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