Monday, March 14, 2011

In Texas, no one should pay for an imperfect system with their lives

By Helen Burns, published on

I am a survivor of a murder victim.

I'm a registered nurse, wife, mother and a citizen interested in helping the community. I even vote.

In 1985, my mother was killed in cold blood by my father, a physician. As it was a capital offense in California, the district attorney's office approached my family as to whether or not we wanted to pursue the death penalty. Although at that time, I was an advocate of the death penalty, the deputy district attorney explained that pursuing the death penalty is much harder on the surviving family members/victims, as it takes years of appeals before executions are carried out. Pursuing a life sentence would result in justice for the family in a more expedient fashion.

With input from the family, the district attorney's office opted to seek a sentence of life. I assisted prosecutors with gathering information for the case, as well as testified during the trial. After 22 months, my father was convicted, and remains incarcerated today.

We did not have victim services available to us at that time, which would have been an invaluable resource for me as well as my family.

Over time I became educated about capital cases in which mistakes were made, and innocent men executed. I was shocked as I had not thought that possible in the justice system. I came to believe that the death penalty is wrong in all cases. I am a firm believer in life without the possibility of parole for capital offenses. The death penalty only serves to create more victims. Executing someone does not bring back our loved ones.

We do not live in a perfect world, and we do not have a flawless criminal justice system. Innocent people have been executed. We can strive to develop a better system, but we will never be on the mark 100 percent of the time. There is no perfect system, and you can't apologize to a dead man for convicting him of something he didn't do. Once the wrong person is executed, the mistake can't be corrected, and the killer remains loose in society. That's dangerous to all of us.

When someone loses a loved one to murder, there is never closure. You just learn to live with it. Closure is a myth.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed a bill to abolish the death penalty. Countless people in his state will benefit from his choice now and in the future, as well as enabling Illinois to free up millions of dollars for productive use.

In the midst of these tough, and often unpredictable economic times in our nation and the great state of Texas, the funding in the millions of dollars we would save by utilizing permanent imprisonment as opposed to the death penalty, could be used for law enforcement, cold case units, corrections and victim services. It would be a win-win situation in a truly difficult arena.

Let's rise to the occasion ... and choose life.

Burns, a registered nurse, is a board member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a volunteer for both the Travis County Sheriff's Office's Critical Incident Stress Management Team and Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation.

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