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Monday, January 20, 2020

Families of murder victims work against the death penalty

By: Wayne Clark
Staff Writer
Valley Times-News

    LANETT- With crime being a much discussed issue today and policymaker on the local, state and national level sending an ever stronger “get tough” message, a New Jersey woman affiliated with a national organization brought a different kind of message to Lanett Wednesday.
    Pat Clark, who has lost two family members in acts of murder, is a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and is an outspoken critic of the death penalty.
    “I can’t remember ever favoring the death penalty,” Clark told a Valley Times-News reporter Wednesday.  She credits her grandmother for helping shape that view. Clark witnessed many of her relatives expressing outrage and demanding retribution after an uncle and a first cousin of hers were murdered.  “My grandmother would tell them that no one had the right to take life but God,” she said.
    Clark says she shares those same deeply-held religious views and that they’ve been reinforced many times over the past six or seven years with her experiences with MVFR.
    “People aren’t infallible,” she says.  “It’s my belief that no one should have the right to kill anyone, whether individual or the state.”
    MVFR, Clark explains, stresses a message of “From Violence to Healing.”  Despite the pain they’ve experienced in losing a loved one, MVFR members know that vengeance is not the answer, that it only increases the circle of victims, she says.
    “MVFR members do a lot of talking, especially to the public,” Clark adds.  “They recount their experience of losing a loved one through murder, and their eventual recognition – unique to each member – of how hatred and desire for revenge does nothing to cure the pain.  They share their struggles to let go of vindictive feelings and move on and up to a healthier, more humane way of responding to the offender and dealing with their grief.”
    According to international monitoring organizations, the United States has more people in prison today than any other country in the world and ranks alongside the likes of Iraq, Iran and China in terms of executing people.
    And the trend, as exemplified in the recently enacted Crime Bill, is to build more prisons, keep more people locked up for longer periods of time and to expand the death penalty.
    “We have an uphill fight to get our message across, but we feel strongly that we have to address this problem,” Clark said.
    “We all have some degree of cynicism about life; it’s too easily disposed of, and unless we make an effort to understand why people commit crimes first, we’re in trouble.”
    While MVFR members talk about reconciliation and forgiveness, Clark hastens to add that they don’t advocate the release of violent people to the streets.  Instead, they favor “real” life sentences which allow the possibility of repentance, rehabilitation and restitution, but do not allow the state to sanction the murder of another human being.
    She believes tat the “Willie Horton issue” in the 1988 presidential campaign convinced Democratic candidates that they couldn’t win elections without being tough on crime.  What’s happened since then, she reasons, is that members of both parties are trying to “out-conservative” the other on this issue.
    In the recent crime bill, for example, there was no debate on cutting back on the measure’s harsher features – more prisons, expanding the death penalty, etc. – but there was very intense, lively discussion on cutting back on the bill’s provisions designed to prevent crime (midnight basketball, the role of social workers, etc.)
    “It seems like our politicians really aren’t concerned with trying to prevent crime, just trying to look tough in punishing criminals,” she said.
    She said there should be more emphasis on better education, improved job opportunities and better housing.  She adds that the present trends of ignoring the reasons why people commit crimes and placing total emphasis on punishment is leading our society in the wrong direction.
    “According to some studies, if the present trends continue, by the year 2020 there will be as many people in jail as are on the outside.  There’s something dreadfully wrong with that.  We can see that prison construction, prison populations and executions all have gone up.  What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” she said.
    In October of this year, MVFR members will be taking part in the “Journey of Hope,” a two-week public education tour two-week public education tour of eight major Georgia cities and their surrounding towns.  From Sept. 30 through Oct. 16, members of the group will spend days and evenings in these areas to meet and speak with local people.
    “This year’s Journey of Hope could not come at a better time,” says national coordinator Bill Pelke of Portage, Ind.  “Americans are worried about crime, especially about the senseless violence that seems to plague the streets of our cities.”
    “It’s in this climate of fear that MVFR will speak about their experiences with murder, grief, revenge and forgiveness.”