Four members of the organisation Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) from the United States spoke at a forum in Taichung last night. They talked of their experiences as victims of murder and violent crime and how they came to be activists against the death penalty. It is a common assumption that the families of murder victims would all support the death penalty. However, the speakers showed that this is a false assumption and they all sought to affirm the importance of human rights and the value of human life.
Aba Gayle began by speaking about her personal experience following the murder of her 19 year old daughter Catherine. For eight years following Catherine’s murder Gayle she experienced what she called “eight years of darkness.” She was consumed with anger. Gayle said anger is a normal part of the grieving process but many families become stuck in it.
Eventually Gayle began a process of healing through practice of meditation and study of the world’s wisdom traditions. She went on to write a letter to Douglas Mickey, the man who murdered Catherine. In the moment of sending the letter all the feelings of anger were gone and she felt peace, love and joy, she said. She then went to visit Mickey in prison and resolved to become an advocate for the men on death row.
Robert Meeropol offered a different perspective of being a victim. His parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were not murdered in a random crime, but were executed by the state. They were members of the Communist Party charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. Meeropol was six years old at the time of the executions. “Look at this from a six year old’s point of view. A six year old doesn’t know the difference between a murder on the street or an execution in a prison. What a six year old knows is that his or her parents are gone and they’re not coming back,” Meeropol said.
Meeropol drew some parallels between what happened to his parents in the era of McCarthyism in the United States and the White Terror period in Taiwan. “Just as my family suffered under the anti-Communist terror of that time, thousands of Taiwanese families suffered after the 228 Incident and under the White Terror period and up until a lot more recently,” he said. “The death penalty can be used by unscrupulous governments as an instrument of political repression and I feel a special kinship with people whose family members were wrongfully executed under those circumstances.”
Meeropol said, “The death penalty is a human rights issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was signed by all the members of the United Nations, including the Republic of China, on December 10 1948. Article Three lists the first specific right in the document. It starts with the words, ‘Everyone has the right to life.’ And when you think about it it makes sense that this right would be the first right listed. Because it is the most important right of all. If you aren’t allowed to stay alive, none of the other rights mean anything to you. That is why the death penalty must be viewed as a human rights issue. That is why I am a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Our goal is to convince people all over the world that the death penalty is a human rights abuse and human rights abuses are never acceptable.”
Renny Cushing began by speaking about the murder of his father. “Nothing prepares anybody to be the family member of a murder victim,” Cushing said. “It’s not just the murder that shocks you. It’s all the things you have to do after the murder takes place. For me it was hard to call my six brothers and sisters and say my father had been murdered. It was hard to work out how to get the blood of my father of the floors and the walls of the family home. It was painful to see my mother have to write a cheque to the ambulance company for transporting my father’s body from my home to the morgue. It was hard not to have my father’s body back right away because it was in the custody of the police.”
Cushing then related a story about someone who came up to him and said he hoped they catch the people that murdered your father and “fry the bastards.” He understood that this person was just trying to console him, but he had long been an opponent of the death penalty. “I live in a society were it’s presumed that all murder victims’ family members want the death penalty for the person who killed their loved one,” he said. “I realised that if I changed my position on the death penalty because my father was murdered that would only give over more power to the killer, that would only give over more power to the act of murder itself. It would only make my father’s killing a greater tragedy because not only would my father’s life be taken away from him, but so to would my values and so to would the values that my father held. If we let those that kill turn us into killers then evil triumphs and we all lose.”
Toshi Kazama is a photographer whose work has focused on the death penalty. He has captured images of inmates on death row and equipment related to executions in the USA, Japan and Taiwan. Through his work he has met not only death row inmates, but victims’ families, prison wardens and even executioners. He also experienced a violent attack seven years ago that put him in a coma.
Kazama said there needs to be more emphasis on understanding the reasons why crimes occurred. He said, “We as a society only think about the solution to crime as what kind of penalty we can give, rather than focusing on why this crime happened. How can we prevent the same crime from happening again in our society so that you and I don’t have to become a victim. There are so many things we can learn from a crime, but we only focus on the penalty.”
“There are some similarities among death row inmates in the United States. First, they are poor. They cannot hire a very good attorney. Second, is they are uneducated. These two things are probably commonly known in the United States. But there is a third one that I found out through many inmates’ families. It is the lack of love in the family,” Kazama said.
More important issues were raised in the discussion that followed the presentations. Renny Cushing noted the importance of support for victims. “There is no returning to normal after somebody has been murdered. There is no magic prescription for changing the past,” Cushing said. “What you can do those is make decisions about how you lead your life in the future. Sometimes the families of murder victims become so focused on how their loved one died that they end up forgetting about how their loved one lived.”
“One of the things our society can do is ask what the needs are of a victim that society can respond to. Most of those are material needs and simple acts of community support. It’s intellectually dishonest though to pretend that you can make things better. Ironically enough what people who support the death penalty hold out to victims is a false promise. The false promise that you can get better by a single event, an execution. It doesn’t work that way. When you’ve had a family member murdered your life is part of a healing process that goes on forever,” Cushing said.
Aba Gayle added, “The idea of closure is a myth. There will never be closure for me. But that doesn’t mean that I have to live the rest of my life in anger or crying all the time. Why would I want to have closure on a beautiful life? What I had to do was accept what happened.”
The forum ended with an interesting anecdote from Toshi Kazama. Toshi met with Chen Shui-bian when he was the President. Chen assisted him in gaining access to the Taipei Detention Centre to take photographs of the execution area. Ironically Chen is now detained in that same detention centre.
When he went to meet the President, Chen told Toshi that since he became President the number of executions had decreased every year. Chen was quite proud that there had only been one execution that year. However, Toshi responded that there was still a lot of work to do. Chen’s face then changed and he got serious and said, “Toshi you’re right. My goal wasn’t just one, it was zero.” Since then there had been no executions until the moratorium ended with the execution of four prisoners on 30 April this year. “I can see that there is a trend [of executions by the current government] that may go on for some time. I hope not and we have to work hard. It is an excuse for the government to get more votes for themselves. A lot of countries have abolished the death penalty even though the public supports it,” Kazami said.
The forum raised many important issues. There is a need for society to better understand and respond to the needs of victims of crime. It is also important to understand the lives of the perpetrators. While there are no simple solutions it is clear that the death penalty is a non-solution.
Update: The Taiwan News has an interview with Robert Meeropol that includes many more details about his life story.