Sent by Lisa Rhea, President and Founder of
The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP) who was with us on the Texas 2007 JOH
Greetings. I wanted to share with you an experience I had in Houston, Texas some days ago. I was honored to join with a victims-led group called the Journey of Hope. The Journey is (partly) comprised of victims of violent crime opposed to the death penalty. Each victim has a story to tell---stemming from their own personal pain of living through violent crime in America. Each has had a loved one murdered. Extraordinary stories. The Journey of Hope takes its message of hope to one state each year. They bring victims, and other activists, into the state for a 2-3 week period to tell their stories.
No matter your personal opinion of the death penalty in the U.S. you are compelled to listen to these stories. There are many organizations around the U.S. that speak out against the death penalty but organizations like Journey of Hope, Murder Victims for Reconciliation and Murder Victims for Human Rights stand alone as they represent those most directly impacted by violent crime: the victims' families.
I also learned (again) something that I believe I have known for some time -- that these victims of violent crime support restorative justice as a means to bring forth systemic reform in the U.S. Some of victims of violent crime I met on the Journey included Marietta Jaeger Lane of Montana, Bud Welch of Oklahoma, Bill Pelke of Alaska, Renny Cushing of Massachusetts, and Bill Lucero of Kansas. (Each)cruelly injured by violent crime but somehow coming out the other side experiencing some kind of peace, some kind of healing. Each agreeing with the other that no one should take a life "for them" in the name of their murdered loved one.
I also had the great privilege of meeting Sister Helen Prejean who perhaps is best known as the ministering nun in -Dead Man Walking- the book she wrote
as the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate in Louisiana. The book later became a film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.
Again, the encouraging news for me, apart from meeting these victims and Sister Helen, is that there is a common thread that runs through the experiences
of the victims on the Journey and the work that we do with victims at JRP. That thread is the need for reform that acknowledges that the U.S. criminal justice system is broken. I have said that often over my years of working in this field. And surprising to me, many do not like to hear that fact. But those who are victims of violent crime know better. Those who are the family members of offenders know that the system is broken as well. Often these two groups of affected "camps" do not work together. But on the Journey they often do.
Others I met during this brief period with the Journey included three men who had been on death row but had been exonerated. Greg Wilhoit of California, Ron Keine of Pennsylvania, and Shujaa Graham of Maryland had their stories to tell as well. Each convicted of murder and each innocent. Astounding stories. They had come together with the victims of violent crime to talk about justice. Their stories like those of the victims are based on what has occurred in their lives--- not their opinions, not data, and not polling numbers. But the fact is there are wrongful convictions. There are so many cases of exonerated inmates that it is easy to lose count. There have been 208 people exonerated, to date, by DNA alone, according to the Innocence Project, 15 on death row. A more stunning fact is knowing that all three of these men were on death row. Perhaps it is easy to read newspaper articles on this reality but it is another thing to meet such individuals in person.
I am more convinced than ever that something is changing in our American justice system. It is through the voices of the victims that change will occur. We must listen. To learn more about the Journey of Hope and to read the stories of the victims, go to www.journeyofhope.org
Lisa M. Rea
President and Founder
The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP)
mailing address: P.O. Box 2051, Loomis, CA 95650 U.S.A.
Quick note from Connie (whom Sister Helen nicknamed "scribe" for this time's Texas Journey) We suddenly have lots of photos to work with, so look for pictures to flesh out these blogs soon. Now we are looking for more stories...I just heard from Uganda--Our JOH Edward, "vindicated" from Uganda Death Row. (To use a term I learned on this JOH from the released). Edward says he's weak but recovering and thankful for our care.)