NEW VOICES: Victims' Rights Advocate Calls for an End to the Death Penalty

Richard Pompelio (pictured) established the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center (VLC) in 1992 after his 17-year-old son Tony was murdered. VLC provides pro bono legal assistance to victims of violent crime.  He recently wrote in the New Jersey Lawyer's The Law & More column about the disservice that the death penalty represents to victims and their families:

In my 15 years as a victims rights lawyer, I have represented many murder victim families in death penalty cases, and the additional anguish caused by the justice process is overwhelming.When I first see a client, I silently pray the prosecutor will decide against pursuing the death penalty, but not because I am against that form of punishment. My prayers are for the victims and the hope they will be spared the pain, isolation and despair the death penalty process inevitably will bring.
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What victims need most from those working in the justice system is to have the right to fairness, compassion, respect and dignity recognized and respected. They do not need— nor do they want — the vengeance of death.
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Families are placed in this adversarial system where justice becomes equated with winning and losing. And in death penalty cases, victims don’t win.
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The death penalty in New Jersey is so broken it cannot be fixed. Opponents of capital punishment advocate life in prison without parole as an alternative. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced to enact this change (A-3569/S-1212). I fully support it as do most victims and victim advocates. Let prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges focus their energies and talents on issues other than the death penalty to improve the justice system. Convince some of the legal talent from the defense death penalty bar to argue for the civil rights of crime victims and their families. In calling for the abolition of capital punishment in favor of life in prison without parole, Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas Kelaher recently told acting Gov. Codey that a death penalty never used has become “a cruel hoax on the families of the victims and the citizens of this state.”
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Legislators must understand that supporting the demise of the capital punishment law does not mean they’re soft on crime. It’s time for lawyers, judges, legislators and now our new governor to collectively put their hearts and minds together to restructure the criminal justice system to achieve a more positive purpose.

(New Jersey Lawyer, Dec. 26, 2005).  Read the entire article.  See also New Voices and Victims.

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NEW VOICES: New Jersey Prosecutor Calls for End to the Death Penalty

In a letter to acting New Jersey Govenor Richard J. Codey, Ocean County prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher called for an end to the death penalty in New Jersey because he feels the system is ineffective and fails to meet the needs of victims' families. Kelaher, who has been a prosecutor for 23 years, said that life without parole would be a more appropriate sentencing option for those convicted of first-degree murder. "The history of nonapplication of the law has been a cruel hoax on families of the victims and the citizens of this state. . . . Years of countless delays, continuous hearings and millions of dollars later, the condemned are invariable moved to the general prison population. The strain on prosecution budgets is enormous and the cost in human terms in incalculable," Kelaher wrote. Kelaher added that New Jersey law requires the automatic reveiw of death penalty convictions and that prosecutors must meet requirements that are virtually impossible. (The Press of Atlantic City, December 9, 2005) See New Voices, Life Without Parole, and Victims.

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Victim's Family Expresses Relief At No Death Penalty

Edna Weaver, whose daughter was murdered in New Jersey, expressed relief that the defendant was spared the death penalty.  She said that she did not want William Severs Jr. executed for killing Tina Lambriola in 2002 because she wanted to spare his mother the pain of losing a child. "I'm so thankful it came out the way it did. . . . I wouldn't want another mother to feel like I do -- it's a feeling I could never put into words. . . . At least his mother will be able to write to him, she will be able to send things to him," Weaver stated.

Labriola's daughter, Christina Woody, echoed her grandmother's sentiments, adding, "I feel like a burden just went away.  It's just so much better."  Labriola's brother, Bob Weaver, did not attend the trial, but does plan to speak out in favor of imposing a sentence of life in prision without parole during Severs' October  21 sentencing hearing. "A weight has been lifted off our shoulders. . . . (The sentencing hearing will be) the last time I ever see him and that's a great thing," he said. (The Bridgeton Daily Journal, September 3, 2005).  See Victims.    

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NEW VOICES: Victim's Family Opposes Federal Death Sentence

The parents and three children of Louisiana murder victim Kim Groves have asked the federal government to forgo seeking the death penalty for co-defendants Paul Hardy and Len Davis.  In a letter to prosecutors, the Groves family urged U.S attorneys to halt proceedings that  might lead to death sentences in rehearings for both defendants.

"Executing these two men will not bring Kim Groves back to life. It will not ease the deep sorrow and loss that her family has and will continue to experience as a result of her death...Perversely, it appears that he (Davis) has enjoyed the attention and notoriety which his vulnerability to the death penalty has provided. The family believes the death penalty would in fact be the lesser of the punishments and that the finality and duration of a life sentence would be much more difficult and severe to Mr. Davis, in particular, than death," the letter stated.

The letter, which was also addressed to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was entered into the court record last week.   The presiding judge ruled that if prosecutors have family members testifying about the facts of the crime, the letter may be used on Davis' behalf. 

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BOOKS : "Hidden Victims: The Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the Accused"

"Hidden Victims," a new book by sociologist Susan F. Sharp of the University of Oklahoma, examines the impact of capital punishment on the families of those facing execution. Through a series of in-depth interviews with families of the accused, Sharp illustrates from a sociological standpoint how family members and friends of those on death row are, in effect, indirect victims of the initial crime. The book emphasizes their responses to sentencing, as well as how they grieve and face an impending execution. Sharp also examines the issues of wrongful conviction and the change in family structure after a loved one has been sent to death row.  The book contains a foreword by death penalty expert Michael Radelet. (Rutgers University Press, 2005).  See Victims and Books

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BOOKS: Victims and Victims' Families

The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption is a new book by Brian MacQuarrie that explores a parent's grief and subsequent transformation through the story of Robert Curley in Massachusetts.  Curley's 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, was a victim of abduction and murder in 1997.  The murder shocked and outraged the community of East Cambridge outside of Boston.  MacQuarrie explores the father's evolution “from grief to anger to activism against predators,” and from being an outraged father demanding the death penalty for his son’s murderer to an outspoken critic of capital punishment.  Delving deeper into the issue, the author looks at the struggle of Massachusetts residents as they decide whether to reinstate capital punishment.  Senator John Kerry calls the book, a “compelling and deeply moving…story of Bob Curley’s journey to hell and back.”  Sister Helen Prejean said "Robert Curley's radical transformation is a lesson for us all." The book may be purchased here and at major bookstores. MacQuarrie has been a reporter at the Boston Globe for 20 years.  (B. MacQuarrie, “The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption,” Da Capo Press, 2009).



The Crying Tree is a new novel by Naseem Rakha that raises the real-life question: Could you forgive the man who murdered your son?  Rakha is an award-winning broadcast journalist whose work has been heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." The story of her novel is told through the lives of a mother whose son was murdered and the superintendent of a state penitentiary where the defendant's execution is to take place.  Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, said in review, "For anyone who has ever wondered how forgiveness is possible, even when the pain is overwhelming, wonder no more.  The Crying Tree takes you on a journey you won't soon forget." (N. Rakha, "The Crying Tree," Broadway Books, 2009).



In "Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment," author Richard Stack uses cases to examine three of the main causes of wrongful convictions - mistaken eyewitness testimony, official misconduct, and incompetent counsel. Stack, a professor at American University's School of Communication, based the book on three years of research conducted with the assistance of students enrolled in his public communication classes. He said that he wrote the book to "put a human face" on the issue of wrongful convictions, a concern that unites both supporters and opponents of capital punishment. "Even if you are an arch conservative, no one wants to see an innocent person executed," he observed.

Three of the four stories highlighted by Stack portray death row exonerations, including that of Greg Wilhoit of Oklahoma, and Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee of Florida. Wilhoit's case provides the backdrop for Stack's review of incompentent legal defense, while Pitts' and Wilber's cases illustrate the errors that result from racial bias and systemic corruption. In his review of mistaken eyewitness testimony, Stack tells the story of Ronald Cotton, who spent 11 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. In addition to these four cases, Stack also recounts former Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to commute more than 160 death sentences due to his concerns about the death penalty system. The book finally gives the perspective of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group of victims' family members who oppose capital punishment. Stack calls this section "the exclamation mark" on his argument for an end to the death penalty. He said, "These are the people politicians point to when they beat their chest and say we need the death penalty. But this group's position is, 'We don't want it, and if you're maintaining it for our benefit, you're way off base'." (American (University) Weekly, April 24, 2007; Praeger Publishers, 2006)

In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families is a new book by Professors Elizabeth Beck, Sarah Britto, and Arlene Andrews that examines the debilitating effects that a death sentence can have on the families of the offenders. With a forward by Steve Earle, the book provides an in-depth analysis of restorative justice, which focuses on crime as an act against an individual or the community, rather than the state.In their examination of how capital punishment impacts the families of the accused, the authors use real stories to illustrate how the feelings of anguish and powerlessness are compounded by the prospect of their loved one's execution. The book contends that these individuals should have a more influential voice within society because they play an important role in the nation's death penalty debate. (Oxford University Press, 2007).

"Living With the Death Penalty" is a new book that examines the impact of executions on correctional officers, offenders, chaplains, attorneys, and victims' family members. In this book, author Courtney Vaughn, a rape victim and an Educational Leadership and Policy Studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, offers first-person accounts of what it is like to experience the death penalty from a variety of perspectives. She explores the sacrifice, alienation, and resiliency that are common traits among the various groups impacted by executions, and uses their stories to provide readers with a better understanding of the "circle of violence" associated with the death penalty. (Published by Courtney Vaughn, 2006)

Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-based Perspectives on the Death Penalty, a new book by James R. Acker and David Reed Karp, examines how family members and advocates for victims address the impact of capital punishment. The book presents the personal stories of victims' family members and their interactions with the criminal justice system. It also examines the relevant areas of legal research, including the use of victim impact evidence in capital trials, how capital punishment affects victims' family members, and what is known about addressing the needs of the survivors after a murder. (Carolina Academic Press, 2006).

Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty, a new book by Judith W. Kay, uses the personal experiences of both crime victims' families and those on death row to examine America's beliefs about crime and punishment. Noting that researchers have raised questions about the execution of innocent people, racial bias in sentencing, and capital punishment's failure to act as a deterrent, Kay asks why Americans still support the death penalty. She uses interviews with those most closely impacted by violent crime and capital punishment to examine whether punishment corrects bad behavior, suffering pays for wrong deeds, and if the victims' desire for revenge is natural and inevitable. Kay is an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound. ("Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty," Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., June 2005).

"Hidden Victims," a new book by sociologist Susan F. Sharp of the University of Oklahoma, examines the impact of capital punishment on the families of those facing execution. Through a series of in-depth interviews with families of the accused, Sharp illustrates from a sociological standpoint how family members and friends of those on death row are, in effect, indirect victims of the initial crime. The book emphasizes their responses to sentencing, as well as how they grieve and face an impending execution. Sharp also examines the issues of wrongful conviction and the change in family structure after a loved one has been sent to death row. The book contains a foreword by death penalty expert Michael Radelet. (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

Bill Pelke tells of the life-altering transformation that occurred after his 78-year-old grandmother was murdered by four teen-aged girls in his book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing. Though at first he supported the death penalty for 15-year-old Paula Cooper, one of the young girls who had murdered his grandmother in her home for $10 and an old car, he later opposed her execution and successfully fought to have Cooper's death sentence overturned. The book follows his personal journey over many years and features a forward by Sister Helen Prejean. (Xlibris Corporation, September 2003).

Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories is a new book by Rachel King of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project. The book focuses on the impact that the death penalty has on the families of those who have been condemned to die. King, who also wrote "Don't Kill in Our Names: Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty," describes these individuals as the unseen victims of capital punishment and highlights the experience of having loved ones on death row using personal accounts and a moving narrative voice. King notes that because their pain tends to attract less attention and empathy than the hurt of crime victims' families, many family members of the condemned suffer alone. Though the book uses the stories of the condemned to depict the flaws in the judicial system, its clearest message is that tragic events have tragic consequences that reach far beyond their immediate victims. (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

In "Don't Kill in Our Names: Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty," author Rachel King presents the stories of 10 Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation members. Throughout the book, King examines the reasons why these survivors choose reconciliation over retribution and why they actively oppose capital punishment. Using first-hand accounts and third-person narrative, King presents the stories in the context of the nation's on-going death penalty debate. King is legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. (Rutgers Press, 2003).

"Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty" - Written in the spirit of "Dead Man Walking," this book by Antoinette Bosco conveys both the powerful personal experience of a mother whose son was murdered and a wealth of information about the criminal justice system in America. (Orbis Books, 2001) For more information, or to read an excerpt, visit

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Death Row Inmates Present Scholarship to Future Police Officer

Death row inmates from around the country will present a $5,000 college scholarship to Zach Osborne, the brother of a 4-year-old murder victim, who plans to attend East Carolina University to pursue a career in law enforcement. The scholarship is an annual award given by those on death row who participate in the publication of "Compassion," a newsletter that provides a forum for communication between convicted offenders and murder victims' families. Each year, a murder victim's family member is chosen to receive the funds based on the results of an essay competition. In his essay, Osborne wrote, "Natalie's death has haunted my family since the day she was found. . . . Through realizing this dream (of becoming a law enforcement officer), I would play a key role in preventing situations like this from ever happening again." Dennis Skillicorn, who is on Missouri's death row and serves as current editor of "Compassion," stated that the scholarship "gives every one of us - regardless of our living conditions - an opportunity to restore some of what we've torn down." Osborne will receive his scholarship during a 10 a.m. press conference hosted by the Greensboro Police Department on June 7.

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NEW MULTIMEDIA RESOURCE: “The Empty Chair: Death Penalty Yes or No”

The Empty Chair: Death Penalty Yes or No is a documentary film produced and directed by Jacqui Lofaro and Victor Teich that tells the stories of four families confronting the loss of loved ones and voicing different perspectives on the death penalty. The movie also features Sister Helen Prejean, an author and spiritual advisor to those condemned to die, and Donald Cabana (pictured), a former death row warden in Mississippi.

Among the family members featured in the film are Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered; Suse and Peter Lowenstein, whose son was killed by a terrorist plane-bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland; Sue Norton, who chose to forgive the man who murdered her step-parents; and Susan Gove Ramunda, a tireless advocate for capital punishment whose daughter was murdered. Each of these family members retraces the crime that took their loved one, the trial that followed, and their personal response to the punishment that was given to the person convicted of the murder.

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NEW RESOURCE: Research On Victim Impact Statements

A new research paper by Wayne A. Logan of the William Mitchell College of Law examines the constitutional, ethical and legal issues raised by victim impact evidence.  In his article, "Victims, Survivors and the Decisions to Seek and Impose Death," Logan notes that the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1991 decision in Payne v. Tennessee opened the door for survivors of murder victims to testify about the social, emotional, and economic losses resulting from the murder of their loved one.  Since this ruling, such testimony has been broadly used throughout the nation and can often be a major factor considered by jurors in capital punishment trials. 

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NEW VOICES: Victims Testify About the Death Penalty

Recently, various victims and relatives of victims have testified before state legislatures concerning the death penalty.  In Connecticut, a woman who had been attacked by convicted murderer Michael Ross, testified that she nevertheless opposes his execution.  And in North Carolina, the sister of a man who was murdered in 2003 urged state legislators to reconsider the death penalty.

Vivian Dobson, who was attacked by Ross in 1983, said that the death penalty re-traumatizes victims' family members and wrongly focuses public attention on the guilty offender instead of the innocent victims.  Dobson recently told members of the Connecticut House of Representatives that she does not want Ross executed, noting, "I don't want to be a part of killing somebody else. . . . I can't do it. That's not me." The Connecticut House, however, voted 89-60 against a bill to replace the state's death penalty with life without parole.  (Hartford Courant and Associated Press, March 30, 2005).

In North Carolina, Patricia Parker, whose brother was murdered by an unknown assailant, joined five other victims' family members to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on executions while legislators review the current system. Parker noted that her brother's death forced her to re-examine the judicial system and the death penalty, which she now believes is applied unfairly and risks innocent lives. Parker stated, "I do not want anything done that makes another mistake. I don't want to ever have to think that the wrong person was punished for my brother's death. It will only bring more heartache in the world." (Associated Press, March 30, 2005).

See Victims and New Voices. 

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