The son of a US murder victim reflects on the struggle to end the death penalty.
One warm June evening in 1988, Robert Cushing and his wife Marie were at home watching a basketball game on TV, when they were interrupted by a knock.
As the retired New Hampshire school teacher answered the front door of the house where he and Marie had raised their seven children, two shots rang out, ripping his chest apart.
He died instantly in front of his wife.
Later that night, a police officer broke the news of his father’s murder to then 34-year-old Renny Cushing, who had visited his parents less than an hour before the shooting.
“For me, at that moment, thinking about what you do in the aftermath of murder stopped being an intellectual exercise and became part of my life,” says Renny Cushing, speaking to Amnesty International from the house where his father was murdered. Renny now lives there with his wife and three daughters.
For some, the instinct after losing a loved one to murder might be to want to see the perpetrators executed.
But since his father's death, Renny Cushing has become a leading voice against the death penalty, travelling throughout the USA. and Asia speaking with and on behalf of victims who oppose capital punishment.
‘Fry the bastards’
Robert McLaughlin, the man who shot Renny Cushing’s father, was no random stranger. He was a neighbour and an off-duty police officer. More than a decade before the killing, he had assaulted an elderly woman while on duty and the Cushing family had urged local authorities to investigate the incident. But nothing was done.
On 1 June 1988, seemingly intent on murder, Robert McLaughlin took a shotgun from the police evidence locker and, together with his wife, knocked on the door of the Cushing’s house.
A couple of days after the McLaughlins were arrested, Renny Cushing bumped into an old family friend at the local grocery store.
“He said to me: ‘I hope they fry the bastards, so that you and your mother can get some peace.’
“I didn’t know how to respond to that. This is a guy who’d known me my whole life – he knew that before my father had been murdered I opposed the death penalty. He presumed that because my father had been murdered, I would change my position on capital punishment.
“As I thought about it, I realized that if I changed my position on the death penalty that would only compound the crime. Not only would my father’s life be taken from me, but so would my values. I didn’t want to have that happen and I think it’s the same for society as it is for individuals. If we let those who kill turn us into murderers, evil triumphs and we’re all worse off,” he told Amnesty International.
Robert and Susan McLaughlin were convicted of the murder of Robert Cushing and are serving sentences of life imprisonment without parole.
“To the extent that I feel safe because the perpetrators are no longer in society, I’m pleased by that, “Renny Cushing says.
“But I take no joy in the fact that they are serving time in prison. Mostly what I have done is to relinquish. I’ve given over enough of my life to the people who took my father’s life. I don’t want to become fixated on it.”
“If you do, then again that claims everything, not just my life. I experience all too often that victim-survivors get so fixated on how their loved one died, that they end up forgetting how their loved one lived. That’s a tragedy that compounds the pain.” In 2004, Renny Cushing founded Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an organization which seeks to bridge death penalty abolition groups and the victims’ rights movement.
As executive director of MVFHR, he often meets families of murder victims who support the death penalty. But he doesn’t think wagging a finger at them to persuade them to become abolitionists is the right approach.
“I can understand other victim-survivors who support the death penalty, but I am never prescriptive to them. I find myself working in the death penalty abolition movement, often knowing that I have much more in common with a family member of a murder victim who supports the death penalty than I do with all my colleagues in the death penalty abolition movement who don’t know what it’s like to bury a relative who has been murdered.”
A more useful approach, he believes, is to provide support and counselling for families of murder victims.
He cites the case of Bob Curley, a former supporter of capital punishment whose 10-year-old son was raped and murdered in Massachusetts in 1997. Bob Curley led a campaign to reinstate the death penalty in the state but has since changed his stance. He has spoken publicly about how speaking with members of MVFHR has opened his eyes to more constructive responses.
Lifelong process A three-term member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Renny Cushing sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty in 1998.
The US state still retains the death penalty, but nobody has been executed since 1939. A bill to abolish the death penalty was passed by the House and Senate in 2000, but was vetoed by then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen. A bill expanding New Hampshire’s death penalty was signed into law by Governor John Lynch in June 2011.
Nevertheless, polls indicate that public support for the death penalty is diminishing in the USA with preferences growing for other punishments for murder.
“Some 140 people in the US have been wrongfully convicted of a crime and given the death sentence [since 1973]. That’s shifted the discussion and given people reason to pause and take a look at the death penalty from a different perspective,” he says.
“Parliamentarians and lawmakers are under the assumption that all families of murder victims want the death penalty and that they have to give the public an execution as a solution for the victims’ pain.
“But that approach lacks an understanding that recovering from the trauma of homicide doesn’t take place in a moment: it’s a lifelong process that has an impact generations ahead.”
Developments on the use of the death penalty in 2011 confirmed the global trend towards abolition. The number of countries that were known to have carried out death sentences decreased compared to the previous year and, overall, progress was recorded in all regions of the world. In this report, Amnesty International analyses some of the key developments in the worldwide application of the death penalty, citing figures it has gathered on the number of death sentences handed down and executions carried out during the year. Update: after publication, Amnesty International learned that Singapore authorities had reported four executions for 2011. For further information, click here http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA36/004/2012/en