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Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
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Unheard Voices

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March/April 2003

Unheard Voices

by Susannah Sheffer

Chris Kellett was eight years old the day his Aunt Betty broke the news that his mother and grandfather had been murdered. There's nothing that could have prepared him to hear it. Nothing that could tell him how to make sense of this gash through the heart of his family.

It's impossible to know exactly what happened the night of May 11, 1979, but it is clear that Linda Gilreath, estranged from her husband Fred and about to file for divorce, came back to his house with her father, Gerrit Van Leeuwen, to pick up some of her things. Fred shot them both several times. His brother, to whose house he fled, later described him as "dog drunk" that night. He was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. Chris and his twelve-year-old sister Felicia were sent to live with relatives.

They were never given a chance to beg for their mother's life. Now, more than twenty years later, they intend to beg for their father's, even though some people probably think they're crazy for doing it.

It's November 2001 and the state of Georgia is ready to execute Fred Gilreath for his crime, but his lawyers have filed a request for clemency and the Board of Pardons and Paroles is holding a hearing just one day before the scheduled execution. Members of the family are there to state their support for commuting Fred's sentence to life without parole.

Felicia stands up to speak. She addresses the four members of the Board who are there that day (one of them is at a convention in Las Vegas and will have to fax his vote). She tells them about her mother, about what the murders did to the whole family, about what she believes Linda would want now. She is crying as she says to the impassive Board members, "I beg you not to take my father’s life too. The violence has got to stop here."

Chris speaks too. He says that his family doesn't need or deserve any more pain that he and Felicia don't want to relive the traumatic experience of losing a parent. He looks over at his Aunt Betty, who will speak after him, and tells the story of hearing from her the news of the murders so many years ago. He says he doesn’t want to have to tell his own children that there has been another killing in the family. "It tears me apart," he says, and you can hear that tearing in his voice, as you can hear the way he has struggled so long and hard for some kind of repair, "to think that with this execution, my children may have to go through what I went through as a child."

Chris and Felicia are Linda Gilreath’s children. They are Fred Gilreath's children too. They are pleading in every way they know how, and hoping these Board members are listening.

Announcing the creation of an Office of Victims' Advocacy, the Chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles declared three years ago that the action signified "our pledge to victims: you will be heard in this agency." Amid much fanfare and the proud claim that Georgia is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to responding to victims of crime, Chairman Walter Ray publicly declared that victim’s voices matter.

Now, sitting next to the Gilreath family in the hearing room, Renny Cushing wonders if the Board members are going to remember their pledge. As far as he can tell, he's the only one doing any victims' advocacy on behalf of this family, and he's had to travel a thousand miles to do it. One of Fred's lawyers called Renny a few weeks ago, knowing that he was the executive director of a national organization of people who have lost a family member to murder and oppose the death penalty. The lawyer asked if Renny would be willing to speak out against Fred Gilreath's execution, and Renny said yes.

It wasn't long before he came across the pledge from Chairman Ray and other similar declarations about how seriously the Board takes victims and how committed they are to advocating for them. He was curious to know what was being done for Linda Gilreath’s surviving family members. "Have you gotten any help from the victims' advocate?" he asked Chris and Felicia when he talked with them on the phone before the hearing. "No," they told him, "we haven’t heard from anyone."

Renny was aware that the idea of a victims' advocate is a fairly recent one. When Linda Gilreath was murdered in 1979, the victims' rights movement was only just beginning to gather momentum. It was in fact crimes like Fred Gilreath's - crimes involving domestic violence - that were the initial impetus for a movement asserting that victims were not to blame for what had happened to them and that their interests needed to be heard and represented in criminal justice proceedings. For people who had had so much taken away, the victims' rights movement was an attempt to restore some voice, some dignity and power.

Four years before Linda Gilreath's murder, a group of women's advocates and criminal justice personnel had gathered in Fresno, California and founded the National Organization for Victim Assistance, aiming to promote a victim-oriented perspective on crime and the criminal justice system. Other victims' groups formed over the next few years. In 1984, the federal Victims of Crime Act began to provide funding to states in support of victims' advocates. These advocates were meant to help victims understand criminal justice proceedings, get necessary information, and otherwise have their questions answered and needs represented. The idea was that involvement in the criminal justice system should not lead to further trauma for those who had already been victimized.

So now, thinking about this history, Renny Cushing looks across the hearing room at Trixie Lee, the victim’s advocate whose arrival was so heralded by this Pardon Board. She isn’t sitting with the family of Linda Gilreath, barely even acknowledged them when they arrived, is not handing them tissues when tears threaten to overtake their testimony. She didn’t get in touch with them before this hearing, didn’t help them prepare their testimony or explain what they could expect from the proceedings. Any of the things you can imagine a victims' advocate doing were apparently not done for these victims, and Renny knows why. It’s because they’re here to support Fred Gilreath’s clemency request rather than to oppose it. They don’t want him to die, and somehow this means they are not behaving the way they are supposed to.

A few months after the National Organization for Victim Assistance was founded, members of the United States Supreme Court voted to allow reinstatement of the death penalty. Attorneys, lawmakers, and even death penalty opponents generally assumed that survivors of murder victims were supporters of capital punishment. Survivors who felt differently formed the organization that is now called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and headed by Renny Cushing. Today in the hearing room of Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, it seems as if MVFR is the only group who believes Chris Kellett and Felicia Floyd deserve to have an advocate at their side.

Renny listens to Chris and Felicia offer their testimony, thinking of all the times he has offered testimony of his own. The first time was a blur of urgency as he told the story of his father's murder to lawmakers in his home state of New Hampshire. Now, three years into the job of directing MVFR, he’s well-practiced at explaining why some victims' families feel that another homicide would only add to their pain. Still, Chris and Felicia’s testimony is so wrenching that no amount of experience with this issue can keep Renny from weeping along with them.

He wonders what the Pardon Board thinks, looking out at this group. What conclusions do they draw when they see Felicia and Chris standing before them and the Board’s own advocate, the person they have hired to look out for the interests of victims, sitting all the way across the room, clearly disassociating herself from these particular victims? What silent message is she communicating to her colleagues about the value of this family's pleas?

That afternoon, at the truck stop across from the prison, the family sits waiting for word of the Pardon Board's decision. Over the years, this truck stop has become the de facto waiting room for families of people on Death Row and for the anti-death penalty activists who gather to support them. it's a strangely American juxtaposition, truckers filling up their gas tanks and loading up on food while in one corner of the diner the booths are filled with people waiting to hear if a man is going to live or die tomorrow. This time it's Fred Gilreath’s family, including his young grandchildren who sit in the booth eating vanilla ice cream, their toys scattered across the diner’s floor.

The owner of the truck stop is sympathetic and tries to give them as much privacy as he can. He's a devoted Christian who has set up a chapel for any of the truckers who want to have some time for prayer before getting back on the road, and he hears about the upcoming executions whenever Randy Loney stops in to the diner. Randy is a minister who has been visiting Fred Gilreath and other Death Row inmates for years.

When the phone rings in the truck stop kitchen on the day that Fred Gilreath’s family is waiting for news, it's Randy Loney who takes the call. He hears one of the lawyers saying that the Board of Pardons and Paroles has denied Fred’s request for clemency. The execution is set for tomorrow night. Randy returns to the diner to deliver this news to the family, and Chris and Felicia look back at him, stunned.

Renny can't fully believe it either. He realizes how much he had been expecting that clemency would be granted. In his hotel room, he rereads all the material about the case - the statements from members of the family, the reports from psychiatrists. He follows the almost unbearable trail of cruelty and misery that was Fred’s childhood, the hunger of belly and soul, and somehow the story comes to this: bold type on the front of the brief that the federal public defender's office is filing in the next attempt to save Fred’s life. "Urgent - Capital Case Execution Scheduled for Today, November 14, 2001." This family’s already had enough misery to last them forever and then some. When will it stop? Felicia asked.

The judge grants a stay until 3:00 the next afternoon so he can finish hearing the arguments. Renny is standing with Chris and Felicia outside the truck stop when a different victims' advocate comes over to explain the visiting procedure for tomorrow. Jeff Lacks is the advocate who works for the Department of Correction, and at least he is talking to the family. He explains that even though the stay is only until 3:00, they’ll do the execution at 7:00 in the evening, as is the custom here. So the family should get several hours of visiting time, he assures them. In the morning and again in the afternoon. Chris nods his thanks. One more time, taking his kids to visit their grandfather in prison.

For over twenty years, Chris didn't go to visit Fred at all. Felicia went, but Chris stayed away, unable to feel anything but hatred for his father and what he had done. If you’d asked Chris then, he would have told you he believed his father should be put to death.

It was only last year, at Thanksgiving, that Chris decided to try making a visit. Something about becoming a father himself moved him to go, finally. And when he went, he found that he didn’t hate this man, found that there was more between them than fury or sorrow. He started visiting regularly and bringing his kids with him. Chris's children weren’t scared of their grandfather and even though they had to see him in a prison visiting room, they looked forward to their time with Poppy every week. In some way that mattered, Chris got his father back. He changed his mind about wanting Fred Gilreath executed.

Now he's changed his mind even further. Standing by the gas pumps outside the truck stop, Chris turns to Renny and says he’s against the death penalty all the way now, not just for his father. He talks about the time he’s spent on Death Row visiting Fred, how he’s gotten to know some of the other inmates and their families and seen enough to convince himself that executions cause more pain than they relieve.

If this is what you come to, this tentative and partial repair, does that mean you’re not a victim as the Pardon Board understands it? This is what Renny keeps wondering. Here is Chris finally with some kind of peace and a sense that it's okay to claim this man as his father, and is he crazy for not wanting that father taken away from him now? Are his pleas less valid than those of a homicide survivor who begs for the execution to happen?

If it's going to happen, Chris wants to be there to witness it. But even for this, his own desires don't matter as much as what other people decide. The question of whether to allow Chris to witness the execution is up to the warden, and he denies the request. And then the victims' advocate from the Department of Correction, the one who assured them earlier that they'd get several hours of visiting time with Fred, explains that actually, the execution will take place at 3:00 after all, so they’re going to have less visiting time than he'd promised.

Renny tries to talk to the man, since Chris and Felicia are too angry to feel like trying. He says this family feels lied to now, on top of everything else. He asks if this man knows what went on at the pardon hearing, and why do victims' families who oppose the death penalty have to feel like they're in the wrong, why did it feel as if they were abandoned by the system that had been set up to help them? The advocate seems embarrassed. He keeps repeating that this is a really complicated situation.

More than complicated, Renny thinks when the moment finally comes. It’s downright surreal, watching them sit at the phone inside the truck stop and try to tell their father goodbye. it's definitely happening now, and after Chris and Felicia hand the phone to Randy the minister, leaving him to be the last one talking to Fred before the guards lead him to the death chamber, they cross the road to the roped-off area in front of the prison where the press is gathered and where anti-death penalty activists are holding a vigil.

Renny Cushing sits at a picnic table throwing a ball back and forth with Fred Gilreath’s grandkids. It's a beautiful day under the Georgia pines and inside the prison they're killing the man these kids call Poppy and Renny can hardly stand to look into anyone's face, the pain is so intense. He wonders if he has failed this family, and part of him thinks he has, because he didn’t stop the execution. But when he looks at Chris sitting nearby with his head in his hands, he knows how important it is just to be here with these peopled, these survivors, these grown children of Linda and Fred Gilreath who have done everything they can.

When he looks up, Renny sees a newspaper reporter he spoke to earlier, sees her nod her head once, quickly, and he knows that means it's done. Fred's gone. As he goes to tell Chris and Felicia he can hear cell phones ringing all around him, the sound of terrible news being delivered, and he looks up to see birds circling the sky. At first they look like seagulls and then he realizes that’s not what they are. They’re buzzards, and they’re the one thing about this scene that seems right.

The warden comes out and makes the official announcement about Fred Gilreath's death and then it's time to make statements to the press. "The state of Georgia made orphans of Felicia Floyd and Chris Kellett," Renny says, and the fact hits him full force, the waste of it, this loss upon loss. "Despite their pleas, another body is in the coffin." He says these words, hugs Chris and Felicia goodbye, and then it's time for him to go home.

"When making a parole decision, a victim's voice is heard above others," the Board has proudly quoted one of its members as saying. Maybe that's true, maybe they do listen when the question is about whether or not to let an inmate walk free. But these three days in Georgia have proved to Renny that the Board doesn't listen to victims when the question is about whether or not to kill. Fred Gilreath is dead, the third man in three weeks to die by lethal injection in Georgia, and it doesn’t matter what Chris and Felicia believed or trusted or hoped for. Though it will tear them apart to do it, they are still going to have to figure out a way to break this news to their children.

Renny catches the last flight out of Atlanta and lands in Boston before midnight. It's when he gets in his car to head home that he feels the tears come. When he reaches his house in New Hampshire he will stand for a moment - sorrow, outrage, and awe clamoring for space inside him - and stare down at the faces of his own sleeping children.

Susannah Sheffer is the writer-in-residence at Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and is working on a book called In a Dark Time: A Prisoner’s Struggle for Healing and Change.

2003 Fellowship of Reconciliation



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