Justice for Victims – perspectives from Geneva, 2010

The theme of victims’ rights was a common, distinct thread across all three days of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva. It cropped up in different guises and from different angles in both open plenaries, in the workshops and roundtables, and came into its own during the incredibly moving ‘Words of Victims, Voices of Experience’ theatre evening.

Renny Cushing of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights told us that many speak of the death penalty as a way for those left behind to achieve healing, justice and closure, when in fact many of the bereaved reject the notion of ‘closure’ completely. Coming to terms with loss is one thing, retribution is quite another. Having sought opinions widely on this matter, Renny has been given many reasons which emphasise that the death penalty is the wrong solution for the victims.

Murder Victims Families for Human Rights parade with banner

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights parade with banner

‘Having someone murdered by the State does not give me what I need,’ people say. ‘It would be better if the resources spent on maintaining the instruments of capital punishment were to be spent on other things: assistance for victims’ families and close friends, better crime prevention, resourcing for police, DNA testing to help solve unclosed cases.’ Now THAT is justice – diverting dollars away from needless vengeance and into resolution, and perhaps even more importantly, into reparation. Many people do not consider the burden cast on the families of those murdered. Renny himself recalls how, after his father was shot dead at point blank range, in his own home, his elderly mother, who had witnessed her husband’s killing, received an invoice in the post for the cost of the ambulance to take her husband’s body away to the morgue.

‘I can’t believe I have to pay for my husband’s murder,’ she said at the time. In short, there is little or no understanding of victims’ pecuniary needs after murder. There is the cost of the funeral to bear, the loss of income both from the victim and from the grieving family, and no form of compensation. To rub salt into the wound, it often seems like the State does not blink at the expense involved in an execution; yet gives no thought to the needs of those who have been harmed emotionally, pyschologically and financially by the wrongdoing. Renny, for one, believes the USA has this all wrong, when the (often very extensive) emphasis is on the death of the perpetrator, rather than the dignity of the victim and his or her family.

James Abbott, the New Jersey Chief of Police, agrees with him. ‘There is no way to fix the Death Penalty and make it right,’ he affirms. His sympathies in murder cases have always been squarely with the families of victims. The stress of the protracted appeals system does not in any way bring closure; it just gives almost celebrity-level attention to the perpetrator. ‘Just stop and think how many high-profile murderers you can name. Now name their victims,’ he says, and we nod in agreement.

And then there is the cry for compassion: ‘My loved one(s) has/have already died. Why add to the death toll and create a world of suffering for someone else’s family?’

These are powerful messages coming from the mouths of people who have suffered the worst anguish imaginable. Fortunately, they have had an impact in New Jersey, where the death penalty was abolished in 2007. Chief James Abbott was part of the commission set up to report on whether the state should abolish. At the outset, he was personally pro-death penalty. He admits, he still has views which would favor it for certain crimes; but now he knows that capital punishment is not a workable form of criminal justice. Often, he is asked ‘But what if it were a police offer who was killed?’ His answer is still that execution is not the answer. He would not want any officer’s family to suffer the way he knows others have, forced to be reminded through a protracted and flawed appeals process of their tragedy, while simultaneously being ignored in the aspects where it matters. Instead, a system which guarantees that the guilty party is behind bars for life, and which provides support for the family of the victim, is a far better solution. LWoP (Life without Parole), he adds, is fairer on a socio-cultural basis, prevents the risk of wrongful execution and assists families to recover.

 John Van de Kamp

John Van de Kamp, former Attorney General of California "Redemption opportunities exist"

John Van de Kamp, former DA of Los Angeles and Attorney General of California, has always been an opponent of the death penalty, but spent many uncomfortable years in prosecution, condemning many to death. Today, he is free to state his mind. He knows that in California, popular support for the death penalty is high, but his experience shows that this is largely down to society’s fear of recidivism.

‘People don’t believe that Life without Parole truly means life. And yet there are no examples of LWoP prisoners being released, other than as a result of exoneration.’

Polls show a huge drop in favor of executions when people are offered the alternative option of ‘guaranteed real life’ (LWoP). This is even higher when LWoP + work-based restitution is an available choice (i.e. make convicts work to earn their keep and deliver compensation to victims’ families).

But what about other countries, where vengeance is de rigueur? We heard in Geneva from Toshi Kazama, a Japanese photographer, and survivor of a murder attempt in which he was left for dead and was unconscious for three days. Toshi had already been responsible for photographing victims’ families, inmates, execution chambers in the USA and has met many families who have shown compassion to perpetrators. This, says Toshi, helped him to get through his own experience. However, if he were at home in Japan, reconciliation  through compassion would be nigh-on impossible.

‘There, as with many Asian communities, it is a collective society,’ explains Toshi. ‘You have to fit the accepted framework. You must HATE the perpetrator.’

In Japan, it is most unusual to support the perpetrator and ask for clemency, and it leads to the victim becoming an outcast; indeed a victim twice over. Those who do not seek vengeance against wrongdoers are treated as outcasts, and become subject to bullying and intimidation. Often families are forced to separate so as not to have one person’s desire for clemency reflected in punitive social actions being meted out against those closest to them. Voicing free opinion and compassion is simply taboo, having a contrarian view in capital punishment goes against culture. Although many victims will say in private that they do not want the death penalty brought in their case, they continue to argue it in principle. It is a similar story in Taiwan and in China, where the same issues arise from the collective nature of society. So it is virtually impossible for individuals to find peace through open forgiveness, as this would almost certainly lead to their own victimisation.

Toshi believes education is very important in this respect. He take victims’ families groups, including Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) to Japan and Taiwan. In 2010 a further tour is planned, during which Toshi hopes to tell many people ‘It’s OK – the victim’s family can react how they want to react to handle their pain. They don’t have to adhere to the framework and norms.’

Elsewhere more sympathetic measures are being taken to help victims on the road to healing. Mariana Pena of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) spoke to us of victims’ rights at the international level. In France, victims have a legal right to act in partnership with law enforcement and criminal justice elements to bring about justice for their case and seek reparation. Reparation can include both restoration – coming to terms with what has happened, often via reconciliation with the criminal; and satisfaction, meaning the honouring of the victim. Opportunities are increasingly given for the victim to participate in justice, and this is important because it impacts the victim on many levels: emotional; psychological and financial. In too many countries, the victim is ignored. Acknowledgement of suffering can help with the psychological healing process although it can be very traumatic for the victim… and requires psycho-social assistance from the state or NGOs.

Retribution: the need for vengeance is primal, a gut reaction to being hurt or seeing a loved one harmed. Many, many victims know this is not the solution to their grief. However in some countries and regions, vengefulness is seen as the norm; here, it can be difficult for a non-conformist to ever come to terms with loss. FIDH hopes that advocacy for legal reforms at international level will lead some countries to replace the death penalty with more reparation and support for victims.

Rehabilitation and Redemption: both James Abbott and John Van de Kamp spoke of the need for opportunities for offenders to seek redemption through work and rehabilitation. One such way would be for reformed LWoP prisoners to undertake to assist in education programmes for young people.

Reparation, satisfaction, restitution and compensation, remedy and redress: these are all things that the justice system could help to achieve for the victim’s family.

Restoration and reconciliation: we heard in the previous post how Bill Pelke of Journey of Hope has found peace through forgiveness. Restorative justice clearly has a role to play here and it will be intersting to see whether the success which some countries have seen in this area, particularly with young and first-time offenders, might ever have an effect on the scale of murder and life imprisonent. It would be nice to have a chance to find out, but we’re going to have to ditch the death penalty first!

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An interview with Jonathan Flinner

The Optimism Club has the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Flinner, whose father, Michael, is a condemned prisoner living on death row, San Quentin, California. Michael’s story can be read here: he has continually protested his innocence since his arrest for conspiring in the murder of his fiancée in 2000. Jonathan, now 20 (2010), has launched himself as a young adult into action to help clear his dad’s name and ultimately see him freed.

Jonathan and Michael Flinner

Jonathan and his dad, Michael, at San Quentin

Q: Jonathan, you’re 20 now, but you were 11 when your dad, Michael, was taken from you and later condemned to death for the murder of his fiancée. Did you understand then what was happening?
A: No. I was just about to turn 11 years old, I don’t believe any child at that age can actually take something like that and grasp it fully, it’s completely mind blowing. I was educated enough at the time to see that something “bad” had happened but nothing to this severity, I just always felt so depressed and alone cause I couldn’t understand it.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from the time you were together?
A: I remember two great days, my father loved to go boating and jet skiing and that was my first time. We had an awesome father/son day out at the beach: it was amazing. The second thing was when we used to play catch, I don’t know why that makes me so happy but I loved playing ball with him just because our bond was so strong at that time.

Q: How often do you get to see your dad?
A: I have seen him ONCE in the past 9 years, due to my location compared to his. I love my father and I wish I could see him more but I’m a full time college student and just don’t have the funds to go out to California. It’s depressing to say the least.

Q: Tell us a little about Michael’s accommodation and his days spent in San Quentin.
A: My father lives in a tiny cell, approximately 5 and a half feet by 9 ft, and spends most of his time praying and writing to his close friends, followers and family. He likes to keep in shape to stay mentally and physically fit.

Q: What aspect of your dad’s existence on Death Row do you find most hurtful?
A: The fact that he is an INNOCENT man. I cannot believe the things that have happened in my life, I’m 20 years old and I have probably lived through more problems than three 80 year olds. Nobody deserves to be on death row, especially the innocent. I haven’t had a father most of my life because of the ignorance of others. I will never get this time back.

Q: What makes you most proud of Michael?
A: His intelligence and his passion. You would think any man on death row would be depressed and upset 23 hours out of the day. My father has a gift of intelligence which he uses every single day, he is a writer and a soon to be published author. The other thing I love about my father is that he never gives up, I love that. It must run in the family.

Q: And how about you? You are studying right now?
A: At the moment I am attending a community college, still doing pre-reqs but I’m leaning toward a degree in the social sciences or in law. I’m doing well, hanging in there. Really cracking down on making this Twitter site all it can be.

Q: What’s the Twitter site?
A: I have a Twitter ID, @DeathRowInmates, aimed solely at raising awareness of my father’s situation

Q: And how is that going?
A: Really great, I have built a following of over 1000 in just one month! So a good audience to tell my father’s story to.

Q: What are your father’s hopes and dreams for you?
A: He hopes that I never get tangled up in a situation like him, he wants me to be happy anyway that I can and hopes that I graduate from college and settle down and get married, he has told me when I have kids he hopes he can be out so he can spend time with his grandchildren.

Q: You spend a lot of time working to raise awareness of your father’s situation – on Twitter and elsewhere. Do you get any time just for yourself?
A: Believe it or not I do! I actually have a lot of free time, time to spend with my family and my little brother, my best friends, my girlfriend. I love to travel and ride my quad and just stay happy. You would think since I’m always online I’m never doing anything for myself but I do, all the time!

Q: Jonathan, it seems like you have suffered many times over. From the loss of your mother, and then of Tamra, and then in a way, of your father too. And yet you seem so full of life, energy and determination. What support do you receive? Where do you find the strength to carry you through all of this?
A: I have done my unfair share of suffering, this whole fiasco started when my mother passed away when i was only 7 years old. Since then my whole life really took a turn for the worse. I wake up every morning and put a smile on my face, I know that there are better things in life to look forward and to be happy about. I find the best things in life and I love them, I surround myself with the most amazing people and I do my share to make sure I am happy and everybody I know is happy. I grow from every negative thing in my life, it makes me a stronger person, it makes me who I am today.

Q: Tell us about Michael’s book “A Portion of Thyself: Essential Reflections From Death Row”
A: This book is one of many he is writing, my father is an amazing writer. This book really captures his way of living now, his everyday thoughts and how he responds and reflects from being on death row, I know you all will love it. It’s due to be published later in February 2010.

Q: What is next for your father? Where is he in the appeal process?
A: More book writing! We aren’t completely sure when the process will begin but I hope to start a campaign to raise money for a really good lawyer for him. That is the main goal at the moment.

Q: If you could ask the people reading this one special favour, what would it be?
A: To pray and spread the word of this campaign, its all about networking and who you know, every little thing counts and I really want to get my father off of death row. These past 10 years have been so terrible for my family and I, constant crying and sobbing, we could really use your prayers.

Q: What words of comfort or advice do you have for others whose parent or loved one is condemned or in peril?
A: Stay strong and never let your head down. I know life is tough, life is going to throw nasty curveballs at you and you have to overcome. There is no time in life to let down your guard and give into depression’s temptation, you are a wonderful individual and you are meant to be happy. Keep smiling and never stop doing what you’re doing, especially if you believe in it.

Q: A final thought to leave us with?
A: I’d like to say “thank you”, this journey I have been on has been a crazy one, to be given this opportunity is absolutely amazing and I thank everyone who supports me, my wonderful grandparents, my awesome friends, my amazing girlfriend. Thank you for always being by my side when I needed you the most, I love you all.

Thank YOU, Jonathan.
For more details about Michael Flinner’s case and the ongoing effort to provide a voice for condemned prisoners, see DeathrowInmate.org.

Author’s note regarding San Quentin: the State of California is currently under moratorium – executions have been on hold since 2006 pending a thorough review of the protocols for the lethal injection procedure. In January 2010, the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a deadline for the latest public scrutiny and comments. A number of organised campaigns led to the receipt of over 12,000 comments challenging the procedures, each of which must be taken into account and responded to ‘substantively’ by the State. In the meantime, Governor Schwarzenegger has pledged to cut prison spending in the State vs Higher Education budgets, having last year been criticised for continuing to spend on expanding the prison system, including plans for a new block for San Quentin’s death row, which already houses around 670 condemned prisoners, taking the capacity to over 1200 with proposed double-celling.

We believe Governor Schwarzenegger should encourage legislation to repeal the death penalty statute altogether for California and save the State billions of dollars which could be channelled into more appropriate public spending

California and Kentucky: Now is the time for action.

Everybody can take action TODAY against the death penalty in the USA. Both California and Kentucky are undergoing public scrutiny of lethal injection protocols. Members of the public (including out-of-state and overseas) can use this opportunity to respond to the Department of Corrections for each state.

California deadline: January 20th. Please see ‘Events and Action’ page, above or go straight to Death Penalty Focus’s website where they give advice on how to get your message in front of the CDCR and Governor Schwarzenegger.

Kentucky Deadline: February 1st 2010. As before, please bookmark our ‘Events and Action’ page or go straight to KCADP’s website for more information and guidelines.

In both cases, your letter should refer specifically to the proposed new protocols, but you should also use the opportunity to give your own detailed reasons why the State should not continue with the death penalty. Make your letter as long as you want! KCADP gives some very good guidance on talking points you can use, and Death Penalty Focus’ “10 reasons to oppose the Death Penalty” is highly recommended: a classic set of arguments to arm yourself with.

By law, the DoC is duty-bound to read every letter and to write a substantive personal response. Please note that California in particular has been noted for failing to do this and giving a cursory reply so if no response is forthcoming in due course please don’t be shy to follow up and ask for one – or contact Death Penalty Focus or KCADP and let them know.