- Summer 1999
Breaking the Cycle of Violence
Renny Cushing and MVFR
shift the debate on the death penalty
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.
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
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."
"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
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.
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.
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.
ROLE IN TWO STATES
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."
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?
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."
Cushing thinks the death penalty debate often turns less on philosophical
divergences than purely political considerations.
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
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.
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
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'
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.
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."
says MVFR members are even more isolated among the other victims' rights
groups that have mushroomed across America in the past 20 years.
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
isolation can often take cruel forms. MVFR members have sometimes been
shunned by family and friends, their love for the deceased questioned.
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.
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
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."
Cushing believes the issue is one of national self-respect.
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."