When Julie Marie Welch enrolled for her freshman year at Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City, she registered for classes in German, Latin, and Spanish. Her freshman adviser reminded her that the school also offered classes in math, science, and history, to name a few, but Julie was intent on studying languages. During her sophomore year, she went to Spain as an exchange student, and as a junior and senior she added French and Italian to her course load.
Julie's father, Bud, tried to convince her to apply to Notre Dame. "I think parents are certainly guilty of reliving their childhood over through their children," he explained recently. "This is what I was doing with Julie. I never attended college myself, but Notre Dame was always my school. I tried to influence her into applying there, and finally one day when I asked her why she wouldn't, she said, 'Dad, I have to apply to schools where I think that I need to go, not to some place you think you should have gone!' And that kind of answered that."
Julie chose Marquette University in Milwaukee and, after being accepted, won a foreign-language competition there that provided about $6,000 a year in grants and scholarships.
"That money enabled a service station owner to send his daughter to what I consider a high-profile private university," Welch explained. "When I took her to Milwaukee in August of 1990 for freshman orientation, I didn't have any shirt that would fit my swollen chest because I was so proud of her."
Bud Welch was raised on a dairy farm in central Oklahoma and had been running his service station for more than 30 years when his daughter graduated from Marquette in 1994 with a degree in Spanish. In July of that year, she moved back to Oklahoma City, took a job as a Spanish translator for the Social Security Administration, and met a young lieutenant at nearby Tinker Air Force Base. Over the next few months, she and the lieutenant fell in love and planned to announce their engagement.
Julie's office was on the first floor of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. She was there on the morning of Wednesday, April 19, 1995, when the bomb went off, killing her and 167 other people. Her body was not recovered until Saturday.
"Julie was my only daughter, my pal, my sidekick if you will, and my best friend," Welch said. "We hung together; we fought together; we did everything together. After Tim McVeigh bombed the Federal Building, the rage, the revenge, the hate--you can't think of enough adjectives to describe what I felt like. I mean, fry the bastards. We didn't need a trial--a trial was simply a delay. That was my feeling; that was my emotion. You no doubt saw at some point McVeigh or [Terry] Nichols being rushed from an automobile to a building, bulletproof vests on, and the reason that the police do this is because people like me will kill them. The police presence around them was the very deterrent that kept me from being on death row in Oklahoma today. Because had I thought that there was any opportunity to kill them, I would have done so."
By Thursday afternoon, the day after the bombing, President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno had announced they would seek the death penalty for the perpetrators. "That sounded so wonderful to me at the time," Welch said. "Because here I had been crushed, I had been hurt, and that was the big fix."
On June 1, 1988, Robert and Marie Cushing planted a garden in the backyard of their home in Hampton, New Hampshire. It was a ritual of the season: Every year, they gardened the same 1,200-square-foot plot of land in the backyard of the home they'd bought in 1951 on the GI Bill, in which they had raised their seven children. Robert was a retired elementary school teacher, and Marie was 17 days away from retiring after 23 years as a reading teacher. They were celebrating the recent birth of their son Renny's first child.
At about 10:00 that night, Marie was lying on the couch watching the Celtics play-off game, and Robert was at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. There was a knock at the front door, and Robert got up to answer it. As he pulled the door open, two shotgun blasts rang out; he died on the living room floor, in front of his wife. Renny Cushing, who had left the house less than an hour before, returned later that night.
"From that day, from that moment, I became the survivor of a homicide victim," Cushing explained recently. "And after the killing begins, there's a whole series of events that kind of fall in the revictimization area. Things like funerals and caskets, cemetery plots and headstones, empty chairs at holidays; maybe police investigations, hearings, trials, sentencing, appeals. I refer to that time as the 'dead zone.' I always think that in the aftermath the most difficult thing I had to do was ask someone for help to get my father's blood cleaned off the walls of the house."
Today, Renny Cushing is executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a nationwide organization of survivors of homicide victims who oppose the death penalty. Bud Welch is a member.
"I think that people who are survivors of homicide victims want three basic things," Cushing said in a recent conversation. "You want to know the truth, almost like a literal understanding--in a chronological sense--of what took place. How it happened that someone we loved could be taken from us. The second thing is justice, which is a very difficult thing to grasp and explain somehow. Because when you're dealing with murder, the only justice that could come would be if you exchanged the life of the loved one you lost with the one who killed them and is still walking the earth. But we can't do that. And the third thing we want to have is healing. And healing is not an event; it's a process that goes on all the time."
Prior to his father's murder, Cushing had opposed the death penalty, and he never really wavered from that position. A few days after the murderers were taken into custody, an old friend approached him in the grocery store.
"I hope they fry those people so your family can get some peace," the friend said.
"There was a presumption on the part of most people, on the part of many people," Cushing explained, "that I would be for the death penalty now. That individual meant well; he meant to offer me some comfort, I think. But to me, being for the death penalty would mean that not only would the killers take my father's life from me, but in the moment that they did so they would also take my values."
Bud Welch and Renny Cushing were in Concord, New Hampshire, recently to testify before the New Hampshire senate's Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire. Cushing, a former New Hampshire state representative, had sponsored similar legislation in 1998. His bill had lost by about 30 votes. The current bill had passed the New Hampshire House on March 9 by about the same margin. New Hampshire was on the verge of becoming the first state to abolish the death penalty since executions had resumed in the United States in 1977.
For the death penalty hearing, the divider between two rooms in the legislative office building had been taken down to accommodate the large crowd. The senators sat around three tables, roughly in a U shape; a fourth table, facing the U, was for those offering testimony.
State senator Debora Pignatelli, chairwoman of the committee, eyed the crowd and smiled a bit nervously. She looked young, perhaps in her early 40s, and looked as if she might be feeling the pressure of the moment. She had announced she wasn't sure how she would vote on the bill, and was being steadily lobbied by both sides. People who wanted to testify handed in blue cards on which they'd written their names and addresses.
"Looks like a long one," one of the senators said.
"I know this issue is very important to everyone here," senator Pignatelli said, after calling the hearing to order. "And I know you all have a lot to say. I'd like to ask, on behalf of all the members of the committee, that if you hear someone else say what you wanted to say, you submit your testimony in writing. We have a lot of testimony to get through."
There were three or four TV cameras in the room for about an hour, long enough to record some of the most dramatic testimony.
Welch was among the first to testify, and he spoke about how hard Julie's death was on him, about how he smoked three packs a day and drank quite a bit in the aftermath. About wanting to kill McVeigh himself. About realizing that the death penalty for McVeigh wouldn't help him with his loss at all.
After Welch came Kirk Bloodworth, a big man with blond hair and a mustache, wearing a sport coat, tie, and blue jeans. Bloodworth had spent close to nine years--or, as he said, "Eight years, 11 months, and 19 days"--in prison in Maryland, the first few years on death row, before being exonerated by DNA evidence. At the time of his arrest in 1984 for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl, Bloodworth had been 23, recently married, never before arrested, and working full time.
"Someone said I looked like the composite drawing," he'd told me in the hallway before testifying. "They were looking for a skinny guy."
"You never were that," his wife said, smiling.
The senate committee hearing room was quiet as Bloodworth told about his first trial. "One of the loneliest feelings I have ever experienced is when the judge passed sentence on me and the courtroom exploded in cheering," he said.
Bloodworth got a second trial, was convicted again, and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. A new kind of DNA test, unavailable at the time of his trials, eventually proved his innocence, and he was released in 1993.
"It never dawned on me how powerful the judicial system is in our country," Bloodworth told the committee. "I hear people say the system is fine, we need to speed it up--even if innocent people die, that's the price we pay for democracy.
"My family lived through this nightmare with me," he said. "My father spent his retirement savings on my defense--he's 72 years old; he can't retire now. My mother died five months before I was released. She believed in her son."
Bloodworth's voice broke as he talked about his mother, but he kept going.
"I don't know why this happened to me," he said. "Maybe it's for things like today. I believe it is for today. Something that God had in mind. It was not a dream, not a hypothetical. This is my life."
Senator Pignatelli had asked the audience not to express pleasure or displeasure with anything that was said. The room was silent as Bloodworth made his way back to his seat.
There was a rustle of activity around the doors, and Governor Jeanne Shaheen came in. Shaheen, a Democrat, was dressed in what must be standard-issue female politician garb for her generation, a sensible suit with a sensible skirt in a tasteful but not bland color, with a tasteful but not shiny necklace. She seemed diminutive and looked around a bit; she didn't seem thrilled to be there.
Shaheen said that while she respected other people's views on the death penalty, New Hampshire needed its death penalty statute and could be trusted to use it justly. "We don't have situations where public defenders sleep through trials," she said at one point, apparently in reference to the case of Calvin Burdine, a death row inmate in Texas, whose 15-year-old conviction was overturned in September 1999 because his public defender slept through substantial portions of his trial. Or perhaps she was referring to George McFarland, still on death row in Texas, whose lawyer, John Benn, slept through much of his trial. In McFarland's case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled seven to two that there was no need to reopen his case, in part because one might view Benn's nap as a strategic move on the part of the defense. Or, as Judge Doug Shaver wrote, "The Constitution says that everyone's entitled to an attorney of their choice. But the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake."
Shaheen also testified that New Hampshire needed the death penalty to deal with certain heinous crimes. She cited the case of a man who, in 1997, murdered four people, including two state troopers, before being killed in a shoot-out with police. "Had he lived," Shaheen said, "he should have been tried and executed under our death penalty statute."
Shortly thereafter, she thanked the committee and left.
As might be expected, subsequent testimony raised questions about whether New Hampshire's justice system is as reliable as the governor had said it is. A few hours after Shaheen's remarks, Michael Johnson --a county attorney who believes in the death penalty in principle but has concerns about how it is implemented--recounted the story of a state police investigator who had a rape and murder suspect in custody and the DNA tests that exonerated him in a desk drawer, but failed to turn over the DNA test for three months.
Another of the governor's remarks didn't sit well with some death penalty opponents. When Renny Cushing testified, he objected to the ranking of the value of murder victims' lives that is implicit in most death penalty statutes. Cushing's father was a teacher murdered by an off-duty cop, so the death penalty under New Hampshire law was not a possibility. Had his father been the perpetrator and the cop the victim, his father would have been eligible to die for his crime.
On May 18, the New Hampshire senate joined the house in passing the bill to abolish the death penalty. On May 19, Shaheen vetoed it. She issued a statement about the careful thought she had given the issue and the respect she had for those who disagreed with her.
Shaheen's performance likely had been watched closely by other politicians who sensed that the death penalty was emerging as a more prominent national issue. In June, when Texas Governor George W. Bush decided to allow the execution of Gary Graham--who had been convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness and whose attorney had been repeatedly disciplined for misconduct by the State Bar of Texas--to proceed, he followed Shaheen's model of insistence on the surety of the system proceeding without error and achieving a just result. In contrast to his mocking last year of condemned Texan Karla Faye Tucker, he stated his respect for those who oppose capital punishment and reiterated his belief that the death penalty "saves lives." Much of the press coverage of Bush's stance on the Graham case focused on his having shown sufficient "gravitas," not on his having violated a previous commitment to grant a stay to any inmate whose guilt might be reasonably doubted.
Public support for the death penalty is at a 20-year low, due mostly to the attention being paid to the fact that innocent people end up on death row in startling numbers. Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions in February of this year, when the number of people freed from death row in his state since 1977 surpassed the number of people executed in that same time frame.
Illinois, however, doesn't lead the nation in the number of wrongfully convicted defendants released from death row. Florida does, with 19 people exonerated since 1977. Governor Jeb Bush's stance has been the same as his brother's: He backed a bill, passed earlier this year, speeding up the process of execution by placing more restrictions on the appeals available to death row inmates.
Nationwide, since 1977, about 620 people have been executed, and more than 80 have been released from death row after reversals in their cases. It is exceedingly difficult to prove the innocence of someone who has been executed; even so, as columnist George Will wrote recently, "One inescapable inference from these numbers is that some of the 620 persons executed were innocent."
Certainly, capital punishment would seem to be a prime target for conservatives' traditional suspicion about big government. Executing convicted murderers involves bloated expenses--it costs roughly two to three times as much to execute someone as it does to keep him or her in jail for life--and a vast bureaucracy of appeals clogging state courts across the country, all continuing amid mounting evidence that the government isn't doing the job competently.
In recent months, the focus of the death penalty debate has shifted from "tough on crime" supporters versus "wimpy" abolitionists to a different continuum, one ranging from those who insist there's nothing wrong with the system--or, worse, that mistakes are unavoidable and therefore acceptable--to those who believe the state shouldn't be in the business of killing in the first place. In between are those who think the death penalty can be cleaned up, with DNA testing, better legal representation for indigent defendants, a more careful appeals process, or kinder forms of execution, with perhaps a moratorium on executions in the meantime.
While moratoriums on executions and laws providing for death row inmates' access to DNA testing are vitally important to establishing a system as error-free as possible, the risk that "improvements" in the system will only add to the long-term viability of the death penalty as a punishment worries abolitionists. The reality is that most people on death row are guilty. Why shouldn't we kill them?
This is the question members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) are answering across the country, for anyone who will listen. Some believe that every human life is sacred and that no matter what crime a person may have committed, it is possible for him or her to reform, to change. Some have even forgiven the person who murdered their loved one. Some don't reach that point. For many, opposition to the death penalty arises out of a desire to focus on their loved ones and not on the criminals who took their lives. The question isn't whether or not a killer deserves to die; rather, it is, what are we willing to do to ourselves as a society to kill that person? The answer, for MVFR members, is that it is not worth executing innocent people, wasting millions of dollars, and accepting an inherently unfair judicial process, just to kill someone--just to become that which our society claims to abhor.
A few weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bud Welch saw Tim McVeigh's father on television.
"I don't know what the question was, or the answer," Welch recounted. "But I saw him look into the television camera for a short two or three seconds, and I saw a deep pain in a father's eye that I could recognize because I was living that pain. And I knew that some day I had to go tell that man that I truly cared about how he felt--I did not blame him or his family for what his son had done."
A couple of years later, Welch traveled to Bill McVeigh's house in upstate New York, and the two men met.
"His daughter Jennifer was there. She was about the same age as Julie when she died. As I walked in the kitchen, I noticed a photograph--there were some family photos on the kitchen wall up above the table. And I noticed this photo of Jennifer's brother. I kept looking at it as we were sitting at the table, with Bill sitting off to my left. I knew that I had to comment on it at some point, so finally I looked at it, and I said, 'What a good-looking kid.' And Bill says to me, 'That's Tim's high school graduation picture.' And then I saw a big tear roll out of his right eye."
Welch stayed a while, talked to Jennifer about her teaching, about how Julie had been making plans to become a teacher at the time of her death. They never talked about her brother's guilt or innocence. At the end of the visit, Welch shook hands with McVeigh and hugged Jennifer. He and Jennifer started crying.
"Honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives," Welch told her. "And we can make the most of it we choose. I don't want your brother to die. And I will do everything in my power to prevent it."
Welch left the McVeighs and drove back to where he was staying in Buffalo and cried for a long time. "But after I got through that sobbing," he said, "I had all of a sudden--I have never felt closer to God in my life than I did at that moment, once I was through that sobbing, because I felt like there was this load taken completely off my shoulders. I wish I could explain it to you. I wish I could make you understand the way it felt to me."
Renny Cushing was coming out of the Rockingham County Superior Court in Exeter, New Hampshire, after a pre-trial hearing when he ran into Robert McLaughlin, Jr., the son of the man who had murdered his father. They had never met before. They spoke to each other briefly.
"We stood next to each other," Cushing recalled, "and there was this sensation of a black hole being laid between the two of us, with both of us trying desperately not to get sucked down into it because this horrible event had taken place and we were both involved, although we didn't want to be. 'We both lost our fathers on June 1, 1988,' I said to him. And I realized just thinking about it that, in a way, I was the lucky one because I had my father's life to celebrate. I am the son of a murder victim. He lives his life as the son of a murderer. And I would not want the pain that I felt in losing my father to go to him. My pain doesn't get eased by inflicting pain on him."
It's a sentiment Bud Welch echoes.
"As far as the death penalty is concerned, it won't help me any when Tim McVeigh is killed," he said. "The death penalty is about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate is why my daughter and those 167 other people are dead today." ¤