FEATURE Multiplying the Victims The Abolitionists Meet In Houston BY ERICA C. BARNETT 1Marietta Jaeger is an unlikely advocate for convicts on death row. A fiery, devout Catholic, she has a piercing stare and a friendly, booming laugh. In 1973, during a family camping trip, Jaeger’s daughter was kidnapped and murdered. At the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, held at the University of Houston June 20-22, Jaeger was honored as Abolitionist of the Year. “I knew that I wouldn’t honor my little girl by killing someone in her namethat, in fact, I would violate her,” she said, leaning forward earnestly as she spoke. “So I asked the prosecutor not to give [the murderer] the death penalty, but life imprisonment.” A founding member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Jaeger was one of eighteen abolitionists arrested last year \(on the twentieth penalty at the top of the Supreme Court steps. Since her daughter’s murder, she has become a full-time activist against capital punishment, traveling the country on “Journeys of Hope” that will continue, she says, until the death penalty is abolished nationwide. You wouldn’t know it from the media and political campaigns for “victims’ rights,” but speaking as people who have had to experience the decision to kill directly, the families of murder victims are among the loudest and most compelling voices against capital punishment. Theirs was one of the most visible groups at the NCADP conference, with dozens of members anxious to tell their stories. Bill Pelke’s grandmother was murdered in 1986 by a fifteenyear-old girl who was later sentenced to death; four years ago, he started across the country on the first Journey of Hope. For years, he said, “I felt like I was the only one that even wanted this girl to get off death row….The death penalty takes another life, it takes another family, and it makes them victim’s family members. Why should they have to suffer watching their child killed?” Pelke’s argument is not a popular one among “victims’ advocates,” who also turned out in force for the conference. During the first day’s sessions, a group called Parents of Murdered Children, wearing blood-red t-shirts, clustered in the front rows, providing a starkly visual contrast to the dozens of death penalty opponents who would speak over the next two days, and lending an emotional counterpoint to MVFR’s tone of hopeful compassion. Some, such were bitter and adversarial. Others, like Shirley Parish, whose twenty-year-old daughter Kimberly was murdered, seemed quietly resigned. All were adamantly in favor of the death penalty. “These people cannot, no matter what, be changed,” insisted Parish, a grandmotherly woman with a gentle, almost inaudible voice. “They are sociopaths who do not have feelings. . They are incapable of it.” Apart from these semi-official protesters, dissent was infrequent during the three-day conference, which was a blur of hastily-orchestrated speeches, panels, and informal meetings, convened in Texas partly in recognition of the state’s suddenly accelerated rate of executions. The convention culminated in a banquet honoring, among others, Jaeger; attorney and activist Rick Halperin; and Mandy Welch and Eden Harrington \(who founded the Texas Resource Center, which provided counsel to death row inmates until its recent closure for lack of contintorney General Ramsey Clark, an outspoken human rights activist since the end of his tenure in the Johnson administration. The convention was marked by an unusual number of contrasts. The diversity of the abolitionist movement was reflected in the conference’s participants, from groups like Catholics Against Capital Death Penalty, to Amnesty International, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and the NAACP. This diversity has served to bridge gaps between communities, but it also reflects fragmentation among various political constituencies. Throughout the conference, two divisions were striking: the gap between traditional liberals and religious conservatives, and that between legal advocates and those opposed to the death penalty on moral and emotional grounds. Few on any side had certain ideas on how to reconcile the differences. Ron Tabak, an attorney with the American Bar Association who supported the recent ABA call for an execution moratorium, believes that the whole spectrum of views is essential to eventual abolition. “You need to know about how the legislative system is functioning, in many cases, to have moral views,” he said. He noted that the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment stems largely from the fact that there are viable alternatives to execution, such as life imprisonment. And, Tabak added, “There are numerous people who might not be against the death penalty for ethical or religious reasons that say, ‘This kind of system that we have is totally unacceptable.'” One such person is eighteen-year-old Jotaka Eaddy, an NCADP intern from South Carolina who exemplifies youthful indignation at the legal system’s capricious application of “justice.” Eaddy \(one thusiasm and always in motion. She plans to become a lawyer and work with death-row inmates. “If we don’t start handling these problems today, it’s going to be our problem tomorrow,” she said. “[Activism] is like a passion to me.” Youthful idealism was an appropriate backdrop for the theme of the convention, “Stop Killing Kids: Heal Their Wounds,” a reference to the U.S. policy, now rare worldwide, of executing criminals for crimes committed in their teens. Currently, there are fifty-eight U.S. death row inmates who were juveniles at the time of their 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 1, 1997
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