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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Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2, Evening workshop

Elaborating arguments to convince public opinion

Influencing public opinion was acknowledged across the 3 days of the World Congress to be a key challenge facing the abolitionist movement. In some countries, and States of the USA, even those which are currently without the death penalty, point-in-time polls have revealed staggering public support for executions. There are some massive caveats around this which we’ll revisit in other posts in coming days, however the point is that some governments are hiding behind ‘the will of the people’ to refuse to even begin to negotiate on terms for abolition. Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that even in Europe, where we are lucky to have almost total rejection of capital punishment at statutory and constitutional level, this remains an emotive topic; so popular that it’s not inconceivable pressure could increase to reinstate it in some regions ‘for the worst crimes’. Of course in Europe this would never in all likelihood gain traction given the steadfast position of the European Union on Human Rights; but it remains important to consider, as a general theme, arguments which we can draw on to remind people or persuade them that the death penalty is a bad thing. So it was useful to hear in this session about two very personal perspectives which campaigning groups are drawing on to attempt to remind the public at large why the death penalty makes no sense.

Wrongful conviction, exoneration and enlightenment

In this workshop we heard from Joaquín José Martínez, a former death row inmate of Florida, now exonerated and living in Spain, and from Bill Pelke, co-founder of  ‘Journey of Hope’, whose grandmother was murdered. The panel was moderated by David Lindorff, a freelance journalist and author of ‘Killing Time’, a report on the facts surrounding the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquín told us his story. He had once been an arrogant upstart, a supporter of the death penalty and blessed with a good upbringing and education. He used to say things like ‘Why wait to execute ’em?’ He was a successful business man in his early twenties with two young daughters, and already going through a somewhat acrimonious divorce. Now, he looks back and knows, from what happened to him, and from what he witnessed while he was on death row, just why he was so wrong.

In 1996 a double homicide in Tampa, Florida, occurred. There was a huge public outcry to find the killer and see justice served, augmented by the fact that the victim was the son of a local sheriff. Altogether 12 suspects were arrested in connection with the killings, and Joaquín was one of them – but why? It transpires that his estranged wife decided to incriminate him out of spite, perhaps not fully cognisant of the potential outcome. She told police that he had given her information which would appear to implicate himself, and that she had it on tape. In short, Joaquín was convicted on the basis of an alleged confession, and one way or another the police managed to stitch him up completely with ‘lost’ evidence, inaudible recordings and the unreliable testimony of his embittered ex-wife. In his arrogant naivety, and given the lack of any evidence anyway, Joaquín had not really believed that he would come badly out of his trial and had engaged his personal business lawyer to defend him, rather than spend decent money on a fully competent lawyer.

Subsequently, in 1997, Joaquín ended up on death row. Even as recently as that, the default method of execution in Florida was the electric chair. Joaquín tells how the prison would test the chair every week, and the effect that had on the inmates. The row would be quiet and still; he recalls hearing inmates crying as the lightbulbs dimmed along the block. Is this not mental torture?

Eventually, with the help of his parents and family back in Spain, Joaquín managed to raise enough money (about $1 million) for a ‘proper’ defense and his case was eventually appealed and overturned. Through the love of those who believed in him, he managed to gain the support of senators, press, and a retrial at which the maximum sentence available would be life in prison. But he was freed.  He now lives in Spain, but stays in touch with his daughters, speaking to his ex-wife daily.

Joaquín understands the emotions that someone feels when you lose someone to violent crime. Hate, rage, desire for vengeance, these are all things he himself had the misfortune to endure when his own grandfather was later killed. But he acknowledges that he could have seen the perpetrator electrocuted a hundred times over and the pain of loss would not be lessened. Today Joaquín tours, speaks and campaigns against the death penalty.

Forgiveness vs revenge

Bill Pelke pointed out that exonerees are not saved by the system, but in spite of it. He said the death penalty is cruel and it is unnecessary, not just to the condemned, but to their families as well.

‘As long has human beings make decisions, they will make mistakes,’ he said. ‘But people will listen to other people’s stories, it’s very compelling.’

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Journey of Hope knows that if you can touch people’s hearts you can change their minds. So it is murder victims’ family members who lead the association, which also includes families of the condemned, of the executed, exonerees and general activists. They undertake speaking engagements and tours to reach out to communities, schools and other groups, to help them to understand that there are no number of retaliatory deaths that can replace a loved one. He quoted that the death penalty is nothing more than the ‘animal instinct for gut-level, bloodthirsty revenge.’

Bill and his colleagues believe  that  love and compassion is the answer. Healing is what victims need, not revenge. Bill himself lost his grandmother to murder… And knew that she would have been horrified to think her murderer would perish in turn. Forgiveness is what has helped Bill to heal.

Bill told us about his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper. She was only 15 in 1985 when the murder occurred, but this was prior to the introduction in the USA of legal prohibition of the execution of minors, and so she was sentenced to death. At first, Bill was glad, and wanted nothing more than to see his gentle grandmother’s killer executed; but then upon reflection he came to realise that his grandmother, a Bible teacher, would have wanted compassion. After her conviction, news of the young girl being condemned reached Italy, and a campaign was begun there to petition for Paula Cooper’s life. Bill could scarcely believe the strength of compassion coming from abroad, as in his home state of Indiana everyone wanted the girl dead, and as soon as possible. Ultimately, the state legislators were extremely embarrassed by the international attention and raised the age limit for death eligibility to 16; but no mercy for Paula. Eventually, with Bill speaking out at every turn to say he did not want the girl to be executed, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.

In 2014 Paula Cooper will become eligible for parole. She committed her crime and was condemned at 15. Upon release she will be 44 and a completely different person. Bill has remained in close touch with her over the years, and knows she will need tremendous support and rehabilitation to re-enter the outside world.

‘On the day Paula is released, I will meet her at the gates,’ said Bill. ‘She has already agreed to come with me wherever I want to go. “You saved my life,” she tells me’.

Bill has plans to take Paula touring with him and Journey of Hope to continue telling their story of violence, hurt, lives lost and lives saved, and the reconciliation that has ultimately enriched and directed Bill’s own life.

So in conclusion, the theme of the session was to set the scene for an elaboration on a few of the reasons why the death penalty needs to be abolished, via a pair of extremely close-up and poignant perspectives.

  1. The innocent man condemned, who escaped death, and has learned to forgive and completely turned his youthfully ignorant views on their head.
  2. And the victim’s family member who not only forgave his grandmother’s killer, but was instrumental in saving her and is a role model for reconciliation and restoration.