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Murder Victim's Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) Texas Chapter

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Rev. Cathy Harrington

Cathy lost her daughter to murder.

“Don’t even think about protesting the death penalty” my broken-hearted sons told me each one separately on that very sad, fall afternoon that we had to bury and attempt to say goodbye to our precious, Leslie.

I’m a parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, a faith that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, even murderers. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has called for a moratorium on executions since 1961 by the passing of resolutions at its annual General Assembly. Prior to November 1, 2004, when the issue was thrust into my experience through the brutal murder of my youngest child, I was philosophically opposed to the death penalty, but I didn’t give it much attention. Many UU ministers and lay persons have devoted tremendous energy to abolishing the death penalty, but I never felt moved or called to throw my weight into this issue. I have always firmly held the conviction that if we are going to change the systemic injustice and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, we must begin with the health and well-being of children. This is where I have focused my energy and my passion and that has not changed. My sons were all I had left. I was too numb and broken to think about the impact of the death penalty or to even care, but eventually I knew I would face a moral dilemma.

Leslie Ann Mazzara and her roommate, Adrienne Insogna, were brutally stabbed to death in their home in Napa, California on Halloween night. The murderer was not apprehended for eleven months and during that time, both families and the surviving roommate were held in trauma space. From the start of the investigation it was believed that Leslie was the murderer’s target and that Adrienne died trying to help her. Finally, after 218 DNA samples and no suspect, Eric Copple, a friend of Adrienne’s, turned himself in after the police finally published evidence that the killer smoked Camel Turkish blend cigarettes, a new and rare brand. I hadn’t realized that I had been holding my breath until I received that call in the middle of the night to tell me that the murderer had been found.

Because of the special circumstances, DNA evidence, and multiple victims, the death penalty was considered an appropriate punishment. By the summer of 2006, after several trips from Michigan to California for pretrials and hearings, and enduring unwanted media attention, and the threat of further exploitation, even my sons were weary enough to consider a plea agreement in lieu of a trial and the death penalty. No grieving family should be forced to endure this. It makes no sense at all.

Compounding the tragedy, we were facing the potential of a lengthy and painful highly publicized death penalty trial that could go on for months or even years. With the potential of appeal after appeal, executions can take up to 23 years in California. My family wanted to be free to grieve Leslie’s death and move toward healing. We knew that would be impossible if we followed the traditional judicial process. I searched for answers by contacting the director of MVFR, Robert Hoelsher, who connected me with Tammy Krause, a victim outreach specialist who created DIVO, Defense Initiated Victim Outreach in response to staggering needs of the families of victims in the Oklahoma City bombing case. Pamela Blume Leonard borrowed a poem by Emily Dickinson for the title of an article that describes the principles of DIVO: All But Death, Can Be Adjusted. Tammy’s compassionate understanding of the needs of victims, “adjusts” all that can be adjusted. The best way this preacher knows how to describe the miracle of her intervention in our lives is to say that the work that Tammy accomplished ushered in the kingdom of God. When she invited the spirit of love and compassion and created a dialogue between both sides, it made all the difference.

With Tammy’s help we were able to negotiate a life sentence without parole waiving all rights to appeal. The agreement included several other important conditions compiled by both families. She empowered us in a judicial system that seems to perpetuate and compound the violence done to victims and their families. The sentencing hearing at the end of January 2007 marked the end of the judicial process sparing us months of trial, years of appeals, and decades of being shackled to the murderer. We were finally able to stop the cycle of violence by finding the most compassionate solution for all concerned including the murderer and his family.

Looking back on that first year, I see that could barely breathe and was kept alive by the sheer grace of love that was showered on me by my friends, family, and strangers. That’s all I remember besides the nightmares that plagued my sleep and waking hours; those small gifts of love that somehow permeated the dense layer of numbness and pain. I was a zombie, the world around me was pale, flat, and barren; I likened it to a nuclear winter. I had to remind myself to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate, much less read the many books people gave to me that might offer a word of comfort or “the wisdom of grief.” One book did provide the hope that I could indeed survive when I certain I wouldn’t. That book was called, A Broken Heart Still Beats, by Annie McCracken. The title alone brought me comfort.

When Sister Helen Prejean graciously offered to meet with me, she was a voice of sanity in the wilderness, “Of course your sons want the ultimate punishment for their sister’s murderer”. Sister Helen helped me understand their need to seek revenge. She said that until we become a more compassionate nation and abandon the barbaric and cruel practice of the death penalty, people will continue to falsely believe that revenge will somehow bring relief. She poked a hole in my darkness when she told me the story of how people treated the murderer’s mother in the case that became known as Dead Man Walking. People cut up dead animals and threw them on her porch; they ridiculed her and spewed hatred at her when she tried to buy groceries. I learned that there is one thing worse than being the mother of a murdered child; it is to become the mother of a murderer. My heart was pierced with a measure of compassion. A pinhole of light began to illuminate my path and gradually my eyes began to adjust to the new landscape that was to be the rest of my life. The words of friends that were survivors of murdered children began to ring true: You never get over it, Cathy, you just get used to it.

Your life is now divided in two, before November 1, 2004 and after November 1, 2004.
What I have learned is that when we are held hostage by a judicial system that offers the false hope that relief will come the day that the murderer is murdered, we are doomed to exist in purgatory. When my daughter’s murderer accepted the plea agreement that we, her family, participated in crafting, the oxygen available to us increased in great measure. When we were given the opportunity to give our impact statements in the courtroom, in front of the murderer, the judge, the community, and the media, we were given our lives back. Nothing could give us Leslie back, but slowly, after that day, the capacity to remember her with joy returned. We were given the chance, finally, to grieve without having to protect and defend ourselves at every turn. The judicial process was complete, finished with no threat of appeal, no threat that the murderer would be martyred or turned into a celebrity by our “roman circus” entertainment industry. We could move on with the process of grief and trying to make meaning out of such a senseless tragedy.

What I have learned from grief and tragedy is that life is a precious and sacred gift that shouldn’t squandered. We mustn’t give our lives away to hatred or revenge, and we mustn’t linger too long in sorrow, either. The present judicial process keeps the wounds of grief fresh and raw for the duration of the investigation and trial which could take months or years. The death penalty guarantees that wounds of grief will be ripped open again and again as the false hope of closure and relief is placed at risk each time the offender files an appeal; and when the offender becomes the victim as he awaits his state sanctioned murder on death row and goodhearted people abhor and protest the absurdity of it all. There is a higher path that makes much more sense.

Life is sacred and when we participate in the murder of another human being for any reason, it diminishes our own lives. Truthfully, it was tempting to want the murderer of my child to suffer, to be forced to sit day after day on death row in terror, waiting and wondering when they would come and kill him. I’m a minister, but I don’t claim to be a saint. I cannot say that I will ever forgive Eric Copple, but I have found compassion in my heart for the small boy that grew up to be a murderer; the boy that was betrayed by the very people who were supposed to love him and protect him. I am walking on the path toward forgiveness and I pray that one day I will arrive, but in the meantime I am still convinced that if we are to change our broken and hurting world, we must begin with the children. I’ve promised myself to remember Eric, the wounded child, every time I see a neglected or hurting child and offer that child love in whatever why I can.

Our nation incarcerates 1 out of 100 of its citizens. Children born in poverty, abuse, and neglect have little hope of becoming whole and healthy adults. Children that attend schools where the library shelves are bare due to the lack of tax money while an affluent school less than a mile away has the advantage of state of the art technology. It is no wonder that prisons have become one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. We taxpayers pay more per year to incarcerate people than we do to educate children. It doesn’t take rocket science to see what’s going on here, but it will require love and determination to change it. I am hopeful. Surprisingly, my faith has deepened over the past three and one half years and I have confidence in the basic goodness of humanity.

Leslie’s brothers and friends are working hard to build a cottage for abused and abandoned kids in South Carolina. Leslie’s Cottage will be home to ten children from grade school through high school and then each child will receive the opportunity of a four-year college education at Anderson University for free. This is how we will change the world! Not by building more prisons, but by creating loving and safe homes, by loving our neighbor. By loving one child at a time, we can dare to dream that one day no mother’s child will grow up to be a murderer. It is up to each one of us to make that dream come true. The next time you see a child at risk, ask yourself how you can help. Your love will save more than one life, of this I am certain, and here’s why:

When the sentencing hearing came to a close and the court room had cleared, the defense attorney introduced me to Eric’s mother at my request: From the depths of my aching soul forever changed by tragedy, I looked into the red and raw grief-stricken eyes of the other mother and much to my surprise, I saw myself. It was then that I understood the pain of the world, while at the same time witnessed a glimpsed of a deep abiding hope lying at core of that pain. A hope born of compassion, a hope that can overcome all fear, terror, pain, and loss, a hope that can wash our world clean, leading us toward the promise of resurrection, not in the afterlife but here and now. It is up to us to choose love over hate. May it be so.

Eddie Hicks

Eddie E. Hicks, Sr., Atlantic County, New Jersey

Eddie lost his daughter to murder.

Long before I knew very much about the death penalty I was opposed to it. I just felt that it was wrong for the government to be in the business of killing people. To me killing was wrong regardless if it was by an individual or the state. I was appalled that the taxes I paid could be used to kill someone, thereby making me an unwilling participant in the death of another human being. Often people who knew I was against the death penalty would tell me I wouldn’t be against it if I lost a loved one to murder. I would respond to them by saying I could not say how I would feel in that situation. But I did not believe it was a situation I would ever be faced with.

On May 29, 2000 I received a telephone call that would forever change my life. I was informed by my youngest daughter that her older sister was just shot dead in High Point, North Carolina. My oldest daughter was murdered senselessly by a 19 year-old who was recently released from jail. My daughter was 26 at the time of her death and the mother of two young children. The pain of losing a child regardless of age has got to be the worst feeling possible. My family was never so devastated. Years later we continue to be affected by that tragic day.

People have asked me what my opinion of the death penalty is since my daughter’s murder. I tell them in the days following my daughter’s murder I was in so much pain and turmoil I was not sure how I felt. But after the initial shock wore off and I was able to think clearly again, I realized that the many reasons I was opposed to the death penalty had not changed. Since my daughter’s death I have learned much more about the death penalty and oppose it for even more reasons. When someone says that they support capital punishment for the families they are not speaking for my family.

Pat McCoy

Pat McCoy, Charlotte, North Carolina

Pat lost his sister to murder.

My sister, Kathy Lu McCoy, was abducted off the streets of Spokane, Washington and murdered in 1974 by a stranger, Harry Edward Brooks. The crime was shockingly brutal, and it’s still very hard to accept emotionally that the last several hours of her life were hell on earth. Mr. Brooks was apprehended quickly and remains in prison. Our family opposed capital punishment, and Kathy Lu’s death didn’t change that, especially since she opposed it herself.

Many murder victims’ family members do support the death penalty, of course, and I’m fine with that. It’s appropriate to want persons who have taken the lives of others in dreadful ways to pay with their own lives. I know exactly how that feels, but personal feelings about the death penalty – however justified – don’t make it right or wrong.

We’ve worked for decades now to fix the death penalty, and we’ve failed. Unacceptable factors such as race, money, geography and mental health still have way too much impact on who lives and who dies. We can’t even eliminate racial bias in capital sentencing in spite of our state’s troubled and shameful history of using the death penalty disproportionately and illegally against persons of color. It’s past time to put this discrimination behind us.

We also continue to convict and sentence innocent persons to death in spite of the enormous amounts of money and judicial resources that we spend – and must spend – on each capital case to prevent this from happening. At this point we’d be much better off using our limited financial and judicial resources to assist crime victims and enhance law enforcement.

Lastly, I wouldn’t want to see Harry Edward Brooks’ family subjected to the same heartbreak that our family has endured. No family deserves such punishment, and I want no part of it.

Yvonne Nelson-Moore

Yvonne Nelson-Moore, North Carolina

Yvonne lost her grandmother to murder.

My grandmother was murdered on January 17, 1990. It was December 2002 when I received a call from my sister regarding my grandmother’s murderer, and a friend that my niece invited into her home. In each of our homes (the grandchildren) we all have a picture of our grandparents affixed to our living room décor. When the young man came into my sister’s home, he sat down for a minute and then asked who the woman in the picture was. When my niece told him that it was her grandmother; he ran out of the house. When she was finally able to catch up with him and asked him what was wrong, he said “I don’t want my daddy to die! I know what he did was wrong, but I don’t want him to die!” According my niece the young man was shaking and sweating profusely before she was finally able to get him to calm down. At that point, the young man explained that it was his dad that killed the woman in the picture. My niece consoled him and told him that it was alright and no one blamed him.

The power of forgiveness can not be described with words. I will never know why Jonathan Maurice Daniels came to my sister’s home that day. I will never know why my niece never made the connection between Maurice and my grandmother’s killer. But I would like to think it was a test from God on true forgiveness.

In spite of my personal appeal to the Governor to spare Dennis’ life, he was executed on November 14, 2003. His final words were “Just tell my mom, Maurice and Diane and the rest of the family and the other family, I’m sorry. I love them.” My peace came from Dennis’ final words, not his execution. While I am not naïve about the complexity of this issue, I am convinced that the death penalty does more to promote the cycle of violence then it does to promote peace and deter violence.

Kasia Roberts

Kasia McRoberts, New Mexico

Kasia lost her brother to murder.

My brother Sammy was murdered, and along with his murder something inside of me died. It took me a few years to realize, through great suffering and despair, that I welcomed the death of that something inside of me: before Sammy was murdered, I believed in the death penalty. That belief was fostered by misinformation, and it grew through a disconnect from the one foundation we all are born with and are invited to see, breathe and live, and hopefully reside in: the ability to see the bigger picture. Sammy did not deserve to be murdered in his 30th year of life. I did not welcome the angst and despair I experienced. But rather than embracing the call for state-sanctioned murder, I chose instead to embrace my heart, which begged “no more violence no matter what.”

My membership with MVFR is not solely about Sammy. It also encompasses how I choose to live with an undeserved and unwelcome event. With my membership I stand with all people who have experienced unexpected and/or senseless loss as a result of violent crimes. Enduring deep, to-the-core grief makes me part of a community that encourages expression of such loss without perpetuating the violence. This shared community nurtures and encourages expression of all feelings that come with an overwhelming numbness, and it invites me to live my life, while honoring the life of Sammy. I am, and will forever be, heartbroken that Sammy is not in my life. And at the same time, I am grateful that I no longer wish for the death of another being in retaliation to murder.

Ryan Nixon

Ryan Nixon, Virginia

Ryan lost his sister to murder.

When my sister, Christy Anne Nixon, 26, was murdered by Richmond City gang members on October 17, 2005, my initial response was anger – not directed toward her killers, but rather directed to everyone else: my father, my employers, my friends, etc. I cannot explain these developing and misdirected emotions; such is the human condition during a state of mourning. I was even angry at my sister.

I did not want to believe that someone could have killed her. She was charismatic, an artist, a waitress, and above all, a mother. No – she couldn’t have been murdered! But as the saying goes, “a mother always knows,” and my mother’s intuition pointed toward a crime from the very beginning.

As the facts began to emerge, my anger subsided. Christy practiced a life of compassion and empathy toward her fellow human beings. And although I was against capital punishment prior to her death, I realized just how against it I really was.

Additionally Christy’s murder introduced me to the most tragic aspect of homicide: collateral damage. Christy’s memorial service was attended by more people than I could ever have imagined. It seemed as if the entire community came out to pay their respects. I realized that a single passing causes hundreds to mourn.

Even though capital charges were never filed against those involved, I feared that they might have been. I began to investigate the capital process and the facts. I found within myself not a single situation where I thought it would be okay to take another human life. Subsequently I developed a conscientious objection to the taking of human life, even during war. I also decided to adopt a vegan diet because if I was to fight for the lives of convicted killers, I should not be taking innocent animals’ lives.

Two years following her death, I decided to step into the media spotlight in protest of scheduled executions. I continue to receive a lot of attention, and I hope that my efforts, while they may not save a life, will change the hearts of others who have lost loved ones. I know how it feels. I know it can be hard. But acceptance, forgiveness and compassion feel much better than hatred and vengeful thoughts.

My sister’s passing was tragic; it broke the hearts, and almost the bonds, of my family. I saw the hardest of men break down in tears. But, as there is always a silver lining to every cloud, instead of giving into the hatred in my heart, I opened it to allow forgiveness, love, and compassion to prevail. As Christy led a life of compassion, so do I. And although forgiving her killers was hard to do, I have forgiven them with all my heart. If needed be, I would have fought to save her killers’ lives. I will always miss my sister, but she wouldn’t have wanted me to live a life of hate.
The death penalty is wrong, and I cannot reconcile myself with any aspect of it. I hope that my example will help bring much needed death penalty reform.

Currently I am a student of Political Science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Bonnita Sparks

Bonnita Spikes, Baltimore, Maryland

Bonnita lost her husband Michael to murder.

My husband Michael was killed in a convenience store robbery in March 1994. To date no one has been arrested for the crime. Michael was my childhood sweetheart. We married young and had four wonderful sons. It was devastating to go with the police to identify his body. My 15-year-old son, James, was with me. He revived me from fainting when he asked what we were going to do. I didn’t know. It was like a dream; something I read about, that couldn’t be happening to me. Somehow I got the arrangements done. My faith and family and friends were a tremendous support.

My youngest son, Michael, had a severe bout with depression after losing his father. He attempted to commit suicide several times and was hospitalized for three years. When I asked him why he wanted to die he said, “I miss my dad and it hurts too bad to live.” I knew how he felt. I wanted to stop breathing myself, but knew my sons needed me. I am glad to say today Michael lives a productive life.

My husband, Michael, had told me early on that he opposed capital punishment – both for religious reasons and that he had learned that it wasn’t distributed fairly.

Today I fight for abolition of the death penalty because I am outraged that most people who are executed are poor people of color who often can’t get adequate representation. It is no human being’s right to say who lives and dies, not to mention the number of inmates found innocent after years on death row.

I think the monies spent on execution could better be used for helping supply dollars to mental health so that the victim’s family’s needs could be met. Michael’s medical care and medication was very expensive. Although I had good insurance, mental health was not covered under the policy. I sought help from the board of the institute and fought for Michael’s treatment. The prisoner’s family could also be helped because both sides are victims.

I visit the gentlemen that sit on death row in my state; I know their families and their stories. Many of them are victims who have had very hard lives. Although each had different circumstances they all had difficult times and small chances of overcoming the environment driven life dealt to them and their families. I would love for money spent on executions to be utilized for preventive, restorative and reentry programs. I pray for abolition in our country. Maryland is close to it, but it’s a shame it is state-to-state. I am optimistic we will end the death penalty in the United States. I will continue to pray for everyone with capital sentences and their families.

Keep hope and faith. I believe in forgiveness and redemption. Not all victims’ families seek death.

Leah Popp

Leah Popp and Barak Wolff, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Leah and Barak lost their niece to murder.

We are murder victim survivors and know first hand the pain and devastation that the murder of a loved one wreaks on a family and their friends. Our wonderful niece, Wendy Wagner, Santa Fe’s first woman firefighter and paramedic, veterinary technician, and friend to all, was senselessly murdered on a highway overpass early on a Monday morning, July 28, l997. She was shot three times at close range with a cheap handgun as she attempted to dissuade her murderer from stealing her pickup truck.

We had always been ambivalent about the death penalty prior to our niece’s murder. During preparation for the trial, the D.A. explained to us apologetically why Wendy’s case didn’t qualify for the death penalty and to our surprise we felt a tremendous sense of relief. At another time the D.A. suggested that a man as small as the murderer “wouldn’t last long in prison.” This was seemingly said as a consolation of sorts. Instead, we found it truly painful. The thought of the loss of another life over this tragedy was just too much to bear. It wouldn’t bring Wendy back. We were blessed that Wendy’s murderer was caught within weeks, convicted within the year and sentenced to serve at least 35 years.

It became clear to us during this process that revenge is an emotional response, not justice. The taking of a life by anyone – no matter whom or for what reason – is murder; it is not justice. It only compounds the original act of evil. The option of life in prison without parole seems a far more fitting punishment.

We hear a lot about “closure” – there is no such thing. There are things that help, such as the capture of the murderer and a solid and timely conviction. Then over time the pain becomes less acute, but it always remains as a dull ache caused by a deep sense of loss and longing. The event, the trial, the murderer and all of the memories remain but somehow become incorporated into our forever-changed lives.

An execution – taking another life – would not change this reality in any way. And our system clearly is too often flawed. In fact, there is more and more evidence that mistakes happen with some frequency – particularly to those who are poor, are people of color or are otherwise disenfranchised. Some believe the death penalty can be kept in place if there are enough safeguards. That is an illusion: people and systems are fallible. There could never be enough safeguards to insure that no innocent lives are taken. The only foolproof method is to abolish the death penalty.

For the last five years we have been actively involved with the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. We have helped organize events, shared our story as panelists before diverse groups of interested citizens and provided personal testimony during legislative hearings. Progress has been made in New Mexico – twice getting legislation that would repeal the death penalty through our House of Representatives, only to have the bill die in a Senate committee by a close vote. We continue the fight and are hopeful that New Mexico will soon join New Jersey and other states that officially confirm the sanctity of life.

Andrea Vigil

Andrea Vigil, New Mexico

Video of Andrea Vigil

Andrea lost her husband to murder.

I will never forget the day my husband Carlos was gunned down while walking to the courthouse in Santa Fe in the early morning of August 13, 1999. When I learned he had been murdered, the violence of it shook up every cell of my body. I wanted justice. I wanted the man locked up.

Something gave me strength to not stay in a place of anger towards that evil. Anger and hate –the death penalty – is not what I want surrounding Carlos and as the end of his story. If I had wanted the death penalty, I wouldn’t be as far along as I am now with my healing. I had to find peace in my own heart, not in someone else’s death. I couldn’t move on knowing I was a part of another person’s murder. I had to find peace in my heart.

We need to focus on positive ways to honor the lives of victims. Since Carlos’ death, I have helped raise money for a scholarship in his name and there’s a school named after him in Espanola, New Mexico. We need to honor victims of murder in meaningful tributes to the victims’ lives, not by focusing on taking the life of another person – but by remembering our loved ones in a constructive way.

Judy Williams

Judy Williams, Charlotte, North Carolina

Judy lost her goddaughter to murder.

Judy Williams was godmother to Shawna Hawk, the daughter of Judy’s best friend since grade school. Shawna was murdered in 1993 when she was only 20 years old, by Henry Wallace, a serial killer who currently sits on North Carolina’s death row. One month and 10 days after Shawna’s death, Shawna’s mother, Dee Sumpter, Judy, and Judy’s son, David Howard, held their first support group meeting for others who suffered as they had – thus Mothers of Murdered Offspring (MOMO) was formed. Judy has won several awards for her work, including the first Community Pride Award in 1994, the 1995 Community Service Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, the 2004 Neighbor Excellence Award from the Bank of America, the 2004 National Women of Achievement Community Service Award, and most recently, the 2007 Focus on Future Leader’s Village Leader Award.

You don’t go through this type of experience and go back to the way you were. It’s about changing and making a difference… Up until recently, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the death penalty. I just knew I could not watch an execution. Executing Henry Wallace won’t bring back Shawna or any of the other young women he murdered. As long as he’s never a free man again, I would be fine with him spending the rest of his life out of normal society.

Embracing the mission of MVFR was easy once I realized that I could never watch someone die no matter what their crime. MVFR has also been instrumental in assisting me with a new message to share with families who find themselves on the fence when it comes to death row versus life in prison. Everyone has the right to their own opinion about this issue, but when the opportunity presents itself, I now feel almost obligated to share with them other options that will still aid in their healing. Believing as I do now about the death penalty allows me to place the life and death issue in the hand of the one who can truly handle it – God!

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Murder Victim's Families for Reconcilation (MVFR) - Texas Chapter 222 Pin Oak Ln. Magnolia, TX. 77354