DIGNITY DENIED: NEW REPORT REVEALS BIAS AGAINST SURVIVING
DIGNITY DENIED: NEW REPORT REVEALS BIAS AGAINST SURVIVING FAMILY MEMBERS WHO OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY
Aug. 19, 2002 - A new report released today paints a startling picture of systemic bias and discrimination by those who serve victims against surviving family members who, contrary to popular stereotype, oppose the death penalty.
Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims’ Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty was released today by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). MVFR is a victim-founded, victim-led organization that represents murder victims' families who oppose the death penalty. MVFR Executive Director Renny Cushing, a former New Hampshire state legislator whose father was murdered in 1988, will present Dignity Denied at the annual conference of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, scheduled for this week in Nashville, Tennessee. The report can be downloaded by going to www.mvfr.org and clicking on "What’s New."
"Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them," Cushing said.
The victims' rights movement of the late '70s gave rise to victims' rights laws and victim assistance programs, with the goal of enabling victims to be “informed, present, and heard” throughout the criminal justice process. But today, Cushing explained, "victims' services usually operate under the auspices of the prosecutor, so rights are granted and enforced only at the prosecutor’s discretion."
"Today, as MVFR publishes this account of silencing and discrimination against anti-death penalty victims, we are not aware of a single protocol in the office of any prosecutor in the United States that alerts victim assistants to the possibility that some family members of victims may oppose the death penalty and that they are entitled to the same assistance as those who support it," Cushing said.
Cushing explained that there are three primary ways victims who oppose the death penalty face discrimination: Denial of the right to speak and be heard. Victoria Lamm was murdered in Nebraska in 1980, and the perpetrator was given a death sentence. When the Nebraska Board of Pardons was considering commuting the death sentence years later, three family members of the victim asked to present testimony, but only one was allowed to do so. Victoria's sister, who supported the death penalty, was allowed to testify. Victoria's husband and daughter, who opposed the death penalty, were denied that right - even though the Nebraska Constitution specifically guarantees victims the right to make a statement at such proceedings. Denial of the right to information. Often, when prosecutors learn that a surviving family member opposes the death penalty for the perpetrator, that person will be denied information about upcoming hearings, court dates, or other important information about the case. In Austin, Texas, for example, when Jeannette Popp, who opposed the death penalty for the murderer of her daughter, "the district attorney's office cut off communication with her and would not inform her of upcoming court hearings involving her daughter's murder." "Sometimes this denial is made explicit, as when members of a district attorney’s office warn families that if they advocate against the death penalty the office will no longer communicate with them," Cushing says. "At other times, the office may communicate with the family but do so in a way that is incomplete, inaccuratem or misleading." Denial of the right to assistance and advocacy. Victim SueZann Bosler came close to losing her life when an assailant severely injured her and murdered her father. The state of Florida decided to seek the death penalty against the perpetrator. She reported that during the first two trials of her father’s murderer, the victim witness advocate "held my hand, got coffee for me…[but] on the third trial, when I wasn’t doing what they wanted, they wouldn’t talk to me or sit next to me or look at me. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me." "Some advocates see victims who oppose the death penalty as more closely identified with the defendant than with their own status as victims, thus rendering them ineligible for or undeserving of advocates' help," Cushing said. "Such a view disregards the possibility that survivors may oppose the death penalty for their own reasons, not because of sympathy for the murderer."
Dignity Denied challenges lawmakers, the federal government’s Office of Victims of Crime, and leaders within the victims' services community to address past and current discrimination and commit to equitable treatment of survivors of homicide victims. Specifically, the report recommends that victims' rights laws should be amended to ban discrimination based upon a victim's position on the death penalty; victims' services should be administered independently, not as part of the prosecutor’s office; and leaders in the victims’ services community should develop protocols for serving victims' families who oppose the death penalty.
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