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Supreme Court’s Ramos Decision Brings Attention to the Relevance of International Human Rights Standards in Death Penalty Cases

U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that allow a jury to convict someone of a crime without reaching a unanimous verdict. Ramos v. Louisiana brings attention to the importance of aligning death penalty practices in the United States with international human rights standards. The Advocates for Human Rights, as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. But as a step toward abolition, it is important to examine the human rights standards that apply when a state allows the death penalty. 

At first glance, Ramos might seem entirely irrelevant to international human rights law or the death penalty. The provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that the Court struck down both had exceptions: for a defendant to be sentenced to death, the jury must decide the person’s guilt unanimously.  

Moreover, the Court’s decision in Ramos is based on the Sixth Amendment right to a “trial by an impartial jury.” Trial by jury is just one of several ways to determine whether a person accused of a crime is guilty, and international human rights standards do not dictate that courts must use a jury to determine a person’s guilt. Article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, calls for “a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Some countries ensure this right with a jury as finder of fact, while others task a judge to make factual determinations, and still others use a hybrid system with a professional judge alongside lay judges or jurors finding facts together. 

But the unanimity exceptions for capital cases in Oregon and Louisiana law bring to mind the importance of international human rights standards that apply to the death penalty. 

Non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases violate the United Nations’ minimum safeguards applicable in death penalty cases. These safeguards, adopted in 1984, say that a person may be sentenced to death “only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.” If twelve jurors hear all the evidence in a case and, even after prolonged deliberations, one or two of those jurors do not think the defendant is guilty, then there must be a persuasive “alternative explanation of the facts.”  

These safeguards are consistent with one of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty—the risk of wrongful convictions. Exonerees from organizations like Witness to Innocence provide powerful testimonies that the criminal justice system can reach unjust results. Requiring a unanimous jury doesn’t ensure that the jury will reach a correct decision. Indeed, the 167 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1972 were likely all found guilty by unanimous juries. But the 1984 safeguards emphasize that when a person’s life is on the line, the justice system must ensure that the legal process “gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial.” 

Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee published a general comment relevant to the death penalty. (The Advocates made two written submissions to the Committee as it drafted the comment.) The Committee noted that violation of the fair trial rights in Article 14 of the ICCPR can render a death sentence arbitrary, in violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR. The Committee called on State Parties to the ICCPR to “take all feasible measures in order to avoid wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, to review procedural barriers to reconsideration of convictions and to re-examine past convictions on the basis of new evidence.” 

A unanimous jury requirement is just one component of the government’s obligation to avoid wrongful convictions. Another important component is access to competent legal representation. You’ll read more about that topic on this blog later this year. The theme for the 2020 World Day Against the Death Penalty—an event marked every year on October 10—is Access to Counsel: A Matter of Life or Death.  

Click here to learn more about The Advocates work against the death penalty worldwide. 

By Amy Bergquist, Senior Staff Attorney in The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, where she is one of the Coalition’s vice presidents. 

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Bringing the worldwide movement to end the arbitrary death penalty to the U.S. Supreme Court

Amy
Connie Numbi of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Uganda & The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist serve on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

I’ve spent the last few days in Paris immersed in the work of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty—collaborating with other members the Coalition’s Steering Committee to review our accomplishments over the past year and to define our countries and issues of focus for the next three years, and attending workshops to prepare for a four-year project funded by the European Union to combat the death penalty in several African countries and other countries at risk of resuming executions. But when I get on the plane for Minneapolis Wednesday, it will be time to switch gears and think about the connections between The Advocates’ involvement with the international abolitionist movement and death penalty issues closer to home.

On Wednesday, December 11, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in a death penalty case called McKinney v. Arizona.  With pro bono assistance from Dechert LLP, The Advocates for Human Rights and the World Coalition submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the petitioner, James McKinney, who was sentenced to death in Arizona for his involvement in two 1991 murders. McKinney was 23 years old at the time of the crimes.

amicus brief

We work to limit the scope of the death penalty

The Advocates, like the World Coalition, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. In some countries, however, we don’t expect immediate abolition of the death penalty. As an interim measure, we try to limit the scope and applicability of the death penalty, consistent with international human rights standards.

Article 6, paragraph 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” In the context of the death penalty, this language means that a person charged with a crime eligible for the death penalty must receive a fair trial and the jury (or judge) must consider all relevant evidence before deciding whether to sentence the person to death.

My Steering Committee colleague Connie Numbi, who represents the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) in Uganda, notes that several East African countries such as Tanzania and Botswana have a mandatory death penalty. If a person is convicted of certain crimes, the death sentence is automatic. No judge or jury hears evidence about the nature of the crime, why the person committed it, or what “mitigating” factors might warrant a sentence other than death.

The death penalty is arbitrary if the defense can’t present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances and the circumstances of the offense

The Human Rights Committee (the UN body in charge of interpreting the Covenant) has explained that any mandatory imposition of the death penalty violates Article 6, paragraph 1 because it is arbitrary:

In all cases involving the application of the death penalty, the personal circumstances of the offender and the particular circumstances of the offence, including its specific attenuating elements must be considered by the sentencing court. Hence, mandatory death sentences that leave domestic courts with no discretion on whether or not to designate the offence as a crime entailing the death penalty, and on whether or not to issue the death sentence in the particular circumstances of the offender, are arbitrary in nature.

Similarly, Article 6, paragraph 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes,” The Human Rights Committee has explained that under this provision, the death penalty “must not be applied except for the most serious crimes, and then only in the most exceptional cases and under the strictest limits.”

McKinney never had a fair chance to present evidence of his personal circumstances

Which brings us to McKinney’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A jury found McKinney guilty of murder, but at the time, under Arizona law, a judge was responsible for deciding the appropriate sentence. McKinney’s attorneys presented evidence to the judge about McKinney’s horrific childhood, including evidence McKinney has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his abuse. The judge accepted McKinney’s PTSD diagnosis but did not consider it in deciding on the sentence. Indeed, under Arizona law at the time, the judge was prohibited from taking into account any evidence of mitigating factors that were not causally connected to the crime.

An appellate court ruled that the judge was wrong to reject the PTSD evidence. The State of Arizona then took up the case with the Arizona Supreme Court, asking that court to review the sentencing decision. McKinney argued that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, particularly because in the interim the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that juries—not judges—must make any factual findings relevant to deciding whether to sentence someone to death.

But the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed. It decided to conduct an independent review of McKinney’s sentence. In so doing, it said that McKinney’s conviction had been finalized before that Supreme Court ruling. And it then went on to look at the trial transcript and make its own sentencing decision, concluding that the mitigating evidence wasn’t sufficient to warrant a punishment other than death.

McKinney takes his case to the Supreme Court

Before the U.S. Supreme Court, McKinney will argue that the Arizona Supreme Court made two mistakes. First, when it reopened the case, the Arizona Supreme Court should have applied the current law, requiring a jury (rather than a judge) to make the factual determinations relevant to a death sentence. Second, the Arizona Supreme Court should have given McKinney the opportunity for a new hearing to present mitigating evidence, rather than simply reading the trial transcript.

Our friend of the court brief: The U.S. Supreme Court helped build a consensus under international human rights law that people like McKinney must have a fair chance to present all their mitigating evidence

Our amicus brief sheds light on the connection between Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—a treaty the United States ratified in 1992—and McKinney’s case. Our brief notes that the Human Rights Committee’s comments rejecting the mandatory death penalty are rooted in a consensus that began with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, which ruled that a mandatory death penalty law in North Carolina was unconstitutional.

Our Supreme Court’s reasoning in that case gradually helped build a consensus among national courts and international human rights mechanisms favoring individualized sentencing in capital cases. In 2009, for example, in a case that FHRI initiated, the Ugandan Supreme Court struck down that country’s mandatory death penalty for murder, and earlier this year the Ugandan parliament adopted a law eliminating several provisions rendering the death penalty mandatory. Kenya’s Supreme Court followed Uganda’s lead and struck down the mandatory death penalty in 2017. Malaysia is also taking steps to limit the mandatory nature of the death penalty.

Our brief cites the Ugandan Supreme Court as well as a long line of Human Rights Committee rulings recognizing that under Article 6, a person has the right to “individualized sentencing” where defense counsel may present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances as well as the circumstances of the crime.

Our brief also points out that the U.S. Federal Government has repeatedly assured the Human Rights Committee that in capital cases “the jury must be able to consider and give effect to any mitigating evidence that a defendant proffers.”

By the time I get off the plane, court-watchers will be sharing their spin on the oral argument, and by the end of the week, the Court will probably release a transcript I can read to get caught up. And then it will be a matter of waiting to see whether the Court will build on the foundation of international human rights law that it helped lay to ensure that McKinney finally has a chance to tell a jury his story.

Click these links to learn more about the death penalty in Uganda and Malaysia, and The Advocates’ death penalty work.

Amy Bergquist is Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program. She is Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and represents The Advocates on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.

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The Rights of Children Whose Parents Are Sentenced to Death – The Case of Tunisia

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Lisa Borden (The Advocates for Human Rights), Bronwyn Dudley (World Coalition for Human Rights,and Choukri Latif (Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort)

As a longtime practicing attorney in the United States, I spent much of my professional career working on cases related to criminal justice, including prison conditions and the death penalty. My death penalty work brought me in contact with The Advocates for Human Rights several years ago, when I had the opportunity to write a report to the UN Human Rights Council about the death penalty in the United States. So began a volunteer relationship in which I was able to participate in The Advocates’ UN work to abolish the  death penalty and many other issues. It’s thanks to that relationship that I’m now studying International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights at the Geneva Academy in Switzerland, and hope to continue addressing criminal justice issues using different approaches after graduation.

While pursuing my studies, I am also still a volunteer for The Advocates in Geneva. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-session meeting with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding Tunisia’s progress in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The pre-session meetings provide a chance for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other interested stakeholders to provide information to the Committee in a confidential setting. I joined Bronwyn Dudley of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Choukri Latif of the Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort (a Tunisian anti-death penalty NGO), to address the committee regarding Tunisia’s failure to implement the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or were executed. The Advocates, the Tunisian Coalition, and the World Coalition highlighted these issues in a recent report to the Committee.

Children: Unseen victims of the death penalty

WDADP 2019 poster

This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, on October 10, 2019, will focus on how children around the world are affected by the death penalty, so meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was a timely opportunity to apply this broader concern to a concrete situation. The World Coalition seeks to raise awareness of the severely damaging psychological trauma inflicted upon children whose parents are sentenced to death, at every stage of the process from arrest to incarceration to execution.

Punishing Tunisian Children for Their Parents’ Wrongdoing Violates the Convention

As in many retentionist countries, people sentenced to death in Tunisia typically spend many years in prison. Indeed, since Tunisia has thankfully been observing a moratorium on the death penalty since 1991, parents who are sentenced to death may spend decades in prison. As Choukri explained in his opening statement to the Committee, Tunisia is failing to protect the rights of those children to maintain meaningful relationships with their parents during their incarceration. Many of these parents are incarcerated far away from their families, and the prohibitive costs of transportation prevent children from exercising their visitation rights. Even for those who can do so, visits are limited to 30 minutes and, for younger children, direct physical contact with the parent is not permitted. Children of death-sentenced and executed parents are not provided with badly needed medical and mental health care to cope with the trauma they endure. Additionally, a new anti-terrorism law has expanded the potential application of the death penalty in Tunisia, including to children themselves, and is very unclear as to what conduct is covered.

Tunisia Must Reform Its Laws and Practices to Respect Children’s Rights

Several Committee members posed questions. The Committee’s questions provided me with an opportunity to offer some specifics about the failings of Tunisia’s laws, and how Tunisian authorities must address those failings to bring Tunisia into compliance with its human rights obligations. We also provided more information about the government’s purported justification for the anti-terrorism law and possible alternative measures.

Around the world, the death penalty in anti-terrorism laws is typically justified as a supposed deterrent to would be terrorists. But academic research reveals that there is no support for the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent to terrorism. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, torture, and human rights while countering terrorism, respectively, specifically warned against using the death penalty in an effort to deter terrorism, stating:

“there is a lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism. The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent because terrorists who are executed may just gain in prestige, as may their cause.”

In other words, the death penalty, if it has any impact at all, may provide incentives to terrorists.

Tunisia Creates Unnecessary Barriers to Children’s Rights

With regard to the need to continue reviewing and revising laws, I offered the laws affecting children of death-sentenced parents as an example showing that Tunisia’s laws are not yet compatible with the Convention and continue to be in need of reform. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 expressly recognizes the rights of children and the government’s obligation to act in their best interests, and the law on Special Regulations for Prisons expressly provides that children are entitled to visit their detained parents. But these laws are vague and do not give Tunisian authorities direction about how to account for the recognized rights and obligations. In law and in practice, Tunisia continues to violate children’s rights through arbitrary interference (30 minute visit limitations and lack of physical contact), and failure of the government to make any provision to address the financial barriers associated with transportation to far-flung prison facilities. The latter failure constitutes a de facto denial of the right to visit, but Tunisia does nothing to take this right into account when deciding where a parent will be incarcerated. In fact, Tunisian authorities often deliberately place parents far from their families, considering such isolation to be part of the parent’s punishment. Such punishment obviously violates the rights of the child, just as expressly denying visits would.

I was also able, thanks to the detailed research Bronwyn conducted before the meeting, to point the Committee to two of its own previous recommendations that supported our position that Tunisia has a positive obligation to take the child’s interests into account during criminal proceedings related to the parent.

To learn more about The Advocates’ work on the Death Penalty, click here. For ideas of things you can do to take action for World Day Against the Death Penalty, click here.

By: Lisa Borden, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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The Fight Against the Death Penalty Continues

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Brunei Darussalam’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council 

In May 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 33rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as part of the third cycle of the review process. The UPR examines the status and progress of human rights in all 193 member countries of the United Nations. (For more information about the UPR, check out Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tool for a Changing World here.) Among other countries, both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brunei Darussalam received recommendations to further their progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

Both countries have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Brunei has had no reported executions since 1957, and the DRC has had the moratorium since 2003. But neither country has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to officially move toward abolition of the death penalty. Even though international human rights standards mandate that countries retaining the death penalty must reserve it for only the most serious crimes, Brunei continues to sentence people by hanging for far less.

Under the Syariah Penal Code, adultery, sodomy, rape, apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are all punishable by death by stoning in Brunei. In the DRC, the administration of the death penalty lacks transparency. Just last year, the government handed down 41 death sentences.

At the Universal Periodic Review

Due to these issues, at the UPR in May both countries faced increasing pressure to abolish the death penalty. Brunei Darussalam received 96 recommendations on the death penalty from 50 countries–38.6% of all recommendations the country received, and a 336% increase from Brunei’s second cycle UPR. The recommendations ranged from ratification of the Convention against Torture to repealing problematic provisions in the Penal Code. The DRC received death penalty recommendations from 17 countries, an increase of 13.3% from the second cycle.

The Advocates, together with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, pushed for these recommendations behind the scenes. The two organizations submitted joint stakeholder reports on both countries. (To read the full reports, visit: Brunei and the DRC). Through both emails and in-person meetings, The Advocates lobbied 48 of the 50 countries that made death penalty recommendations to Brunei Darussalam, and 16 out of the 17 countries that made death penalty recommendations to the DRC.

A Lack of Progress?

After taking months to examine the recommendations from May, last month both Brunei Darussalam and the DRC “noted” all the recommendations relevant to the death penalty. In the language of the UN, noted means rejected. Both countries cited their respective sovereignty over the issue as the reason for rejecting the recommendations. Brunei Darussalam used the country’s religious background to justify the current use the death penalty in the Penal Code. Many countries and organizations, including Belgium and the UK, urged the government of Brunei to reconsider its decision. Similarly, a representative of the government of the DRC told the Human Rights Council that the nation’s own parliament should make the final decision on the death penalty. A delegate from Germany, however, urged the DRC to ratify the Second Protocol.

Despite noting these recommendations in the official meeting, the Brunei government took a small step forward. On May 6, the Brunei government announced that it would extend its moratorium on capital punishment to the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. Under laws that had taken effect in April, the two crimes would otherwise have been eligible for the death sentence of stoning. Furthermore, a representative from the government of Brunei told the Human Rights Council that the government had been making progress toward ratifying the Convention Against Torture. Many governments and non-governmental organizations welcomed this move.

The fight persists

This small victory, however, should not overshadow the larger picture. Despite overall progress toward abolition of the death penalty, many countries’ practices are far removed from international human rights standards. The cases of Brunei Darussalam and the DRC signal the difficulty ahead. The Advocates will continue to fight for a humane justice system on an international level.

To learn more about the death penalty, please visit our website here. Also, October 10 is the 2019 World Day against the Death Penalty, and encourage you to get involved.

To watch the full videos of the September 2019 meetings of the Human Rights Council adopting the outcomes of the UPRs of Brunei and the DRC, please visit the links below:

Brunei Darussalam

The Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Yunze Wang, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and a student at Macalester College.

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Turkey in Danger of Returning to the Death Penalty

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Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

On the heels of the July 2016 attempted coup, Turkish officials expressed their intention to reinstate the death penalty for “child killers” and terrorists. The Deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) threatened that the government would introduce a bill calling for the execution of rebel soldiers involved in the coup. President Erdogan stated that he would approve any legislation brought forth by the government to restore the death penalty. The following month, far-right leader of the Great Unity Party, Mustafa Destici, announced that a proposal to reinstate the death penalty would be introduced to Turkey’s parliament in October of that year.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 and made abolition permanent in March 2006 when it ratified the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2-ICCPR). The Protocol states that “[n]o one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed” and “[e]ach State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.” OP2-ICCPR does not authorize a State Party to subsequently withdraw ratification.

Reinstating the death penalty contradicts Turkey’s obligation to abolish capital punishment as a State Party to OP2-ICCPR. What’s deeply troubling is not just that Turkey would renege on its international human rights obligations and resume the use of a cruel and dehumanizing penalty, but that the Turkish government has major motivation to do so in an effort to silence its political opposition and marginalized groups.

Remember how Turkish officials pushed to assign the death penalty specifically to “terrorists” in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016? Terrorist, in this context, seems to be code for dissident. Since 2016, the Turkish Government has used counter-terrorism efforts as a means of cracking down on political opposition. Charges of “terrorism,” “terrorist sympathy,” and “terrorist propaganda” are levied against journalists, academics, and activists who oppose the Turkish Government’s actions and policies. In addition to stifling opposition voices, the government regularly uses charges of terrorism to further persecute the already vulnerable Kurdish community. The Turkish government has historically targeted the Kurdish people; Turkish nationalism promotes both the assimilation and the elimination of non-Turkish minority groups, such as Kurds and Armenians.

In the defense of human rights, it is critical that we say the quiet part out loud: if Turkey reinstates the death penalty under the pretext of using it as a means to combat vaguely defined “terrorism,” Turkish authorities will wield it unjustly to permanently rid Turkish authorities of political opponents. As Turkey’s government institutions are characterized by weak separation of powers, compromising the independence of the judiciary, reinstatement of the death penalty would place even more power in the hands of the executive branch. Reinstatement of the death penalty is a threat not only to journalists and human rights defenders, but also to the Kurdish community, which already faces ethnically motivated persecution and violence at the hands of the Turkish state.

The Advocates for Human Rights frequently collaborates with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, serving on its Steering Committee and leading the Coalition’s advocacy at the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism during which each nation reports on the state of human rights within its jurisdiction and receives recommendations from its peers—other nations around the world. It is an opportunity for The Advocates and other civil society organizations to lobby UN member states on issues like the death penalty. Often we urge governments to adopt best practices and ratify treaties, usually in response to reports of human rights violations.

Turkey’s third UPR is scheduled for January 28, 2020. Turkey has signed and ratified the relevant treaties, the death penalty has been struck from the law. To defend the Turkish people’s right to life, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression, The Advocates will lobby governments to press the Turkish Government to make further commitments to uphold the country’s international human rights obligations.

As an intern in the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, my work focuses on preparing for and evaluating the success of our lobbying efforts at the UN. Researching the death penalty in Turkey feels like a departure from the norm; past lobbying efforts have been successful and the death penalty was abolished officially, and yet the threat remains. In instances like these, The Advocates and its partners recognize how vital it is to act and advocate proactively to prevent future human rights violations. It is a reminder that even in countries and regions where we can celebrate progress, the protection and maintenance of human rights is ongoing and critical work, whether across the globe or in our own backyards.

You have the power to take action in the face of human rights violations. Learn what you can do to assist The Advocates for Human Rights in our work here. Learn more about our work to end the death penalty here.

By Grace Curtiss, rising junior at the University of Minnesota and summer 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

Capital punishment: victims and their families deserve better

WDADP 2019 posterIn announcing the Justice Department’s decision to resume executions for people sentenced to death under federal law last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr said, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Barr’s words reflect a common misunderstanding about justice and the interests of family members of people who have been killed in horrific crimes.

People often assume that after execution, family members will be able to “move on” or achieve some kind of “closure.” But not all family members share those sentiments. Research confirms that often after the execution family members realize that state-sanctioned killing did not bring them peace. In fact, prosecutors and officials like Barr who want to seem “tough on crime” too often use victims and their family members as pawns.

Tsarnaev jurors kept in the dark about family members’ wishes

One of the people most recently sentenced to death under federal law was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of crimes related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was one of three people killed near the finish line, had urged federal authorities not to pursue the death penalty for Tsarnaev:

We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.

The sister of police officer Sean Collier, another person Tsarnaev and his brother killed, also spoke out against the death penalty, as did two people who lost limbs in the bombing.

Yet despite these sentiments, prosecutors kept the Tsarnaev jury in the dark. When Bill Richard delivered his victim impact statement to the jury, he was not allowed to disclose his opposition to the death penalty.

Prosecutors not only benefit from but also perpetuate the misplaced assumption that all family members of victims want the death penalty. At least one juror in the Tsarnaev trial, Kevan Fagan, said knowing the Richards’ views probably would have changed his vote at the sentencing phase.

Victims’ families are organizing against the death penalty

Victims’ family members like Bill and Denise Richard who oppose the death penalty are often marginalized and mistreated in the criminal justice system. Renny Cushing, who opposed the death penalty long before his father’s murder, recognized that the structures that are designed to benefit victims and survivors are often reserved for people who support capital punishment:

These hard-won benefits are too often unavailable to victims if they oppose the death penalty. Whether this is because victim’s advocacy offices operate under the auspices of the prosecutor or because an assumption exists among advocates that all family members of murder victims will want the perpetrator executed, the result is the same. Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized, and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them.

(Earlier this year Cushing, who now serves in the New Hampshire legislature, successfully pushed for that state’s repeal of the death penalty.)

Several organizations organized by and for the families of murder victims are speaking out against the death penalty. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, has a mission to challenge the assumption that all families of murder victims support the death penalty. MVFHR plays an important role in educating the public and amplifying the voices of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, and its website includes a gallery of stories from victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty. Similarly, murder victim family members lead an organization called Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, a group that conducts public education speaking tours to address alternatives to the death penalty.  They testify side by side with family members of people on death row, family members of people who have been executed, and people who have been exonerated from death row.

Victims’ family members are better off without the death penalty

The President of Journey of Hope, Bill Pelke, co-founded the organization after four teenage girls murdered his grandmother. Pelke originally supported the death penalty for Paula Cooper, who was characterized as the girls’ ring-leader. But he “went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.” He then championed an international crusade and ultimately helped get Cooper’s sentence commuted from death to sixty years in prison. In Pelke’s words, “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. [It] just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims family members. We become what we hate.  We become killers.” Research backs up his words.

Dr. Marilyn Armour at the University of Texas and Dr. Mark Umbreit at the University of Minnesota conducted research comparing outcomes for family members of murder victims in Minnesota (which does not have the death penalty) and Texas (which does). Their interviews with family members of murder victims demonstrated that the death penalty results in more negative outcomes:

Although the [death penalty] is promulgated as the ultimate justice, this Study found that the critical dynamic was the control survivors felt they had over the process of getting to the end. In Minnesota, survivors had greater control, likely because the appeals process was successful, predictable, and completed within two years after conviction; whereas, the finality of the appeals process in Texas was drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable. It generated layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair. Although the grief and sorrow remained high for Minnesotans, no longer having to deal with the murderer, his outcome, or the criminal justice system allowed survivors’ control and energy to be put into the present to be used for personal healing.

These conclusions echo and reinforce the reasons the Richards gave in asking that prosecutors not seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of family members reported achieving closure after the execution of the perpetrator, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Lula Redmond, a therapist who works with victims’ family members in Florida, observed: “More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

Family members of murder victims deserve support and assistance.

As studies confirm, capital punishment is no panacea to “heal” family members of murder victims. Rather, true healing comes through support, assistance, and restorative justice. Instead of plowing scarce federal and state funds into costly death penalty cases, we would better spend our dollars on improving the scope and quality of victim services. Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler was murdered in 2007, remarked:

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

Take action

On July 25, the same day as Barr’s announcement, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced H.R. 4052, a bill to prohibit imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law. The bill currently has 12 cosponsors, including independent Rep. Justin Amash.

In introducing the bill, Rep. Pressley said, “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now and I am proud to introduce a bill that completely abolishes the use of capital punishment as a punitive measure. The cruelty is the point – this is by design.”

Encourage your Representative in Washington to cosponsor H.R. 4052 and contact your Senators and ask them to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate. If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, invite speakers from MVFHR, Journey of Hope, or Witness to Innocence to meet with your state elected officials.

The Advocates for Human Rights is proud to join with Journey of Hope, MVFHR, and Witness to Innocence as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Learn more about our work to abolish the death penalty here.

By Amy Bergquist. Amy is a Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and she currently serves as Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.