Death Penalty at a crossroads
04:26 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

People who've lost loved ones to violence are unlikely opponents of capital punishment

Their reasons aren't necessarily political or religious

They often believe death will do nothing for family or society

Polls show most Americans are pro-death penalty

CNN  — 

Charisse Coleman has no real compassion for the man who walked into the Thrifty Liquor Store in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1995 and put three bullets in her brother, Russell.

But she doesn’t want Bobby Lee Hampton – one of more than seven dozen killers on Louisiana’s death row – executed, either.

“My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with Bobby Lee Hampton,” Coleman said. “He’s a bad dude. He’s never going to be a good dude. If I got a call that said Bobby Lee Hampton dropped dead in his cell last night, I don’t think it would create a ripple in my pond.”

She added, though, “I will be goddamned if I will let Bobby Lee Hampton make me a victim, too, by taking me down that road of bitterness and revenge.”

Coleman, 50, is among the most unlikely opponents of the death penalty, people who lost loved ones to unspeakable violence yet believe executing the killer will do nothing for family members or society.

Their stance is backed by groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and their reasons aren’t as religious or political as one might think. Some feel so strongly they’ve spoken against the death penalty even when it wasn’t an option in their loved one’s case.

There’s no denying most Americans are pro-death penalty. They have been since 1967, according to Gallup, which regularly conducts polls asking whether Americans are for or against capital punishment in murder cases. Support reached as high as 80% in 1994 and declined to 61% in a poll this month – the lowest since 1972, the year the Supreme Court temporarily halted executions.

34 – States with death penalty35 – Percent of executed defendants who were white56 – Percent of executed defendants who were black15 – Percent of death penalty cases where victim was black 76 – Percent of death penalty cases where victim was white22 – Juveniles executed before 2005 Supreme Court ban138 – Death row exonerations since 19731,271 – Number of executions in U.S. since 1976475 – Executions in Texas since 1976796 – U.S. executions outside of Texas since 1976313 – Number of death sentences in 1994112 – Number of death sentences in 2010

  • Source: Death Penalty Information Center

    Add a little nuance, though, and sentiments shift. When asked to choose between the death penalty and life in prison, 50% of respondents in a recent CNN/ORC International Poll said they favored a life sentence, compared to 48% who preferred the death penalty.

    Two executions, two views

    Perhaps the split in opinion was most evident on September 21, when two executions were met with vastly different reactions.

    Thousands of people – including entertainers, dignitaries, Amnesty International and the pope – denounced the execution of Troy Davis. Some said they believed Davis was innocent in the slaying of a Georgia police officer. Others said there was too much doubt to execute him. (The officer’s family, like the relatives of many victims, had no qualms about seeing the person convicted of their loved one’s murder put to death.)

    Meanwhile in Texas, the lethal injection of Lawrence Brewer, who took part in the racially charged dragging death of James Byrd Jr., barely elicited a whisper.

    Byrd’s son, Ross, voiced the loudest protest, saying, “You can’t fight murder with murder,” but to no avail.

    In Mississippi, the mother and siblings of another slaying victim are praying for a more receptive ear.

    Surveillance cameras showed James Craig Anderson, 49, being assaulted in a Jackson motel parking lot before being fatally run down in a pickup truck early in the morning of June 26. Deryl Dedmon, 19, has pleaded not guilty to charges he murdered Anderson; police say Dedmon was behind the wheel of the truck. A judge has told prosecutors to decide by November 1 if they will pursue the death penalty.

    Teen murder suspect carried ‘backpack of hatred’

    Anderson’s sister, Barbara Anderson Young, wrote the district attorney on behalf of her mother and brothers imploring him not to seek the death sentence. In expressing their opposition, she cited racial disparities in the death penalty’s application, the family’s faith and the hope that sparing her brother’s killers “may help to spark a dialogue” that would end capital punishment.

    “Our savior Jesus Christ rejected the old way of an eye for an eye and taught us instead to turn the other cheek. He died that we might have everlasting life and, in doing so, asked that the lives of the two common criminals nailed to the crosses beside him be spared,” her letter read. “We can do no less.”

    Religion is a common basis for death penalty opposition. The Catholic Church opposes it in almost all instances. Islamic Sharia law permits a murder victim’s family to pardon the killer. Buddha’s first precept is to “refrain from destroying living creatures.”

    But opposition to capital punishment extends well beyond dogma.

    People of many faiths and those who don’t consider themselves religious said their aversion to the death penalty was not based on theology. Some said they couldn’t pinpoint exactly why they opposed it; others said it was simply bad policy.

    Compassion for a killer

    Andre Smith, 60, of Raleigh, North Carolina, had been offering spiritual advice to prisoners at Nash Correctional Institution for about five years when his faith was tested. As part of the Buddhism-based Liberation Prison Project, he taught inmates anger management and meditation skills.

    When he was younger, Smith said he wielded an “explosive, reactive anger” to the point it almost tore his family apart. So in teaching inmates, he leaned on his own experiences and presented them alongside the virtues of Jesus, Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi.

    Andre Smith, left, said he had compassion for the man who fatally stabbed his son Daniel, 21.

    “I don’t think I would be able to forgive … the guy who killed my son if not for my practicing these principles and working with these guys in prison,” he said.

    According to Smith and authorities, Wallace Bass was spending his 24th birthday at the West Side Stories nightclub in Raleigh, where Smith’s son, Daniel, was a regular on the dance floor. Daniel Smith spilled Bass’ beer, the two had words and Daniel Smith refused to apologize.

    A bouncer separated the two, but around closing time Bass followed Daniel Smith into the bathroom and stabbed him several times, including once fatally in the chest.

    Andre Smith remembers his wife collapsing when police came to their house that December 2007 morning.

    “It’s like someone just reached in and pulled your guts out. It’s got to be the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. “I remember being in the back of a police car (en route to identify Daniel’s body) and not knowing what to think.”

    Despite his pain, Smith didn’t hate Bass. He actually told reporters at the time he had compassion for his son’s killer, who faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. His wife, who isn’t Buddhist, also forgave Bass. It has nothing to do with religion, Smith said.

    Forgiveness, he said, was a product of years of practicing compassion, just as a violent assault can come only after years of practicing anger, the practicing Buddhist said.

    “If you practice, you become adept,” Smith said.

    Not becoming victims themselves

    While Smith’s compassion for the killer may seem unusual – no one else interviewed for this story expressed such empathy – many, like John Starbuck, spoke on a grander theme of forgiveness.

    The Stone Mountain, Georgia, resident lost first his grandfather and then his stepdaughter to violence about 23 years apart. Though Starbuck decided he didn’t believe in the death penalty during a political science research project at age 15, the issue wasn’t real to him at the time.

    His stance became more “visceral” when Lester King, the man he called Dad and who spent much of his life in law enforcement, had a heart attack in 1982 after being jumped by thugs in Oakland, California, and again when Meleia Willis-Starbuck, 19, was fatally shot in Berkeley, California, in 2005.

    Raised in a Unitarian church and “searching religiously” today, Starbuck said he was not swayed by calls, some from family members, to execute the people who killed his loved ones.

    ” ‘If you honor your daughter, if you honor your grandfather, you’ll want the people who did this to them to die,’ ” he recalls people telling him, even though no one ultimately faced capital punishment for the deaths. “I’m just confident in my love for them and my love for humanity, that I don’t want this to be part of our society, to let retribution be the rule.”

    Charisse Coleman dearly misses her brother Russell but says executing his killer won't help.

    Charisse Coleman, who attends a Unitarian Universalist fellowship but said her “true church is art,” may not love the man who gunned down her brother. But she doesn’t want payback, either, even though she’ll always miss her artistic, dimple-cheeked brother and his taste for puns, storytelling and Frank Zappa.

    Executing Bobby Lee Hampton won’t bring Russell back or ease her loss, but those are only two reasons she opposes the death penalty.

    She said she worries that in many capital punishment cases, factors like the race of the victim or the defendant’s ability to afford experienced attorneys may influence the outcome. She also feels that executing people to show that killing is wrong is more retribution than punishment.

    Most of all, she doesn’t like the fact there’s room for error, as evidenced by the scores of death penalty exonerations handed down since 1973.

    “The criminal justice is created by and conducted by humans,” she said. “As long as we’re capable of making mistakes, we shouldn’t be deciding who lives and dies.”

    The state vs. a healing family

    Jan Brown of Houston said she can’t pinpoint why she loathes the death penalty, but she always has, even when her 9-year-old daughter’s killer was executed.

    A Southern Baptist until 1984, Brown said capital punishment is tantamount to “legalized murder.” She said she doesn’t know when she developed her disdain. The first time she considered it may have been when she told a prosecutor she didn’t want James Earhart to die, she said.

    “Maybe I’m just selfish,” she said. “Maybe he’d tell me what her last words were. Maybe he’d tell me why she had to die. Maybe because I think it’s barbaric. Maybe if one of my children ended up in the same situation, I wouldn’t want them to die.”

    Brown, 65, said the entire process leading up to Earhart’s lethal injection was more about the perpetrator than the victim. Brown was a suspect until police found Kandy Janell Kirtland’s deteriorating body, her hands bound, in a rubbish pile in Bryan, Texas. Brown said she was further devastated when protesters staged a vigil at Earhart’s 1999 execution – not for the innocent girl who never got to see fifth grade, but for her killer.

    Brown said she went through 12 years of hell because a prosecutor seemed to care more about Texas’ reputation for being tough on crime than about helping Kandy’s family heal.

    Gus Lamm said he felt the same way when his wife, Victoria Zessin, was taken at age 28. He and his daughter unsuccessfully sued the parole board – and in the process alienated themselves from Zessin’s family – to make sure the state knew they felt capital punishment was repugnant.

    Former beat cop Lester King was the man John Starbuck considered his dad.

    Zessin was pregnant with their second child at the time, and she wanted to visit her pal, Janet Mesner, a caretaker at a Quaker meetinghouse in Lincoln, Nebraska, before the baby arrived.

    Randy Reeves, Mesner’s adopted cousin, had been drinking since morning when he assaulted Mesner on the night of March 29, 1980. Zessin overheard the commotion and ran to her friend’s rescue, only to have Reeves’ knife pierce her liver.

    Zessin died immediately, Mesner on the way to the hospital.

    Lamm, 61, who describes himself as “atheist at best,” said the death penalty is “horrific, and it does nothing to attend to us as human beings.” He scoffs at the notion that killing a killer provides closure and noted that a reporter was asking about his wife’s death more than three decades later.

    “It doesn’t go away,” he said.

    Seeking mercy against odds

    He and his daughter, Audrey, who was 2 and asleep upstairs in the meetinghouse when her mother was murdered, tried to convey that to the Nebraska Parole Board in 1999 but were told they could not testify. They sued, and a judge ruled against them.

    Lamm’s opposition to the death penalty is also pragmatic – he doesn’t trust the government to spend his tax dollars, so why should he trust it to decide whether to execute a criminal or grant clemency? Also, like Jan Brown, he felt his family’s healing didn’t matter in the state’s quest to execute Reeves.

    “If this was a war zone, I’d be collateral damage,” he said.

    In 2000, the state high court commuted Reeves’ death sentence on procedural grounds. Lamm said he was “cheerful” to hear the news, but much damage had already been done. Zessin’s father, for instance, had shut out Audrey, his own granddaughter, for her position on the death penalty.

    “Vicki’s father refused to ever speak to my daughter again. … Here is a man who was promised closure. He died this year, and they never spoke again,” Lamm said. “That’s what the death penalty does.”

    John Starbuck, 51, was fortunate – if you can characterize it as such – in that he was allowed to voice his opinion to the California court during the 2008 trial for his stepdaughter’s killer.

    Christopher Hollis was sentenced to the maximum 24 years for voluntary manslaughter. The prosecution opted against murder charges, which could have carried a life sentence, because Meleia Willis-Starbuck had called Hollis for help when she and some friends got into an argument with a group of people. Hollis showed up and fired into the group, hitting only Willis-Starbuck.

    Starbuck said he believes Hollis was trying to help his stepdaughter, he said, even if it was idiotic to try to break up an altercation by blindly firing into a crowd.

    Meleia Willis-Starbuck, seen here with John Starbuck at a 1991 anti-war rally, died at age 19.

    Though the death penalty wasn’t a consideration, Starbuck didn’t want Hollis’ life to effectively be destroyed by a lengthy prison sentence. He wrote the Alameda County Superior Court judge presiding over Hollis’ case and asked him to show mercy.

    “If Chris is, in fact, the sort of man that Meleia would count as a friend, I imagine that he suffers each and every day from her loss. He is not only in physical prison, but he is sentenced to the gravest cage of broken possibilities and personal responsibility,” Starbuck wrote.

    “I am willing to believe that as a man, he will step up to his responsibility for a better life, and act on it. I am willing to give him that chance.”