In a personal appeal splashed across the front page of the Boston Globe Friday morning, Bill and Denise Richard implored federal prosecutors to drop their request that convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsaernev receive the death penalty.
“We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal,” they wrote.
The Richards are not just any advocates. They are the parents of Martin Richards, killed in the bombing two years ago at 8 years old; Jane, who lost her leg at 7 years old; and Henry, who at 9 years old witnessed the violence.
Among all Bostonians, a growing majority — now at 61 percent — support life in prison for Tsaernev rather than death. But for the Richards, seeking the death penalty means likely many more years of anguish.
“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,” they explained. “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.”
The Richards’ public advocacy may come as a surprise to some. But their views are shared by many survivors in even the most egregious cases. Many victims’ families, like the Richards, oppose execution because of the enduring pain of a prolonged litigation battle. For others, it is their knowledge that the victim opposed the death penalty.
In other cases, the rationale is somewhere in between. They are offended by the idea that states are putting people to death on their behalf, for the benefit of their healing, or their revenge.
“There’s a false promise that this is going to heal you. This trial, this execution is going to make you feel better,” Kristin Froehlich, whose brother was murdered in Connecticut, told ThinkProgress at a conference for murder victims’ families last October.
Froelich said she was consumed with delirium and depression, “just trying to survive” after her brother’s murder and that seeking the death penalty kept her from any of the legal finality she needed. It wasn’t until years later when she was introduced to a group known as Murder Victims’ Families For Reconciliation that she was exposed to a process she believed could foster healing. She learned about “restorative justice,” in which the needs of the victims toward healing are prioritized over revenge. “I thought to myself this is what it should be all about. This is healing to me.”
Despite the disparate views of many victims’ families, prosecutors seeking the death penalty typically justify their decision in the name of justice for victims and their families. In the Boston case, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has promised to “vindicate” the victims, but said Friday she was legally precluded from responding from the Richards’ public request. Likewise, it was on behalf of victims that the death penalty was almost reinstated in Massachusetts state cases in the late 1990s, after the heinous kidnapping, sexual abuse, and murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley.
There’s a false promise that this is going to heal you. This trial, this execution is going to make you feel better.
Before that brutal crime in 1997, Jeffrey’s father Bob had given very little thought to the death penalty. He said he thought “he was supposed to be for the death penalty” because of what happened to him. Using Bob Curley as the face of a campaign, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci advocated for bringing back the death penalty by stating, “I have listened to law enforcement officials and to the families of victims, and they want the death penalty.”
Kate Lowenstein was also a murder victims’ family member; her father was killed as a child. Seeing Cellucci’s announcement, her brother in Massachusetts called her and said, “You know we’re murder victims’ family members and we don’t support the death penalty. And he’s not speaking for us.” Realizing that others who shared her views had no public platform, Lowenstein and her brother became active in Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization for victims against the death penalty.
After the advocacy of Lowenstein and many others, Massachusetts’ death penalty bill failed by just one vote — something that ultimately came as a relief for Curley. After Curley went through the murder trial and saw that the defendant who had played a more central role in the crime was facing a lesser punishment, he realized execution was anything but justice. He was the subject of a book about his experience, The Ride, and joined Lowenstein and others as a vocal advocate against the death penalty.
“When you see the legal process up close, it doesn’t take long to figure out that what’s right and what’s wrong — justice and the law, and what’s right — who can afford a good lawyer, who can’t afford a good lawyer — there’s a big difference,” he told WBUR.
Still, for family members like the Richards who seek to oppose the death penalty in their own cases, prosecutors may seek to silence or suppress their views.
In the eyes of society, their son’s name forever would be associated with cruelty and violence, rather than the human dignity and mercy he embodied in life.
In January of last year, Bob and Lola Autobee sought to speak out against the execution of their son’s murderer in Colorado, who they believed had committed the crime under the influence of severe mental illness. Despite their preference, prosecutors sought the death penalty relentlessly. Because of their views, the Arapahoe County district attorney sought to bar them from even testifying at the sentencing hearing for the defendant, Edward Montour. Montour had killed their son Eric in the prison kitchen. Both Eric and his father Bob had been prison guards. A court filing opposing the death penalty described their deep-seated objections:
Despite the inhumanity he saw around him, Eric would not speak disdainfully of inmates, but, instead, recognized their human dignity. … The crime affected the Autobees not just because of their beloved son’s loss, but also because of who they became after this loss. After Eric’s death, their warm feelings of love that Eric always nurtured quickly turned into cold feelings of vengeance and violence. Originally, the Autobees fervently supported the prosecution’s efforts to seek absolute retribution. Over time, however, and with reflection, they realized that Eric would not have wanted this for himself or for them; Eric would not have wanted someone killed in his name, nor would he have wanted his family to live in the darkness of hatred. The Autobees know this because they know how Eric lived: by loving life, saving lives, and extending mercy to the merciless.
The effect of the crime on the Autobees cannot be separated from this ongoing death penalty prosecution. Bob and his family have found healing in the forgiveness that they have extended to their son’s killer. However, the prosecution strives to forever undo this healing by seeking to avenge one killing with another, over the family’s pleas for mercy. For the Autobee family, a death sentence and the accompanying years of litigation, all supposedly done in their son’s name, would rob them of peace. For, in the eyes of society, their son’s name forever would be associated with cruelty and violence, rather than the human dignity and mercy he embodied in life.