These families lost loved ones to violence. Now they are fighting the death penalty.
On a warm October day in 1997, 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley hopped into a car in Cambridge, Mass., with two men, lured by the promise of a new bike. It was the final ride of his life. His abductors tortured and killed the boy before dumping his body in a river. They were eventually caught and found guilty, and they both received hefty prison sentences. The death penalty was not an option because Massachusetts abolished it in 1984. Bob Curley, Jeffrey’s father, was crushed with despair over the loss of his son, a feeling only aggravated by what he believed to be a lack of justice in such a disturbing case. That despair led him on an emotional, yearslong crusade to reinstate capital punishment in his state. “I really felt the death penalty might prevent something like this from happening [again],” he said.
By the time Mr. Curley stepped up to a Boston College podium in 2001, he was well known as a Cambridge mechanic and father of three who had fulfilled his promise to fight publicly and passionately in favor of the death penalty. But the man who spoke that day had a different message—one he had first shared publicly just days before, on a local television program.
At Boston College, Mr. Curley was addressing the first nationwide conference held by Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a group whose mission statement is to mobilize “victim families and help them tell their stories in ways that disrupt and dismantle the death penalty and create pathways for wholeness, reconciliation and restoration.” At the conference, Mr. Curley spoke of his personal transformation, one that included turning away from fury and vengeance and toward questions. After Jeffrey’s killers were sentenced, Mr. Curley found himself wondering whether asking for the death penalty for his son’s killers—a sentence fraught with its own injustices, both legal and moral—was, in fact, disrespectful to his son’s memory.
His transformation gained momentum two years later, when he met and debated against Bud Welch, a death penalty abolitionist whose daughter, Julie, had been killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and who fought ardently against the death penalty even as one of Julie’s murderers faced it. It was a transformation that finally landed Mr. Curley, four years after his son’s death, in that Boston College auditorium, where he would speak out decisively against capital punishment.
In many ways, Mr. Curley’s winding path mirrors that of the United States as a whole. Although the death penalty has been legal since our country’s inception, Americans have embraced it in varying degrees over the years. Executions peaked at 197 in 1935, dipped down to one in 1966 (a year when just 42 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, according to Gallup) and rose again to 98 in 1999, with roughly 70 percent of Americans supporting capital punishment. So far in 2017, 23 out of 2,843 people on death row in the U.S. have been executed (up slightly from the total of 20 in 2016), and Pew and Gallup polls show public support for the death sentence at between 49 percent and 60 percent, respectively. In other words, the country is once again “in the midst of a climate change on its views about the death penalty,” says Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Discussions on the relevance of capital punishment usually center on whether it serves as a deterrent or whether there are any other means of administering adequate justice, especially in the case of heinous crimes. But one thing discussions of capital punishment do not often address is how death sentences affect the people who are left behind—the victims’ families.
These are people who know firsthand the pain and suffering of losing a child or parent or extended family member to a shocking and heartless crime. Their own lives have sometimes crumbled in the aftermath. They have lost sleep, homes, jobs, marriages, emotional stability and even sanity. Some have forgiven the perpetrators, some have not. Either way, they live daily with the knowledge of the suffering and pain their family members endured. Collectively, they have every right by U.S. law to ask prosecutors to seek the harshest possible punishment. And yet, a growing group is doing the exact opposite. They are advocating for the killers’ lives.
The reasons for opposition to the death penalty among victims’ families span a wide range, from faith-based forgiveness to worry over the possibility of wrongful conviction to concerns about the exorbitant cost of the decades-long judicial process to the belief that criminals should be given the opportunity to change. But another compelling and less discussed reason for such people to oppose the death penalty is that for many, the death penalty provides neither the closure nor the healing that legal and political systems oftentimes promise. Instead, a growing number of victims’ families are saying it inhibits that healing.
The first days after Marietta Jaeger Lane’s 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was abducted—she was torn from the family’s tent while sleeping during a camping trip in Montana in 1973—were an excruciating blur. By the time police began dragging a nearby river in search of Susie’s body roughly two weeks later, Ms. Lane’s anger had only grown. “I went to bed saying to my husband: ‘Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back alive and well this moment, I still could kill him with my bare hands,’” she says. “I meant it with every fiber of my being.”
Mr. Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center emphasizes that “there is no single response from family members of murder victims” regarding the death penalty; but he says, if you talk to enough of them, a common theme emerges in the way they process the death. Ms. Lane says that initially many people are consumed with near-unbearable sorrow, rage and a natural “desire for revenge.” Mr. Curley agrees. In fact, he says, “I don’t really know how I could feel any other way than to be in favor of the death penalty at a time like that.”
For many murder victims’ families, this stage of grief is as far as they can go. Consider the family and friends of 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, who was raped and beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend, Ronald Phillips, in Akron, Ohio, in 1993. Twenty-four years after her death, they maintained a Facebook page dedicated to Sheila Marie and filled with calls for executing Phillips. When he was finally put to death last July, the status was updated to say: “Fly high sweet Sheila. He will forever rot in Hell....”
The unfortunate reality of the death sentence in the United States today, though, is that it is not an end for most victims’ families. Instead, it is the beginning of a yearslong and often decades-long process that can leave families in a nearly permanent state of emotional limbo as they await a promised justice. This is mostly due to inmates’ appeals, which have increased in number. Between 1984 and 2012, the average time a prisoner spent between sentencing and execution rose from just over 6 years to nearly 16; today, some wait three decades or more for a resolution. In the meantime, says Ms. Lane, “the families of the victims are waiting 30 years for quote-unquote closure. All that time the family is having their wounds opened again and again, listening to the ugly stories again and again.”
That concept of closure is precisely what many politicians and prosecutors promise grieving families when they seek the death penalty on their behalf. But “that is a false promise,” wrote Ami Lyn White, whose mother was murdered when Ms. White was 5 years old. “[N]o amount of killing will bring my mom back,” she wrote in a Houston Chronicle Op-Ed, published on Oct. 18, 2017. Mr. Curley agrees. “There is no such thing as closure in a situation like this,” he says. “It’s something that’s always going to be with you, a significant trauma you have to manage.”
In 2016 alone, five different victims’ families in multiple states spoke out against the death penalty in publications ranging from Missouri’s Columbia Daily Tribune to Vox to Time magazine. Their reasons varied widely. One learned how profoundly the murderer had changed in prison, another just wanted the appeals to stop and another discovered that the men originally convicted of the crime were actually innocent. The fact is, say many murder victims’ family members, that to truly move forward after experiencing horrific loss one must find paths to healing outside the legal system. It involves moving decisively away from the “powerful emotions” of anger and hatred, says Mr. Curley, which can lead survivors down “a bad path.” This is why he and others share their stories; they want to help others understand that authentic healing after violent crime and murder comes only from within.
To truly move forward after experiencing horrific loss, one must find paths to healing outside the legal system.
Ms. Lane is now a public speaker on forgiveness and co-founder of Journey of Hope, an anti-death penalty organization run by family members of murder victims. The same night that she, a lifelong practicing Catholic, went to sleep wanting to kill her daughter’s abductor, Ms. Lane had what she calls “a wrestling match with God.” No matter how hard she argued for her feelings of anger and rage, she says, “God just kept calling to me, very gently and persistently: ‘But that’s not how I want you to feel.’” Finally, she “surrendered [and] did the only thing I could do, which was [give] God permission to change my heart.”
She says she started by “reminding myself on a daily basis that however I felt about this person, in God’s eyes he had dignity and worth.” Without knowing where her daughter was or who had her or even what they were doing to her, she began to pray for the person who abducted Susie. “I tried to be really authentic and not just say words but really feel them,” she says.
Bill Pelke, co-founder and president of Journey of Hope, lost his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, in 1985. The 78-year-old woman was brutally murdered in her own home by a group of teen girls looking to steal cash. In November 1986, four months after a 15-year-old was sentenced to death for his grandmother’s murder, Mr. Pelke—a practicing Christian who says he “didn’t have much of an opinion on the death penalty” at first—was sitting in the cab of a crane at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked, when he had a revelation similar to Ms. Lane’s. “God touched my heart,” Mr. Pelke says. “That night I was convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper [the convicted killer] and her family and that she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion. I learned the most important lesson of my life that night. I realized I didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.”
Even for Catholics, forgiveness in the case of brutal murder is a tough sell. “When the church says the unborn should not be aborted, almost all Catholics are willing to get on board about that,” says the Rev. John Gillespie, pastor of Florida’s San Sebastian church and friend of the Rev. Rene Robert, who was abducted and murdered in 2016 by a man Father Robert knew. But “if you buy into that and sit with it for a little while, it begins to spread, multiply and grow. It transgresses boundaries. You start to say: ‘If all lives are sacred to God, what about the terminally ill? Prisoners of war? A starving person in the slums? Someone who has murdered someone else?’”
Like Mr. Pelke and Ms. Lane, many who oppose the death penalty cite their Christian faith as a crucial driving force behind their opinions. But in a country where nearly 25 percent of citizens do not identify as Christians, this cannot be the only motivator in an effective case against the practice. “I tell people you don’t have to be Christian to forgive,” says Mr. Pelke, noting there are both Buddhist and agnostic members of Journey of Hope. “All a person has to know how to do is love.”
A study published in the Marquette Law Review in 2012 compared family members of murder victims in Minnesota, which does not have the death penalty, to those in Texas, where the death penalty is a viable sentencing option. “They followed people from the time the legal proceedings commenced through the completion of the appeal, either by the death penalty being taken off the table or execution occurring,” says Mr. Dunham. “What they found was that the family members of murder victims in Minnesota were physically, psychologically and emotionally more healthy at all stages of the proceedings than their counterparts in Texas.”
Anti-death penalty advocates also point to concerns about racial profiling and poor legal representation for defendants without means. Additional concerns include the fact that what warrants a death sentence versus life in prison can vary from state to state and even person to person. Those inconsistencies, in part, led the Supreme Court to place a four-yearmoratorium on executions and new death penalty sentences in 1972. They are also what ultimately led Mr. Curley, a Catholic who says his “religion didn’t come into play as far as my thinking on the death penalty,” to do an about-face and come out publicly against capital punishment.
“All a person has to know how to do is love.”
The two cases that made Mr. Curley change his mind were those of Manny Babbitt and Ted Kaczynski. Mr. Babbitt was a poor African-American Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient (and paranoid schizophrenic), who murdered an elderly woman from Sacramento, Calif., in 1980. Mr. Kaczynski, better known as “the Unabomber,” was a Harvard-educated, caucasian “man of means” (Mr. Curley’s term), who killed three people by mail bombs in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and injured 23 more. Both men were turned in to authorities by their brothers. Mr. Kaczynski “killed more people than Manny,” notes Mr. Curley, but received an arguably lighter sentence. Mr. Babbitt was executed in a California prison in 1999, and Mr. Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2000, which brings the running total to 19. If more follow suit, Mr. Dunham notes, “the Supreme Court will have to consider whether a national consensus has developed against the death penalty as a whole.” In the meantime, the death penalty is in a sort of legal limbo; it is available in 31 states but not widely sought. There were only 31 new death sentences issued in 2016, down from 49 in 2015. The number of death sentences has declined yearly since 1999, when 279 were issued.
Reasons for this downturn include considerations about the lengthy appeals process and the increasing cost of such proceedings. A 2014 Forbes article stated that death penalty cases, tried or not, can cost anywhere from $470,000 to $1 million more than other cases and that housing a prisoner on death row can cost over two times more per year than housing a prisoner in the general prison population. Public awareness is also growing around the worrisome number of wrongful convictions (the D.P.I.C. website reports, “Since 1973, more than 155 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.”) and the need for an “improved quality of representation” for defendants, says Mr. Dunham. It also helps, he notes, that “life without parole is an alternative sentence in every death penalty state, so a prosecutor who simply wanted to ensure the defendant would not return to the streets has an alternate mechanism for doing that.”
Organizations like Journey of Hope and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation remain heavily focused on what is best for victims’ families, holding up people like Ms. Lane, Mr. Pelke and Mr. Curley to powerfully illustrate how a changed mind-set can lead to healing and near-miraculous emotional achievements.
A changed mind-set can lead to healing and near-miraculous emotional achievements.
At 2 a.m. on the one-year anniversary of Susie’s abduction, the man who had abducted Ms. Lane’s daughter called Ms. Lane to taunt her. When she answered the phone and heard his voice, even she was shocked by her reaction to the man she had once wanted to kill. “To my own surprise and amazement,” Ms. Lane says, “I was filled with genuine feelings of concern and compassion” for the man who had taken her daughter. She spoke to him for nearly an hour and a half, asking how he was and if she could help him in any way. He broke down in tears. At the F.B.I.’s request, she later met him face-to-face. Her encounters with him helped police solve Susie’s case (they learned she had been murdered and cannibalized after being kidnapped and raped) as well as the abduction and murder cases of other victims. For Ms. Lane, being against the death penalty is not just about adhering to Catholic teachings. “It’s a matter of how do I best honor my little girl’s memory?” she says. “I just think she deserves a more noble and honorable and beautiful memorial than a cold-blooded, state-sanctioned, premeditated killing of a defenseless chained man or woman.”
For the families involved in support groups, the healing comes not only through their advocacy for justice and reconciliation, but from their new understanding of community and in the ability to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Mr. Curley received a phone call from Bud Welch almost immediately after he announced on that local talk show that he no longer supported the death penalty. Mr. Welch happened to be in the Boston area that same week, for the M.V.F.R. conference at Boston College. He was so moved by the testimony that he asked Mr. Curley to speak at the conference, at the last minute, about his change of heart. By multiple accounts, Mr. Curley’s speech was so moving that the audience was brought to tears. Mr. Curley also met both Ted Kaczynski’s and Manny Babbitt’s brothers at the event—“the two stories that made me change my view of the death penalty,” he says.
“How did this all come together?” Mr. Curley wonders today. “How do I meet these two people at the Boston College conference that I had no idea was going on? What made me all of a sudden decide that I wanted to get this off my chest, that I was opposed to the death penalty? And the thing to this day that just blows my mind is that was Jeffrey’s birthday, June 9. How does this happen? It’s got to be something bigger than us.”
Don’t let them kill your spirit.
When asked now what he would tell someone going through a similar loss, Mr. Curley pauses, then says: “The best advice I give is the best advice I got: It’s bad enough that person took your loved one’s life away. Don’t let them take your life. Don’t let them take control of you [or] give them any power. Don’t let them kill your spirit.”
Mr. Pelke expressed similar determination. Following his grandmother’s death, he embarked on a yearslong journey not only to overturn the death sentence of his grandmother’s killer but also to befriend and support the young woman, who had grown up in an abusive home. “While she was on death row we exchanged letters every 10 days,” says Mr. Pelke. He pledged to “walk hand-in-hand with her to the death chamber” if she ended up being executed and spoke extensively here and abroad in support of anti-death penalty petitions on the perpetrator’s behalf. Eventually, over two million people worldwide signed those petitions. That, together with personal interventions from Pope John Paul II, helped convince Indiana legislators to commute her sentence to 60 years in prison.
Nearly 3,000 people are currently on death row in U.S. prisons today. So far, Ohio, Texas, Alabama and Missouri all have plans to execute inmates in 2018. And so the families continue in their fight, in their faith, in their healing—and in their questioning. Perhaps the best argument of all against the death penalty comes in the form of a question frequently posed by Mr. Pelke: “Why do we kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?”
Correction, Jan. 5, 2018: An earlier version of this article spelled Manny Babbitt's last name incorrectly. It has been corrected.