NEW VOICES: The "Death Penalty's Unlikely Opponents"

A recent CNN perspective examined the views of those they called "the most unlikely opponents of the death penalty, people who lost loved ones to unspeakable violence yet believe executing the killer will do nothing for family members or society."  For example, Ross Byrd, the son of James Byrd, Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a truck in Texas by Lawrence Brewer, nevertheless objected to Brewer's execution, saying "You can't fight murder with murder."  In Mississippi, the mother and siblings of James Anderson asked for his killer's life to be spared. In a letter to the district attorney, Barbara Anderson Young, Anderson's sister, cited the family's faith as one of the reasons why they opposed capital punishment. And Charisse Coleman, whose brother Russell (both pictured) was shot in a liquor store in Shreveport, Louisiana, pointed to the fallibility of the system: "The criminal justice [system]," she said, "is created by and conducted by humans.  As long as we're capable of making mistakes, we shouldn't be deciding who lives and dies."  Her views did not stem from sympathy for the defendant: "My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with Bobby Lee Hampton," she said. "He's a bad dude. He's never going to be a good dude. If I got a call that said Bobby Lee Hampton dropped dead in his cell last night, I don't think it would create a ripple in my pond. . . [but] I will [not] let Bobby Lee Hampton make me a victim, too, by taking me down that road of bitterness and revenge."

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NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Prison Warden Discusses Impact of Executions on Officers

Dr. Allen Ault (pictured), a retired Georgia prison warden, recently appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, discussing the effects of carrying out executions on prison workers.  Dr. Ault was one of six retired prison wardens who had urged Georgia corrections officials and Governor Nathan Deal to do what they could to halt the execution of Troy Davis.  Davis was executed on September 21, 2011.  Dr. Ault discussed the difficult questions prison officials face when participating in an execution.  He said, "You're killing somebody.  And there`s no denying that.  And especially when we know that several people have been declared innocent with the new scientific techniques, and we're not real sure if the individual we're executing this evening or next week is really guilty - that in itself, that kind of doubt.  The other thing most of us know [is] all the research which indicates that capital punishment does not deter... it seems so illogical to say to the public we do not want you to kill, and to demonstrate that, we're going to kill individuals." Dr. Ault also recounted his experience with victims' family members after an execution: "In every execution that I attended, I spent time with the victim's family.  And most of the victims' families that I talked with, they thought they were going to get a lot of relief or closure from the execution. And in most cases, they did not."

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NEW VOICES: In Inter-racial Killing, Victim's Family Asks District Attorney Not to Pursue Death Penalty

Family members of James Anderson (pictured), who was killed on June 26 in Jackson, Mississippi, are asking the District Attorney not to seek the death penalty for Anderson's killer.  Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager, was charged with Anderson's murder after he and other white teens took turns beating him.  Dedmon then drove over Anderson with a truck.  Barbara Anderson Young, the victim's sister, wrote a letter to the D.A. on behalf of their mother and two brothers, saying that their opposition to the death penalty is "deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James' life as well." The letter continued, "We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites.  Executing James' killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment."  On September 21, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who dragged an African-American man to death in Jasper 13 years ago.  Some members of the victim's family also opposed the death penalty.

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NEW VOICES: "Death Penalty - Costly for Families of Victims Too"

Karil Klingbeil, whose sister was murdered 30 years ago in Washington, recently wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times regarding the emotional and psychological impact that seeking the death penalty can have on victims’ family members and friends.  Klingbeil, a former director of social work at Harborview Medical Center, was initially in favor of the death penalty for her sister’s killer, Mitchell Rupe.  Over the years, however, she came to oppose it in favor of life in prison without parole.  She wrote, “Victims' families, like our family, relive the horror of their loved one's murder with every court proceeding. Our system cannot seek this ultimate punishment without a great deal of procedure to avoid and correct errors, and still errors are made. The more hearings and trials there are, the more emotional trauma there is for the surviving family members.”  Klingbeil said she supports repealing the death penalty, calling it "a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society."  She concluded,  "It does constitute a cruel and unusual punishment at odds with our culture and way of life in the United States. We should be putting the money we spend on the death penalty on the front end of crime and apply it toward prevention."  Read full op-ed below.

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NEW VOICES: Four Who Experienced a Family Murder Speak About the Death Penalty

Kathryn Gaines, Rita Shoulders, Ruth Lowe and Victoria Cox all had someone in their family murdered but all believe that a death sentence for the killers would only deepen their personal wounds.  Shoulders lost her sister to murder; Cox lost her brother; Lowe also lost her brother; and Gaines experienced the death of her eldest grandchild a year ago.  All four women are members of St. Martin de Porres Church in West Louisville, Kentucky, and have participated in videos to relate their experienes.  Ruth Lowe said of the man who killed her brother, "I’m learning to forgive. And even if I had the chance I wouldn’t want him executed. It would do nothing for me; it would do nothing for the rest of my family. To take his life would make no sense.” Kathryn Gaines said, "You cannot bring a life back by taking away another life. It hurts a whole family."  The videos of the four women's stories can be found  here. The women's stories are also being told in a series of articles in The Record, a Catholic newspaper published in central Kentucky.

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VICTIMS: Victim of Hate Crime After 9/11 Seeks Clemency for His Condemned Attacker

In 2001, Mark Stroman (pictured) shot several people in Texas whom he believed were Arabs in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Stroman killed at least two men and wounded Rais Bhuiyan, who is from Bangladesh and was working at a Dallas gas station.  Stroman received the death penalty for the murders and is scheduled to be executed on July 20.  Bhuiyan, who lost the use of one eye as a result of the shooting, has spent the last few months seeking clemency for Stroman.  In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bhuiyan said, "I requested a meeting with Mr. Stroman. I’m eagerly awaiting to see him in person and exchange ideas. I would talk about love and compassion. We all make mistakes. He’s another human being, like me.  Hate the sin, not the sinner. It’s very important that I meet him to tell him I feel for him and I strongly believe he should get a second chance. That I never hated the U.S. He could educate a lot of people. Thinking about what is going to happen makes me very emotional. I can’t sleep. Once I go to bed I feel there is another person that I know who is in his bed thinking about what is going to happen to him — that he is going to be tied to a bed and killed. It makes me very emotional and very sad and makes me want to do more." Stroman has been moved by Bhuiyan's actions and agrees, "The hate has to stop."  Read full-text of interview below.

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Controversial Texas Case Settles with Plea Bargain

Judge FineA Texas capital case that precipitated a rare judicial review of the constitutionality of the state's death penalty recently ended on July 6 with an unexpected plea deal. At the end of six weeks of jury selection, the prosecution accepted defendant John Edward Green Jr.'s agreement to plead guilty to a lesser murder charge in exchange for 40 years in prison. The case was delayed in coming to trial when Judge Kevin Fine (pictured) agreed to conduct a hearing on whether Texas's death penalty law posed too great a risk of executing the innocent.  The hearing was begun in December 2010, although the prosecution refused to take an active part in the proceedings.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the hearing after 2 days of testimony, holding that the constitutional issue was not ripe for consideration and that the trial court was not the proper forum for deciding that issue.  The family of the two victims who were robbed and shot (one of whom died) in 2008 supported the plea agreement. A statement issued by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos's office cited concern for the victims and families when accepting the plea deal: "The victim's husband and sister (who is also a victim in this case) related that they wanted finality and certainty of sentence. They expressed grave concerns regarding the pretrial proceedings and previous rulings in this case."

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NEW VOICES: Mother of Murder Victim Urges Connecticut Legislators to Repeal Death Penalty

Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler (pictured) was killed when he was 18, recently petitioned Connecticut legislators to repeal the death penalty.  Speaking of her son’s killer, Coward said, “In the beginning I was so mad, I did want him dead. Then I had to think about it. You don’t want anyone killing your son. Just get him off the street so he doesn’t do that to anybody else. Killing Jose [her son's murderer] isn’t going to help me... What would killing him [accomplish]? My son is still gone...” (Her son's killer was spared the death penalty at trial.) Coward suggested putting the money spent on prosecuting death penalty cases toward resources that would help murder victims’ survivors. Coward, along with other murder victims’ family members urged legislators to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.  She had to wait until 1 a.m. to testify before the Judiciary Committee considering the bill.  The repeal bill, however, was put on hold and likely will not be acted on this legislative session.

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NEW VOICES: Former San Quentin Warden Now Dedicated to Ending Death Penalty

Jeanne Woodford (pictured), the former director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Warden of San Quentin during 4 executions, recently became the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to repealing capital punishment.  During her years in corrections, Woodford came to the conclusion that the death penalty was wasteful, discriminatory and failed to make the public safer.  She recently spoke about her conflicts in presiding over executions:  "I never was in favor of the death penalty, but my experience at San Quentin allowed me to see it from all points of view. I had a duty to carry out, and I tried to do it with professionalism. The death penalty serves no one. It doesn't serve the victims. It doesn't serve prevention. It's truly all about retribution." Woodford added, “There comes a time when you have to ask if a penalty that is so permanent can be available in such an imperfect system. The only guarantee against executing the innocent is to do away with the death penalty.”

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IN MEMORIAM: Marie Deans, A Life of Commitment to Justice and Founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation

On April 15, 2011, Marie McFadden Deans died in Charlottesville, Virginia. For three decades, Deans sought justice for death row inmates who had no other recourse and who had been poorly represented.  Professor Todd Peppers of Roanoke College wrote in an op-ed about her life that she brought "basic conditions of decency to the men who inhabited Virginia’s death row,... refin[ed] the use of mitigation evidence in death penalty trials, [and] struggl[ed] to exonerate factually innocent men." Deans's commitment to repealing the death penalty was sparked after the murder of her mother-in-law, Penny Deans, by an escaped convict. Marie founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization, designed to give those who opposed the death penalty “a safe place from which they could speak out.”  She  was a self-taught mitigation expert, and, largely because of her efforts, only two of the 200 men that she helped defend during their sentencing hearings were ultimately given the death penalty. Perhaps her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Virginia death row inmate Earl Washington, Jr., a man with intellectual disabilities, whose false confession was the product of police coercion and manipulation. Washington was awarded almost $2 million dollars in damages "for the imprisonment that resulted from the fabrication of evidence against him and would become one of the compelling stories cited in the steady rise of death row exonerations across the country."

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