Saturday, October 15, 2011

Death Penalty Statement - October 13, 2011

A number of people have asked about the statement I made in opposition to the death penalty, before the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission. Much of it was taken from "September Grieving," which appeared both in my LiveJournal and on the Book View Cafe blog. Because the different social media sites reach different audiences, I'm posting this statement here, behind the cut.

Twenty-five years ago, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a teenaged neighbor on drugs. It was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but it was only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother some years before. My mother was 70 years old and had been his friend since the time he was a small child.

I am opposed to capital punishment, and I'd like to tell you why. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences, different histories, different resources. If there is one thing I'd like you to take away from this hearing, it is that not all the families of murder victims want the people who did it to be executed.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the value of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There's no benefit to anyone in comparisons.

None of us can truly understand what another's loss is like, especially when it is as devastating and life-altering as the violent death of someone we love. But we can say, "Even though I don't know what you're going through, my heart goes out to you." Even though the families of murder victims may disagree on issues such as the death penalty, we should be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough rage, enough mending of hearts, to go around.

We share the craving for justice, the moments of overwhelming fury, the struggle against a world that seems capricious in its viciousness. We share the desperation to hold someone accountable, to assign blame, to punish that person to the utmost in the hope that somehow it will make us stop hurting. That desire to lash out and make the perpetrator suffer is a universal human impulse. It is something that many of us experience and then pass through on our way back to wholeness. Anger and adrenalin, with their energizing power, help us to get through the early stages of grief. However, both are anesthetizing, numbing to both emotion and spirit. I believe that if we remain there, frozen, we cannot wrestle with the deeper issues of healing from trauma.

Of course, justice is necessary. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it's okay for my mother's killer to walk the streets or that he should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the many, troubling problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether an execution helps or hinders the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. Year after year, decade after deacade of appeals and delays take their toll on the survivors, keeping them engaged with the murderer instead of going on with their lives. For me, focusing on wishing death to the one who killed my mother might well have kept me locked -- incarcerated -- in a permanent state of bitterness and hatred.

I ask myself, What do I need in my life? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered by a serial killer and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy with pain by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice -- to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it and to move beyond it.

My own experience of healing is that I get my own life back when I focus on re-engaging with the positive things that are meaningful to me, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event -- the execution of the murderer -- to somehow make me feel better or to "achieve closure," and instead focus on taking care of myself -- my health, my heart, my family, my spirit -- the better I fare.

So I've been talking about my own healing journey and what I've learned. I've been meeting with other family members of murder victims and with people who've been sentenced to death and then exonerated, and also with family members of those who've been executed. I've been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with the things I do want in my life.

Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother or more enduring gift to my children.

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