usannah Sheffer is a writer for Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and is co-author with Dwight Harrison of In a Dark Time: A Prisoner’s Struggle for Healing and Change (Stone Lion Press, 2005).
From Peacework Magazine September 2005
In April of this year, Governor Mitt Romney introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. Because Massachusetts is one of only 12 states in the nation without the death penalty, abolitionists around the country have always given close watch to reinstatement efforts here. This year’s effort drew particular attention because the governor described his bill as “a gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age.” He promised that his legislation addressed all the concerns that have prevented reinstatement bills from passing in recent years.
In July, Massachusetts lawmakers
heard several hours of testimony about the bill, mostly from people who opposed reinstatement ó including sheriffs, attorneys, DNA experts, exonerated prisoners, and relatives of murder victims and execution victims. Victims’ family members Michael Avery, Bill Babbitt, Jamie Bissonnette, Robert Curley, Renny Cushing, Loretta Filipov, Kate Lowenstein, Robert Meeropol, and Bud Welch attended the hearings in order to demonstrate their opposition to the death penalty. Here are excerpts from some of their testimonies:
“I have always been against the death penalty. Proponents of this bill would tell me that I would feel very different if my family was affected. Well, I can say that my family has been affected. My husband, Alexander Filipov, was murdered when he was a passenger on American Airlines Flight #11, on September 11, 2001. Friday, September 14, 2001 would have been our 44th wedding anniversary.
“My family and I would have liked nothing better than to have Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists from Flight 11 brought to an open trial, tried, and given 92 life sentences, one life sentence for each person aboard that airplane. But he and the 14 other terrorists who murdered 3000 people on that day also killed themselves.
“We need to stop the cycle of violence. We can see from the present course we are following in this country that violence only begets more violence and killing only leads to more killing. It is possible to have justice without revenge and hate.
“Revenge is not the answer. The death penalty is not the answer.”
“I am speaking to you as the son of a murder victim. My father, Robert Cushing, was shot to death on June 1, 1988 in front of my mother’s eyes. Many people assumed that my family and I wanted the death penalty for my father’s murderers, but we felt, and continue to feel, that the death penalty would not bring us justice or healing.
“Murder is, of course, a violation of the most basic of human rights: the right to life. I am the director of an organization called Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Our members reject the premise that society should redress one human rights violation with another. We call upon society to act from a consistent human rights ethic in the aftermath of violence.
“As a former two-term member of the House of Representatives in my home state of New Hampshire, I have a special appreciation for the challenges and demands that must be addressed by those who help enact the laws that govern a society. For a lawmaker to take on the abolition of the death penalty as a cause means that inevitably he or she will touch upon real pain and devastation, and sometimes face criticism ó including the criticism that opposing the death penalty is tantamount to opposing victims. It’s true that the issue of victims and the issue of the death penalty are linked, and that linkage should be acknowledged and embraced. During my time as a lawmaker I advocated for legislation that would benefit victims of crime and at the same time I was a proponent of ending the death penalty. I believe for an individual, for a society, to have a consistent human rights ethic, it is necessary to be both pro-victim and anti-death penalty.”
“I have a personal relationship with the death penalty. I’m Robert Meeropol now, but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in Sing Sing prison on
June 19, 1953, when I was six.
“As a child who survived his parents’ execution and as an adult who works with many children whose parents are in prison or, in one case, on death row, I have an unusual perspective to share with you… I believe you’ve heard little or no testimony about capital punishment from the perspective of a child who has had one or both parents executed. …I survived because a supportive community surrounded me, but what about other children who do not have such a support system?
“This raises a disturbing question: If Massachusetts passes any death penalty statute (and what a horrifyingly absurd concept our governor has introduced ó a “gold standard” of killing), what will the impact be on children whose immediate family members are executed or are placed on death row? No one can deny that it is qualitatively worse to have a family member on death row or executed than to have a family member in prison. But that’s not much of an answer. You must have a better answer to this question, because, as legislators, you have a solemn obligation before passing a law to understand its impact. That obligation becomes even more serious when you are dealing with matters of life and death as you are here.
“I believe most of you before me oppose this bill. … But for those of you who are considering bringing back state-sanctioned, ritualized killings in a gold wrapper, shouldn’t you at least study this issue first? It is past time to realize such ‘collateral damage’ is yet another powerful reason to keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts.”
“In 1974, two of my cousins were killed. My cousin Pedro Bissonnette was a mentor to all of us. He believed that civil rights extended to Native people and founded the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. He was a humble man who sat with the elders and learned from them before he made any decisions on action. He was a traditional Lakota leader. Ten days before he was to testify at a trial, he was shot five times at a two- or three-foot range, with bullets piercing his hands as they rose to his chest to protect himself. No one was ever convicted of this crime even though it was well-known who shot him and why he was shot.
“I have done dedicated criminal justice work in my own communities, the tribes in New England. I do this work because I believe we have to be about solving problems, building peace, and establishing balance. These three things are justice. The death penalty is not.”
“The Bridgewater State Hospital here in Massachusetts diagnosed my brother Manny as paranoid schizophrenic. In 1980, after he was released from Bridgewater, Manny came to live with me and my wife in Sacramento. We gave him money and tried to help him get work. But I was worried. He was acting strange. I saw that his demons were coming to the surface.
“When I began to suspect that Manny had been involved in the death of a local woman, I couldn’t live with that. I went to the police and told them what I suspected. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. I agreed to help lead them to Manny. After they arrested Manny, an officer said to him, “You’re not going to go to the gas chamber or anything like that.”
“I believed that. My mother believed it. We never really thought he would be executed, right up until the last half hour when I watched my brother be put to death at San Quentin on May 4, 1999.
“For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my brother in and that led to his death. I turned him in because I was so afraid that Manny’s demons would lead to more killing. I didn’t want there to be more victims. What I want you to understand is that executions create more victims, too.
“I wish we had been able to get Manny the help he needed. I wish that as a society we would devote our resources to treating people like Manny instead of devoting those resources to imposing the death penalty and creating more funerals, more grief.
“I’ve always been proud that my home state doesn’t have the death penalty. I plead with you to keep it that way. In the name of the families that executions leave behind, I ask you not to bring the death penalty to Massachusetts.”
Reframing the Death Penalty
A few words about the work of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights: In addition to bringing the perspective of victims’ family members to the death penalty debate, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights seeks to reframe the death penalty as a human rights issue rather than a criminal justice issue. When the death penalty is viewed as a criminal sanction, it can be defended on the grounds that governments have the right to impose criminal sanctions as they deem appropriate. When the death penalty is viewed as a human rights violation, this defense doesn’t hold up. By definition, human rights can not be either granted or denied by a government. MVFHR asserts that the death penalty clearly violates the most basic of human rights — the right to life — and that no matter what are the assumptions and policies of its criminal justice system, a nation should not be allowed to take the lives of its own citizens.