Sunday, May 09, 2010

USA: Mother's Day and the Death Penalty

Carnations - red and pink ones worn on Mother's Day symbolize mothers still living, white symbolizes mothers who are deceased. What symbolizes mothers -- or children -- lost to homicide?

"My life changed forever on November 1, 2004, the night I received the call that my beautiful daughter Leslie Ann Mazzara and her roommate Adrienne (Insogna), had been brutally murdered," wrote Cathy Harrington, a Ludington, Michigan parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith, in the book, "No Human Way to Kill." She is on the Board of Directors of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a national organization of murder victims' and executed prisoners' families opposing capital punishment in all cases.

Nearly a year later, Eric Copple, a friend of Insogna's, turned himself in.

Harrington sought counsel from Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book, "Dead Man Walking," who described murderers' mothers' anguish. "For the first time I felt a measure of compassion for Eric's mother, and I could feel my heart open, suddenly aware that it had been clenched tightly like a fist." Harrington negotiated a life sentence for Copple.

"I learned that the death penalty perpetuates the violence by holding the victims' families in trauma space, forced to protect themselves and their loved one's dignity for months, years, even decades. It creates more victims. When I recognized that the mothers (and other family members) of murderers were also victims, I knew that I didn't want to participate in causing more pain."

Bess Klassen-Landis of Windsor, Vermont, an art teacher and folksinger also active in MVFR, was a teen in Indiana when her mother was strangled and shot at home while she and her 3 sisters were at school and their father out of town. As the killer was never caught, Klassen-Landis grew up fearing she would also be murdered. For 37 years she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2005, Klassen-Landis' older sister Ruth introduced her to the organization Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing. Led by murder victims' family members joined by families of living and executed death row prisoners, and death row exonerees, Journey of Hope conducts speaking tours which address alternatives to capital punishment. "I went on the Texas tour. Not even my closest friends knew how 'crazy' I felt, because I thought it would put me in the same category as the 'crazy' killer. It was amazing to finally let my story out of the bag."

Klassen-Landis continues her activism in her mother's memory. "She would have been completely opposed to someone killing the person to make up for the violence that was done to her. I decided that I wanted to be like her, to get rid of my fears, and work toward abolishing the death penalty."

Each Mother's Day, "I focus on being a mother, honoring (the memories of) my mother and stepmother, and my daughter, who's a mother," adds Klassen-Landis. Harrington, whose mother lives near her, also celebrates Mother's Day with her church. "I hold in my heart the mothers who have sons and daughters in prison on Mother's Day and every day," says Harrington. "These mothers are the hidden victims that are often shunned and forgotten. On Mother's Day, I always light a candle and say a special prayer for them." Beyond Mother's Day, Harrington and Klassen-Landis draw purpose and meaning from tragedy by repairing a broken system -- which includes ending capital punishment.

(source: Margaret Summers is the Communications Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty)

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