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Stories From Families of Murdered Law Enforcement Officers

A new report from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights collects the stories of families who have had a loved one murdered who was in law enforcement. The families discuss the pressure they faced to demand the death penalty as punishment, their efforts to prevent more violence, and their evolving views on the death penalty. Kathy Dillon, whose father was murdered in 1974 while on duty as a New York State Trooper, said, "[I]n the case of my father’s murder, the death penalty was in place in New York State, but it didn’t protect him that day." Neely Goen, whose father was a Kansas State Trooper who was killed in 1978, wrote about the toll the death penalty system takes on victims' families: "We already have been through enough. We deserve better than a system that forces us to go through long trials and endless appeals. The death penalty focuses an incredible amount of attention on the killers, which makes victims’ families relive the painful details of a murder over and over." 


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New Hampshire Legislator to Introduce Repeal Bill

On October 24, New Hampshire state representative Renny Cushing (pictured) will introduce a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. In addition to a bi-partisan group of co-sponsors, Cushing will be joined by Judge Walter Murphy--a former chief justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court and chair of the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission; Ray Dodge--a former police chief; Bishop Peter Libasci--of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester; and Nancy Filiault--a murder victim family member. Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1988, is also the Executive Director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. In 2000, legislators voted to repeal the death penalty, but then-governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. In 2009, the House also passed a repeal bill. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939. New Hampshire's current governor, Maggie Hassan, has said she would sign a repeal bill.


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VICTIMS: Families of Murder Victims Express Preference for Life Without Parole Sentence

Some of the families of those murdered in a multiple shooting in Seal Beach, California, in 2011 recently asked the District Attorney to not seek the death penalty against the defendant, Scott Dekraai. The families said the delays in pursuing such a case extended their agony and forced them to relive the incident. Instead they recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed in the shootings, said, "We’d like to see a speedy, and just, way to go about this trial… This will end up consuming the rest of my life.” Another family member, Rooney Daschbach, spoke for his four siblings and said, “We requested that they accept the plea on the grounds that there’s no way he’d ever be executed. We don’t have an issue with the D.A.’s effort to obtain the most severe penalty but we just have an issue with the fact that the death penalty system is broken.” Dekraai is expected to begin trial nearly three years after the shootings.


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EDITORIALS: Wyoming Paper Recommends Life Sentences for Sake of Victims

Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune recently pointed out why many families of murder victims favor life-without-parole sentences over the death penalty . "[I]t may be a surprise that many families of murder victims prefer the life without parole sentence, simply because it puts the killer away forever without the decades-long court appeals that can accompany a death sentence," the paper wrote. The editorial noted that there is only one person on the state's death row, and he is there for a crime committed 25 years ago. Attention to the case often focuses on the defendant rather than the victim. Read the editorial below.


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Death Penalty Now Rarely Used in Utah

An analysis of the death penalty in Utah shows how rarely it has been used in recent years. Prosecutors have sought it in only 7 cases in the last 5 years, and none has resulted in a death sentence. Utah has had only 1 execution in the past 13 years. Experts have offered several reasons for the declining use: the alternative sentence of life without parole is now avaialble; the appeal of a death sentence is costly and slow; and many victims' families wish to see a more timely end to the criminal case. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill said the death penalty should be used sparingly, and only with great consideration: "What you want is a prosecutor who struggles with the death penalty, because it's a decision to take somebody's life. It shouldn't be something we do arbitrarily. It's not something that we should be cavalier about. It is not something we should reach to with indiscretion." Prosecutors also said they consider the wishes of the victim's family when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Mark Anderson, whose cousin was murdered, said he believed life without parole was an appropriate punishment in that case. "When you have a crime that's committed, you need to protect two entities. You need to protect the victim and the public in general, and in both of those situations justice was satisfied," Anderson said.


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EDITORIALS: Boston Globe Recommends No Death Penalty For Marathon Bomber

A recent Boston Globe editorial called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder not to seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man accused of carrying out the bombing at the Boston Marathon. The editors said the lengthy death-penalty process would put the spotlight on the defendant to the detriment of the victims: "Years of proceedings, and their potential culmination in a death sentence, would also give Tsarnaev what he and his brother apparently sought: publicity and notoriety. Much better to let Tsarnaev slip into obscurity in a federal prison cell," the Globe wrote. In response to the possible use of the death penalty as a bargaining chip, the editorial stated, "Such a strategy raises worries about fairness under any circumstances, since it puts enormous pressure on defendants to give up their right to a trial." Finally, the editorial cited a recent poll finding 57% of Boston residents in favor of life without parole for Tsarnaev if he is convicted. Read the full editorial below.


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VICTIMS: District Attorney Pursues Death Penalty Despite Wishes of Murder Victims’ Families

The mothers of two teenagers who were killed in California are pleading with the District Attorney to refrain from seeking the death penalty against the man accused of the crimes. Leah Sherzer said her daughter Bodhi (pictured) was an adherent of the teachings of Gandhi, who advocated non-violence. She said "Bodhi believed that the death penalty was wrong and that she would not want her case to be tried as a death penalty case." Pam Thompson, the mother of the other teenager killed at the same time, said her son did not believe in capital punishment and neither does she. She said it does not allow families any real closure. Nevertheless, the D.A. is persisting in seeking a death sentence. Sherzer responded, “I feel about as powerless as you can get...This is not Bodhi’s wish. I can’t sit back and let her be silent on this... Bodhi stuck to her guns throughout her life. She’s dead, but she’s not silent on this. I am speaking for her.”


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NEW VOICES: Retiring Federal Judge Condemns Death Penalty as Biased and Broken

Judge Boyce Martin took the occasion of his final death-penalty decision from the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals to sharply criticize capital punishment in this country. While upholding the conviction and death sentence of the defendant, Harold Nichols, Judge Martin said, “I continue to condemn the use of the death penalty as an arbitrary, biased, and broken criminal justice tool.” He noted that the many years since Nichols’s conviction in 1990 have consumed "countless judicial hours, money, legal resources, and providing no closure for the families of the victims.” He added that resources spent on the death penalty could be better used for other programs: “The time, money, and energy spent trying to secure the death of this defendant would have been better spent improving this country’s mental-health and educational institutions, which may help prevent crimes such as the ones we are presented with today.” Judge Martin has served as a judge on the Sixth Circuit for more than three decades.


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Paula Cooper, Youngest Person Sentenced to Death in Indiana, To Be Released From Prison

Paula Cooper, who was 15 years old at the time of her crime, and the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana, will be released from prison on June 17, twenty-seven years after her conviction for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Her case received international attention, sparking a campaign that led to the commutation of her death sentence to 60 years in prison. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court received over 2 million signatures from around the world. Pope John Paul II asked that Cooper's sentence be reduced. Bill Pelke, the grandson of Ruth Pelke, forgave and befriended Cooper and wrote a book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, about his experience with the case.


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NEW VOICES: Nebraska Senator Changes Course After Hearing from Victims' Families

As Nebraska's legislature began debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty, one senator explained how his views on the issue had evolved. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, Sen. Colby Coash said that his participation with a group celebrating an execution led him to oppose the death penalty: "I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone's death." A second influence was his conversations with relatives of murder victims. He quoted one family member, Merriam Thimm-Kelle, who testified to the legislature about her experience, "Death penalty supporters say that carrying out the death penalty is family closure. Closure is a myth. The death penalty does absolutely nothing for families except more pain." On March 19, the Judiciary Committee approved a repeal bill without dissent. A vote in the entire unicameral legislature may take place on May 13. (UPDATE: The repeal bill was stopped by a filibuster on May 14. The vote to end the filibuster was 28-21, but 33 votes were needed.) Read the full op-ed below.


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