Victims

In Act of ‘Christian Forgiveness,’ Tennessee Victim’s Daughter Asks Governor for Mercy for Her Mother’s Killer

A Tennessee murder victim’s daughter is asking Governor Bill Lee to honor their shared faith by sparing the life of her mother’s killer. In what they describe as an “exceptional” clemency plea, lawyers for Tennessee death-row prisoner Don Johnson (pictured) write that Cynthia Vaughn, the daughter of Connie Johnson, has requested a meeting with Gov. Lee to tell him her story of “Christian forgiveness” and ask that he commute Johnson’s sentence to life without parole. The clemency petition describes such a request as extremely rare, saying “[w]e know of only one other case in the history of the State of Tennessee in which the child of the ultimate victim has begged the Governor for mercy for the murderer – and in that case clemency was granted to Gaile Owens.” Johnson’s clemency petition also stresses his remorse and redemption, explaining that he has become an Ordained Elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and now ministers to his fellow prisoners. Vaughn and Johnson’s lawyers hope his story of Christian redemption will be of particular interest to Gov. Lee, whose campaign for governor in 2018 repeatedly emphasized his Christian faith.

In a letter to Governor Lee that is excerpted in the petition, Vaughn describes her change of heart about Johnson. For most of her life, she supported his execution, publicly saying, “I want the freak to burn.” However, in 2012, she sought a meeting with Johnson in prison to tell him about the pain he had caused her. “After I was finished telling him about all the years of pain and agony he had caused, I sat down and heard a voice. The voice told me, ‘That’s it, let it go.’ The next thing that came out of my mouth changed my life forever. I looked at him, told him I couldn't keep hating him because it was doing nothing but killing me instead of him, and then I said, ‘I forgive you.’” Forgiving Johnson, she said, has freed her from her anger and allowed her to live her life more fully. “Letting go of anger has let me love more,” she wrote.

Johnson’s religious conversion is the subject of much of the clemency petition and includes numerous testimonials about the positive effect he has had on other prisoners. It also details his personal journey from the routine beatings and psychological abuse he endured from his father and in the juvenile justice system to what the petition characterizes as his religious redemption. "What is most remarkable about Don Johnson’s life story is not that he ended up on death row following a loveless and hate filled childhood, it is that he overcame that childhood to become the man of God he is today," his petition states. Prison ministers and volunteers wrote in support of clemency, describing Johnson’s remorse and his impact on the lives of others. “Don has asked for forgiveness of his sins and crimes he committed years ago and by the grace of God has become a new person in Christ,” wrote Linda Faulk, a prison volunteer who has known him since 2004. “Donnie is no ordinary person and he has unusual perceptivity. I am aware that the prison uses his talents as a counselor and his unit has one of the best behavioral records in the State of Tennessee. Many people rejoice that he has served so well in spite of his environmental circumstances,” said Dr. John L. DuBosque, a visitor and telephone advisor of Johnson’s since 1998. Johnson’s petition concludes with a plea for a grant of mercy by the governor: “Cynthia Vaughn, the person with the greatest claim on his life, deserves to have her forgiveness honored. She should not have her own healing journey ended with an unnecessary and unwanted execution. Don Johnson should not have his journey from the darkness into the light ended in the death chamber.”

Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

To End Years-Long Delays, Prosecutors in Three States Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in separate capital cases in Indiana, Florida, and Texas have dropped pursuit of the death penalty in order to end notoriously lengthy delays and facilitate healing for the victims’ families. On March 8, 2019, St. Joseph County, Indiana prosecutors agreed to a plea deal instead of a third death-penalty trial for Wayne Kubsch (pictured) at the request of the victims’ family. Kubsch was initially sentenced to death in 2000 and received the death penalty a second time in 2005, but both times his triple-murder convictions was overturned. In announcing the plea agreement, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter said “[t[he family actually asked us to take the death penalty off. They wanted to remember their loved ones, not remember him every time he came back with another appeal.” Kubsch pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole, agreeing to waive his right to appeal his sentence. “I'm 75 years old. I'll soon be 76. And we decided that the best thing would be life in prison, because that way we don't have all the appeals. We don't have all this to go through and the kids don't have to deal with this constantly,” said Diane Mauk, the mother of victim Beth Kubsch. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Eric Tamashasky said, "For the family, this gives them the closure that they’ve so desperately needed for 20 years.”

Prosecutors also decided to drop the death penalty to end lengthy pre-trial delays in cases in Florida and Texas. After eight years of proceedings in what news reports described as Hillsborough County’s “longest-running murder case that has yet to see trial,” Florida state attorneys announced on February 4 that they would no longer seek the death penalty against Michael Keetly. Keetly had been in pretrial detention for nearly 3,000 days. Keetly’s attorney, Lyann Goudie, said she had recently presented mitigating evidence to the prosecutors in an effort to persuade prosecutors that they were unlikely to obtain a unanimous vote for death, and had challenged the ballistic evidence and eyewitness identification the prosecution intended to present at trial. Following the prosecution’s decision, the case is now scheduled to go to trial in June.  Todric Deon McDonald was charged with two counts of capital murder in McLennan County, Texas, more than four years ago. In 2018, with the case facing additional delays to permit the defense to prepare for a potential penalty phase, the victims’ families told prosecutors they supported withdrawing the death penalty if it meant the case would proceed to trial as scheduled. The prosecutors dropped the death penalty in August 2018 and jury selection began on February 11, 2019, after McDonald had spent 1,733 days in jail. McDonald was convicted three days later and sentenced to life without parole.

A death-penalty trial requires extensive pretrial preparation, because defense attorneys have to conduct an in-depth investigation into their client’s life history and mental health to present mitigating evidence in the event their client is convicted. The longer pretrial period is one of many reasons why death-penalty trials are significantly more expensive than trials in which a death sentence is not an option. There is also a lengthy appeals process if a defendant is sentenced to death, and at that point, the most likely outcome is that the conviction or death sentence will be reversed.

NEW VOICES: Basketball Star Stephen Curry—“I Don’t Believe in the Death Penalty”

Stephen Curry (pictured, right, during a 2015 visit to the White House), star of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and executive producer of the upcoming documentary Emanuel, has publicly voiced his opposition to the death penalty. Emanuel tells the story of the murder of nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. It is the first film produced by Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, and was co-produced by Viola Davis’s company JuVee Productions. After a January 23, 2019 advance screening at Howard University, Curry participated in a panel discussion of the movie’s themes, including faith, race relations, forgiveness, gun violence, and the death penalty. Asked about his views on the death penalty and Dylann Roof’s death sentence, Curry said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty. I feel like there are situations where an individual can be redeemed or be healed and mentally or physically with whatever the issue is and the root of why they are in that situation.” Curry also spoke about taking inspiration from the forgiveness that victims’ family members offered to Roof. “It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes and empathize with what they’re going through. But it’s so inspiring the way they handled it. They chose forgiveness. They chose faith. They chose to support each other and the community. That alone speaks volumes for humanity and hope of humanity.”

Curry also addressed the issue of athletes becoming involved in social causes. “Athletes in general, especially in the NBA, guys are educated. They know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They know what they believe. And there’s a reason when you say something there are headlines. People want to hear what you have to say. We shouldn’t shy away from it.” He praised the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, for “support[ing] us in using our voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And I think this era of athlete is unafraid to be unapologetically themselves, whatever that means.”

Emanuel will be released in select theaters on June 17, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

Father of Murdered Charlottesville Protester Opposes Death Penalty

Mark Heyer, whose daughter, Heather Heyer (pictured), was killed in 2017 while protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, says he does not want federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty against the man who killed his daughter. James Alex Fields, Jr., a 21-year-old who identifies as a neo-Nazi, was tried in Virginia state court and convicted of murder and a litany of other crimes for driving a car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. On December 11, the state-court judge accepted the jury’s sentencing recommendation and sentenced Fields to life in prison plus 419 years and a fine of $480,000. However, Fields still faces federal hate crime charges arising out of the incident, including one murder charge for which prosecutors could seek the death penalty.

Mark Heyer told BuzzFeed News, “I don’t relish the thought of [Fields] getting the death penalty. That’s my belief. I’d rather him get his heart straight and get life [in prison].” On the issue of Fields’s hateful beliefs, Heyer wondered, “What happened to make him hate that much? You don’t just wake up in the morning like that. He had hatred building up in him for years.” Heyer expressed sympathy for Fields’s family, saying, “He was too stupid and too young to realize what he was about to do would change his whole life. I think about his mother and what she’s having to go through.” During the state court trial, Fields’s lawyers presented evidence that he had suffered from psychiatric disorders dating back to his early childhood. Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, has not publicly shared her views on the appropriate punishment for Fields, but has promoted her daughter’s legacy of fighting racism. In an email to BuzzFeed News, she wrote that killing Fields “would not bring Heather back.”

Federal prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty against Fields. Whether they are able to do so may depend, in part, upon the outcome of an unrelated case being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. On December 6, 2018, the Court heard argument in Gamble v. United States, a challenge to a legal concept known as the “separate sovereigns” doctrine, which allows a defendant to be tried in state and federal court for the same conduct. Terance Gamble, who was charged in both state and federal court with being a felon in possession of a firearm, argued that facing both state and federal charges violated the Constitution’s double jeopardy clause, which protects against being "twice put in jeopardy” “for the same offence.” If the Court rules in Gamble’s favor, it could block Fields from being tried in federal court on at least some of the federal charges. Court watchers said after the argument that the Court did not appear inclined to strike down the separate sovereigns doctrine.

“Often Forgotten” in the Wake of Exonerations, Wrongful Convictions Harm Murder Victims’ Families, Too

In a feature article in Politico, Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and author of the new book, Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, describes an exoneration as “an earthquake [that] leaves upheaval and ruin in its wake.” Exonerees, she writes, “suffer horribly—both physically and mentally—in prison” and are revictimized following their release, “leav[ing] prison with no ready access to services or a support system that can help them re-acclimate to society.” But wrongful convictions that lead to exonerations have other, “often forgotten” victims, too: the family members of the crime victim. Victims’ family members, Bazelon writes, are “forced to relive the worst experience of their lives with the knowledge that the actual perpetrator was never caught, or caught far too late, after victimizing more people.”

Bazelon’s article highlights the experience of these family members, telling the story of Christy Sheppard (pictured), whose cousin, Debbie Lee Carter, was murdered in Oklahoma when Christy was eight years old. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of the murder; Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz to life without parole. Eleven years later, when Williamson and Fritz were exonerated, it shook Sheppard and her family. The tremors from that wrongful conviction transformed the family’s perception of the criminal justice system and turned Sheppard into an advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2013, Sheppard participated in a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Innocence Project. There, she appeared with Jennifer Thompson, a rape survivor who had misidentified her rapist, then later co-authored a book with the man who had been wrongfully convicted of her attack. Sheppard said that Thompson voiced the same sense of “re-victimization and not being included” that she and her family had felt. After the conference, Sheppard came to view the experiences of exonerees and crime victims as “completely different but also the same. ...We have all been lied to, mistreated, and not counted.”

Sheppard later wrote an op-ed about the innocence claims of another Oklahoma death-row prisoner, Richard Glossip. “[The victim] and his family deserve justice,” she wrote, “but justice won’t be served if Glossip is put to death and we find out too late that he is innocent of this crime.” She was one of eleven members of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and the only member who was neither a lawyer nor a politician. As a member of the commission, she sought to challenge the idea that the death penalty was the only way for her family to be given justice. She has since spoken about her experiences on local and national media, testified before the Ohio Senate in support of a bill to ban the execution of people with mental illness, and campaigned for death penalty repeal in Nebraska. “I know these cases are not about the truth,” Sheppard told Bazelon. “It is politics; it is a game where people are moved around and played. It is not fair and it is not balanced.”

Texas Executes Another Defendant of Color Over Objection of Victim’s Family

Against the wishes of the victim's family and amidst charges that the rejection of his clemency application was rooted in racial bias, Texas executed Christopher Young (pictured) on July 17, 2018. Young—who had been drunk and high on drugs when he killed Hashmukh Patel during a failed robbery in 2004—had repeatedly expressed remorse for the murder and had been mentoring troubled youth in an effort to prevent them from repeating his mistakes. The victim's son, Mitesh Patel, had urged clemency for Young, saying that he didn't want Young's children to grow up without a father, and that Young could be a positive influence by continuing his mentorship activities. Mitesh Patel, who had an emotional visit with Young the day before the execution, said the meeting left him with "a sense of sadness." "I really do believe Chris Young today is not the person he was 14 years ago," Patel said. "It's really unfortunate that the [pardons] board didn't hear our request for clemency. I feel sadness for his family. They're going to be walking down the same path my family has been on the last 14 years." On July 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 6-0, with one abstention, to deny Young's clemency application. Young's attorneys then filed a civil-rights suit in federal court, seeking a stay of execution on the grounds that the board's decision had been racially biased. Young's lawyer, David Dow, said family members of the murder victim have asked the pardons board six times this century to commute the death sentence imposed on the person convicted of murdering their loved one. "[O]f those six," Dow said, "three are black, two are Hispanic and one is white. Only in the case of the white guy [Thomas Whitaker] did they vote to recommend commutation.” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison denied Young's request for a stay, but expressed extreme displeasure about the constricted timeframe for judicial review and the state's lack of concern about the possibility of racial bias. The case, he said, "dramatizes much of what is most troubling about the procedures by which we execute criminal defendants." He continued, "In a rational world, the Court would be able to authorize discovery and sift through the evidence obtained thereby. ... Here, ... the time frame is designed to render impossible intelligent and dispassionate judicial review. Applicable principles of law seem nonexistent." "Those engaging in race discrimination seldom announce their motivations," Judge Ellison said, and the timeframe made it "well-nigh impossible" for Young to prove his claims. "Ideally," Ellison wrote, Texas "would be determined to show that racial considerations had not infected the clemency proceeding. ... [H]owever, the State is eager to proceed with [Young's] execution without either side having any opportunity to explore the [issue]." In his final statement, Young said "l want to make sure the Patel family knows I love them like they love me. Make sure the kids in the world know I’m being executed and those kids I’ve been mentoring keep this fight going." The execution was the eighth in Texas and the thirteenth in the U.S. in 2018. 

Texas Judge Finds Prosecutors Lied That Victim's Family Supported Death Penalty, Recommends Resentencing to Life

Finding that prosecutors withheld evidence that the family of murder victim Jonas Cherry opposed the death penalty for his accused killer and then lied to jurors that Cherry’s family supported the death penalty, a trial judge in Tarrant County, Texas has recommended overturning the death sentence imposed on Paul David Storey (pictured) and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Storey was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 for murdering Cherry during a 2006 robbery of a Fort Worth putt-putt golf course. The victim’s parents, Glenn and Judith Cherry, told prosecutors before the trial that they did not want any of the people charged with the murder sentenced to death. But in the penalty-phase closing argument in Storey’s trial, Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Christy Jack told the jury "[i]t should go without saying that all of Jonas [Cherry’s] family and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty [is] appropriate.” In March 2017, Cherry’s parents sought clemency for their son’s killer. In a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, they wrote that, as a result of their “ethical and spiritual values,” they strongly oppose the death penalty, and said “[w]e do not want to see another family having to suffer through losing a child and family member.” Storey’s execution, they wrote, “will not bring our son back, will not atone for the loss of our son and will not bring comfort or closure.” On April 7, 2017, less than a week before Storey was scheduled for execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay and ordered the trial court to determine whether the prosecution had knowingly misled the jury about the family’s views. After hearing testimony from nineteen witnesses, Judge Everett Young found that the prosecutor’s argument was false, that Jack had “made the argument intending it to affect the jury's verdict,” and that she “was aware of [its] falsity” when she did so. Concluding that “the false argument was reasonably likely to affect the jury's verdict,” Judge Young held that the argument violated Storey’s right to due process and that the prosecutors’ suppression of evidence relating to the Cherry family’s views violated their duty to disclose evidence favorable to the defense. The court also ruled that “[t]he false argument ... had the effect of reducing the responsibility of jurors by inviting them to acquiesce to the falsely-asserted desire of the victim's family for death,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office had argued that even if the argument had been improper, Storey had not timely raised the claim in the Texas courts. The court ruled, however, that the state had “unclean hands due to its suppression ... and false use of the evidence and had forfeited that argument. It wrote: “Because the State secreted evidence it was legally required to disclose, it cannot benefit from its wrong-doing by faulting [defense] counsel for failing to discover its own misconduct.” The case now returns to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which may accept or reject the judge’s findings and sentencing recommendation. “Basically, it is now up to the Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Keith Hampton, a member of Storey’s legal team. 

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