Timothy McVeigh, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (AP/David Longstreath)

"This is life row": When family members of murder victims oppose the death penalty

Some survivors choose to break the cycle of suffering -- one even found it in his heart to forgive Timothy McVeigh


Mario Marazziti
April 26, 2015 3:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty"

All ways of looking at the death penalty turn our eyes to the murder victim’s family members. Over the years, I have come to know many such people, including Arthur Laffin, Marietta Jaeger, Renny Cushing, and Bud Welch. To spend time with them is to try to understand the pain and sense of loss they feel; the process of rage, anger, despair, sorrow, and emptiness; the difficulties they find in coming to terms with the absence of the loved one who disappeared so abruptly and unexpectedly; the resignation and the hope of healing. I have learned a lot about life and death from each of these people. And I think there is a treasure of wisdom that we can learn from them, an “art of living” that goes beyond the death penalty, and that concerns life itself and how to live it. This is life row.

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In 1999, Arthur “Art” Laffin’s brother, Paul, was stabbed multiple times by a resident as he was leaving St. Elizabeth’s homeless shelter in Hartford, Connecticut, where he had worked for ten years. He died shortly after. The man who killed him, Dennis Souta, was homeless and mentally ill. He would later be found mentally incompetent to stand trial and sentenced to sixty years at a Connecticut prison hospital.

Paul Laffin was killed at the gathering place of a community he believed in and was committed to serving. Now Art continues his work. A longtime organizer, speaker, and writer in faith-based movements for peace, justice, and nonviolence, Art is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, DC. He has participated in an annual “Starvin’ for Justice Fast and Vigil” at the US Supreme Court to call for the abolition of the death penalty; has taken part in the Journey of Hope in North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia; he has spoken in Italy during Sant’Egidio’s “Cities of Life” campaign. At the end of October 2014, we were both in Manila, where we succeeded in promoting the first Asia Pacific Region Dialogue, “No Justice Without Life,” with thousands of young people, officials, and authorities. Later I learned that, as early as 1997, Art was arrested for unfurling a thirty-foot banner across the steps of the US Supreme Court that read “Stop Executions.” Art told me why he does what he does:

My family and I, and all who knew Paul, still grieve his senseless, horrific death. My brother truly gave his life for those he served. What happened to my brother is not uncommon. It is a societal disgrace that some of the mentally ill homeless, who fall through the cracks and are not properly cared for, end up committing lethal acts.

My family and I were appalled, but could not desire the death of someone who was not capable of dealing with his life. Evil creates sorrow and pain. More pain and more killing does not alleviate sorrow.

After Paul’s highly publicized death, my mother and I appealed to the public to show mercy toward Dennis and to pray for him. I also requested that all necessary resources be made available to provide continuing care for Dennis, and all other mentally ill people, so that tragedies like what happened to Paul might be averted in the future. Only forgiveness gives closure. Hatred leaves you alone and prevents any closure.

Every family member of a murder victim ultimately reaches this decision: death row or life row? Art chose life row as the only way to break the cycle of suffering.

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Marietta Jaeger is “only” a mother, if it is possible to say such a thing. While her family was on vacation, camping in Montana, her seven-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped from the family’s tent. For one year, they knew nothing of Susie’s whereabouts. She had disappeared. Marietta felt hope and anguish in turn. Hope is the last emotion to die, but the very persistence of it can increase suffering, since without closure it is impossible to know how to begin grieving, only to hold ones breath and suspend the pain.

On the first anniversary of Susie’s disappearance, the kidnapper telephoned Marietta and inadvertently revealed sufficient information to enable the FBI to identify, locate, and arrest him. He, too, was mentally ill. There was evidence that he had killed Susie and three other young people in the same county. As he was arraigned, Marietta asked that he be offered the alternative allowed in capital cases in Montana and other states: that is, a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty. The prosecutor agreed and moved the court accordingly, and only then was the kidnapper willing to confess to Susie’s murder, as well as to the murders of the three other young people. He committed suicide hours later.

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Today, Marietta says that working to stop the death penalty is the only way she can find to honor her daughter. As she explained to me and a group of students,

“The loved ones who have been wrenched from our lives by violent crime deserve more beautiful, noble, and honorable memorials than premeditated, barbaric, state-sanctioned killings, which create more victims and more grieving families, and which make us become that which we deplore—people who kill people—a horrendous insult to the memory of all our beloved victims.”

Marietta did not always think and feel this way. She made a pilgrimage from grief and rage to hope for a less violent world.

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When you meet Robert “Renny” Cushing, he strikes you as a committed social activist and a politician in the pure sense of the word. He is a man who spends his days trying to think of the “common good,” not simply his own interests. But Renny is more than a politician, even of the best, old-fashioned kind. He is a man who lost his father to murder and cleaned the walls of the place where it took place. And he is a man whose brother-in-law was also later murdered.

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Now sixty years old, Renny is a child of the sixties who grew up in a liberal family, and all his life he has been a social activist. When I met him he had a full beard, and I remember seeing a picture of him and his father from the eighties, in which he wore a long, bushy moustache like Elliot Gould, or Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Renny’s father, Robert, was murdered a few days after the picture was taken. He was killed by two shotgun blasts fired by a stranger through the family’s screen door. The two people who were convicted of the murder—an off-duty police officer and his wife—had animus against political liberals like the Cushings. They are now serving sentences of life without parole.

For his part, Renny has become a pioneer in the effort to bridge the death penalty abolition movement and the victims’ rights movement. He served two terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and he has testified before the US Congress and several state legislatures and addressed hundreds of audiences regarding victim opposition to the death penalty. While a lawmaker, he sponsored a measure that would have abolished the death penalty in his state. He now serves as Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), and on their website he tells his story:

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Before my father’s murder I had evolved a set of values that included a respect for life and an opposition to the death penalty. For me to change my beliefs because my father was murdered would only give more power to his killers, for they would then take not only his life but also his main legacy to me: the values he instilled. The same is true for society. If we let murderers turn us to murder, we give them too much power. They succeed in bringing us to their way of thinking and acting, and we become what we say we abhor.

It is a good, clear argument and an honorable position to take. But it does not explain how a victim can stand for the abolition of the death penalty rather than seek retribution after the loss of a loved one. Meeting him, hearing his story, one wonders if Renny has a strange, prodigious gift for seeing issues at a distance. He wants no retribution, no eye for an eye. He wants to go ahead and “forgive the unforgivable.” So it is useful to take a look at Renny’s everyday life, as the journalist Claudia Dreyfus did, and see what it says about Renny Cushing’s pilgrimage to Life Row.

“After my father was killed, it seemed real important not to lose this house,” Cushing explains. He is a slim man with a long melancholy face and a strong New England accent. “My dad and my grandfather built it. The killer may have taken my dad from us, but he wasn’t going to take my roots, too. Staying here was one way of regaining control over my life. Besides, with time, the house has become something else. The floors that were once stained with my father’s blood are also where my daughters learned how to walk.”

. . .

“There’s this myth out there that the families of victims need another killing for their healing,” Cushing explains over coffee in his bright kitchen. A huge cat sleeps in a rocking chair, and his daughter Grace, 3, hums a Barney song in the next room. “The truth is, a lot of people are horrified by the very idea of an execution,” he adds. “We know firsthand what violent death means, and we don’t want to see society do it.”

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Operating out of a small basement office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a staff of three, MVFHR’s membership list includes Samuel R. Sheppard, son of Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose trial for the murder of his wife inspired two TV series and the movie The Fugitive.

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As executive director of MVFHR, Renny travels the country and world speaking out against capital punishment. He publishes a newsletter and counsels victims’ families, as well as the families of the condemned, about how to survive their trauma. He’s good at his job. When the man who murdered former congressman Allard Lowenstein was unexpectedly freed by a New York judge in the year 2000, Cushing immediately visited Lowenstein’s son, MVFHR member Thomas Lowenstein. “He just showed up and comforted me,” says Lowenstein. “He’s lived through the difficulties of the criminal justice system himself and has a lot of insights on how you keep your values intact despite it.” Lowenstein says both men count on humor to get through the bad times. “He’s got just enough nuttiness not to take himself too seriously.”

Cushing’s achievements are substantial. He used the testimony of his members to defeat two bills that would have imposed capital punishment in Massachusetts. Across the country he has supported victims’ families during trials, hearings, and executions—most recently in Nebraska, where MVFHR helped two murder survivors, both Quakers, who had opposed the death penalty for the killer of their relative and were refused a hearing because of their position. “There’s this assumption that if you don’t want more killing, you didn’t really love the murdered person,” says Cushing, who is a tireless advocate for better victim compensation laws. “We think that victims would be much better off with counseling and financial assistance, which they often need for funerals and legal help, than with an invitation to an execution.” It was not a happy day for him when his bill to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire stalled in the State Senate on April 17, 2014, after an incredible success in the House of Representatives. But happiness, he told me, had merely been postponed.

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Julie Marie Welch was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. She was twenty-three years old. In total, 168 people died in that bombing, and hundreds more were injured. There are countless victims if we consider the relatives and loved ones of the killed or injured.

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Julie was what any parent desires: a brilliant young woman of great promise and solid values. She knew five languages and had majored in Spanish in college; she was working to help others as an interpreter for the Social Security Administration.

Her father Bud’s memory of that day is vivid; it cannot be otherwise:

On the morning of April 19, 1995, my daughter, Julie Marie, went to St. Charles Borromeo for Mass at 7:00 am. At 8:00 am, she went to work at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where she assisted the Social Security Administration as a translator. At 9:00 am, she went to the front of the building to greet a Mexican man who spoke no English. On their way back to her office in the rear of the building, a 5,000-pound fertilizer bomb was detonated, killing Julie and the client.

In the months following Julie’s death, I was one of many seeking vengeance for the people who took my daughter. I turned to alcohol and cigarettes to ease my pain. I was angry with God for allowing this terrible thing to happen to me. But after several months, I began to hear Julie’s voice. Years before, as a child herself, I remember her telling me that she thought that executions only taught children to hate.

My conviction is simple: More violence is not what Julie would have wanted. More violence will not bring Julie back. More violence only makes our society more violent.

This is how Bud sees things today. But it is not what he was thinking in the months after the killing. “I didn’t even want a trial,” he said. “I wanted the (expletives) fried.”

Bud openly and widely shares that the killing of his daughter was killing him by keeping him enslaved to hatred. “After Julie was killed,” he told me, “the rage, the revenge, the hate—you can’t think of enough adjectives to describe what I felt like. When the President and the Attorney General announced that they would seek the death penalty for the perpetrators, that sounded wonderful to me, because here I had been crushed, I had been hurt, and that was the big fix. It took several months, but I came to realize that McVeigh’s execution wouldn’t help me. The death penalty is about revenge and hate, and those are the very reasons Julie and 167 others are dead today.”

Bud had opposed the death penalty all his life, but when death touched his own life so brutally, he had been tempted to think differently.

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“Three days after the bombing, as I watched Tim McVeigh being led out of the courthouse, I hoped someone in a high building with a rifle would shoot him dead . . . In fact, I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.” For a while, he felt that if he didn’t seek the perpetrators’ deaths, he somehow was guilty of not loving his daughter enough. In Rome, sitting at a table outside the Trattoria degli Amici, he told me:

“I went through that typical revenge that I was seeking for almost a year after the Oklahoma City bombing. And I was finally able to start thinking more rationally about things and became, once again, opposed to it.”

If you talk to Bud now, he will explain, mincing no words, what purpose he believes the death penalty actually serves:

The death penalty is a key part of prosecutors’ being re-elected, because they, in their re-election campaigns, pound on the podium, and what they want to do actually is prove to us that they’re the baddest ass in the jungle, if you will, and prove that they’re tough on crime, by constantly talking about the death penalty.

How did this man come to think and feel this way—this father whose daughter was murdered in an act so extreme and so senseless? “It was not an epiphany,” he told me. “What I had—the most important thing that people have, after a loss—is time. One has to be given time to get rid of the initial anger. That’s a very normal thing.”

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Bud now speaks about the death penalty to groups all over America, and he always tells the next part of the story at length:

Unable to deal with the pain of Julie’s death, I started self-medicating with alcohol until eventually the hangovers were lasting all day. Then, on a cold day in January 1996, I came to the bomb site, as I did every day, and I looked across the wasteland where the Murrah Building once stood. My head was splitting from drinking the night before and I thought, “I have to do something different, because what I’m doing isn’t working.”

For the next few weeks I started to reconcile things in my mind, and finally concluded that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the 167 others. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been against the US government for what happened in Waco, Texas in 1993, and seeing what they’d done with their vengeance, I knew I had to send mine in a different direction. Shortly afterward I started speaking out against the death penalty.

I also remembered that shortly after the bombing I’d seen a news report on Tim McVeigh’s father, Bill. He was shown stooping over a flowerbed, and when he stood up I could see that he’d been physically bent over in pain. I recognized it because I was feeling that pain, too.

Bud told me, “Yes, it was not an epiphany, but it was an epiphany, too. I realized what the McVeigh family went through. Can you imagine? To be the family of the one responsible for the killing of 168 people?”

Ironically, it was the kindness of Bill McVeigh that helped Bud to break through and to make his own decision to live on life row. Here is Bud’s account of visiting the McVeigh family home, where he spent time with both Bill and Tim’s younger sister, Jennifer.

Earlier, when we were in the garden, Bill had asked me, “Bud, are you able to cry?” I’d told him, “I don’t usually have a problem crying.” His reply was, “I can’t cry, even though I’ve got a lot to cry about.” But later, sitting at the kitchen table, looking at Tim’s photo, a big tear rolled down his face. It was the love of a father for a son.

When I got ready to leave I shook Bill’s hand, then extended it to Jennifer, but she just grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She was the same sort of age as Julie but felt so much taller. I don’t know which one of us started crying first. Then I held her face in my hands and said, “Look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. I don’t want your brother to die, and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.” As I walked away from the house I realized that until that moment I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was, because while I can speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger he probably doesn’t even say he had a son.

About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.

Relatives of the Oklahoma City bombing victims were granted the right to watch Timothy McVeigh’s execution. Since the case involved so many victims, the federal government made arrangements for the execution to be shown in a much bigger place than the typical small room near the death chamber, via closed-circuit television. But an overwhelming majority of the families—in fact 88 percent, including Bud Welch—chose not to participate, not to watch. In this way, the argument that an execution serves as a brutal but necessary act of closure for the victims’ families was firmly and convincingly rejected.

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The family members of murder victims are not just survivors, but victims too. They face a life’s journey—a never-ending pilgrimage—of healing. But Art, Marietta, Renny, and Bud prove that it can be done. None of them could be faulted for feeling rage and hatred, or for desiring the deaths of those responsible for their pain. But instead they have courageously chosen to move past these feelings. In their fight against the death penalty, each of them has found a path through suffering, and a way to honor the loved ones they lost: by making the world a better, less violent place.

Excerpted from "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty" by Mario Marazziti. Published by Seven Stories Press, 2015. Copyright 2015 by Mario Marazziti.


Mario Marazziti

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