The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California. Photo by CACorrections, via Flickr
Victoria Coward remembers hearing the gunshots ring out from Edgewood Park, not far from her New Haven home in June 2007. Later that night her worst fears were realized when detectives knocked on her front door.
Her 18-year-old son, Tyler, was dead from gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
Two years later, when police arrested and charged Jose Fuentes-Pillich, a 23-year-old who she thought was Tyler's friend, Coward had already joined a campaign against the death penalty.
When she contacted Fuentes-Pillich after his conviction in 2010, she explained why she didn’t wish him dead.
“I told him it would be wrong for me to say, ‘You should die.’ That’s not in me. That’s in God’s hands … the first thing I need to do is forgive you for taking my son’s life,” Coward recalled in an interview with The Crime Report.
Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty in April. As opponents step up their national campaign, they are discovering some surprising allies among people like Coward— challenging the long-held stereotype that the families of murder victims automatically support capital punishment.
Coward and other relatives of murder victims were important players in Connecticut’s abolition movement, which was spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and partner non-profit the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP).
She volunteered to submit testimony to the Connecticut General Assembly when a notorious triple murder just weeks after her son was killed appeared to galvanize a new wave of public support for capital punishment.
In the July 2007 case that made national headlines, Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, both on parole at the time, murdered Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, in their Cheshire, CT home. Michaela and Hawke-Petit were sexually assaulted before all three were burned alive.
Hawke-Petit’s husband, William Petit, was bludgeoned and bound in the basement.
In early 2011, when it looked as though Connecticut’s death penalty was headed for repeal, Petit met with two State Senators who were on the fence.
State Sen. Edith Prague, a Democrat, was one of them. She said later she was persuaded to withdraw her support for repeal because she felt Komisarjevsky deserved to die. “They should bypass the trial and take that second animal and hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street,” she told the website CT News Junkie.
After the second senator, Andrew Maynard, followed suit, there was no longer enough votes to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty and the bill never made it to the Senate floor.
It was the second defeat for Connecticut death penalty opponents in two years. In 2009, a bill to abolish the death penalty made it to then-Gov. M. Jody Rell’s desk, only to be vetoed.
On Jan. 27, 2012, Komisarjevsky was sentenced to death by lethal injection. His appeal is currently pending.
Changing the Conversation
With the Cheshire cases finished, and a Democratic governor in Hartford, the ACLU and CNADP doubled down on their efforts to bring victims’ survivors who opposed the death penalty to the forefront of the statewide conversation, according to Isa Mujahid, an ACLU Connecticut field organizer.
“There was a lot of anger among victims’ family members who don’t support the death penalty,” Mujahid told The Crime Report. “They were angry that Dr. Petit’s voice was getting all the attention.”
Despite heavy snow, nearly 200 people showed up at the state Capitol on February 29 to lobby against the death penalty and for other ACLU causes. A letter signed by 179 members of victims’ families was presented to the Connecticut General Assembly.
The letter argued that the death penalty appeals process forced victims’ families to relive the trauma of facing their loved ones’ murderers over and over again. Instead, the relatives said, the alternative of life without parole might allow them to move on.
“I think in the legislature, they were a bit caught off guard by it, because they were used to hearing from Dr. Petit and other supporters of the death penalty,” Mujahid said. “They were caught off guard by how many victims’ family members were against the death penalty.”
This time, the lobbying was successful.
On April 25, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a bill that repealed the death penalty for all future cases, while leaving past death sentences in place, including those handed down to Komisarjevsky and Hayes.
Supporters of repeal elsewhere hope that the voices of victims’ families can be similarly effective in other states. But it’s still likely to be an uphill battle.
Just two days before Connecticut’s decision, California Secretary of State Debra Bowden announced that Proposition 34—an initiative that would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—had been approved to appear on that state’s Nov. 6, 2012 ballot.
Nevertheless, supporters of the death penalty say it will be harder to abolish executions in the Golden State, where about two-thirds of the population supports the practice, according to a September 2011 poll.
And the pro-death penalty lobby in California, like Connecticut, includes victims’ family members who wield a lot of influence.
Marc Klaas, for example, who spearheaded the campaign for California’s “Three Strikes” law after his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered in 1993, says death penalty proceedings need to be streamlined—not abolished.
Polly’s killer, Richard Allan Davis, who had spent much of his life in prison for kidnapping and violence towards women, was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to death. Even though his sentence was upheld in a 2009 appeal, a frustrated Klaas says he still expects to wait a long time before Davis is executed.
“I have little doubt that he’ll probably outlive me if you want to know the truth of it,” Klaas told The Crime Report. “But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be executed for the crimes he committed against my daughter, in that heinous and hideous act,”
700 Awaiting Death
Davis is one of over 700 inmates currently awaiting death in California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.
That year, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ordered a moratorium on executions in the state, after hearing complaints about how lethal injections were to be administered.
Klaas believes the moratorium is an example of a roadblock to execution engineered by death penalty opponents.
“Baby killers, cop killers, mass murderers; I mean really the worst people in society have been deemed worthy of the ultimate law of the land, the death penalty,” Klaas said. “But the abolitionists have created barrier after barrier.”
When Klaas knocks death penalty opponents, he makes clear that he understands what motivates many victims’ survivors who take the opposite view.
“I know that the ones who deal with it best are those who find the will to fight back, whether it’s for the death penalty, against the death penalty or something else” he said.
On both sides of the debate, victims’ families understand enough about each other’s pain that they rarely disrespect each other, said Gail Canzano, a psychologist whose brother-in-law was murdered in West Hartford, CT in 1999.
“I can tell you that as the family member of a murder victim, I have nothing but respect for another person who’s been through this,” Canzano said. “The things that unite family of murder victims are greater than those that divide them.”
But less kind words are often used for the organizational forces behind death penalty campaigns. Both sides accuse opposing organizations of deceiving victims’ families.
Michael Rushford, founder and president of the California-based non-profit Criminal Justice Legal Foundation , argues that opponents of execution have conspired to lengthen the death penalty process, and have created the circumstances behind the agonizing waits that victims’ families endure.
“It’s like if I took 20 years to chop holes in a dam and it flooded a valley—and then I said, ‘see, dams don’t work,’” Rushford said.
The result, according to Rushford, is injustice for victims and their loved ones.
“If somebody’s attacking you in California you need to drag yourself onto federal land or over the border into Nevada,” Rushford said.
Tanya Greene, a lawyer who works for the ACLU, said pro-death penalty organizations and prosecutors often don’t take seriously victims’ loved ones who are against execution.
“The presumption has traditionally been that if your family member is murdered you’re in support of death penalty,” Greene said. “There are people who have had their family members taken away, and they are still hurt. They feel bamboozled by folks who say that vengeance is what families want.”
Victoria Coward, whose son was shot and killed in New Haven, said she’s taking the lessons she learned campaigning at home to other states.
In October, she’s meeting with death penalty opponents in Nebraska, where 11 people are currently on death row.
Graham Kates is deputy editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.