Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
with the Author, Rachel King
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: This project began in 1996 while I was working on a campaign to oppose legislation to re-instate the death penalty in Alaska. During that campaign, a fellow campaigner and attorney, Barbara Hood, learned about a woman named Marietta Jaeger whose daughter had been murdered, but yet she had opposed the death penalty for her killer. We invited Marietta to Alaska to share her experience.
Marietta spoke to many people during her Alaskan trip including several members of the legislature many of whom later told us that her story convinced them to change their mind and vote against the death penalty bill. The bill never passed and Alaska still does not have the death penalty.
Because Marietta’s story was so compelling, Barbara had the idea to produce a booklet of stories of people like Marietta – people who had lost family members to murder and opposed the death penalty. She enlisted my help and over the course of the next few years I interviewed and photographed more than fifty people who were willing to publicly state their opposition to the death penalty.
Barbara edited and self-published the stories in a publication called Not in Our Name. Not in Our Name has now gone through several editions and was turned into a traveling photo-text exhibit, which has been displayed at various venues across the country.
Although I was proud of our final product, I felt that the stories needed to be told to a much wider audience, hence the idea for a “real” book. Barbara and I talked about writing a book together, but ultimately she decided against it. Although Barbara did not participate in writing this book, it was her idea and creativity that first gave the project life.
Q: How, when, and why was Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) founded? Can anyone who opposes the death penalty be a member? How many members does the group have? What does MVFR do?
A: Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation was founded in 1976 by Marie Deans of Richmond, Virginia, after the murder of her mother-in-law, Penny. Marie did not want the killer to receive the death penalty and when she advocated against it, was treated badly by some. She wondered if other people felt the way she did and decided to research to see if others felt as she did. She found that they did. The result was that the group decided to form an organization and MVFR was born.
Since that time, MVFR has become a leader in the abolition movement, both nationally and internationally. MVFR has members and associate members – they welcome anyone who wants to be an associate member and members are people who have had family members murdered or executed. MVFR has several thousand associate members and several thousand members.
The mission of MVFR is to abolish the death penalty but it also supports programs that reduce homicide and promote crime prevention and alternatives to violence. MVFR has also sponsored several “Journeys of Hope” where members have gone on weeks long tours sharing their experiences with communities across the country and world. Members also frequently testify before state legislatures considering death penalty legislation.
Q: In the book, you write that MVFR members "are often treated as either saints or lunatics, but the truth is that they are neither." Who are they? What commonalties do they share? What differences did you find? How big of a role does religious faith play?
A: MVFR members are people who have experienced horrible, life-changing
events where someone in their family was murdered. Having experienced
first-hand the devastation that violence wreaks, they have come to the
conclusion that the death penalty is not wise a social policy. For some
members, religion and spiritual faith played an important role in their
healing process, but this is not true for everyone. Also, many members
have discovered that forgiveness is a very important part of their recovery
process. Some have even sought reconciliation with the person who killed
their family member. However, this is also not universally true.
A: Deciding which people to feature was very difficult, because all of the stories are powerful and inspiring. I ultimately decided to choose stories that illustrated well particular aspects of the death penalty such as innocence, racial bias, mental retardation, juvenile executions, forgiveness and reconciliation. In this way, readers will learn about systemic problems with the death penalty through the stories.
Q: Did any of the people you feature in the book support the death penalty before their own personal tragedies?
A: Yes, two people were strong supporters of the death penalty and four others had not formed a strong opinion on the subject.
Q: Were families of the people you interviewed united in their opposition to the death penalty?
A: No. It is common for family members to be divided on this issue. Usually, families are able to function with the disagreement, but in at least two cases the issue completely tore families apart and the two sides are not in contact with each other.
Q: What surprised you as you did the interviews for this book? What did you learn?
A: What is surprising to me about the book is that it a hopeful book. The participants have experienced a traumatic event that those of us who have not lost someone to murder cannot imagine. I was constantly surprised and inspired by the ability of people to heal from horrible traumas and to integrate their tragedies into their lives in a way that strengthens them and enables them to work for a more just society. It is very life affirming and optimistic.
Q: What is your goal in publishing Don't Kill in Our Names? What do you most want people to learn from reading it? Do you expect to change the minds of people who support the death penalty?
A: Within the death penalty debate, we hear a lot about family members who support the death penalty. In fact, one of the reasons most frequently given for the continued use of the death penalty is that it helps the victims. It is important that people hear about the fact that many victims do not believe this to be true. In fact, they believe that supporting the death penalty harms victims and society at large. I don’t know if the book will change people’s minds about the death penalty, although of course I would like to think that is a possibility. In any event, the voices of the victims who oppose the death penalty have not been sufficiently heard and I’d like the book to be a vehicle to getting those voices out. Also, some of the royalties from the book will go to organizations that support families of murder victims so I would like the book to raise money for those causes.
Q: You've devoted much of your career, and your personal time, to opposing the death penalty. Why is this cause so important to you?
A: I have worked within the criminal justice system throughout my legal career and have seen the many ways that it is unfair. The death penalty represents the worst aspects of the criminal justice system. Instead of punishing the people who commit the worse crimes, the death penalty is used against people who are the most vulnerable – the poor, mentally retarded, mentally ill, youths and people of color. Our society has tried to administer the system “fairly” and that experiment has failed. Ending the death penalty will mark an evolutionary change when we acknowledge that government sponsored killing is not the answer to violence. I want to be part of bringing about this change.
royalties go to:
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights