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Monday, February 17, 2020

07-02 Nat. Catholic Reporter

CHICAGO -- When our friends Beth and Ed brought Marietta Jaeger to our home a few years ago, they whispered that she had lost a daughter. Something about kidnapping and murder. They didn't go into details.

It was only when I spoke to Marietta recently about the Journey of Hope, sponsored by the Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, MVFR, that I heard the awful details.

Just over 20 years ago, Marietta and her late husband, William, together with their five children, were on "a dream of a lifetime" camping trip in Montana. During the night, a man cut into their tent and kidnapped their youngest child, Susie. In the year that followed, he called Marietta, taunting her and demanding ransom. It was only after the killer's capture that the Jaegers would learn that Susie had been raped, tortured, murdered and butchered on the night of the kidnapping.

"A year later to the very minute he called again," Jaeger recalled from her inner city Detroit home where she lives a life of evangelical poverty, in Auxiliary Bishop Thomas C. Gumbleton's parish. "But in that year God had really worked a miracle in me. I had changed from revenge to forgiveness. I came to recognize that, in God's eyes, the man who killed our daughter was just as precious as Susie."

That isn't a sentiment the majority of American Christians can readily embrace. It smacks of weakness, muddled thinking and left-wing politics. When Marietta told the killer she had forgiven him, he broke down. He rambled on the phone for at least an hour, revealing all kinds of details about himself. Marietta recorded the call and turned it over to the FBI in Montana.

Three months later, following another call, he was arrested. David lived near the campground and was already a suspect. He later confessed to three other murders and was a suspect in others. Shortly after, he took his own life. Marietta Jaeger joined MVFR, an abolitionist group founded in 1978 by Marie Deans, who currently serves as director of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons.

Deans founded the group following the murder of her mother-in-law. MVFR provides a voice for murder victims' surviving relatives and friends who oppose the death penalty, and who seek healing for themselves and society through compassion and forgiveness, instead of vengeance and retribution. From June 4 to 20, MVFR traveled through Indiana with side trips to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

Billed as the "Journey of Hope," the organization sponsored rallies and other activities in the hope of reversing America's "eye for an eye" justice system that appears to simply produce more blind people.

"The offender just gets another victim," Jaeger observed.

According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, at the start of 1993 there were 2,676 inmates on death row. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 203 executions have been carried out for capital crimes that claimed 269 victims (64 other death row residents have died of natural causes while awaiting execution; 36 have committed suicide; 58 sentences have been commuted, and 1,268 sentences have been reversed).

Thirty-eight U.S. jurisdictions still have the death penalty on their books, although New Hampshire has sentenced no one. Fifteen other jurisdictions, including densely populated New York and the nation's capital, do not have the death penalty.

In January, a splintered Supreme Court narrowed another avenue for condemned inmates to get their cases reviewed by effectively shortening the time between sentencing and appeal. The case involved a Texas citizen who allegedly had killed two police officers in 1982. Texas is a gun toting state that boasts 56 executions since 1976 and 367 awaiting lethal injection. The frontier justice has done nothing for the state's crime rate, which has risen as steadily as the beer parties outside the prisons on execution nights.

There is a depressing pattern coursing through death row. The inmates are generally indigent and represented by overworked court-appointed attorneys. They have been on death row for six years or more and most had codefendants who testified against them in exchange for a lesser sentence. They are victims of child abuse; many are suffering from mental illness; many are measurably retarded. There's a good chance that many were sentenced because of race and an equally good chance that they could be innocent.

Finally, the death penalty is meted out terribly unevenly. In 1990, the U.S. had 23,000 murders; only 23 people were executed.

MVFR's Bill Pelke has the rugged good looks of a movie gunslinger. He is a crane operator at Bethlehem Steel in Portage, Ind., and the grandson of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible teacher to inner-city youths. In May, 1985, Mrs. Pelke was brutally hit on the head and stabbed 33 times by three teenage girls, one of whom was her Bible student, while a fourth acted as lookout.

At the time of the murder, Pelke, who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, had no particular opinion on the death penalty. "If the law was on the books," he said, "I assumed it was appropriate."

But the subsequent arrest, trial and sentencing of 15-year-old Paula Cooper to death shook him badly.

"My own life was in bad shape," he said. "My marriage had ended; there was a problem of custody of the children; I was bankrupt, and a relationship with a woman I loved had soured. I found myself sitting in my crane, 65 feet above the factory floor, depressed and crying.

"I thought about the trial and of Paula Cooper. She cried when she was sentenced. I remembered the tear stains on her blue prison dress. Her parents hadn't even attended her trial, but I heard her grandfather cry out, 'They're going to kill my baby!'

"I realized then that my grandmother would have forgiven those young girls. I thought of Jesus crucified and of his words, 'Father, forgive them,' and my heart turned from anger to compassion."

Pelke's life changed. He made a pilgrimage to New Orleans where he met Sr. Helen Prejean, a longtime foe of capital punishment. He wrote to Paula Cooper who had confessed that she killed Pelke's grandmother, "just to see how it feels."

She wrote back, beginning a correspondence that has reached over 200 letters. (Pelke has never met Cooper. Prison officials still do not permit visits; he is viewed as a potential threat to Paula.)

Pelke traveled as far as Italy to win support for a petition to spare Cooper from execution. He spoke on Italy's most popular TV show and on Vatican Radio. John Paul II himself appealed for clemency. Over three million Italians signed the petition.

By 1989, an embarrassed state legislature changed the law and Paula Copper's sentence was commuted to 60 years, the maximum under Indiana law.

Marietta Jaeger and Bill Pelke weren't looking for medals for those who killed their loved ones. They were merely pointing out that another death is pointless. It has the deleterious effect of unforgiveness.

Indeed, Jaeger believes that her daughter was worth much more than the killer's life. "It is an insult to her memory to suggest that she is worth only one life. To kill someone in her name is to violate her. I honor her life and memorialize her far better by insisting that all life is sacred and worthy of preservation." During a speech delivered at New York's Fordham University in the 1970s, Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin began using the term "seamless garment," a scriptural image that is meant to be draped over all life.

But the poetic analogy didn't sit well with some of his fellow bishops who found it too imprecise and insufficiently nuanced. So, a more clinical "consistent ethic of life" was substituted, allowing a term that would make a distinction between aborted babies and Susie Jaeger.

In 1978, the Committee on Social Development and World Peace of the United States Catholic Conference issued a statement that read in part: "In 1974, out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life, the Catholic bishops of the United States declared their opposition to capital punishment. We continue to support this position in the belief that a return to the use of the death penalty can only lead to the further erosion of respect for life in our society." In short, the bishops held that the death penalty is essentially vindictive. Later John Paul II would say much the same. The people of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the 29 other groups who are cosponsoring the Journey of Hope, make no subtle distinctions. They respect life. They feel victimized but not vengeful. They do not believe that the death penalty is an adequate -- or reasonable -- response. They believe that the death penalty only causes more suffering -- first to the offender, then to the victim's family and all others who call for vengeance, but who find themselves vaguely dissatisfied when the sentence is carried out. The death penalty does not result in savings to the taxpayers.

"It cost $10 million to put Ted Bundy to death (a serial killer, executed in Florida in January 1989)," Pelke said. "On average it costs $2.4 million to execute someone. They could keep Paula Cooper in prison for 60 years for a fourth of that."

"Capital punishment is an expensive, ineffective and barbaric response to violent crime," Marie Deans said. "It is not a solution. It does not help families or nations to heal. It's time for the U.S. to join all other developed nations of the world in abolishing the death penalty unconditionally." (The United States and South Africa are the only industrialized nations that have the death penalty.)

So the families of the murder victims march and plead for compassion. Among them will be Sam Sheppard, a gentle man now living in Massachusetts, who was only 7 when his pregnant mother was bludgeoned to death in 1954. His father, a prominent Cleveland osteopath, was convicted of the crime. He served nine years in prison before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict. He was later acquitted but died four years later at 46.

Sheppard, who works part time as a dental hygienist, devotes much of his free time to SOLACE, one of several national organizations that attempt to help families of murder victims. "I stand raised as my father's son," Sheppard wrote, "in the prison of our common loss."

"We are trying to teach something," Marietta Jaeger said. "It is this: that God's idea of justice is not retribution but reconciliation."