VOICES OF VICTIMS’ FAMILIES

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Losing a loved one to murder brings unimaginable pain to a victim’s family. Without question, we believe that every North Carolina murder victim’s family should get the support they need to heal. Yet, for the vast majority of grieving families of murder victims in North Carolina, the death penalty plays no role in that process.

More than 500 people are murdered each year in North Carolina, and juries sentence at most one person a year to death — meaning that the death penalty has no impact for the overwhelming majority of North Carolina murder victims and their families. In the few cases where a death sentence is imposed, victim families must endure decades of appeals, each bringing a fresh round of attention to the loss and crime. In some cases, an execution does not happen within their lifetimes.

A growing number of families of murder victims in North Carolina say the death penalty only creates more pain, both for them and for the families of defendants. Many say that the millions spent each year on pursuing death sentences could be better spent on programs that reduce violent crime or on victims’ services. Right now, there is often no funding to provide victim advocates, assistance with funeral costs, or counseling.


FATHER

North Carolina murder victim's father Andre Smith

Daniel “Peace” Smith was dancing in a Raleigh nightclub when he accidentally spilled another man’s beer. Thirty minutes later, that man stabbed Peace to death in the club’s bathroom. Peace’s parents were notified of their son’s death in the early hours of a Friday morning. Before noon, his father, Andre says he had forgiven the man who murdered his son.

Andre is a practicing Buddhist, and was already teaching meditation and anger management to incarcerated men at Nash Correctional when he lost his son. Losing Peace, he said, makes him even more dedicated to his practice and his teaching.

Some people are still living their loss after seven years, twenty years—they still can’t let it go. What can you do? There is nothing I can do or say. People hear my story of forgiveness, but they don’t see how they could get there or even if they should get there. I thought my daughter would be angry at me for forgiving her brother’s killer but, after a time, she told her mom, I’m not mad at Dad. I am just angry at myself because I can’t get there. You do question yourself and ask, What is wrong with me? Is it because I do not love my son? It is not an easy path.

North Carolina murder victim's father Andre Smith
Andre looks at a pencil drawing of his son, a gift from an artist he mentored while the artist was in Nash Correctional.

 

I lost my son. And not wanting the guy who killed my son to suffer, this is contentment for me. I feel content. I’m not trying to get my son back, I know that’s never going to happen. I’m not trying to seek revenge. I am content. And so therefore I am able to experience some happiness as a result of that.

Also, we’re all looking for closure, if this has ever happened to us. I don’t think you find closure in this person’s death. That’s not closure. Closure is when I feel happy, and when I’m not suffering. And the only way that I know of that I can feel happy and not suffer is to wish this guy no harm. And if possible, to serve him in some way. To help him to be able to never to do this again. To help him to be able to see, God, what I did was wrong. That’s what I want to do. That is what’s gonna make me happy. That is what’s going to make society happy. Because this person will never go out and kill again. Because this person understands what that is now. And this person has a new set of tools now that he can use, that he can apply to make sure that he never does that again. 

And that is what we should ultimately want. We erroneously think that if we take this guy’s life, then I have closure, and society has closure. But it doesn’t stop the killing. Yeah, that guy won’t kill again because he’s dead, right? But there will be someone else.

If I can teach Wallace Bass, the man who killed my son, if I can teach him how to deal with his anger. How to do differently, how to become a better human being, then he will pass it on to someone else. And this is how we will begin to see a world without this kind of stuff.

It’s a slow process. But it is a process. And it is moving forward. And it does make a difference. Just taking someone’s life, it doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t move us forward.


MOTHER

North Carolina murder victim's mother Lynda Simmons
The last photo Lynda Simmons has of her son, Brian Eddie Colletti

In 2004, my beautiful son Brian was senselessly murdered in Wilmington. He was 24.

I’m not a supporter of the death penalty. I believe all life is sacred and it’s not up to me to decide who lives or dies. Through my experience, I realized Brian’s family and friends were not the only victims in our case. The courtroom was filled with victims from both sides at the sentencing hearing; people struggling with the devastation of homicide who became victims through no choice of their own. My heart went out to the mother and grandmother of my son’s murderer; I would never want them to suffer as I have. There are other ways to hold offenders accountable within the justice system, and for me, accountability is the key to justice.

What’s more, capital cases often take many years to resolve. Each time there’s another legal proceeding, family members are subjected to more heart-rending testimony and news headlines.

Hanging over it all is the threat that our imperfect system will execute an innocent person. This isn’t a possibility; it has happened, more than once and one innocent life is one too many. How does that awful prospect honor the memories of our lost children?

We can honor the victims by shifting our priority to the families left behind, lending support as they navigate this often hostile and confusing journey. We need more resources to help those profoundly affected by crime, expand our view of victims to include the family and friends of the offender as well. We need to stop the process of re-victimizing those whose grief is only complicated by the legal process.

So much money, time and resources are put into the death penalty that could be better used to serve victims in their healing. It’s in our personal healing where crime prevention begins and solutions are found.

 

In this audio clip, Lynda shares her experience addressing James, the young man who murdered her son, at James’ sentencing hearing:

North Carolina murder victim's mother Lynda Simmons
A heartfelt letter to Lynda from a man on death row

Listen to Lynda read the letter she received from Alim, a man on North Carolina’s death row.

Lynda Simmons and Jon Powell. Jon directs Campbell Law’s Restorative Justice Clinic in Raleigh

 

Excerpts from Lynda Simmons’ 2015 letter to Citizen Times


BROTHER

North Carolina murder victim's brother Pat McCoy
Pat McCoy at the Capital Restorative Justice Project’s annual gathering

My sister, Kathy Lu McCoy, was abducted off of the streets of Spokane, Washington in 1974, and found murdered several hours later. The crime was extremely brutal, and her last few hours of life were hell on earth.

Her killer, Harry Edward Brooks, was apprehended shortly after she was found, received a life sentence, and remains in prison 41 years later.

While not a hate crime by legal definition, it was a hate crime, similar to the thousands of homicides, and tens of thousands of rapes and other violent acts, committed against women each year simply because they are women. The inability of women to move about independently without having extra fear of violence because of their gender remains a great civil rights problem.

The cruelty of the crime against my sister made me feel, among other emotions, a visceral desire for retribution. It did not, however, change my opposition to, or my family’s opposition to, the death penalty.

Those who have lost loved ones to violence of course have every right to feel however they do about that crime, and about what the fate of their loved one’s killer should be. Among life’s nightmares, such outrageous injustice ranks at the top for horror and damage from which there is no full recovery.

When a killer targets victims because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or other reasons motivated solely by hatred, that nightmare is even worse, because it rips the very fabric that binds us together as a nation and a people, and does violence to us all, never mind the added layer of violence to the victims’ survivors. There are no adequate words for such crimes against humanity.

We hang on to the death penalty as a deterrent, with no persuasive evidence that it deters, and out of moral outrage and a belief that some crimes cannot be adequately punished without it. The logic and sentiment here make sense, but they do not make the death penalty any less imperfect in the way we employ it. It’s bad public policy, in large part because it contains too many of the same biases and flaws that killers who receive it do. More and more people, including many family members of murder victims, hope we will stop using it, and make that fabric of our society stronger by doing so. My family and I are among them.

 

This article was originally posted in the Charlotte Observer on June 21, 2016: My sister’s murder and the death penalty.

 


SISTER

North Carolina murder victim's sister Jean Parks
Jean, holding a photograph of her sister, Betsy. Photo by Jean’s husband, Art Grand

 

Jean Parks is an Asheville psychologist whose sister, Betsy Rosenberg, was murdered in 1975. Betsy was a student at NC State at the time; Jean was attending Davidson College. The man convicted of killing Betsy is currently serving a life sentence; he has maintained his innocence.

I discovered that I opposed the death penalty while at a Parents of Murdered Children support group meeting in Texas. Someone from the Department of Corrections was explaining that they allow victim family members to observe executions, and that when they do, the families visit the prison the day before to get a sense of the layout. “A staff member is always with them,” he said, “offering coffee, donuts, and assistance.” The speaker then paused, and almost as an afterthought, said, “we don’t do anything for the families of the condemned.” Families of the condemned. I immediately began imagining what it would be like to have a loved one about to be executed by the state, knowing there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it; the feelings I imagined were so similar to what my family experienced after Betsy was killed: grief, rage, helplessness. I was horrified to think that our state, “We the People,” is using a form of punishment that creates new grieving families unnecessarily.

From there, I learned more about the death penalty, and more reasons to oppose it: racial inequities, how it’s administered, the prolonged process of appeals that hurts the victims’ families all over again, the economic demands it places on our society, and, of course, the fact that innocent people have been executed. On top of that, for so many, there’s just no real closure.

Once I understood that many people are surprised when a murder victim family member opposes the death penalty, I’ve spoken up for reform, then repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina. I’ve met with a governor, spoken to legislators and written lots of letters to the editors of different newspapers. I’ve also worked to forgive the man convicted of killing my sister. I recently found out, however, that he is maintaining his innocence. I don’t know how to forgive a nameless person, one whose story I don’t know.

If you believe North Carolina needs the death penalty, imagine your father, mother, brother, sister or child has been sentenced to death. Next, imagine your loved one is innocent, but you can’t prove it. An execution date has been set. Do you think we need the death penalty now?