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Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
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Breaking the Cycle of Violence

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From Amnesty Now - Summer 1999

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

Renny Cushing and MVFR shift the debate on the death penalty

By Ron Lajoie

Robert McLaughlin took much from Renny Cushing in June 1988, when he burst into the family home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Hampton, New Hampshire and killed Cushing's father with a sawed-off shotgun.

Renny Cushing says the most difficult thing he ever had to do was to ask someone to help him clean his father's blood off the walls. But he would not allow the murderer, a disgruntled Hampton cop with a record of brutality and a grudge against the Cushing family, to take the values his father had given him, too.

"I was raised in the Irish-Catholic tradition and was taught, 'Thou shall not kill.' But I also developed my values from my father and from my own sense of being a person," explains Cushing, formerly an activist New Hampshire State Representative and currently Executive Director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), an advocacy group that works for abolition of the death penalty.

"I wanted to be part of a world where life is respected," he continues. "For me to change my beliefs because my father was murdered would only give more power to the killers. They would not just take my father's life, but my values as well."

Then Cushing pauses.

"He was my closest friend. Six months before he was killed, I had traveled with him to the South Pacific. We visited the Palau Islands, where he had fought during the war. We talked a lot. It was a special time. . . . My father gave me great values, and I honor those with my opposition to the death penalty."

It is a position that Cushing admits is hard for some people to fathom, especially in an era when revenge has increasingly been embraced by the community, at least as reflected in public policy.

Shortly after McLaughlin was arrested along with his wife, who was charged as an accomplice in the murder, Cushing ran into a family friend on a Hampton street. "I hope they fry those people," the friend blurted out.

"I didn't know how to respond, I couldn't respond," says Cushing, whose entire political career has been a direct response to public prejudices - including the widely held assumption that the only solution to violence is more, state-sponsored violence.


Cushing has fought state executions both as an elected member of the New Hampshire State Legislature and in his new position with MVFR. His unique perspective permitted Cushing to play a pivotal role in redefining New Hampshire's death penalty debate two years ago, and again when neighboring Massachusetts debated the issue this past spring."I saw myself as part of the movement for social justice, and I saw my involvement in the New Hampshire legislature as kind of continuation of my community organizing," says Cushing. "I tried to articulate a progressive agenda for the state of New Hampshire, and that included [ending] the death penalty."

But when a bill to expand the state's death penalty law was introduced after a string of grizzly murders in 1997, Cushing found himself torn. Not by any doubts about his own beliefs - he was certain of them - but about how the issue might come to define him."I was pulled in a couple of different directions," he admits. "One, I didn't want to be pegged as just this guy whose dad was murdered. That's a common experience for those of us who've lost someone to murder, because murder is so relatively rare in our society. But at the same time, I certainly didn't know any lawmaker who had lost someone to murder and was willing to publicly speak out against the death penalty."

The New Hampshire bill was particularly draconian, expanding the death penalty into several new areas. And it had the overwhelming support of the state's political hierarchy, from the Governor to the Attorney General to the House Speaker.Cushing decided that the parameters of the debate had to be shifted."We were being told that the issue was whether to keep the death penalty as it was or expand it further," he recalls. "I thought that was not really what the debate should be about. What we really needed to talk about was abolishing the death penalty altogether."POLITICALLY CHARGED ATMOSPHERECushing, along with state Rep. Clifton Below, Democrat of Lebanon, sponsored an amendment to eliminate executions entirely, forever. The seemingly quixotic measure failed by barely two dozen votes, garnering more support than the bill to expand capital punishment. More important to Cushing, it altered the discussion. Suddenly it was no longer a given that the state could simply go on killing, that it was just a matter of who would be executed and how often the death penalty would be carried out. The question became, Should the state be in the business of killing citizens at all?

Minds had been changed, even in the politically charged atmosphere of a partisan death penalty debate, where conscience can sometimes be sublimated to more prosaic concerns - not the least of which is self-preservation.

"One thing I remember," says Cushing. "A good legislative friend of mine came up to me and said, 'Renny you're lucky, you can be opposed to the death penalty, because your father was murdered, you have political cover.' I had never quite thought of myself as lucky, you know, seeing the bright side of my father being murdered."

In fact, Cushing thinks the death penalty debate often turns less on philosophical divergences than purely political considerations.

"Some people support it just out of rank political opportunism, sheer demagoguery," he states. "They feel it's an issue they can ride to power on. Some individuals wrestle with it. They actually believe it's an appropriate policy to take - based on faulty premises, I believe - but they have at least tried to think about the issue. Others? It's awfully difficult to cast a vote of conscience in opposition to the wishes of the majority of your constituents."

The same issues were played out in Massachusetts this past March, when Gov. Paul Cellucci, for the second time in two years, tried and failed to reinstate the death penalty. The state House of Representatives defeated the reinstatement bill in a final 80-73 vote following massive intervention by an alliance of death penalty opponents, including MVFR, Amnesty International USA and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.This time, Cushing could not steer the debate directly as a member of the legislature. But in his role as MVFR's Executive Director, he was able to bring the enormous moral authority of the organization into the discussion, once more shifting the focus and tone of the argument.

"MVFR added a new and compelling voice to the death penalty debate," says Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast Regional Director of AIUSA. "Having relatives of murder victims, with all their anguish, testify against the death penalty played a significant role in preventing reinstatement in Massachusetts. Their voices reminded us that revenge cannot be a basis for public policy."

Cushing adds: "We did public speaking, but we also had meetings with individual office holders. We know lawmakers who acknowledged that they changed their position because of MVFR. The Speaker of the House told me that he attributed the change in tone to our presence. You might disagree with our position on the death penalty, but you can't ignore our pain."VICTIMS' SPECIFIC CONCERNS

Even by the hardscrabble standards of the death penalty abolitionist movement, MVFR is a bare-bones operation. In fact, the Executive Director is currently the sole employee of MFVR, which was founded in 1976 by Marie Deans of Richmond, Virginia, following the death of her mother-in-law, Penny. Since 1993, the group's cross-country "Journey of Hope" tours have helped spread its message that executions are terrible memorials to dead loved ones.

Cushing works out of a tiny, newsletter-cluttered office in the converted basement of a Victorian house owned by the American Friends Service Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says MVFR has a specific role to play within the abolitionist community, where the concerns and perspectives of crime victims' families are no more likely to be considered than they are by the larger society, indeed perhaps even less so."That's because the abolitionist movement is, by and large, offender-oriented," he offers. "We're part of the abolition movement, but we have a different discussion. Many abolitionists don't think much about what it's like for the loved ones. Things like, the body can't be taken back because the state's holding it as evidence, the school plays and graduations with someone missing, the empty chair at the table on Thanksgiving."

But Cushing says MVFR members are even more isolated among the other victims' rights groups that have mushroomed across America in the past 20 years.

"I contacted the National Victims Center, which is a clearinghouse for information on crime victims," he recounts. "There are some 10,000 organizations in the United States that deal with crime. But there's not a single piece of information on opposition to the death penalty and the loss of a loved one. What that tells me is that if you lose someone to murder in this country, and if you oppose the death penalty at the outset, you are in double isolation."

This isolation can often take cruel forms. MVFR members have sometimes been shunned by family and friends, their love for the deceased questioned.

"It's almost implied that if you really loved your daughter, if you really loved your father, if you really loved your son or sister, you'd want to have the person who killed them killed," notes Cushing.

The MVFR director says turning around deeply ingrained cultural attitudes that simultaneously demonize and glorify killers, a culture that celebrates violence generally, is going to be hard, one-on-one work. But he believes the responsibility to break the cycle of violence belongs first to the state.

Amnesty has played a vital role in this debate, affirms Cushing, by framing the discussion as an international human rights issue, not a criminal-justice issue for domestic discourse alone. In fact, AI is currently in the midst of a worldwide campaign focusing attention on U.S. human rights abuses, including our ever-increasing use of the death penalty.

"A couple of times a week, the United States is putting people to death, putting needles in their arms and pumping them with poison," Cushing points out. "If that was the Chinese Government, we'd be outraged."

Finally, Cushing believes the issue is one of national self-respect.

"In the aftermath of violence, how do we as a community respond?" he asks. "What we are being told is that the appropriate response is more murder and more violence. What does that do to us as a nation? I oppose the death penalty because, ultimately, I don't believe it helps individuals or society. I don't really care what happens to murderers. I oppose the death penalty because of what it does to the rest of us."


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