Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation: Making Sure the Voices of Victims Are Heard

April 16, 2012

By Scott Bass, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) Interim Executive Director

April 16, 2012

MVFR works to make sure that murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty and/or support reforms are heard in public discourse about capital punishment. Our members are murder victim family members who help their friends, coworkers, media and policymakers understand the negative impact that capital punishment has on families of murder victims and families of those condemned to death. Our members are geographically, socioeconomically, racially and politically diverse. This article focuses on our work in one state on one issue – working in North Carolina in support of efforts to pass and protect the North Carolina Racial Justice Act, a law passed in 2009 to address and prevent racial bias in death sentencing.

Jean Parks and other murder victim family members advocate for NC Racial Justice Act at North Carolina legislature in December 2011.

I held my breath as we walked toward the State Capital Building and the Governor’s office. The Governor’s staff had suggested limiting the number of participants in the meeting to “five or six.” However, several more murder victim family members wanted to participate, and we successfully advocated for a larger meeting. These family members are often overlooked, pushed to the side and silenced – it was important that we get them into the room and let their voices be heard.

Ultimately, 14 family members of victims and I crowded into the room with North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue and her staff to urge her veto of a bill that would repeal the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA).

Our group was prepared. Each person had accurate information and spoke from the heart about why they as family members of victims had worked hard to pass RJA in 2009 and to protect it being overturned. They explained why they believe RJA improves the quality of justice in our state and helps our system value all lives regardless of race. They had already written letters and guest editorials for newspapers, sent e-mails to elected officials, talked to church and civic groups and to news reporters. They had held two press conferences earlier in the year and would hold yet another one after this meeting with the Governor. Now they wanted her to hear them.

Late that afternoon after the meeting with the Governor, a successful press conference and visits with legislators, we gathered to reflect on the day and to see how everyone was doing. MVFR believes that in addition to helping family members lift their voices in ways that can be heard, we also have a responsibility to be aware of how advocacy benefits them and what it costs them to open up an intensely painful part of their lives so publicly. We have a responsibility to care for them.

We gathered in a circle and each person checked in about how they were doing, how the day had gone for them and what the day had meant to them. We laughed. We shed some tears. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. One person referred to this group of murder victim family members as “the family I never wanted to be part of but am so glad I have.”

Two days later, before announcing her decision to the media, the Governor’s staff called. I was told that the Governor was very grateful for our group’s advocacy and that she would indeed veto the attempt to repeal RJA. Those family members, who had worked so hard, had been heard.

Making sure that murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty and/or support reforms are heard in the public discourse about the death penalty and about the many needs of families of murder victims – is what MVFR is about. Our members know firsthand the trauma and tragedy that murder inflicts. They deserve to be heard.

Murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty are often ignored even though they exist in large numbers. Support for the death penalty among murder victim family members is typically overestimated by the public, exaggerated by politicians and overstated by the media.

MVFR sees capital punishment as a failed policy that promises justice and closure but delivers neither. We believe the death penalty actually: distracts attention from the many needs of murder victim family members, diverts resources from services and supports that can meet those needs, delays both justice and healing, divides families who desperately need each others’ support – often within the same family – and is detrimental to families of victims and families of those sentenced to death.

To learn more about our work in other states and to learn how you can help, visit our website or e-mail us.