A Failure for Victims’ Families

In their own words: Stories of a broken system

“When my brother was murdered I thought I was supposed to support the death penalty… Little did me and my family know then that when Michael Ryan was sentenced to death, we were sentenced too. Our sentence has been going on for 20 years and there has been no execution. For 20 years it has been all about Michael Ryan. He is all my family and I ever hear about. Jim is never mentioned… Having seen what the death penalty has done to my family, I have since changed my mind and now think it should be abolished.”

— Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother, Jim, was tortured to death

“Nearly eight years since the jury delivered the verdict of death, I am still forced to focus on my mother’s killer. If the killer were given life without parole, and I mean a true life sentence, I would not be here. I would not be forced to discuss the killer and the verdict and the ways in which my life has been affected. Each court date, each appeal, each write-up in the newspaper, revisiting and revisiting the pain, each event keeping me that much further from the curative process I and my family so greatly deserve.”

— Sandra Place, whose mother, Mildred, was murdered in 1999

“In my 15 years as a victims rights lawyer, I have represented many murder victim families in death penalty cases, and the additional anguish caused by the justice process is overwhelming. When I first see a client, I silently pray the prosecutor will decide against pursuing the death penalty, but not because I am against that form of punishment. My prayers are for the victims and the hope they will be spared the pain, isolation and despair the death penalty process will inevitably bring.”

— Richard Pompelio, New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, whose son, Tony, was murdered

“Capital appeals go on for decades after the initial trial. Most cases are reversed at some point, placing victims’ families in limbo. With each court decision, the murderer’s name is splashed across the headlines while the family waits helplessly for the next ruling, wondering when the sentence will finally be carried out… The pain of this emotional roller coaster can be astonishing in its magnitude. Where are the victims in this process? How are they served?”

— Vicki Schieber, whose daughter, Shannon, was murdered

“If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.”

— Victoria Coward, whose son, Tyler, was murdered in 2007