The following is an article which first appeared in the Spring / Summer 2013 newsletter of the Murder Victims Families’ for Human Rights (MVFHR).
We celebrate the hard work that so many activists and supporters, including many murder victims’ family members, undertook in order to bring about repeal of the death penalty in Maryland. Vicki Schieber was a founding board member of MVFHR and served on the board of directors through 2012. For the past decade, she has been active in death penalty abolition efforts in Maryland and nationwide. Following the legislative vote that repeals Maryland’s death penalty, Vicki spoke with us to reflect on what the ten years of work have been like for her.
When Vicki Schieber testified before the Maryland Senate ten years ago, she had never been to the state house and never spoken before a group of lawmakers. Explaining that her 23-year-old daughter Shannon had been murdered in 1998, and giving the reasons that she and her husband Sylvester opposed the death penalty, Vicki said, “We have set up several memorials in our daughter’s name. However, I believe the discontinuance of the death penalty in her home state would be the greatest tribute to Shannon’s brief but amazing life.”
Vicki remembers how nervous she was that day and how powerful the experience was. “I had spoken in front of groups before, but talking to legislators was different – knowing what they could do with what they heard, realizing that we could actually get rid of the death penalty as a result. It was a very moving experience, and I realized that my story as the mother of a murder victim was important.”
In the intervening decade, Vicki has told her story in 22 states and to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. She has devoted herself to work with Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, the Catholic Mobilizing Network Against the Death Penalty, and the many othergroups and organizations that have sought her help.
“I thought this would be a great way to honor Shannon,” Vicki says of her work to abolish the death penalty. “That was what I had in mind that we were going to do: try to reach out to people and help them understand what we were going through and why we wanted to abolish the death penalty. I could see that our story moved people and that it was not what they expected to hear. I saw that legislators had to rethink the issue because they wouldn’t expect someone to take this position, opposing the death penalty, after having been through such a horrific experience. So I saw that this would be a way to make a difference.”
A Washington Post article this past February, during the height of the recent repeal effort in Maryland, confirms this. The article includes these quotes: “Schieber has been effective over the years because she is not what lawmakers might expect from the family member of a murder victim, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the legislation” and “’If people who’ve had that happen can get over it and look at this the way she does, then certainly I should be able to, too,’ said [Senator] Young,” who voted in favor of repeal.
Though she has spoken publicly in so many states, Maryland has always held special meaning for Vicki because it’s her home state and the state in which Shannon was born and raised. “The work was relentless,” Vicki says of the repeal effort that spanned so many years, “but it was what I wanted to do.”
Working for repeal hasn’t only meant testifying before lawmakers, for Vicki; she has also spoken many times to high school and college students, sometimes year after year. “I never left the room without saying, ‘Take what you’ve learned today, take this story, and talk to your parents about it, talk to your friends about it.’ I saw it as a process of education. My favorite response is when students say, ‘I never knew that.’ You see them learning something or seeing the issue in a new way.”
Vicki says that throughout this decade of work, being involved with other victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty has been crucial. “That’s my foundation; that’s where it all started: learning what other victims’ family members go through, and having that support system, gave me the courage and strength to keep going on so many days. It’s essential.”
This article was featured in CMN’s May 2013 Newsletter.