Monday, November 26, 2007

Voice of Experience: Murder Victim Family Member Explains Why Death Penalty Creates More Pain

Anyone who thinks the death penalty is supposed to help murder victims families should consult this - written by a father whose daughter was murdered....


Death penalty punishes victims' families, too

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My daughter Deirdre was 25 when she was murdered. She was an artist, a painter, and was hoping to get a job in an art gallery. Her paintings still hang on the walls around our house. They're damn good. And I don't say that just because my little girl made them.

A bipartisan commission conducted a study of New Jersey's death penalty last year. One of the things it considered was what would best serve people like me, families who have had their lives ripped apart by murder. They sensibly decided that New Jersey should get rid of its death penalty and replace it with life without parole. The Legislature should heed their call.

I say this not because I think these people deserve to live. I don't. But I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill one of them, and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.

If you haven't lived it, you can't know. But I lived it. And I know.

A serial killer ripped Deirdre away from us in 1982. My family had no idea, then, that our ordeal was just beginning. All we knew was that the worst of the worst had happened, and the person who did it should pay the ultimate price -- the death penalty.

From 1982 until 1990 I lived day to day, appeal to appeal, decision to decision. We woke up every day wondering what might happen that day. Will there be another appeal? Another motion? What new decision might come down?

The toll it took on me and my family was horrendous. And my experience was not unique. A Department of Justice study found that 70 percent of husbands and wives in my situation divorce, separate or start abusing drugs or alcohol. Family members have different views on capital punishment, and the process eats away at us and tears us apart.

The last straw for me came in 1990, eight years after the first trial. We were sitting through another retrial of the penalty phase. The judge had asked the jury during jury selection, "Could you be fair and impartial even if you knew that this man had committed another murder in Florida? Even if you knew that he had committed murder 12 days before his first trial? Even if you knew that he had already been convicted of murder in this case?"

I listened to those questions and I thought, my God, of course this man should be put to death. As the trial proceeded, I thought, this is a lock. Soon we'll be done. And my emotion built as my confidence in the outcome solidified. And three hours later the jury came back deadlocked, and the man who killed my daughter was re-sentenced to life without parole. The trauma of that moment was indescribable. It was the first time I cried in a long time.

Eight years of trials and retrials changed my mind about the death penalty. I learned the hard way that the death penalty is an albatross over the heads of victims' families.

I often hear death penalty proponents say that it is needed to bring closure to victims' families. And I hear victims' families who morally oppose the death penalty say there is no such thing as closure.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. When the final appeal, the final retrial is over -- really over-- you come as close to closure as possible. There will always be articles, scenes, experiences that remind you of it. In 2005 alone there were two documentaries made about our case. And your loved one never comes back. So it's never fully over. But it's very different once you're not in the middle of the process.

In that respect, there is some closure, and the death penalty forces that closure further away than any other punishment on the books.

I have no sympathy for killers. I certainly will never forgive the one who took my pretty, compassionate, precious daughter away from me. But the punishment that most promised me a sense of justice only made my pain worse. Much worse.

The state of New Jersey can make sure that not one more surviving family goes through what I had to endure. I learned the hard way. Let the Legislature learn from me, as the commission did -- end the death penalty. Life without parole is effective, swift and sure. And that is what victims' families need more than anything else.

Jim O'Brien served as director of the New Jersey Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Board. Now living in Maryland, he is a former Mendham resident and a former Morris County freeholder.

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