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
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
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
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 fathers 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 doesnt 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 Gilreaths 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 nations leaders when it comes to responding
to victims of crime, Chairman Walter Ray publicly declared that victims
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 Gilreaths 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 havent 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
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
So now, thinking about this history, Renny Cushing
looks across the hearing room at Trixie Lee, the victims advocate whose
arrival was so heralded by this Pardon Board. She isnt 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 didnt get in touch with them before this hearing, didnt
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.
Its because theyre here to support Fred Gilreaths clemency request
rather than to oppose it. They dont 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 Georgias 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, hes well-practiced at explaining why some
victims' families feel that another homicide would only add to their pain.
Still, Chris and Felicias 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 Boards 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 Gilreaths
family, including his young grandchildren who sit in the booth eating
vanilla ice cream, their toys scattered across the diners 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 Gilreaths 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 Freds 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 Freds 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 Freds life. "Urgent - Capital Case
Execution Scheduled for Today, November 14, 2001." This familys already
had enough misery to last them forever and then some. When will it stop?
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, theyll 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 youd 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 didnt 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 werent 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 hes
against the death penalty all the way now, not just for his father. He
talks about the time hes spent on Death Row visiting Fred, how hes
gotten to know some of the other inmates and their families and seen
enough to convince himself that executions cause more pain than they
If this is what you come to, this tentative and
partial repair, does that mean youre 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 theyre 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
More than complicated, Renny thinks when the moment
finally comes. Its 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 Gilreaths 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 didnt 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 thats not what they are. Theyre
buzzards, and theyre 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 doesnt
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 Prisoners Struggle for Healing and Change.