Sunday, January 03, 2010

Death penalty means emotional journey for victims' families

by Maiken Scott, WHYY News and Information - please go to link to also listen to interviews...

When John "Jordan" Lewis was sentenced to die for killing Philadelphia police officer Chuck Cassidy last month, Cassidy's widow Judy said the verdict offered no solace to her. It's been over ten years since an execution was carried out in Pennsylvania, and victims' families typically face a long and emotionally draining appeals process.

When the jury agreed on the death penalty for the man who murdered her son – Kathleen O'Hara felt some relief.

O'Hara: I'm not happy about it, I don't like the death penalty, but it felt right to me, so I drove away thinking – that was really terrible but it's over.

That was in 2001 – two years after O'Hara's son Aaron and his roommate Brian were abducted from their apartment at Ohio's Franciscan University and shot and killed.

But as O'Hara found out as she and her family gathered for Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 – it was far from over.

O'Hara: it was the first Thanksgiving where it was a little less painful, we could be in the same room, we were laughing at Thanksgiving, and I thought, this is really bad but it's not as bad. And then December 1st I got the call. Which sent me right back to remembering everything that had happened.

The call was from a victim's advocate – telling her that the verdict and sentence had been overturned in an appeal.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham says this part of the legal system can be overwhelming for families:

Abraham: Coming to Court innumerable times, listening to whatever testimony, then finally receiving a verdict only to find out that the process keeps on going for years and years and years, is very demoralizing – and it increases their sense of loss and hopelessness – when is this process going to come to an end.

Professor Jules Epstein of Widener Law recognizes the emotional strain on victims' families, but says the appeals process is crucial:

Epstein: These cases are so complex, and the risks are so great, and we know from history that you need that much time – because sometimes it takes a long time to find and prove a serious error, just think of the DNA exhonerations maybe slow is not so bad

Slow can mean decades. Throughout the process, victims' advocates – employed by the DA's office, guide families through the complicated legal process, and keep them informed. Kate Roach is director of Philadelphia's "Families of Murder Victims"

Roach: It can be very confusing for them to understand what is going on, at the same time they are very traumatized, it's very difficult for them to process what is happening and why.

And sometimes, it seems like nothing is happening – In O'Hara's case, from the time she go the call, it took another five years for a new trial to begin. She is a psycho-therapist and used her professional skills to deal with the emotional rollercoaster:

O'Hara: I had to stop getting so upset, every time I thought about it, every time I got some new news – so I decided that I would have to put it aside and that when it happened, it would happen.

Take the case of Cheryl Smith of Hanover PA. She was killed in 1981. One of her killers, John Amos Small, was sentenced to death fifteen years later, in 1996 – and still is on death row. Cheryl's father Charles doesn't believe the sentence will ever be carried out:

Smith: SIGH – well, I really don't think it's going to happen as far as I'm concerned, as long as he don't get out of jail, he's in a good place, because he's not gonna hurt nobody else.

Kathleen O'Hara says the private process of grieving a loved one is constantly interrupted by the demands of the justice system – and for her, the second trial was far worse than the first one:

O'Hara: Because the first time around, it was a year afterwards, I think all of us were still in shock so you had some shock cushioning, well this time, there wasn't any, it was so clear, and to sit there and realize, this really happened.

The new trial did end in a murder conviction Terrell Yarbrough, the man accused of killing Aaron. The sentence changed from death to life without parole. O'Hara says she was relieved because she hopes that means no more appeals.

For Charles Smith, the process continues to drag on – and the frustration and pain is evident in his voice:

Smith: After all these years, as many times as my life has been interrupted with this, hah, it don't make much of a difference anymore…I mean it doesn't matter…it's really ridiculous.

Smith is in his late sixties now, and hopes to see the process end in his lifetime.

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