Susannah Sheffer (Massachussetts, United States), author of Fighting for their lives, Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys, shares her experience as Project director and Staff Writer at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and her vision on capital punishment. She recently participated in the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty, in Madrid, where she promoted her book and talked about her work with victims’ families and family members of people who have been executed.
Could you share with our readers how you got involved in the death penalty abolition movement?
When I became interested in the death penalty and in working against it, I discovered an organization of families of homicide victims. I discovered two things, extremely powerful at the time. One was having the chance to learn intimately what the experience of the survivor of the murder victim is like. I had been working very closely with offenders, and it is very important also to get to know and work with people who had been directly affected by a violent crime and also hearing victims’ family members who did not support the death penalty. In this country (the United States) there is an expectation that family members will support the death penalty, call for it. It was very powerful to hear people challenging that.
Family members of murder victims. Why?
I don’t think we can end death penalty without the voice of the victims’ family members. They are so important to this discussion because they offer an authentic challenge to the claim that death penalty will help victims’ families or that we have to do it for the victims. Too often, people say to someone who is opposing the death penalty, “How would you feel if someone in your family were murdered?” Family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty can say, “I have gone through that terrible experience, and I don’t support the death penalty.”
Voices of victims are also important because the story of the death penalty doesn’t start with the execution. It starts with the murder. Sometimes, people from the abolition movement will begin later in the tale – they may start the story with the situation of the person on death row who is facing execution. We encourage groups, when they talk about capital cases, to name the victim of the murder.
In your experience, what are the main reasons why murder victims’ families oppose death penalty?
To lose a family member to murder is an incomparably devastating experience. Losing any loved one is horrible. Losing a loved one to violence is terrible, infallible and traumatic. Personally, socially, there is so much we, as a society, should be doing for victims. People talk about death penalty in terms of “it’s the one thing”, “it’s what will help.” There’s this terrible word in English, “closure.” It’s terrible because it gets used all the time from the late 90’s as in “victims need ‘closure’. The death penalty will give them closure”. Increasingly, families of murder victims are saying: “first of all, there is no such a thing as ‘closure’. Second of all, death penalty is not going to do it”. Victims have all kinds of reasons for opposing the death penalty, it comes from their own perspective, and how they see the world and what their experience is; some victims say: “we don’t want another killing.” Or, “the system is so flawed that I cannot support that.”
Why is death penalty so embedded as a form of justice in American society?
I don’t know the answer. It’s a pretty natural human response in some ways to want to get back at someone. It’s a human impulse to have that feeling, “this terrible thing happened and I have to do something to express how terrible this was.” Language over the death penalty has to do with a response to “this was really bad”. I think people crave some kind of response and don’t always know what else to do. They say: “this shouldn’t happen again, we want to express our horror and outrage”. We haven’t been taught or developed other ways to do that.
What role do organizations such as Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights play in abolishing death penalty?
I was mentioning before I don’t think we can abolish the death penalty without the voices of victims. The role we play is bringing them to debate, to discussion. Many of our members do extensive public speaking: student groups, church groups, colleges, various places where public speaking happens; when there is legislative review going on in a State, victims will be part of those kinds of panels; a lot of it is education in general. We have developed written materials with interviews to our members, where we compile their statement, their testimony, their stories in various forms, sometimes on different topics, different focuses to get their voices out there. And also, we try to have lawmakers understand you can be against death penalty and pro-victim. Sometimes a politician fears that to be against the death penalty is going to seem like you’re against victims. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights was founded by and is led by family members of murder victims.
MVFHR’s membership also includes family members of people who have been executed. We play a role that really not many organizations at all play in bringing the voices of the families of people who have been executed to the discussion. Most listeners say, “I never thought of the families of the people who were executed. It never crossed my mind that there were families that were being affected by the executions.” These families are not even in the public imagination.
Does the movement against the death penalty outside the United States have the potential to affect policy in the United States?
People have different views about that. Each state within the United States is different, of course, and what other countries do may not be a state’s greatest influence . On the other hand, there have been times when international pressure has had an effect. We saw that with the United States Supreme Court decision that ruled the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional several years ago. One of the Justices acknowledged the international trend away from sentencing juvenile offenders to death. In general, the international death penalty abolition movement is very important and certainly very meaningful for us in the United States. It has been particularly valuable for MVFHR members from different countries to meet one another. Some years ago we organized a panel presentation, for example, in which a mother of an executed son from Uzbekistan traveled to the United States and met people from Texas whose relatives had been executed. That was a very powerful exchange.
What is your prediction regarding death penalty in the United States twenty years from now?
Certainly the current trend shows a decline in the use of the death penalty. There are fewer death sentences, fewer executions. This is all detailed on the Death Penalty Information Center’s website, and that organization also presented this information at the World Congress. In some respects, compared to a couple of decades ago there is a greater awareness of the fact that not all victims are in favor of death penalty.
Massachusetts came very close to bringing the death penalty back in Massachusetts in 1997. Some look at that time period as the peak of the death penalty in recent times, and it began to decrease after that. Now when there is any effort to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts, there is so much testimony against it that there isn’t much chance of that bill passing. Meanwhile, several states have repealed the death penalty in recent years, and more repeal efforts are underway. So there is certainly that trend. But one terrible murder that gets everyone very frightened and stirred up again can lead to calls for the death penalty. That’s why it’s hard to make a firm prediction.
What would you say to European citizens who demand harder punishments for violent crimes?
I would say, “I understand your outrage, I understand the feeling that makes you say that, feel that”. And then I would say that the death penalty doesn’t decrease murder. States with the death penalty don’t have a lower murder rate, so it’s not in fact a way to reduce violence or even to deter murderers. It doesn’t work that way. I would urge people to learn about what the death penalty is actually like for all the individuals who are involved with it and who are affected by it.. Learn about the public health implications of this practice that is affecting and traumatizing more people than we realize. And, if that in itself is not persuasive, I would also say that the death penalty requires an extraordinary amount of money, time, and other resources that could be used to help victims and prevent further violence.
This interview was piblished in Cuaderno de Lluvia, a Spanish online magazine