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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Building their lives by opposing death

Mark Warren (left), Henry Heller, Sally Senior and Charlie King oppose the death penalty and are participating in the Journey of Hope

By: Ronald J. Hansen
The Daily Progress
September 28, 1996

Anti-Capital punishment message goes on the road
    After her 13-year-old granddaughter was raped and strangled, Sally S. Senior wanted the murders to stop, beginning with the man who shattered her life.
    Senior, a resident of Berkeley, Calif., without hesitation accepted the prosecution’s offer to allow the man who killed her granddaughter in 1989 to plead guilty to murder and receive a life sentence rather than send him to a state-imposed death.
    “I don’t have to feel responsible for another death, and neither does my daughter,” the 62-year-old woman said Friday during a brief respite from her whirlwind tour of Virginia.
    Senior and about 40 others who share her opposition to the death penalty have fanned out over the state telling their stories and trying to convince people there are alternatives to capital punishment.
    It’s all part of the Virginia Journey of Hope, which began Sept. 21 and continues through Oct. 6.  The group has several events lined up in Charlottesville this weekend.
    The Journey of Hope’s coordinator, Nelson County carpenter Henry Heller, used to be on the other side of the death penalty debate.  “I believed that if you killed, you deserved to be killed,” he said.
    But after joining Amnesty International, a friend gave Heller, 40, a pamphlet that outlined some key reasons death penalty opponents have for holding their view.
    Those reasons include studies that, according to opponents, show capital punishment is more expensive than life imprisonment, doesn’t deter crime, is arbitrarily applied and is racially biased.
    Such information changed Heller’s views and gave him a cause.
    “I knew the other side was pure vengeance,” he said.
    “They think that it deters murder.  It doesn’t.  States that have the death penalty have higher murder rates than states that don’t,” Heller said.  “Nobody on death row thought about the consequences of what they were doing.”
    Senior agrees.
    In her granddaughter’s case, her killer was a church deacon who harbored fantasies of women in bondage and who came from an unstable home.
    Afraid that the girl would report the rape, the man killed her, Senior said.  After reviewing his medical records, Senior knew he was mentally disturbed.
    “We shouldn’t be killing the mentally ill,” she said.  “I got a wonderful sense of closure when he went to prison.”
    It’s not that the crime hasn’t affected Senior or her daughter – the girl’s mother has physically shrunk 7 inches and is still deeply depressed.  Senior is haunted by the powerful arms that choked the life from her granddaughter.
    But Senior said she understood that nothing would bring her granddaughter back and that there were consequences to further killing.
    “Violence brings on more violence brings on more violence,” she said.
    “Killing is wrong.  Murder is wrong,” Senior said, her arms tensing and her voice flattening.
    Heller is troubled that society isn’t more willing to make use of the lessons death row inmates learn.
    Heller said there were few chances for the “living dead,” as he calls, them to instruct other prison inmates in anger management and to caution children about how to avoid people such as themselves.
    There are 55 death row inmates, all men, in Virginia.  The next scheduled execution is Oct. 23.
    Sister Helen Prejean, author or “Dead Man Walking,” kicked off the Journey of Hope with a speech in Richmond attended by 1,400.
    The group has a pot-luck dinner tonight at 6 p.m. at the Greek Orthodox Church on Perry Drive.  Admission is $8.
    Programs related to the events are scheduled for Sunday at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist on Rugby Road at 11:15 a.m. and at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road at noon.  Vinegar Hill Theater will show “Beyond the Call,” with Albemarle County resident Sissy Spacek at 3 p.m.  A speaker with Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation will lead a discussion after the film.  Admission is free.
    On Monday, the University of Virginia School of Law will hold forums at 4:30 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m.  Sam Reese Sheppard, son of the Cleveland doctor who spent a decade in prison for a slaying he was later acquitted of, will sign copies of his book at Williams Corner Bookstore on the Downtown Mall.
    The group wraps up its Charlottesville activities Tuesday with a tree-planting at Church of the Incarnation on Hillsdale Drive at 1 p.m.
    For more information about any of these events, call Joe Szakos at 984-4022.