The word survivor suggests someone who has emerged alive from a plane crash or a natural disaster. But the word can also refer to the loved ones of murder victims, and this was the sense in which it was used at a four-day conference in early June at Boston College. Sponsored jointly by the college and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, the conference, titled Healing the Wounds of Murder—the first of its kind on a national level—brought together close to 300 people from around the country. A majority of those present were indeed survivors: parents, children, brothers and sisters and other relatives of people whose lives were cut off by homicide. Renny Cushing, M.V.F.R.’s executive director, spoke during the opening plenary session of his own personal experience: his father had been killed by a shotgun blast at the front door of the family’s home.
But the group also included survivors of people who had been put to death by the state. M.V.F.R.’s publication, The Voice, points out that executions are homicides too, and like any murder they leave a grieving family. Several of these were speakers: an elderly couple, whose mentally ill son was put to death last year in Texas, and a nurse who witnessed the execution of her husband in Arizona. As nurses, we are trained to resuscitate people, the latter observed in one workshop. And yet she was obliged to stand helpless in the witness room adjacent to the death chamber as her husband was put to death by lethal injection. She spoke of subsequently experiencing a deep isolation, an isolation that led her to switch from her daytime shift at work to a night shift. Other survivors also commented on this sense of painful aloneness. One healing aspect of the conference therefore lay in the fact that it brought together many who had faced the same feelings after their loss through violence of a loved one. Now these feelings could be shared among those who understood them at an equally visceral level.
The nurse and the elderly couple were not the only ones opposed to the death penalty. The organization itself takes that stance. In contrast to the abolitionist movement, whose concern is primarily with those facing death at the hands of the state, M.V.F.R. is equally concerned with the survivors. A major part of its focus is therefore on helping the families of victims to recover from the trauma of their loss and to give meaning to the lives—and deaths—of their loved ones.
Ironically, though, survivors who do not want the murderer of their loved one to receive the death penalty can themselves be subtly victimized by the same judicial system that seeks to impose it. In the opening plenary session, Mr. Cushing spoke of the way judges and prosecutors in capital cases implicitly make a distinction between good victims and bad victims. The former are those who cooperate with prosecutorial efforts to persuade the jury to opt for the execution of the offender in the death penalty phase of a capital trial. Bad victims, on the other hand, are family members who resist these efforts. The underlying message conveyed to bad victims can thus be: You must not have had much love for your child [or other family member who was killed], if you do not want the death penalty for the person responsible.
Several speakers spoke of the pain this attitude had caused them. Gus Lamm’s wife was murdered in Nebraska while visiting a friend. At the convicted criminal’s clemency hearing, where his opposition to the death penalty was known, Mr. Lamm was denied the right to speak because, as he put it, I was not a good victim. SueZann Bosler told a similar story of her attempts to prevent her father’s murderer from being sentenced to death in Florida. When she tried to express her views during the trial, the judge threatened her with contempt of court, adding that she could face jail if she told the jury that she was against capital punishment. They were treating me as if I were the bad one, she said. Even the victims’ assistance representatives from the prosecutor’s office, she added, became noticeably less supportive on seeing that she was unwilling to support the state’s wishes. Eventually, with the help of an attorney, Ms. Bosler was able to introduce a number of mitigating factors that did cause the jury to change its sentencing decision from death to life in prison.
At one point in her account, Ms. Bosler used another word frequently heard at the conference: forgiveness. A moment came after several years of struggle and prayer when she felt that she could forgive the offender. Almost immediately, there was a lifting of the anger that had dominated her feelings. It was replaced by a sense of peace—another word used often by survivors at the conference. A number of the other presenters also described the way in which a similar dynamic of prayer leading to forgiveness brought forth peace. Bill Pelke spoke of how his grandmother had been stabbed to death in her Indiana home by a ninth-grade girl named Paula Cooper. She was sentenced to death—the youngest person ever to be on death row in the United States—and he initially supported the sentence. He began to change his mind, however, when the girl’s grandfather cried out in court: They’re going to kill my baby! That cry, together with the awareness that his grandmother would have wanted compassion rather than vengeance for the person who took her life, caused him to turn to prayer, and with it, he said, came the healing power of forgiveness.
Mr. Pelke began writing to Paula Cooper and then visited her. All the while, he worked to help overturn her death sentence, which was eventually commuted to 60 years in prison. In concluding his remarks, he observed that Paula, now 31 years old, had obtained a college degree while behind bars. She is not the same person who committed the crime. Similar observations were made by others who spoke at the conference. One woman—whose daughter had been killed in California and who, like Mr. Pelke, was able to forgive the murderer and to begin visiting him after starting a correspondence—said: The person who killed her no longer exists.
Comments like these regarding the transforming power of forgiveness and the possibility of change in the perpetrator mirrored the thoughts expressed by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston during his visit to the conference. He quoted from the statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the medicinal value of punishment [that can] contribute to the correction of the offender. The death penalty forever cuts off that medicinal aspect of a punishment. The fact that the execution of Timothy McVeigh was to be carried out one day after the conference ended gave the cardinal’s comments a particular relevance.
But not all at the conference found it possible to forgive. The father of a young woman killed by her husband could only say that he had simply put the issue of forgiveness to one side. The mother of another young victim was burdened with anger that the person she believed responsible was still free years after the homicide took place. Forgiveness and healing, bolstered by faith and prayer, may come to some survivors; but none said that it came about without grievous struggle, if it came about at all.
Most victims’ rights groups around the country tend to assume that in cases of homicide the survivors generally support a prosecutor’s decision to press for the death penalty. One reason why Gus Lamm was forbidden to speak at the clemency hearing for the murderer of his wife was that her relatives wanted the death penalty to be carried out. The very fact that 320 survivors of people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing signed up to witness Timothy McVeigh’s execution on closed circuit television suggests, moreover, that retribution is generally favored once guilt is established. Bud Welch, the father of one of the Oklahoma victims, therefore stands out all the more strikingly for his stance against capital punishment. Now a member of M.V.F.R., he spoke movingly at the conference of what he called his insanity period after his daughter’s death, a period marked by rage undergirded by increasingly heavy drinking. But finally, he said, came the realization that executing Timothy McVeigh would only be another instance of the same desire for vengeance that drove McVeigh to undertake his act of violence in retaliation for the deaths at Waco, Tex.
In addition to the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation, an underlying theme of the conference was nonviolence. Marie Deans—who founded M.V.F.R. a quarter of a century ago—said that after her mother-in-law was murdered in Virginia, the police officer who came to the home told her: Don’t worry, we’ll find the bastard and fry him. But for Ms. Deans, a comment of this kind simply represents a passing on of hatred. Instead, she said, crime prevention in the context of community support for victims when crime does occur, should—along with abolition of the death penalty—be a principal goal. In the meantime, executions as the most extreme form of retaliatory anticrime measures continue both at the state level and at the federal too, with Juan Raul Garza’s following soon after Timothy McVeigh’s. As Cardinal Law pointed out, such acts of state-sanctioned violence are further representations of the culture of death that is endemic to our society.
Suggestions of change, though, are increasingly being felt. Stephen Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in his address early in the conference that support for capital punishment is now at a 19-year low, with the public more willing to accept alternatives like life in prison without possibility of parole. Even that punishment, in the eyes of some abolitionists, is flawed; Paula Cooper—now, in the opinion of Bill Pelke, a changed person—will emerge from prison an old woman in her 70’s. But life without parole instead of the death penalty at least represents a step that may someday lead to a definitive end to capital punishment in the United States.