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Children's Voice Article, July/August, 2004

No more Eye for an Eye
The families of murder victims speak out against the death penalty for minors

By Susannah Sheffer

"When the prosecutor first asked me how I felt about the death penalty," David Knight recalls, "I said, 'You just tell me the day, and I'll come over and pull the switch if you need me to.'"

In the prosecutor's office, with the pain of his son's murder still fresh and searing, Knight was clear about what kind of punishment he felt the killers deserved. Twenty-one-year-old Jamie Knight was shot while working the evening shift at a Friendly's restaurant in Virginia, when a former employee and a younger accomplice held up the store at gunpoint. Jamie's killer was 17.

Nationwide, grieving families wrestle with the question of the appropriate response to killings by perpetrators under the age of 18. Juvenile killers span the gamut: Some are accomplices to older, more experienced offenders, and some act alone; some appear to have planned their acts care-fully in advance, whereas others appear caught up in a whirlwind of circumstance; some knew their victims, and some did not. Either way, the devastation for the surviving family is immeasurable.

During the trial of sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he committed multiple murders in the Washington, DC, area, an ABC news poll showed that most Americans favored a sentence of life without parole for Malvo rather than the death penalty. Not long afterward, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the question of whether to prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders.

When the Court made that announcement in January 2004, 29 states had already banned juvenile executions; in subsequent weeks, two more states passed such laws. All signs suggest we are indeed moving toward a "national consensus" against executing juveniles, as the Missouri Supreme Court put it in August of 2003.

Child welfare advocates and others concerned with how our society treats young people generally find little reason to question prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders. For many, it seems clearly wrong to give a young person the ultimate penalty, to write him or her off so totally, to forfeit any attempt at understanding or rehabilitation, to ignore what we know about cognitive development in teenagers. But it's also easy to feel outraged at what murder does to a family and to sympathize with the pain and rage that leads a father like David Knight to crave the harshest possible punishment for the people who took his son from him.

How to reconcile these two perspectives? Is it possible to oppose the death penalty for juveniles and not find oneself in opposition to victims' surviving family members? Is it correct to assume that a survivor's support for the death penalty is inevitable and universally shared?

A growing number of survivors say no. Members of the national organization Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation oppose the death penalty and are willing to say so publicly. Those whose relatives were murdered by juveniles express their opposition to both capital punishment in general and the death penalty for juveniles in particular. David Knight is now among them.

"I held on to that feeling with tenacity for three years," Knight says of his initial support for the death penalty. "It took me a long time to realize that holding onto a belief in the death penalty was creating a violence within my own soul--it was doing harm to me. Now I believe the death penalty only perpetuates the violence that has already taken place, and I don't believe the state has the right to take a life."

Knight changed his mind about the death penalty; other victims' family members knew immediately that they opposed it. Either way, victims' family members who oppose capital punishment contribute a unique and powerful perspective to the debate over sentencing juveniles to death.

Finding Empathy

Murder is, of course, a horrible tragedy for a family, no matter what the age of the killer, but discovering the killer was a teenager can add another layer of bafflement to an already shocking event. How could someone so young be capable of something so vicious and irrevocable?

When Bill Pelke learned that his grandmother had been murdered, he initially assumed it was "some 30-year-old drug addict guy who had broken into the house. When I read in the paper that it was four ninth-grade girls, I couldn't believe…girls so young could [commit] such a brutal crime."

But with the shock at the killer's youth can come a corresponding empathy with another family's suffering. Pelke first felt that empathy in the courtroom, when he heard the grandfather of the 15-year-old who had been charged as the leader in the crime cry out, "They're going to kill my baby!" He saw that an execution would do to another family what murder had done to his.

For Regina Hockett, empathy came when she learned that the young men who killed her 12-year-old daughter had gone to school with her own son. "I realized they could have been my children," Hockett remembers. Seeing them that way made it hard to wish for their deaths.

When Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins learned that her 23-year-old sister, Nancy, had been murdered by a 16-year-old, she tried to imagine what the killer's parents were going through. "Isn't it every parent's worst nightmare that your child is going to make a mistake that will be so permanent in its consequences?" she asks now. "Every parent knows there are going to be thumps and bruises along the way in raising a child, but you hope to minimize the problems. What if your kid becomes that one in a thousand who does something irrevocable?"

Jeanne Bishop, another sister of Nancy's, adds, "As angry as I was, I think it would have been a nightmare for me to know that some other family was going to suffer the way ours did, losing a loved one."

Linda White, whose 26-year-old daughter, Cathy, was raped and murdered by two 15-year-olds, agrees: "I wouldn't wish the loss of a child on other parents. I think about what it must be like to have your child executed. Those parents can't talk about their children the way parents of murdered children can. Parents of executed children have to deal with the transferred shame, the stigma, on top of the pain of losing their child."

Throwing Them Away

The suffering of families of the executed may be a compelling argument for some victims' family members, but what about adolescent brain development and reduced criminal culpability?

Of obvious relevance to child welfare advocates and medical professionals, such reasoning might seem less resonant among those who have suffered because of the actions of juveniles. What does it matter how culpable the young person was, in the strictest sense of the term, if in the end the resulting tragedy is the same?

"It's true that it doesn't make your loved one any less dead because it was a teenager who killed her," White says. "It doesn't change the severity of what happened, but it should affect our sense of how we deal with that person. The family of the victim hurts so bad--you're so shocked, and so empty. At the same time, the idea that you would hold a young person to the same standard of accountability that you would hold an adult is just incomprehensible to me."

Sharon Boryczewski agrees. Her 16-year-old daughter, Rachel, was murdered by two youths, ages 17 and 20, whom Rachel believed were her friends. Boryczewski had always opposed the death penalty, but she says her convictions were tested by Rachel's murder.

Ultimately, her convictions remained intact. Of juvenile killers, Boryczewski says, "I don't think kids fully understand what they're doing. I don't think they really grasp the finality of death or what they're doing to that person or their family. Of course kids need to be held accountable, but to that extent? Putting them on trial for their very life? That's tantamount to throwing away the kid."

Throwing away the kid is not something these families are willing to have done in their names. They oppose the death penalty because they don't want more killing, and they reject the idea that executions are a way of honoring their losses. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins remembers that shortly after her sister's death, a staffer for the local district attorney, who was running for reelection, said, "This is the time to introduce the juvenile death penalty here in Illinois. We will introduce it to honor your sister." Bishop-Jenkins told the staffer that her sister had loved children and that juvenile executions were not what she would have wanted.

These survivors don't want executions conducted in their names, and they don't want them performed in their society. As Robert Hoelscher, whose father was murdered by a 17-year-old, observes, "The death penalty not only abandons hope for that individual but also, symbolically, casts a shadow over so much of our other thinking."

A Different Enemy

Survivors of any kind of violence often are driven to ask why something so terrible happened to them. Knowing the perpetrator was a teenager, however, can make the drive for understanding especially strong. Survivors wonder, what causes violence in people this young? How did this come to happen? The search for answers has led some survivors to violence prevention efforts.

Almost as soon as he learned that the killer of his 20-year-old son was a 14-year-old gang member, Azim Khamisa began wondering, "How did we, as a country, get to this place where children as young as this boy, and younger, join gangs to feel respected and protected? Where the hell did we go wrong?"

"Eventually," Khamisa says, "I decided to become the enemy not of my son's killer, but of the forces that put a young boy on a dark street holding a handgun." As Khamisa learned more about the young killer's background, he came to believe it was essential to provide more assistance to youth just as troubled as this child.

"I didn't know much about youth violence before my son was killed," Khamisa says, "but now that I do know, I have to try to help other kids make different choices." Joining with Ples Felix, the grandfather of his son's killer, Khamisa established the Tariq Khamisa Foundation in his son's memory; the foundation conducts violence prevention programs for children in San Diego schools. [For an interview with Azim Khamisa, see "Voices for Children: Azim Khamisa," Children's Voice, Summer 1996.]

Other survivors have found their own ways to act on what they've learned. Juan and Martha Cotera, whose son was killed in a carjacking and drowning by two 17-year-olds, lobby for funding of early intervention programs. David and Jeannie Knight speak to juvenile prisoners about their experiences as victims of gun violence. Sadie Bankston, whose 19-year-old son was killed by a 16-year-old, founded a group in which mothers who have lost children to violence address at-risk youth. Whatever form their work takes, these survivors and others like them are saying that resources should be devoted to preventing violence rather than replicating it.

The effect of juvenile crime is enormous. At the center of every homicide are the victim and a surviving family that must struggle to cope in the aftermath. Searching for a way to respond to the theft of human life, some survivors have also searched for a way to respond to the human issues involved in both the crime and society's response to that crime. As they have confronted the fact that their loved one was killed by an adolescent, and been forced to consider the possible causes and implications of that reality, they have found themselves imagining and empathizing with the experience of another grieving family.

Like so many child welfare advocates, medical professionals, and human rights activists, they have concluded the death penalty is particularly inappropriate for juveniles. Speaking as people who have known violent loss intimately and who have been directly affected by juvenile crime, these victims' family members join the growing chorus of voices calling for an end to the death penalty for juveniles.

Susannah Sheffer is a writer for Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. For more information, contact the organization at 2161 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02140, or visit www.mvfr.org.

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