami, visited Gary Brown, one of the murderers, in jail. When they did, they were able to offer forgiveness to a man whose life, Linda said, "was just a train wreck."
Few books can be both as despairing and inspiring as King’s. The murders that are described are occasions of devastating trauma, sundering families and leaving pockets of emptiness in those caught in its wake. And the spiritual journeys of Hines, Bosler, White and the others in King’s collection are long, torturous and wrenching.
Don’t Kill In Our Names has enormous potential to advance the movement against the death penalty for several reasons. These testimonies shatter the illusion that families of murder victims all seek retribution. They also contradict the notion that family members have a right to retribution, a concept that distorts our justice system away from justice and toward revenge.
In America’s religious communities, however, these stories will challenge believers to live out the ethics that they claim to hold. If American Christianity takes Jesus’ message of peacemaking and loving the enemy only partly to heart, it is even more reluctant to obey his call to forgive.
Hines, Bosler, White and most of the others in King’s book take Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness seriously. SueZann Bosler said at James Campbell’s third sentencing trial, "I forgive James Bernard Campbell for what he has done. I respect his life and value it here on earth. I believe in life. I’ve tried for ten and a half years to bring some good out of this. I’m doing it the best way I know how. I’m at peace with myself."
King’s book, by focusing on conversion stories of people who offer forgiveness as a way to redeem adversity, can drive a wedge between a believer’s notion that retribution is fair and his or her faith in a God who wants to redeem sinners. Don’t Kill In Our Names should be used in church book-reading groups nationwide, where it is sure to anger, horrify, provoke, inspire and maybe even convert Christians into being followers of Jesus.
*"The Witness is the only publication aimed at Episcopalians and the Anglican Communion that embraces -- without equivocation -- the liberation perspective that flows from the very core of Christian belief and values."
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Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights