Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fell Sentencing Events

On Friday, June 16th a man was sentenced to die in Vermont. The defendant and a now-deceased codefendant (who committed suicide while in prison) were charged with two death-eligible crimes: carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death. The victim was a woman named Terry King.

You may be thinking to yourself, “What? A death sentence in Vermont?” But it’s the truth and it was made possible thanks to the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) and in this case specifically, Fmr. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Back in 2001, the prosecutors drafted a plea bargain that would have sentenced the defendant to life without possible release in exchange for a guilty plea. But when that was submitted for Ashcroft’s approval, he decided to ignore the Government’s proffer that the defendant’s terrible childhood was enough to mitigate circumstances away from being a death penalty case. The defendant had a childhood that most of us cannot even begin to imagine living through. He suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from practically everyone in his life, witnessed his parents stab each other during a drunken argument, he was abandoned by both of them by the time he was 13. Everyone in his life gave up on him. And then society did by condemning him to die.

Why did the Attorney General choose to dismiss this evidence? Perhaps it was because the case could have been tried in either New York or Vermont and at the time, New York’s death penalty statute had not yet been declared unconstitutional, whereas Vermont hadn’t had a death sentence handed down in its state since 1954. Perhaps it was because a report had just been released by the Department of Justice that cited disturbing statistics about the federal death row. Pursuing a death sentence in this case enabled him to even out some less-than-favorable statistics. Who knows.

Two events were organized by a group I belong to, known as Vermonters Against the Death Penalty (VTADP). The first event was a vigil on Thursday evening to remember victims of homicide. We thought that framing the vigil around this subject was especially important given the fact that revictimization of the victims family members is one of the most disturbing consequences of our broken death penalty system. We were able to draw a modest crowd of 50 people to City Hall Park in Burlington. A notable fact, however, is that we were joined by people from all throughout the Northeast: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The same group of people was featured in the 2nd event, a press conference held on Friday after the sentencing. Each speaker addressed a different aspect within the abolitionist movement including regional trends, their own state’s struggle against the death penalty, and two speakers addressed their own personal experiences with losing a loved one to homicide – refuting the misconception that the death penalty system will help them heal.

The revictimization that VTADP wanted to bring to the public’s attention was glaringly obvious in the victims’ family members’ statements in Friday’s court proceedings. Many, if not all of them cited how grueling the past six years were for them, how they had to endure litigation, uncertainty, compounded with the immense and unimaginable pain of losing someone they loved so dearly. If anyone spoke to the fact that the death penalty system does not provide healing, it was the family members. With every motion that was filed, with every media story, the family was forced to defend the memory of the one they lost. Had the plea bargain been accepted six years ago, they could have been on their way to healing. But we as a society have forced them to endure additional pain, pain that will continue for the next decade as the appeals process begins.

The defendant’s speech was short and almost inaudible over the hum of the air conditioning system. He apologized for what he did and accepted his punishment as “no less than what [he] deserved”. The response of the family members was that it didn’t matter to them; nothing he could say or do would ever elicit forgiveness from them. It is terrible to think that they had to endure losing someone so close to them, and their hearts remain so hardened by the experience. No one should ever have to feel this way.

I can’t imagine having society judge and condemn me based only upon one thing that I’ve done in my lifetime. Can you imagine it? I, myself, along with many reading this have probably done something in their lifetime that they deeply regret doing. I know that I certainly have learned from my mistakes and have allowed such experiences to change me for the better, and I have gained insight from them. Who are we to say that others are incapable of this same process? Does a person’s worst action negate the humanness within them? Their capacity for redemption? The death penalty system wants to convince us that it does.

Well, I’m back in Washington, DC now. Away from the reporters, away from the court room that made me physically ill. Yet, the struggle towards abolition continues. My work with this one case has taught me so much about the death penalty, our legal system, and the injustices that are perpetuated by both. Ever since I became aware of these things, I’ve been unable to cease in my abolition work. I encourage everyone reading this to learn everything they can about the death penalty, because knowledge is empowering. This trial was just one amongst so many with similar, pervasive injustices. This work is disheartening, frustrating, and disappointing. But let me be clear in saying that it is worth it. Nationwide abolition will happen. But only if we persist in our efforts and do not falter. We must never let this be simply work. It must remain our passion, as we continue putting our heart into what we do. It is that which will keep us going when all odds are against us.