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Real Stories

Carolyn Leming and Vicki Schieber

Vicki Schieber with photo of her daughter, ShannonSeparately, our stories are a stark reminder that the system has failed. Together, they prove that it can never be fixed.

Carolyn’s story: My son, Ray, was sentenced to death in Arizona for a crime he didn’t commit. It took 10 long years for the truth to come out and set him free. Ray had been a Boy Scout, a sergeant in the Air Force, and had never been in trouble. My family and I had great faith in the police and the criminal justice system – until it almost cost my son his life. We had no idea a murder case could go so horribly wrong. But it did. And multiple appeals later, Ray was still fighting to prove his innocence.

Vicki’s story: My daughter, Shannon, was murdered by a serial rapist in Philadelphia. Shannon was 23 years old and finishing her first year of graduate school at the Wharton School of Business when she was killed. It took 13 hours to discover her body, and over four years to solve the case. When the suspect was finally arrested, my husband and I asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty. We knew that if Shannon’s killer were sentenced to die, the death penalty process would drag on for years, even decades.

Together, we are two sides of the death penalty’s inevitable catch-22.

A longer and more complicated system might save the next Ray, but at what cost to the next Vicki? For each court decision, the defendant’s name is splashed across the headlines. The system promises swift and sure justice, but instead creaks along for years, delaying healing and prolonging pain. The enormous amounts of money spent pursuing just a few executions could have really helped Vicki and her family with victims’ services and support.

A shorter and cheaper system might be easier on Vicki, but that means more mistakes. The next Carolyn will be burying her innocent son instead of welcoming him home someday. It took 10 years of appeals for Ray’s innocence to come to light – and for many others it takes far longer. The extra time and scrutiny in death cases is the difference between life and death for innocent people like Ray.

Victims need justice to be swift, but due process takes time. When a life is on the line there is simply no room for error or hastiness. For these reasons, more people and lawmakers around the country are coming to understand that these problems are insoluble.

We are the faces of that insolubility.

Learn more about the death penalty
Learn more about the risk of executing an innocent person
Learn more about the impact on victims’ families

See also: Carol Leming and Vicki Schieber, “Why Two Mothers Back Death Penalty Repeal,” The Gazette, February 16, 2007

Former Warden Ron McAndrew

 RonIn 1978, I entered the Florida State Department of Corrections as an entry-level officer. Over the next 15 years I worked my way up through all of the gut level correctional positions before becoming a Warden. When I was asked to take over Florida State Prison in Starke, Florida, the Secretary of the Department had one question for me before I started my new post. He asked, “Are you going to have any problems carrying out the death penalty?”

“No Sir!” I replied.

I was a staunch supporter of the death penalty. Both my cousin and my sister-in-law had been murdered in times past. And I had been in the prison system for 18 years, and felt that murderers and rapists and barbaric people didn’t deserve to be on this earth.

I thought I would not have any trouble carrying out the ultimate punishment.

The death penalty evokes all kinds of questions about whether it’s right or wrong, whether we have the right or wrong person, how the victims feel. But rarely do people realize just what the death penalty does to those of us who must perform it.

I learned the hard way. In my tenure as warden, I helped perform three electrocutions in Florida and oversaw five lethal injections in Texas. I saw staff in both states traumatized by the duties they were asked to perform. Officers who had never even met the condemned fought tears, cowering in corners so as not to be seen. Some of my colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of knowing that a man had died by their hands.

I myself was haunted by the men I executed in the name of the State of Florida. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find them lurking at the foot of my bed. One of them had been cooked to death in a botched electrocution. I stood just four feet away watching flames rise out of his head, hearing the electrician ask me, “Is that enough? Should I continue?”

It wasn’t until I left my post as warden that I finally sought counseling for the trauma I had been through.

It was then that I realized that I could not support the system that had left me in so much pain.

Moreover, I came to realize that the death penalty had also cheated me out of the resources that could have better protected my staff and inmates. As the warden, it was my job to ensure the safety of my officers and the prisoners in my charge. I learned what it takes to keep a prison safe – consistently well-trained, professional staff that have adequate wages and benefits; state-of the art facilities that provide solid protection using the latest technologies in surveillance and security; and procedures that give staff the ability to deal with difficult situations through a close management policy that segregates difficult inmate populations.

The very notion that we need the death penalty to keep prisons safe is both professionally and personally offensive. I don’t believe there is a single qualified prison warden in this country that wouldn’t trade the death penalty for more resources to keep his or her facility safe. The death penalty system is just a drain on those resources, and it serves no purpose in the safety of the public or prisons.

Learn more about the death penalty
Learn more about the secondary trauma of those involved in the process
Learn more about the impact on public safety

Based on Testimony by Ron McAndrew before the Montana House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, March 2009

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino

 Jennifer Thompson-CanninoIn 1984, I was raped at knifepoint in my home in North Carolina. I did not know whether I would live or die that night. Throughout the course of the rape, I struggled to look into the face of the person who was destroying my life. His hair, his skin. Scars, tattoos, piercings. His voice, his age, weight and height – all information the police would need.

I survived and was able to help the police identify Ronald Cotton, who was convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty years. It was an amazing moment for me. It was the criminal justice system at its best. Ronald Cotton would never touch his mother again. Never find love and get married. I hated him with a blind hate. I prayed daily to my God to please have Ronald Cotton killed in prison but before he dies, to let him know the incredible fear of being raped. To have your soul and spirit taken from you and crushed before your eyes. This all but consumed me.

As the years went by, my life took on a steadiness. I graduated college, fell in love, got married and gave birth to triplets in the spring of 1990. Life was good. But in 1995, Ronald Cotton requested a DNA test. And the results proved he was innocent.

The shame was oppressive. The guilt was heavy. I was afraid of revenge, retaliation, vengeance. A full two years of intense suffering later, I met with Ronald Cotton to ask for forgiveness. Without hesitation he gracefully forgave me. He gave me healing that night. He taught me I should not allow that one horrible act to control my life.

Three years later, in the year 2000, I was invited to speak at a press conference on behalf of a man who was to be executed by the state of Texas. His lawyers said he was innocent.
My immediate response to the request was, “No, of course I cannot come. I support the death penalty. I believe that if you take a life then you should be prepared to give up your own. We do not execute our fellow citizens unless we know without a doubt that they are guilty. After all, this is America.”

I was assured that I was entitled to my opinion and all that was needed from me was to tell my story. But as I read more about the case, I was struck at the holes in some of the eyewitness evidence. I began to wonder - how many other cases might involve human error, as mine did? I arrived at the event and I met twelve others there, men and women, black and white. They had all been wrongfully convicted.

Some say that the proper procedures can reduce the risk of executing an innocent person to an acceptable level. But what is acceptable? I cannot look at any one of the exonerees I met that day and support the death penalty – I just can’t. Their lives are too valuable.

I have thought about this issue more than most. I could have been murdered that night that I was raped. Here is what I have concluded. I believe – as I have always believed - we should reserve no sympathy for killers. None. They choose to kill and should be held responsible for their choice. But this I know is true - you can reduce, but you cannot eliminate, the risk of error in the death penalty system. No set of procedures can completely guard against human error. Believe me, I was certain that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped me – certain.

We are not perfect. We are human. We make mistakes and some of us even act with malice. To deny that would be criminal. And to gamble with someone’s life in the face of that knowledge – even more so.

Picking CottonYou can read more about Jennifer and Ronald’s incredible story and friendship in their book, Picking Cotton

Learn more about the death penalty
Learn more about the risk of executing an innocent person

James Wells

I retired from police work in 2006. Every morning for twenty years, I put on my uniform knowing that I was putting my life on the line. It was meaningful work, knowing that I voluntarily accepted this risk to protect others. I never thought of myself as a hero, just an ordinary guy doing his best on the side of good.

My time on the front lines gave me a front row seat to a job that most people only see on TV – where it is always glamorous and exciting. In reality, the daily routine can be tedious. But like the TV shows, it can also change quickly and unexpectedly. All it takes is a bad actor on the edge, a domestic dispute spun out of control, a seemingly routine traffic stop gone haywire or some nut with a gun. I know. Someone with an illegal gun murdered my son – so the death penalty is not just an abstract concept for me.

Most perpetrators, especially in the heat of the moment, don’t think five minutes ahead, let alone twenty years. Most don’t know the law. And even if they did, they’d understand that they run a greater risk of being killed by lightning than of being legally executed.

Most police officers that have been exposed to violent crimes will laugh at the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent. In fact the nation’s police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction, and the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money, according to a 2009 poll.

On more than one occasion, I’ve thought about what I’d want if I were killed in the line of duty. Would I want my family dragged in and out of court and the media for decades, their lives put on hold wondering if the sentence would be carried out?

I am glad I am not going through that after the murder of my own son. Our healing is process is hard enough without the extra trauma and uncertainty of the death penalty process.

There are other reasons that the death penalty is hard on law enforcement. The risk of mistake and its uneven application erode the public trust in the system that we’ve worked so hard to establish.

By all counts the death penalty is not an effective law enforcement tool. It is little more than a distraction from real public safety needs.

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