September 29, 2006

Respect Life Supplement

Victims’ relatives advocate against the death penalty

By Andrew Rivas

Losing a close family member to murder is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. The effects on the family, and on the wider community, extend well beyond the initial shock and trauma.

The common assumption in this country is that families who have suffered this kind of loss support the death penalty. This assumption, of course, is wrong. Many family members of victims have argued forcefully against the death penalty for their loved one’s killer.

Four people whose lives were touched by murder unexpectedly became public advocates against capital punishment.

Vicki Schieber’s daughter, Shannon, was 23 years old in 1998 when she was murdered by a serial rapist in Philadelphia. In 2002, Troy Graves pleaded guilty to assaulting, raping and killing Shannon, and to 13 other sexual assaults.

The Schiebers raised their children to oppose the killing of anyone, including murderers, if the killers could be imprisoned for life without parole and no longer pose a danger to society.

“We believe he is where he belongs today, as he serves his prison sentence, and we rest assured that he will never again perpetrate this sort of crime on any other young women,” Vicki Schieber said. “But killing this man would not bring our daughter back. And it was very clear to us that killing him would have been partly dependent on our complicity in having it done.”

Now she serves on the board of directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), a national non-profit organization of people who have lost a family member to murder or to state execution.

David Kaczynski is the brother of Ted Kaczynski, “the Unabomber,” a mentally-ill man whose anti-technology bombings over 17 years left three people dead and 23 people injured.

When newspapers printed the Una-bomber’s “manifesto,” David Kaczynski and his wife, Linda, recognized similarities to Ted’s ideas, and he faced an almost unimaginable dilemma. He could turn in his brother, knowing that Ted might be executed, or he could do nothing, knowing that more innocent people could be harmed. He chose the path of life and took steps to stop the violence by alerting law enforcement officials.

Despite Ted Kaczynski’s history of mental illness, federal prosecutors sought the death penalty. It was only through the work of highly-skilled lawyers—an advantage often unavailable to those facing capital prosecutions—that Ted was allowed to plead guilty and is now serving a life sentence at a federal penitentiary in Colorado.

Gary Wright was one of the Una-bomber’s victims. The owner of a Salt Lake City computer store happened to pick up a piece of wood behind his store in 1987. It turned out to be a bomb placed there by Ted Kaczynski. It was a miracle that Gary wasn’t killed, but he had to endure three years in and out of surgery, and a slow, pain-filled process of rebuilding his body and contemplating what had happened to him.

Both David Kaczynski and Gary Wright reflected on the death penalty in intensely personal ways, and both became convinced that our society can live without using capital punishment.

Five years later, David Kaczynski became the executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, a group headed by Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard.

Wright, who is Catholic, became an unlikely soldier in the same battle when he joined forces with the brother of the man who had seriously injured him.

“While he was being executed, Jesus forgave the people who were killing him,” Wright said. “I thought, ‘If that’s the example Christ gave us while he was suffering on the cross, then I had to think very seriously about forgiveness in my own life.’ ”

Kirk Bloodsworth, a retired Marine from Maryland, was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, rape and first-degree murder then sentenced to death in 1985. The ruling was appealed a year later on the ground that evidence was withheld at trial, and Bloodsworth received a new trial. He was found guilty again, however, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

In June 1993, Bloodsworth’s case became the first capital conviction in the United States to be overturned as a result of DNA testing. By the time of his release, he had served almost nine years in prison, including two on death row, for a crime that he did not commit.

“In that time,” Bloodsworth said, “my life had been taken from me and destroyed. The Catholic Church provided me with essential support in my time of need, and I converted to Catholicism in 1989 while I was serving time behind bars. I am a deeply spiritual person and continue to embrace the Church. Its values help to guide me as I travel across the country to tell my story.”

Although Bloodsworth was a retired Marine with no criminal record and was nowhere near the scene of the crime, he had nevertheless been convicted and sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit.

If it could happen to someone like him, he reasoned, it could happen to others. And it does. Since 1973, more than 120 people have been exonerated from death row after being cleared of their charges.

Now Bloodsworth works for the Justice Project’s Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform and the Criminal Justice Reform Education Fund.

What is striking about these stories is seeing how God embraces people as they face some of the most terrible and hopeless situations that life can present.

If these men and women can overcome human hatred and bring a gospel of mercy and love to the world, how can we claim a right to demand the death of a killer to “honor the victim” or to “win justice” for the victim’s family? We cannot. To do so dishonors the lives of all the people involved, making us complicit in perpetuating violence rather than ending it.

(Andrew Rivas is executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference.)


Local site Links: