It is often said that the death penalty is needed to give closure to the families who have lost their loved ones. But what if you find that the death penalty does not give you closure, relief, or justice?
In a series of videos, our CCV members explain why they have chosen to support alternatives to the death penalty. Please take a moment and watch!
Posted by Mary Kay Raftery, guest blogger on June 6th, 2012
My oldest son, Paul Raftery, was murdered on December 8, 2006 in Helena, Montana by two young men looking for drug money. Paul had no money in his wallet.
Prior to Paul’s murder, I had been involved with California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. Sometimes, people would tell me that I would feel differently about my views on the death penalty if my child was murdered. After I received the call that Paul had been killed, I stopped to think about my opinion. It hadn’t changed.
I don't understand the concept of closure. After all, putting someone to death, in my case those two murderers, will never bring my sorely missed son back. The two murderers received sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 55 years, essentially a life sentence. I felt justice had been served.
I’d had the chance to talk to Paul about my activities with the California People of Faith. That’s when he quietly told me he, too, opposed the death penalty. I was surprised, but very gratified that he shared my beliefs having served 12 years as a law enforcement officer.
In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for SAFE California, a ballot initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This measure will save Californians over $1 billion in the next five years and create a one-time fund of $100 million to help local police investigate and solve the 46% of unsolved murders across the state.
My hope is that no mother is forced to endure the loss of a child to violent crime. That is why I believe so strongly in using our resources to prevent crime and keep our streets safe. The death penalty costs Californians $184 million a year more than the alternative but equally harsh punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole. That money would be better spent hiring more police officers to help protect our communities.
I also believe that we need to be providing for the victims of these horrible acts. SAFE California means that victims will not be dragged through decades of appeals. Inmates will be locked up behind bars forever, where they will work and pay money toward restitution and victim compensation. They will lose the special privileges that death row provides them, including their own cell. And the tremendous savings will help free up money to support victim services like counseling and medical treatment.
It has now been five years since the young men who murdered our son were sentenced and we received justice. To honor Paul, I am expressing my support for the SAFE California Campaign. I hope that others will see that it is time we start using limited resources to address the real issues behind violent crime, and to help the victims that are left behind.
Originally published on the Daily Koson April 19, 2011.
By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU Center for Justice
When I was a child, my cousin was brutally murdered. As far as our family knows, the police never found his killer.
A few years later, another cousin of mine was murdered in prison. His killers were in cahoots with his jailers, so none of them was ever prosecuted.
No one received the death penalty for these murders, and as a beloved family member of murder victims, I would never have supported pursuing capital punishment in either case.
As legislators in Connecticut grapple with a bill that would abolish the death penalty in the state, murder victims' families are speaking loudly about their opposition to Connecticut's capital punishment system. There is a tension. On one hand, victims' family members need finality and an end to reliving their loved one's horrible death in the media and the courts. But that kind of finality is not immediate, because the Constitution requires due process, effective counsel, and protection against wrongful conviction for those sentenced to death. The years of legal appeals before an execution extend and exacerbate murder victims' families' suffering.
During a public hearing last month on the pending death penalty abolition bill, the stories of numerous victims' family members had a common theme: in order for the needs of murder victims' family members to be served, the death penalty must be replaced with permanent imprisonment, a more cost-effective alternative that would free up limited state resources for additional services for victims.
When a loved one is murdered, the whole world as you know it comes crashing down, never to be the same again. But more killing won't bring the loved one back. It will, however, bring more pain for yet another family.
And I am a firm believer that the murder remains on the conscience of the killer forever — and that is a heavy burden they will never escape.
Posted by Donald A. McCartin, Guest Blogger on March 30th, 2011
Dear Governor Brown,
Welcome back. I offer here a few thoughts for your consideration.
After you were gutsy enough to appoint me, a right-wing Republican, to the Superior Court of Orange County, I served there from 1978 to 1993, after which I sat on assignment on death cases throughout California. In all, I presided over more trials than I can possibly recount. Among those I do remember, however, were ten murder trials in which I sentenced the convicted men to die in our state's execution chamber. As a result, I became known as "the hanging judge of Orange County," an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.
The ten were deemed guilty of horrifying crimes by their peers, and in the jurors' view as well as mine they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, one has died of natural causes in prison and none of the others has been executed, a fact that stirs deep anger within me.
Let me explain:
I am angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that a decision I was put in the position to make, one that I then believed promised resolution for the family members of the victims of those crimes, has been made a mockery.
I have followed the development of legal thinking and understand why our nation's Supreme Court, in holding that "death is different," required that special care be taken to safeguard the rights of those accused of capital crimes, especially those sentenced to death. Such wisdom protects our society from returning to the barbarism of the past. And while I find it discomfiting and to a significant degree embarrassing that appellate courts have found fault with some of my statements, acts or decisions, I can live with the fact that their findings arise out of an attempt to ensure that the process has been scrupulously fair before such a sentence is carried out.
I can live with it and, apparently, so can the men I condemned. The first one, Rodney James Alcala, whom I sentenced to die over 30 years ago for kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, was, just last year, again sentenced to death for killing little Robin Samsoe and four other young women who, it has subsequently been determined, were his victims at around the same time.
I need not here go into the permutations of Mr. Alcala's legal journey. Behind bars since 1979, he has not harmed, nor can he harm, any other young women. That's instructive because harm has been done and that's what infuriates me. Robin Samsoe's mother has been re-victimized time and time again as the state of California has spent millions upon millions of dollars in a series of unsuccessful attempts to fulfill its promise that her daughter's murder can be resolved and she can go on with her life.
Had I known then what I know now I would have given Mr. Alcala and the others the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had I done that, Robin's mother Marianne would have been spared the pain of 30 years of misery, wondering if her daughter's murder would ever be finally resolved. She could have dealt then and there with the fact that her daughter's killer would be shut away, never again to see a day of freedom, and gone on to put her life together. Had I done that, the State of California would not have put her through the torture of hearing after hearing, trial after trial. Had I done that, the people of California would have been spared the hideous expense of hundreds of millions of their tax dollars that were squandered in this meaningless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of death.
It makes me angry, Governor Brown, to have been made a player in a system that is so inefficient, so ineffective, so expensive and so emotionally costly to those to whom it promises peace but delivers only pain.
I watch today as you wrestle with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear that you don't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been promised by prosecutors once the perpetrator has been killed by the state.
You and I know, Governor, that there is no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts with the promise that the state will end their pain by causing the death of another is a cruel lie.
So I agree that we should no longer play games, Governor Brown. You and I are both older now, so let's stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.
I'm told you don't have the power to end the death penalty by yourself, but you can point the way. You can have a huge financial impact on California by following the lead of Governor Ryan of Illinois and commuting the sentences of all the men and women on California's death row - all 700-plus of them - to life without parole. And you can direct the millions you save to making some of our citizens' lives brighter and more promising.
Let's stop playing games, Governor. Let's stop lying to the people; let's stop being politicians and start behaving like the grownups we've become.
In 1992, several key organizers in the Watts Community, including myself, organized a peace treaty between warring gangs in Los Angeles that changed the quality of life in our community. You are no stranger to our work in Watts. When Dwayne Holmes, an anti-violence activist from the Imperial Court Housing Projects, was wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, you came out of retirement and advocated for his release. As a result, we developed a deep, personal relationship.
In the summer of 1996, my family and I spent several days at your home in Jack London Square. My son Terrell was 11 years old then. I remember him climbing into your loft and listening to you talk about the importance of public safety on your "We the People" radio show. He never forgot that. When we visited the State Capitol for the first time, he urged me to take him to see your picture in the Gallery of Governors. He said to me, "Dad, he's one of the good guys. If he was Governor now, he would help you stop the killing." I said, "Yes he would, son."
On January 10th, 2004, my world changed when Terrell, home from his first semester at Humboldt State University, was murdered. Even though he had never been involved with a gang, he became a victim of the random gang violence prevalent in our community.
The same year my son was murdered, the Attorney General's office released its annual report, Homicides in California. The report presented a disturbing picture of violence among African Americans in Los Angeles County. The African American homicide rate was more than twelve times that of whites and more than three times that of Hispanics. Though African Americans only represented 6.7 percent of the population, they comprised an alarming 32.1 percent of homicide victims in California. Los Angeles County had the second highest murder rate in California. Similar statistics are found in the homicide reports released during your tenure as Attorney General.
Today, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Los Angeles has seen a decrease in gang violence and homicide over the past twenty years due to the continued efforts of gang intervention and prevention workers, but we need more programs and services for at-risk youth. Unfortunately, social services like these are usually among the first services thrown on the chopping block during budget crises.
Before releasing your recent budget proposal, you warned that deep cuts to social services would be made across the board. You also promised that everything would be on the table. However, one particular money pit has remained not just unscathed, but also unexamined: the death penalty.
Each year, the death penalty costs California taxpayers $126 million more than it would cost if all of those currently on death row were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On top of that, taxpayers will spend $400 million if construction of a colossal new death row housing facility moves forward. All together, we will waste $1 billion over the next five years on the death penalty.
When I imagine how to keep my surviving children and grandchildren safe, the death penalty does not come to mind. Violence prevention, education, mental healthcare, and other social services are what make a real difference in our communities. Let's protect our youth from random violence, especially African Americans growing up in urban war zones, by putting our state's limited resources to better use. Our state budget must reflect our communities' values and needs.
We all know that times are tough and difficult choices need to be made. Governor, please honor Terrell. Prove you're still one of the good guys. Cut California's death penalty.
Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 14th, 2011
Yesterday Ohio became the first state in history to execute
a man using a drug normally reserved for animal euthanasia.Before this execution, states had traditionally
employed a three injection cocktail that would anesthetize the inmate, stop his
breathing, and then stop his heart.In January,
however, the company that produced one of those crucial drugs announced it
would cease distribution.Hospira, the
drug manufacturer, publicly stated that it did not condone capital punishment, and
that since it was impossible to ensure that its drugs would not be used in
executions, it was pulling its product off the market entirely.
Ohio then sought alternatives, eventually deciding to
abandon the three drug approach in favor of a single lethal dose of the barbiturate
pentobarbital.This move, however,
created a row with that drug’s manufacturer, H. Lundbeck: “It’s against everything we stand for,” a
company spokesman said, “we invest and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating
people’s burden.This is the direct
opposite of that.”
The opposition to Baston’s execution didn’t stop there.Peter Mah, the son of Baston’s victim,
publicly voiced his family’s opposition to the execution and capital punishment
in general.Mah said that Baston’s
execution will not bring back his father and will not alleviate his family’s
suffering.The Mah family went even
further, backing up their words with a formal request to the Ohio Parole Board
that Baston’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole.Their request was unanimously denied.
In death penalty cases at least someone is supposed to benefit from the execution.Here, however, it appears as though not a
single individual came out ahead.The
drug companies vehemently opposed the use of their products, the victim’s
family actively tried to stop the execution, and the Bastons eventually lost a
family member.Society would have been equally
shielded from any future dangerousness if Baston had instead been sentenced to
life without parole.From what I can
tell, Ohio just spent millions of dollars to go out of its way to do something
with no marginal benefit that no one wanted to do in the first place.
Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on March 9th, 2011
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today which made his state the 16th to abolish its death penalty (Take action to thank him now). The bipartisan bill, which passed the state legislature in January, commutes the sentences of Illinois’ 15 death row inmates to life without parole, and reallocates the funding previously slotted for capital defense to law enforcement training and increased restitution for victims’ families.
Quinn’s decision is the culmination of years of public debate that has been raging since at least 2000 when then Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. For Governor Ryan, the state’s system looked increasingly broken, and the probability that innocents would be executed was too great to keep moving forward with capital punishment absent serious modifications. In the following eleven years, the state created two study commissions and attempted to implement multiple reforms to resolve these concerns, but found that such efforts were both ineffective and too costly. Governor Quinn’s decision marks an awareness of the diminishing returns intrinsic to the already extremely expensive system, as attempts to make capital punishment ‘fair’ were always going to be more costly and less effective than abolition. As Quinn put it, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.” He went on to note that in a world of limited resources, it was wiser policy to take “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system [and spend them] on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.”
Quinn did not make this decision lightly, as shown by the two-month wait between the bill’s passage and his signing it into law. He carefully considered arguments from supporters and opponents, taking a particularly hard look at the feelings of the family members of murder victims. In his statement, the Governor acknowledged the unimaginable heartache that accompanies losing a loved one and made clear that he understood and could not blame families for desiring retribution. His decision to sign the bill, however, was motivated by numerous conversations with families who felt that the death penalty only prolonged their pain and suffering. By ensuring that murderers are locked away for life, Illinois’ policy will help victims avoid years of painful hearings while also providing the state with the funding necessary to prevent similar crimes before they happen.
Illinois decision to abolish should be understood as part of a national trend away from capital punishment, as it is the fourth state in as many years to end its death penalty. New Jersey and New York both removed all their prisoners from death row as of 2007, with New Mexico following suit two years later. Today finds the fewest number of states’ practicing capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1978, and it appears as though the number could drop even lower as several other states are currently considering abolition with bills in various stages of debate in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.
Governor Quinn’s decision should provide inspiration for death penalty opponents nation-wide, as his actions show that there is nothing inevitable about capital punishment. As concerns over the cost and fairness of the death penalty rise, public opinion has swung increasingly against it, suggesting that a post-death penalty America may soon be a reality. Illinois is not the first or last step in the process, but it is an important one nonetheless, as each victory adds momentum to the push for more effective alternatives to capital punishment.
In August of 2007, Jan Williams’ son, Neal, and two grandchildren, Devon and Ian, were murdered by her daughter-in-law. The murder was vicious and horrifying and the killer, Manling Williams, was arrested and imprisoned immediately. There has never been much question about her guilt, and perhaps even less question that she should be held accountable for her violent killing.
A jury found Manling guilty of murder, but deadlocked on whether or not she should receive the death penalty. After enduring the pain and stress of the trial, Jan decided she did not want the death penalty for Manling and asked prosecutors to opt for life without parole instead. She felt that a death sentence, with its years of appeals and repeated court dates, would only prolong the suffering of both families involved. Knowing that her son and grandchildren’s killer was behind bars for life would provide enough relief.
Unfortunately, the prosecutors haven’t listened to Jan. Despite her many public statements decrying the process that will drag her through years of appeals and continually reopen wounds that might otherwise begin to heal, we learned earlier this month that the death penalty trial of Manling Williams is set to continue.
Jan Williams is not alone. The hundreds of murder victim family members who comprise California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty know that the death penalty does not serve victims’ needs. Like Jan, many CCV supporters have had to endure to pain and suffering of the death penalty process only to learn that neither a death sentence nor an execution would bring them any closure. After all, the death penalty cannot bring back their loved ones.
The story of Aba Gayle, whose beautiful daughter Catherine Blount was murdered in 1980, comes to mind. Douglas Mickey, the man convicted of murdering Catherine, was sentenced to death. The District Attorney assured Aba Gayle that Mickey’s execution would help her heal. For several years following Catherine’s death, Aba Gayle believed this. Eventually, however, she realized that her thirst for revenge was actually precluding her from beginning to heal.
Rev. Cathy Harrington faced a similar situation. After her beautiful daughter, Leslie, and her daughter’s roommate, Adrienne, were brutally murdered, Cathy faced the prospect of a death penalty trial for the man convicted of the murders. As a parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, Cathy opposed the death penalty. Her sons disagreed and told her not to protest the death penalty.
However, after several trips from Michigan to California for pretrials and hearings, enduring unwanted media attention, and the threat of further exploitation, her sons began to question their position. They agreed that having the freedom to grieve Leslie’s death and move toward healing was more important than the death penalty. With the help of a victim outreach specialist, Cathy’s family was able to negotiate a sentence of life without parole.
As we celebrate success in Illinois and hope for Governor Quinn’s signature on repeal, let’s remember these stories and double our efforts to end California’s death penalty in honor of the victims and their survivors. We know that the death penalty does not deter crime. We know that in California we are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on a failed system. We know that the possibility of executing an innocent person is all too real.
We also know, and will do well to keep close in our hearts and minds, the names of the victims of these horrible homicides. Their families and survivors hope for justice and it is with that hope that we can move forward, building alliances that will allow us to finally end the death penalty, and replace it with an alternative that addresses the needs of victims and survivors of violence.
Unfortunately, in their rush to schedule an execution that was unlikely to take place, the state completely disregarded the harm to the victims. Our sympathies go out to the family of Susan Jordan who was killed by Albert Brown nearly 30 years ago. They have been on a cruel legal rollercoaster for decades. We cannot imagine what the events of the last few weeks have been like for them.
Posted by Jessica Lewis, Guest Blogger on September 10th, 2010
Despite the fact that executions have been on hold in California for almost five years, it seems as though some government officials are still in denial or just a little too eager for the ban to be lifted and are prematurely trying to schedule execution dates.
Although new lethal injection procedures were created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and submitted for public comment, the Judge has yet to determine if CDCR appropriately complied with the Administrative Procedures Act, meaning the ban on executions is still in full force. This hasn't stopped the Governor or the Attorney General from pushing to set more execution dates.
Although prison officials are preparing for Brown's execution at the end of the month as if it were to happen, they have states that if the judge's order is still in effect on the execution date, they will cancel the execution. Considering the long-standing stay on executions and the number of lawsuits that are still pending, it is unlikely that all legal issues will be resolved and the ban will be lifted in time for the execution - so why rush to set execution dates before determining whether executions can legally be carried out?
Planning and then canceling an execution puts the victim's family on an emotional roller-coaster that makes the whole process significantly more difficult. It reopens the wounds and causes even more pain. The Governor and the Attorney General know that they can't legally carry out executions, so why are they making promises that they can't keep? By ignoring the negative impact of setting an unrealistic execution date, the needs of the victim's families are also ignored. Whether a date is set or not, the prisoners will remain on death row, so rushing to set a date that will probably not be carried out is not only pointless, but irresponsible and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Last week, you may have read that 70% of Californians support the death penalty according to a new Field Poll. Several newspaper headlines cited that figure. Upon further reading, however, we learn that 42 percent of voters prefer life in prison without parole and 41 percent prefer death when given a choice between the two sentences.
The last time the Field Poll asked that question, in 2000, it found that 44 percent chose the death penalty and 37 percent favored life without parole.
These statistics reflect a marked shift in public opinion. People are realizing that life without parole is swift, severe, and cost-effective.
While the 70 percent figure represents abstract support for the death
penalty, the majority of Californians realize that the death penalty is
bad public policy and prefer life without parole.
"The majority of Californians now favor permanent imprisonment over the death penalty. That includes murder victims' family members like me," said Judy Kerr in a letter to the Sacramento Bee editor.
"Victims' families know that the death penalty does not bring back a loved one, that the death penalty wastes millions each year and that the death penalty does nothing but prolong grief and healing through endless appeals. Public opinion is shifting, and this is why."
We know that advocates and community members from across the state are
fighting to ensure that the vital social services that make up the safety
net for California's most vulnerable populations aren't slashed. We're
here with a small piece of the solution. Need to cut something? Cut
this: the death penalty.
Also, make sure to check out CCV's latest newsletter to read about our meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger's staff and other California officials, see pictures from recent events, and find information on county coalitions throughout California! CCV Summer News 2010.
Murder victim family members Judy Kerr, Aqeela Sherrills, and Nick and Amanda Wilcox delivered the report and a letter signed by 150 CCV supporters to the Governor and asked him to convert all 700 death sentences to permanent imprisonment. Read more on the California Progress Report.
Bud Welch was interviewed on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show." This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Bud's daughter was among the 167 men, women and children killed. Bud Welch will share his personal story and mention his death penalty abolition work.
Each April since 1981, rallies, candlelight vigils, and a host of commemorative activities take place to promote victims' rights and to honor crime victims
and those who advocate on their behalf as part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week (NCVRW). This year’s NCVRW takes place April 18-24, 2010.
CCV has several events leading up to NCVRW to educate the public about the financial and societal impact of the death penalty on our communities and victims. Please join us for an event in your area.
A panel discussion featuring: Lawrence C. Marshall, Professor of Law, Stanford University Mary Kay Raftery, Murder Victim Family Member, CCV Member Darryl Stallworth, Former Prosecutor, Alameda County Moderated by: Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Policy Director, ACLU of Northern California
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 6-8pm Santa Clara University Willeman Room 500 El Camino Real Santa Clara, California 95053
Wednesday, April 7, 2010 – Berkeley, CA Panel Discussion on the Death Penalty
Featuring: Judy Kerr, Murder Victim Family Member, Northern California Outreach Coordinator for CCV (Above) Darryl Stallworth, Former Prosecutor, Alameda County Stefanie Faucher, Death Penalty Focus Natasha Minsker, ACLU of Northern California
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 7-9pm Congregation Beth-El 1301 Oxford Street Berkeley, CA
Saturday, April 10, 2010 – San Diego, CA Panel Discussion on the Death Penalty Sponsored by the Taxed to Death Coalition and the San Diego Chapter of Amnesty International
Featuring: Aqeela Sherrills, Murder Victim Family Member, Southern California Outreach Coordinator for CCV Timothy Atkins, Spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit
Saturday, April 10, 2010; 12-2:30pm Point Loma Library 3701 Voltaire St. San Diego, CA 92107-1606
Can’t attend one of these events? Host a speaker at your school, congregation, or organization! CCV offers powerful and moving speakers throughout California who can share their unique perspectives on the death penalty. (For other locations, visit www.mvfr.org.)
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to cut $250 million of its $600 million rehabilitation program and to lay off 600 to 900 educational and vocational prison instructors. Without rehabilitation programs, more inmates are likely to re-offend, creating even more crimes and even more victims. California already has a 70 percent recidivism rate. The department should be working towards improving rehabilitation programs rather than making cuts to them.
In California’s current economic climate, we must assess the fiscal and societal impact of every policy and reevaluate our priorities. The fact is that, while we cut the rehabilitation programs that can actually prevent future crimes, we continue to spend millions of dollars each year on a completely broken and ineffectual death penalty system. If we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, we would save one billion dollars over the next five years. That’s one billion dollars that could be spent, not only, on rehabilitation for inmates, but also on violence prevention, intervention for at-risk youth, state crime labs, and DNA testing – all of which actually make our communities safer.
“It's sad commentary on our state's priorities when we callously place money above people's lives,” Salarno and Lieu say.
It’s also a sad commentary on our state’s priorities when we misuse the limited public safety resources we do have.
The death penalty is a disservice to victims and to our communities. It’s time to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.
I grew up in Watts in South-Central Los Angeles, an epicenter of gang violence. Each of the 10,000 victims of gang violence in Los Angeles County over the past 20 years was somebody's daughter or son crying out for help.
After seeing 13 friends killed in gang wars, I was inspired to bring the warring factions, the Crips and Bloods, together and end the violence. We were able to create a peace treaty between the gangs in 1992, which has sustained for over ten years-not
without problems and challenges, however. For the past 16 years I've continued working for peace. I believe that where the wounds are, the gift lies.
But in January 2004, this belief was seriously tested when my 18-year-old son, Terrell, was mur-dered. He was an unbelievable kid and after losing him, I thought, ―What is the gift in this?
The young man who killed my son wasn't caught, but we know who he is through the street network. I had the opportunity to retaliate, but I decided that revenge shouldn't be Terrell's legacy. Instead I spoke to the community about why revenge doesn't work. Terrell's killer is a victim too - a victim of a culture that lacks compassion.
You can only kill someone if you have a callous heart; I want to know why this young man had such a callous heart. It's not enough simply to catch him and throw him away or catch him and execute him.
We need to communicate with these individuals and touch their hearts, helping each one find their own humanity and see that violence is not the answer. It's about igniting a conversation about life-what makes people happy or sad; what they fear; what things they can change in the neighborhood. We must be motivated by love for the human being. It's about reverence for human life and spirit.
We have redefined what peace is and what it looks like in this community. Peace is not this utopian idea of dashing through a field of dandelions; it's hard work. The key is that individuals consistently come back to resolve their conflicts and take the next few steps towards peace.
My work is truly an extension of me. As I resolve the wounds in my own life, I'm able to see more of what I need to do in the community I live in and love.
As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, my mind is filled with thoughts of dinner preparations and anticipated conversations. I have been the Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for over two years. In that time, I have carved a clear identity with friends and family as someone who has an opinion about what we should do regarding the death penalty. I am the abolitionist at the table.
Even so, when faced with the prospect of conversations with friends and family who disagree with my position on the death penalty, I wrestle and turn in my seat trying to find a comfortable position to take at the dinner table. Finding the right words does not seem as important as finding peace within me to let this disagreement float between us. I have always expected to be changed by people I love and I expect to influence them as well. None of us should ever hope to come out of these real conversations the same…at least not if we are really listening and really alive.
So, it's important for me to leave room for others to express their feelings of revenge on the table of Thanksgiving dinner discussions. The need for revenge is real whether I feel it or not. How we continue to evolve with revenge is part of who we are as individuals and as a society. Revenge has existed in our cultures for thousands of years. Revenge is portrayed in art. It is written in literature. It is codified in religions. Susan Jacoby wrote an excellent history of revenge in Wild Justice, The Evolution of Revenge (1983). It is a good place to start when looking for common ground at holiday gatherings.
Over the past two years, I have met murder victim family members whose feelings of revenge have run the gamut from heartfelt abhorrence of revenge to an unremitting need for revenge. When we sit down at the dinner table with those we love and with whom we disagree, it is best to be sure that we know revenge is real and that we are all evolving together. Even though I do not have a desire for revenge, I cannot take away someone else's desire for revenge, nor do I want to take that feeling away from them. While I do understand that revenge is a real emotion, I do not believe it should be used as a basis of public policy. By replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, we can abandon a failed system and save money, while still leaving recognizing a painful need for revenge.