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Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA  02140

(617)-491-9600

info@
murdervictimsfamilies.org

 

Forgiving the Unforgivable

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Forgiving the Unforgivable

The white clapboard house that Robert "Renny" Cushing, Jr. shares with his wife, Kristie Conrad, and their three girls, looks like all the others in the pretty New Hampshire village of Hampton-toys on the lawn, a barbecue and swing set in the back, a basketball hoop and two jaunty plastic flamingos planted in the ground.

"This is it," Cushing says quietly as we step through the front door and into a small, white-painted, wood-paneled vestibule. "This is where it happened." He's talking about the murder of his father, Robert Cushing, Sr., a retired elementary-school teacher and father of seven, who was shot in the chest, in this hallway, 13 years ago.

"After my father was killed, it seemed real important not to lose this house," Cushing explains. He is a slim man with a long melancholy face and a strong New England accent. "My Dad and my grandfather built it. The killer may have taken my dad from us, but he wasn't going to take my roots, too. Staying here was one way of regaining control over my life. Besides, with time, the house has become something else. The floors that were once stained with my father's blood are also where my daughters learned how to walk."

The brutal murder of Robert Cushing, Sr. could have turned his son into someone obsessed with retribution; instead, it set him on the road to becoming one of the country's most articulate spokesmen against capital punishment, a practice that he believes to be "state-sanctioned, ritualized murder."

As executive director of the 5,000-member Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, he now spends 12 hours a day counseling and supporting others who've experienced a homicide in their families. He also serves, he says, as the voice of victims within the anti-death penalty movement.

"There's this myth out there that the families of victims need another killing for their healing," Cushing explains over coffee in his bright kitchen. A huge cat sleeps in a rocking chair, and his daughter Grace, 3, hums a "Barney" song in the next room. "The truth is, a lot of people are horrified by the very idea of an execution," he adds. "We know firsthand what violent death means, and we don't want to see society do it."

For years, a seriously disturbed Hampton police officer, Robert McLaughlin, Sr., had harbored an obsession with the Cushings. As a teenager, McLaughlin had shot his best friend to death, engaged in an armed robbery and spent time at a reform school. After changing his name he had somehow managed to get onto the police force, where, Cushing believes, his badge protected him for 18 years.

As for Renny and his younger brothers, they were activists, '60s types who had stayed in the village where they'd grown up, agitating for social change. In 1975, when an elderly neighbor claimed that Officer McLaughlin had manhandled and falsely arrested her, the Cushing brothers circulated a petition asking the town fathers to investigate. Nothing came of it, except that McLaughlin started keeping a paranoid eye on the Cushings.

There was a lot to watch. In the late 1970s, Renny helped found the Clamshell Alliance, an activist organization opposed to the development of a nuclear-power station in the nearby town of Seabrook. McLaughlin would observe him leading demonstrations against the plant, and return to the police station to grumble: "Those Cushings have no respect for authority!"

By the spring of 1988, Cushing was a member of the state's House of Representatives. And although they had long forgotten about him, McLaughlin was still obsessively interested in the Cushings. Sometime in the 1980s, McLaughlin and his second wife, Susan, rented an apartment that faced directly into Robert Sr.'s backyard. The Cushings had no idea who their new neighbor was, but McLaughlin was watching them and stoking his grudge. One day he announced to his wife that he was going to teach the lawless clan next door a lesson-he was going to kill a Cushing.

At 10 p.m. on June 1, 1988, with Susan standing guard, McLaughlin rang the Cushings' doorbell and fired two blasts from a stolen shotgun at the first person to appear-Robert Cushing, Sr. The McLaughlins fled into the protective darkness, leaving all of Hampton mystified by the terrifying event.

When a killing like this happens, it creates a circle of victimization that extends beyond the murdered person to the family and out into the community. "It's not just that you terribly miss the murdered person, which you do," Cushing tells me. "It's also that you feel like the world has gone out of control. There were three months where we had no idea who had done it. It was the worst-not knowing. For the victims to start to recover, you have to have some answers-and some justice."

But what kind of justice? Cushing had to confront that question publicly when he drove to a local store for groceries soon after the McLaughlins' arrest. A neighbor offered sympathy and then said, "I hope they fry those people, so your family can get some peace." Cushing was horrified that someone who knew him and his position on the death penalty could think he would change his beliefs as a result of what had happened.

The break in the case had come three months after the killing. McLaughlin began to fall apart, telling people he'd "whacked" the guy next door. He and his wife were arrested and put on trial in a lengthy, bizarre proceeding during which they often changed stories and strategies. What made it particularly difficult for Cushing was that his beliefs came under fierce scrutiny. "My opposition to nuclear power became an issue," he says. "The victims always get put on trial."

One day during a pretrial hearing, Cushing saw a young man at the courthouse. He was Robert McLaughlin, Jr., the accused killer's son from a previous marriage. Watching him, Cushing felt "there was almost a black hole between the two of us that could suck us both down-we might both lose our fathers to this horrible act." He adds, "Advocates of the death penalty were telling me that I should want for Robert McLaughlin Jr. to have to visit the death house and wait for his father to be strapped down and poisoned. I realized then that I don't like the death penalty because it creates more victims."

In the end, both McLaughlins were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The Cushing family finally felt safe, and able to move forward. "Prosecutors say that they often go for the death penalty because victims' families need it for closure," Cushing says. "But a lot of families are like mine, and they are appalled by it. I know of one woman who was re-traumatized when she was invited to attend the execution of her relative's killer. She couldn't understand why anyone thought she'd want to see that."

Life is never the same after a murder. The best survivors can do is try to incorporate their burden and search for a way to honor the victim. Cushing began by moving his young family into his parents' house. His mother couldn't bear to live there, and he eventually bought the place. He and his wife renovated it, and their three girls, two of them born after the murder, filled the home with a karma that was new, bright, optimistic.

Cushing found his opportunity to oppose the death penalty in 1998, when, in the wake of several grisly homicides, the New Hampshire legislature began considering a law to expand the grounds for capital punishment. Some officials, including the Democratic governor, Jeanne Shaheen, were calling for tougher death-penalty laws. As Cushing, also a Democrat, watched this stampede, he thought it reprehensible. Knowing that time and again studies had shown capital punishment to be no deterrent to murder, he thought expanding the death penalty was a cynical political trick designed to allay legitimate public anxiety.

In an audacious move, he sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty. To give weight to his action, he went on the House floor and told his story. "As one victim," he told his fellow legislators, "I favor abolition...not so much because I want murderers to live as because, if the state kills them, that forever forecloses the possibility that those of us who are victims might figure out how to forgive. We've lost enough already. Don't take that option for healing away, please."

After Renny Cushing finished his speech, which one legislator called one of the most emotional she'd ever heard, the Shaheen proposal, which had been expected to pass easily, was voted down. But Cushing had opposed a governor from his own party on an issue with great popular support; and he was a Democrat in a traditionally Republican district. Not surprisingly, he was voted out in the 1998 elections.

By then he was on fire about capital punishment. In the 10 years since his father's murder, the national rate of executions had accelerated from 11 to 85 per year. In Cushing's mind, politicians were just ducking the hard work of making the criminal justice system more effective. So during the 1998 election campaign, when he heard that a group of homicide survivors called Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) was searching for a new executive director, he went for the job. Working for MVFR was so important to him that, Cushing says, "Even if I'd been reelected, I would have resigned my seat to take the job."

MVFR was founded 25 years ago by murder survivors who abhor capital punishment and consider themselves a bridge between the abolitionist movement and the victims' rights community. Operating out of a small basement office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a staff of three, its membership list includes Samuel R. Sheppard-son of Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose trial for the murder of his wife inspired two TV series and the movie The Fugitive-and board member Bud Welch, whose daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Last spring, Welch had to relive his tragedy when relatives of the bombing victims were granted the right to watch Timothy McVeigh's execution. "Maybe this is some way for the people who are still carrying around a lot of revenge to vent," Welch said somberly.

As executive director, Cushing travels the country speaking out against capital punishment, publishes a newsletter, and counsels victims' families, as well as the families of the condemned, about how to survive their trauma. He's very good at his job. When the man who murdered former Congressman Allard Lowenstein was unexpectedly freed by a New York judge last year, Cushing immediately visited his son, MVFR member Thomas Lowenstein. "He just showed up and comforted me," says Lowenstein. "He's lived through the difficulties of the criminal justice system himself and has a lot of insights on how you keep your values intact despite it." Lowenstein says both men count on humor to get through the bad times. "He's got just enough nuttiness not to take himself too seriously."

Cushing's achievements are substantial. He used the testimony of his members to defeat two bills that would have imposed capital punishment in Massachusetts. Across the country he has supported victims' families during trials, hearings and executions-most recently in Nebraska, where MVFR helped two murder survivors, both Quakers, who had opposed the death penalty for the killer of their relative and were refused a hearing because of their position. "There's this assumption that if you don't want more killing, you didn't really love the murdered person," says Cushing, who is a tireless advocate for better victim-compensation laws. "We think that victims would be much better off with counseling, financial assistance-which they often need for funerals and medical expenses, legal help-than with an invitation to an execution."

Listening to this passionate, persuasive man, one can't help but feel that he's a better person than most of us. He brushes that idea aside. "I'm doing this for myself, as well as others," he says firmly. "I didn't choose to be a murder survivor; the situation chose me. I can, however, have some effect on how I define the rest of my life. And this is my way of honoring my father's memory."

 

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