The Racial Equity Institute held a two day training in Raleigh this past week that MVFR was privileged to attend. As race plays a large part in the death penalty system and in our daily lives, it is important to be educated on race, power, and inequality. Racism doesn't just operate individually, but is structurally and systematically rooted in our culture. The more you ask why inequality exists, the closer you get to root causes of racial inequality in our society’s institutions.
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MVFR’s 2014 Member Meeting may have come and gone, but its impact will be long felt. As an organization that is victim led and trauma informed, holding an event like this reinforced our mission to create space for victims/survivors who don’t support the death penalty to feel less alone and have their stories heard. Her are few of the take-away points from this special day: Each person deserves to put forward their unique story and not be forced to package it in a certain way to fit others’ needs.
A Man Denied Justice and a Family Left Without It: How the Death Penalty almost Executed Another Innocent Man and Failed the Victims' Family
Yet another innocent man has been freed from prison and released from death row, this time, in Texas. Manuel Velez spent nine years in prison, four of those years on death row, for a crime he did not commit. In Texas, which executes more inmates than any state in the U.S., there was a real risk that this innocent man could have been executed.
As members of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), we realize that this is no ordinary time. With exonerations, “botched” executions, and judges pronouncing the death penalty unconstitutional, surely the world must see what we at MVFR already know. We see the death penalty as arbitrary, cruel and unusual, racially-biased, often wrong and always too costly. We know that what homicide survivors need is what most never receive - support and resources from our criminal justice system to deal with grief and help put the pieces of shattered lives back together.
Having just finished tabling at the Christian Community Development Association's annual national conference, here are a three things we spoke about to those who stopped by our table and are important points to consider when working with murder victims' family members. 1) Murder affects us all. Although it may not occur in our own family, the aftermath of violence and tragic loss hits all community members. Violence disrupts, alarms, and breaks communities apart by shattering our norms, expectations, and beliefs.
I saw a lot of sad things in the Lumberton courtroom where I watched the exoneration last week of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who spent 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. I saw gentle Leon, so intellectually disabled that he was barely able to understand the proceedings, staring down, moving his lips as if in prayer. I saw Henry led away in chains and handcuffs, headed for another night in prison, even after being declared innocent by a judge.
“Many people are talking right now about the terrible injustice done to Henry McCollum, an innocent man who was released this week after 30 years on North Carolina’s death row. We should also remember the other victims in this case, Sabrina Buie, who was only 11 years old when she was brutally murdered, and her family. As a community of people who have had loved ones taken by murder, we at Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) know the deep pain of senseless violence. We also know that, in many cases, the death penalty deepens, prolongs and complicates that pain.
All executions upset me. The prolonged execution of Dennis McGuire was particularly distressing. My sister was murdered in 1975, and I oppose the death penalty for many reasons including the additional pain and violence that accompanies a capital murder trial, including the appeals and execution. I am a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Our members are people like me whose loved ones have been murdered or executed and who oppose the death penalty. When I heard about Mr. McGuire’s execution, I immediately thought of Joy Stewart’s family.
I am saddened by the legislation (SB306) recently filed in the NC Senate to resume executions, especially since the bill sponsor, Sen. Thom Goolsby, claims to be working to achieve justice for victims. Not all family members of murder victims feel like the death penalty is an effective tool for achieving justice for our loved ones and ourselves. District Attorneys choose to try only a small fraction of murder cases as capital cases. From 1977 to 2006, only 2.5 percent of murderers were sentenced to death. Two out of three death sentences are overturned on appeal.
On Wednesday, January 30 2013, the Judiciary Committee of the Arkansas Senate held a hearing to examine the pros and cons of the death penalty. The Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ACADP) coordinated speakers who told legislators why capital punishment is bad public policy for the state. MVFR board member Judith Elane was among those who spoke up on why the death penalty does not meet the needs of murder victims' families. Read her full testimony below: