NEW VOICES: Prosecutors Ambivalent About the Death Penalty

In a recent front-page article in the New York Times, Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Oregon, and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, indicated that most prosecutors with experience in death penalty cases are ambivalent about it: “Any sane prosecutor who is involved in capital litigation will really be ambivalent about it,” said Marquis, who has long supported the death penalty. According to the Times, he said the families of murder victims suffered needless anguish during what could be decades of litigation and multiple retrials. “We’re seeing fewer executions,” Mr. Marquis added. “We’re seeing fewer people sentenced to death. People really do question capital punishment. The whole idea of exoneration has really penetrated popular culture.”

The article also noted that 62% of the country's executions this year occurred in only one state--Texas--and that 40 out of the 50 states had no executions in 2007.

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NEW VOICES: Father of Murder Victim Urges New Jersey Legislature to Abandon the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Daily Record, Jim O’Brien detailed his experiences with the legal system as the father of a murder victim. His daughter Deidre was murdered in 1982, and the capital trials and appeals for the man convicted of the crime lasted another 8 years. O’Brien stated, “I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill [a murderer], and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through….” Because of the “horrendous toll” the process took on his family and the little closure it gave them, O’Brien asked the New Jersey legislature to abolish the death penalty.

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A History of Violence

November 11, 2007
New York Times
Opinions Section

HAPPY families are all alike. Every happy family touched by murder is shattered in its own distinctive way. For me, the news last summer of the savage killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in Cheshire, hurled me back to the infamous murder that has haunted my own Connecticut family for more than 50 years.

Two months before my parents’ wedding in 1950, my mother’s older brother was shot to death in a botched hold-up in the package store he owned in West Hartford, leaving a wife and two daughters. In 1960, Joseph Taborsky, the man who killed him — and later six more people after his release from jail — became the last man executed in Connecticut — and in all of New England, for the next 45 years.

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NEW RESOURCE: The Angolite Examines Death Penalty, Its Impact on Families of the Condemned

The most recent edition of The Angolite, the nation's largest prison news magazine, contains an article detailing national death penalty trends and developments. The piece also highlights the impact of capital punishment on family members and close friends of those facing execution. It notes, "Lost in the shadows of these central arguments is something that defines us human beings: Taking care of our own. Unseen, unheard family members and close friends of those on death row have committed no crime, have done no wrong, yet they must suffer the sterilized and calculated execution of their loved one. When the state shuffles a mother's son into the death chamber, her heart hurts just the same as the loved ones of the person her son murdered. She becomes another in a long line of grieving human beings -- victimized by a system unintentionally designed to spread a wide net of emotional pain."

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Victim's Family Members Seek Closure Through Life Sentence

Nearly two decades after the 1988 robbery and murder of James Scanlon, his family now says that a sentence of life without parole for his killer - Ronald Rompilla - will end years of emotional strain resulting from the death penalty and will help them to start the healing process. "It's time to start remembering my dad for the good person he was and not always affiliating it with Ronald Rompilla and the death penalty. ... (I)t was time. I didn't think going after it again would be good for us as a family. A life sentence is as much closure as we can hope for," said Timothy Scanlon, James' son.

Rompilla originally received a death sentence for the brutal crime, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated it in 2005, finding that his attorneys failed to properly research his history of childhood neglect, alcoholism, and mental retardation. In its 5-4 decision, the Court told prosecutors to either agree to a life term for Rompilla or convene a new sentencing hearing where a new jury could decide death or life. Scanlon's family made the final decision to seek a life sentence in exchange for Rompilla's agreement to waive all appeal rights in any court. "Basically it was our decision not to proceed with the death penalty again. ... (M)y family has been through this for 20 years. We didn't want to go through another appeals process for another 20 years," observed Timothy Scanlon, who voiced frustration with the death penalty appeals process and said he still supports the death penalty.

Rompilla received his life sentence plus consecutive 10- to 20-year sentences for robbery and burglary during a sentencing hearing on August 13. Stephen M. Van Natten, Lehigh County chief deputy district attorney, said the sentencing agreement was reached based on the Scanlon's family wishes.

(The Morning Call, August 14, 2007). See Victims and Life Without Parole.

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Fewer Death Sentences as Victims' Concerns Are Considered

When weighing whether to seek the death penalty, Tulsa County First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond says that he tries to determine how future juries will assess the evidence, as well as how a death penalty case will impact victims' family members. He observes, "Life without parole without appeals might be a better situation for a lot of victims' families. There are some positive things about that. . . . A lot of people, at first blush when a loved one is killed, want the death penalty. (But) going through a death-penalty case is a lot of stress (and can produce) a lot of frustrations with the system."

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NEW VOICES: Former Alabama Prosecutor Questions Value of Capital Punishment

Billy Hill spent seven years as a district attorney in Shelby, Coosa, and Clay counties in Alabama, and has reconsidered his stance on capital punishment.  Mr. Hill says that he would welcome a moratorium on executions in Alabama while a study commission examines the state's death penalty to evaluate whether it is "a wise and humane use of our resources." Wrongful convictions, the arbitrary nature of capital punishment, poor representation, and the long-term suffering of victims' family members are among Hill's main concerns about current death penalty laws. He believes that life without parole is a better alternative for violent offenders.  Hill now works as a Shelby County public defender.

In his criticisms of Alabama's death penalty, Hill notes that two innocent men have already been freed from the state's death row and that many others continue to await their execution without the benefit of "top-flight representation." With regard to the arbitrary nature of the states' capital punishment statute, Hill observes, "Do you realize that if two people are arguing on a street corner and one of them pulls a gun and kills the other one, that is simple murder? But, take the same scenario and put one of them in a car, and it becomes a capital case. . . . [I]n 30 years of observing violent offenders, I find 3 factors present in almost all of them: some kind of childhood abuse, either physical or sexual; some type of chemical dependence, either alcohol or drugs; and neurological damage." Hill also believes that the death penalty fails to serve the needs of victims' family members because execution dates are often set and then canceled several times during repeated appeals. "It just never goes away for the victim's family," said Hill.

Noting that the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nation in the world to use the death penalty, Hill said that he believes that life without parole is the more appropriate sentence for violent offenders. "A lot of people do not realize that in Alabama life without parole means you are not leaving prison except with your toes turned up," he said. If the state insists on keeping capital punishment, Hill observes that lawmakers should be prepared to pay to high costs associated with creating a system that is more fair and accurate.

(The Birmingham News, July 30, 2007). See New Voices, Innocence, Victims, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

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NEW VOICES: Victims Organizations Issue Joint Statement for National Victims' Rights Week

Three organizations whose memberships include family members of murder victims recently issued a joint statement in conjunction with National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which takes place April 22 - 28, 2007. The statement, issued by the leaders of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and Journey of Hope, called for governmental policies that serve the true needs of family members. The groups called for an end to the death penalty, noting that alternatives to capital punishment "provide the certainty and punishment that many families need while keeping our communities safe."

Their statement read:

April 22 – 28, 2007 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The theme for this year is “Victims’ Rights: Every Victim, Every Time.” As victims, and survivors, we strongly support efforts to ensure that the needs of victims’ don’t fall through the cracks or fall prey to politics.

The death penalty does not serve victims’ families. It draws resources away from needed support programs, law enforcement and crime prevention. And the trials and appeals endlessly re-open wounds as they are beginning to heal, and it only creates more families who lose loved ones to killing.

Alternatives to the death penalty provide the certainty and punishment that many families need while keeping our communities safe. Critically, alternatives ensure attention is cast where it is needed most – on the survivors – and not on sensational trials or suspects.

As murder victim family members we also share the same concerns as other Americans with the death penalty. We are concerned about innocent people being sentenced to death, about racial and economic disparities and about arbitrariness. But for us the stakes are higher because an innocent person might be executed in a misguided attempt to give us justice. Losing one innocent life to murder is one too many, the taking of another innocent life because of the first is beyond comprehension.

Those who argue for the death penalty often claim to do so on behalf of us, the victims’ families. They say it will give us “closure.” We don’t want the death penalty, and closure is a myth. Every victim, every time needs help, understanding, resources, and support. We don’t need more killing.

Since 1981, the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crimes has helped lead communities throughout the country in their observances of

National Crime Victims' Rights Week (NCVRW)

. Rallies, candlelight vigils, and a host of commemorative activities are held each year to promote victims' rights and to honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf.

(MVFHR, MVFR, and Journey of Hope Statement, April 19, 2007). See

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Victims and Law Enforcement Support Kentucky Death Penalty Review

Legislation to establish a commission to examine Kentucky's death penalty and report its findings to the General Assembly has gained support from former law enforcement officials and victims' family members. The bill, proposed by Rep. Tom Burch, would require the task force to review whether capital punishment deters crime, is applied fairly, and is still acceptable to the public. It would mark the first time in four decades that the state has examined its death penalty laws.

During a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the measure, Nancy Rowels, whose brother was murdered, said, "My personal preference would be that there be no more violence in my name." She said she favors life without parole over the death penalty. Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, a former prosecutor who once supported capital punishment, said he supports Burch's measure. Crenshaw said his doubts about capital punishment came after defending a young man who was charged with capital murder but was cleared before trial. "We want to make sure we are not making mistakes," he stated.

Burch's bill has sparked conversation about whether Kentucky should retain capital punishment. Former Kentucky Chief Justice John Palmore said he supported capital punishment when he was a young prosecutor, but now he's "not so hot for it anymore." Noting that he is not sure the death penalty accomplishes anything, Palmore said, "It wouldn't bother me at all if executions were abolished. I still have that feeling that comes from childhood that some people are so bad, that they have done such bad things, that we ought to get ride of them. But there are some things you can't get rid of."

Currently, there are 40 people on death row in Kentucky. The state has executed two people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1974.
(The Courier-Journal, March 12, 2007). See New Voices and Recent Legislative Activity.

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Why two mothers back death penalty repeal

by Vicki Schieber and Carolyn Leming
Feb. 16, 2007
The Gazette

We write as mothers who have been scarred by the death penalty.

Our stories are very different, but they are both stories of justice gone wrong. They are stories that convince us the capital punishment system in Maryland and across the country is broken beyond repair.

One of us, Carolyn, almost lost an innocent son — condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. It took 10 long years for the truth to come out and set him free.

The other, Vicki, lost a beautiful daughter — killed in a brutal rape and murder that ripped her away in the prime of her life. The possibility of a death sentence in the case threatened to keep the family in limbo for decades, reliving the crime again and again with every appeal.

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