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Victims hope to bring end to executions

By: Audrey Y. Williams
The Macon Telegraph
October 13, 1994

    Bill Pelke knows what it means to forgive.
    His 78-year-old grandmother was murdered nine years ago.  One of four teen-age girls who entered her Gary, Ind., home stabbed the elderly woman 33 times.
    But after the 15-year-old girl who wielded the knife was sentenced to death, Pelke, 47, did what he said his grandmother would have wanted.
    “I prayed to God to help me show some love, compassion and forgiveness, and I’ve never had a prayer answered that quickly in my life,” said Pelke, of Portage, Ind.  “I realized that putting something else to death wouldn’t ease my pain or bring back my grandmother.”
    Pelke, now a member of Murder Victims for Reconciliation, and about 30 others who have lost loved ones to murder, shared their stories with people in Middle Georgia Wednesday as part of a two-week, statewide public education tour.  The tour, called the Journey of Hope, began on Oct. 1 with a vigil at Georgia’s death row near Jackson.
    The nationwide organization, which has nearly 3,000 members, hopes to spread the message that capital punishment should be abolished, said the group’s director, Pat Bane.
    “The general public looks at us very suspiciously,” Bane told an audience of Mercer University students.  “They expect us to seek revenge.”
    Those on the journey, though, prefer to focus on how people can begin to heal despite the violence that has torn apart their lives, Bane said.
    Pelke organized the first Journey of Hope, which was held in Indiana in 1993.  During the Georgia tour, members of the group also will visit cities in Florida and Alabama.  Journey of Hope 1996 is scheduled for California.
    The staggering number of homicides in the United States each year – roughly 20,000, according to the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund – sometimes makes it hard to convince people that “there is another side to murder,” Bane said.
    “It’s difficult to grasp,” said Leona Kanter, after listening to Pelke and Bane speak.  “It makes you wonder would you be able to find it within yourself to do what they’ve done.”
    But the group’s growing members underscore many people’s belief that the 2,900 people on death row deserve to live.
    Besides providing support for the families of murder victims, the organization is also open to those who have family members on death row and those who have had a family member executed, Bane said.
    “I hope I never recruit another person.  I hate it that we’re gaining more people every year,” Bane said.  “But everyone in the group has turned a violent situation around for the better.”
    As for Pelke, he’s got some correspondence that keeps him busy.  He and the teen-ager convicted of killing his grandmother have exchanged more than 300 letters.  Now in her early 20s, she was moved from death row in 1989 and her death sentence was reduced to 60 years.
    “Executing her would have made me very sad,” Pelke said.  “It’s wrong to kill, and that’s the bottom line.”