ERIK PETERSEN/CHRONICLE Marietta Yaeger Lane poses for a photo at her Three Forks area home Thursday morning. Yaeger Lane, along with about 20 others, including Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski’s brother, David, travels the country speaking with “Journey of Hope,” a group working to abolish the death penalty and will speak 7 p.m. Saturday at Montana State University.
Murder victim’s mother speaks out against death penalty
By JESSICA MAYRER Chronicle staff writer from October 2, 2008
In 1973, David Meirhoffer cut a hole in the tent where Susie Yaeger was sleeping. After taking the 7-year-old girl from a campsite near Three Forks, molesting and killing her, he called the family asking for a ransom. He let them believe she was still alive.
“I’d have been happy to kill the man with my bare hands,” her mother Marietta Yaeger Lane said in an interview this week.
But now, 35 years later, she and 20 others, including David Kaczynski, brother of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, travel the country speaking with “Journey of Hope,” a group working to abolish the death penalty.
And on Saturday, at 7 p.m. in the Montana State University Ballroom, Yaeger Lane, Kacyzinski and others will share their stories.
Yaeger Lane will document her journey from rage to what some may see as superhuman compassion. She said putting Meirhoffer to death would have further colored Susie’s memory.
“You could be killing people for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t compensate for the loss of my little girl,” she said. “All it really does is make another victim.”
Authorities found some of Susie’s remains and those of another victim at an abandoned ranch in the Horseshoe Hills.
Meirhoffer, who admitted to killing three others in Gallatin County, hung himself in jail before he was prosecuted. But by then, Yaeger Lane had been forced to confront conflicting feelings.
“I had done a lot of thinking about the death penalty, in terms of my faith and in terms of how I wanted to honor my little girl,” Yaeger Lane said.
CRUEL & UNUSUAL
She is one of a growing chorus of people arguing the death penalty debases society and disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and the mentally ill.
When Unabomber Ted Kaczynski went on trial, he was portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, David Kaczynski said.
Yet, the infamous technophobe that carried out a series of bombings is schizophrenic, his brother said, and prosecutors knew that.
“It was more about winning and losing then it was about justice,” David Kaczynski said. “I saw that the trial was not really about morality or justice.”
While Kaczynski is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, stories of other mentally ill individuals sentenced to death after committing crimes spurred David Kaczynski to action.
“People just don’t have any idea how this system is applied in this country,” he said.
The death penalty unduly affects people with a limited ability to combat prosecution, said Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana ACLU.
“The ones who are likely to be prosecuted for capital crimes likely have no capital,” Crichton said.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the Montana death penalty, arguing the state’s lethal injection procedure is cruel and unusual. The ACLU sued on behalf of Ronald Smith, sentenced for killing two men in 1982 and one of two prisoners on Montana’s death row.
The ACLU’s case is slated to go before the Montana Supreme Court in October 2009, Crichton said. If it wins, Montana would be barred from using lethal injection.
That case would put the death penalty on hold, but legislative action would be needed to permanently outlaw it. Efforts to eliminate the death penalty have fallen short in three consecutive legislative sessions. Convicted murderer David Dawson was the last person executed in the state, in 2006.
OPPONENTS DROWN OUT PROPONENTS
Nationwide, 3,309 inmates were awaiting execution as of January 2008. The death penalty is legal in 36 states, although several have put executions on hold.
But, according to a 2007 Gallup Poll, 69 percent of Americans support putting convicted murderers to death.
“I’m a pro-death penalty person,” said Mikie Baker-Hajak, a long-time Montana victim’s advocate whose brother was murdered the day after Thanksgiving more than 20 years ago.
“Even before this happened to my brother, I believed a person has to be held accountable for what they do,” she said.
Many Americans feel like she does, she said. But anti-death penalty folks drown them out.
“You get a boisterous minority out there that’s taking it on as their mantra,” Baker-Hajak said. “I think the silent majority still believes in the death penalty as a criminal consequence.”
Her brother’s killer made a plea agreement and served what she said was a “paltry sentence.” He was let out of prison to live his final days in a veteran’s home.
“My brother didn’t have that same consideration, to live out his last days happily,” Baker-Hajak said.
And while folks looking to abolish the death penalty argue it disproportionately targets the mentally ill and the poor, Baker-Hajak said those injured are also from vulnerable populations.
“I think that’s a moot point. It’s grasping at straws,” she said. “Victims that are the easiest to victimize are mentally ill folks or children, because they make the worst witnesses.”
FOR THOSE ‘HORRIBLE ACTS’
But Crichton also pointed out the danger of making irreversible mistakes. Since 1973, 130 people have been released from death row after evidence of innocence came to light.
“We don’t have a system that can guarantee that only the guilty are put to death,” Kaczynski said.
Nor does the prospect of execution stop criminals, Yaeger Lane said. The death penalty was in use in Montana when her daughter was killed.
“It certainly did not stop this poor sick young man who took my daughter’s life,” she said. “It’s not a deterrent.”
And their argument may be working. Nationally, the using of capital punishment is slowing. And it’s getting tougher to prosecute those cases.
Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos said in September he would not seek the death penalty in a triple-homicide case against accused killer Richard Covington.
Citing his experience prosecuting convicted killer David Dawson, who asked to be executed, Paxinos said executions in Western states were increasingly unusual because of the appeal process.
“In the Ninth Circuit there just simply have not been any executions in the last decade, unless they were volunteers,” he said in September.
That has Baker-Hajak worried.
“I think we’re coming precariously close to abolishing the death penalty,” she said. “It still needs to be there for those McVeighs and those Duncans out there who are doing horrible acts.”
COMPASSION FOR EVERYONE
But after working with the families of murder victims for more than 30 years, Yaeger Lane said she has a unique insight on the death penalty.
“It is not closure. It is not healing,” Jaeger Lane said. “They are as empty and unsatisfied as they were before.”
She now lives in Three Forks, after moving here to be with her second husband, a cattle rancher she met nearly 10 years ago while in Montana marking the 25th anniversary of Susie’s death.
This Saturday, Yaeger Lane will plant a tree at Headwaters State Park at the site where Susie was taken.
Yaeger Lane did not want to use the name of her daughter’s killer for this story. His family has been through enough, she said. All life is sacred, and society as a whole will achieve a higher nobility when it shows compassion for everyone.
“The quality of our society is determined by how we treat the least among us,” she said.
Jessica Mayrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2635.