Don't kill for me

Families cope with grief at loss of loved ones by seeking alternatives to the death penalty.

"In memory of Julie Welch and the 167 others killed in Oklahoma City, and with prayer for Timothy McVeigh and the persons who are his executioners...," says Bud Welch, as he casts the first shovelful of soil onto the newly planted tree in Boston.

"In memory of my son, Tom, and his beloved wife, Charlotte...."

"In memory of my daughter, Catherine, who will always be 19...."

"In memory of Nancy Langert and Richard, and their unborn child," continues Jennifer Bishop, of Kankakee, Ill.

As, one by one, the group moves forward to honor loved ones lost to inexplicable murders committed all across the US, the profound feeling beneath their simple act and words pervades the crowd.

Ever since the shock of the 1995 bombing, Oklahoma families have felt the sympathy and support of an entire nation. But thousands of other Americans affected by no less stunning losses have had to go it on their own, and none have felt more isolated in their grief than these families.

This June 7 memorial tree-planting ceremony opened the first national conference of a unique group of families of murder victims - those who do not want the killers to be killed. For various reasons, they do not believe that an execution will either help them heal or contribute to reducing homicide in the US, a goal to which many of them are now dedicated. Instead, they are pursuing alternatives to retribution. Because they've taken this stand, they've often gotten the cold shoulder or even disrespect from many in the criminal justice system and their communities.

"We don't rape rapists and we don't break the legs of those who cause car accidents, but there is almost the implication that if you really loved someone who was killed, you would want to put to death the person responsible," says Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). The 25-year old group has more than 4,000 members.

The "reconciliation" they seek is restoring a balance, a harmonization, in their own lives and the community. The theme of the conference, held at Boston College, was "Healing the Wounds of Murder."

"The death penalty prompts us to revisit murder, revictimize families, and create another family that grieves," says Mr. Cushing, a former New Hampshire state representative, whose father was murdered. "And how does killing someone demonstrate that killing is wrong?"

US homicides have dropped in recent years, according to FBI reports, with an estimated 15,533 in 1999. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 720 people have been executed (60 percent of them since 1995), including 37 in 2001. There are now 3,710 people on death row.

MVFR is not a monolithic group - some want to interact with the perpetrator and his family, others do not; some have taken the path of forgiveness, others have not.

One mother's brave bout with forgiveness stands out in "Not in Our Name," an art exhibit in which members share their convictions. After her young daughter was abducted during a family camping trip in Montana, Marietta Jaeger Lane learned nothing about her for a year, struggling with her rage yet believing she needed to forgive. She spoke to the press, saying she wanted to talk with the person who had taken her child. On the first-year anniversary, the young man called, taunting her by asking, "So what do you want to talk to me about?"

Her response was to ask how he was feeling, since his actions must have placed a heavy burden on him. He broke down in tears and spoke with her for an hour, giving details about himself that allowed the case to be solved. Her daughter had died soon after the kidnapping, but she remains committed to forgiveness.

"Loved ones, wrenched from our lives by violent crime, deserve more beautiful, noble, and honorable memorials than pre-meditated, state-sanctioned killings," she says.

In addition to seeking an end to the death penalty, some MVFR members have found healing by creating programs aimed at breaking the cycle of violence.

"When murder enters your life, everything that you knew as normal completely goes out the window," says Tina Chery, of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. "From then on, everything is 'before' and 'after.' "

Her 15-year-old son, Louis - whose dream was to become the first black president of the US - was killed as he walked to a meeting of Teens Against Gang Violence. Her family had forgone a second income so she could stay home and devote herself to raising their three children.

When his son, Tariq, a sophomore at San Diego State University, was shot while delivering a pizza on his weekend job, "it felt like a nuclear bomb detonated inside of me," says international investment banker Azim Khamisa. Born in Africa of Persian ancestry, Mr. Khamisa had emigrated to the US to escape Idi Amin's violent rule. After Tariq's death, he wondered if it had been a huge mistake. "But having fallen in love with this country, I had to stay and fight, but how?"

Both the confessed "inner-city, wannabe suburban mother" in Boston and the globe-trotting CEO of Sovereign Capital Markets in San Diego found it hard even to get out of bed. But they came to terms with their grief by creating new means "to stop children from killing children."

"If you survive the devastation, you see among the debris many new parts," Khamisa told a small group. "And if you make the right choices, you can make a difference." He recognized, he says, that there were victims at both ends of the gun, and sought out the family of the teenager who had killed his son. He invited the boy's grandfather to join forces with him against youth violence.

The Tariq Khamisa Foundation was the result. It has since conducted in schools regular Violence Impact forums, which last year reached more than 18,000 youths in grades 4 to 6. Surveys have shown significant changes in children's attitudes on gangs, revenge, and violence. The results led US Attorney General Janet Reno to present the two men with the Crime Victim Service Award and propose that the program be replicated in other US cities.

Khamisa has cut back on business. "The world won't miss another investment banker," he says, "but when you find your mission, God is your partner and it's a very powerful way to live."

Ms. Chery and her husband founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which has won national recognition as one of the programs that has contributed to the reduction in juvenile crime in Boston. With the schools, they designed a curriculum to teach children "peace through literature," reading novels that spur discussion and writing about the issues in their lives, and engaging them in community service.

"Many children are dealing with murder in their neighborhoods, and they go to school with all this raw emotion inside of them and no place to let it out," Chery says. This curriculum is a small start, and teachers tell her it has connected them to students in ways they would never have connected otherwise.

The institute also reaches out to surviving families, giving financial assistance for the burial and a safe place to share feelings, and helping them interact with the criminal justice system.

A number of MVFR members work to prevent crime, some in prisons in an effort to reduce recidivism. Some even deal with death row inmates, helping them face their actions.

They see the death penalty as a "quick fix" that doesn't get at the real need - changing the society that breeds violence.

"We need to be much more aware of the needs of perpetrators before they do it," says Pat Clark, national criminal justice representative for the American Friends Service Committee, who has lost two relatives to murder.

"This conference shows that not all of us are looking to deal with our pain by executing," Chery says. "We have found our own way of healing."

Life imprisonment, not death penalty, her answer

Jennifer Bishop teaches in high-school programs for gifted students, but she and her sister, Jeanne, a lawyer, have a second mission - honoring the memory of their sister, Nancy. In 1990, Nancy, her husband, and their unborn child were murdered in Winnetka, Ill., by a teenager from a wealthy family - a good student and athlete who had run for student council president and was being recruited by a top Ivy League university. "He went out one night," she says, "to pick somebody to kill because the idea seemed thrilling to him."

They have since sought to honor her life by taking action "against the culture of violence that led to her death." Ms. Bishop has come to forgive the young man, who is serving three life sentences without parole. One of her efforts is working to change attitudes on the death penalty as president of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

"My sister's last act was to write a message of love in her own blood," Bishop says, "and I'm not going to second-guess the power and sacredness of that message."

"We need to be about the business of loving, of trying to solve our problems, and make society a less violent place," she adds. "Capital punishment is a red herring distracting us from the real work, and it perpetuates the very thing it proposes to stop."

Bishop believes that life imprisonment gives the killer time to think about his act and come to terms with it, although the criminal-justice system encourages denial as long as legal remedies remain. She would like to see reforms that move society toward a "restorative" or "transformative justice" system, where victim-offender mediation plays a role.

Now, though, she's speaking out on the death penalty, and hopes the rethinking going on in the US will change the climate. "We are often dismissed by prosecutors, police, attorneys general, and state legislative task forces," she says. "I've testified before commissions where I was either not allowed to speak or given less time and treated disrespectfully." Those victims who cry and curse and demand retribution are praised, she adds, while those who choose forgiveness as a healthier way are often marginalized.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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