A Voice From the "Dead Zone"

How the death penalty revictimizes families

March 12, 1998

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I rise to speak in support of the Below/Cushing Floor Amendment.

I've thought a lot about murder. I really wish we weren't talking about murder, death and the death penalty today.

I am opposed to the death penalty, but I want to talk about it in terms of crimes and victims and base my opposition in a way that acknowledges the primacy of the pain of victims and that is conscious of the fact that a discussion of the death penalty is in and of itself a revictimization of homicide survivors. I am opposed to violence and killing first and that includes the death penalty. But, I am respectful of those who from a moral view, believe otherwise.

On June 1, 1988, Marie and Robert Cushing planted a garden in the backyard of their home at 395 Winnacunnet Road in Hampton. It was a ritual of the season in a familiar place, in the ground they had bought together in 1952 with the GI Bill. The same 12,000 square foot lot where they raised their seven children. Robert had retired as an elementary school teacher several years earlier. Marie was 17 days from her retirement after 23 years teaching reading in Newmarket. They were celebrating a new granddaughter also named Marie Cushing. The first child of their oldest son, my first daughter, who, on June 1st, marked her 59th day on earth. They were happy. Life was good.

In mid-evening I stopped off for a visit, some quick tales, some smiles, some laughs with my Dad. I left him at the kitchen table reading the nightly paper while my Mother lay on the couch watching the Celtic's playoffs. A while after I left, a stranger knocked on the front door. My father got up to answer. Two shotgun blasts were fired through the screen, lifting him up and hurling him backwards, the shrapnel tearing the life out of him before my mother's eyes.

Those who love me and love my six brothers and sisters say that from the moment that shotgun blast turned my father's chest into hamburger, my laugh and our laughs have never been the same.

June 1, 1988, was a transformational day that will mark my life forever. Murder is awful. I can't tell you how painful it is to have someone you love murdered. I can't tell you about the emptiness, about the hurt. I can't begin to tell you how others treat you. When the murder is done, in a moment there is a whole series of revictimizations that begin. It is the death notification and the autopsy and the casket and the makeup and the burial and the investigation and the indictment and the trial and the hearing and the appeal. It is what I call the dead zone. I don't know if it ever gets over. I am in it right now as I speak to you.

The most difficult thing I have ever had to ask anyone was for help in getting my father's blood cleaned off the floor and walls.

Survivors of crime, survivors of homicide want three things. They want to know the truth about what happened. It doesn't mean that there will be a rational understanding of events but they want to know the truth. They want to have justice in whatever fashion. I can tell you in the instance of a murder that real justice would only come if you could exchange the life of the one who killed for the life in the grave. That is justice. We can't do that. So we have to fashion something akin to that. Finally, we want to heal. I think that is the same for individuals affected by murder or for a society.

A man came up to me after my father was murdered and the individual's responsible arrested and said, "I hope they fry those people. I hope they fry them so you people can get some peace." I know that man meant to comfort, but to me that was the most horrible thing he could have possibly said, I think, at that moment.

Prior to my father's murder I had evolved a personal set of values that included a respect for life and an opposition to the death penalty. Although I am of the Irish-Catholic tradition, whose religious teachings include "Thou shalt not kill," that's not all of it, it is just more of how I want to live my life and the vision I have for the society I want to live in. For me to change my beliefs because my father was murdered would only give over more power to the killers, for they would take not just my father's life, but my values. The same is true for society. If we let those who murder turn us to murder, it gives over more power to those who do evil. We become what we say we abhor. I do not want to be consumed by hate; "an eye for an eye" leaves everyone blind. I do not want the State of New Hampshire to do to the man who murdered my father what that man did to my family.

You have to know that for some survivors of homicide, the thought of executing someone adds to the pain. Nothing makes me shudder more than the carnival atmosphere that I see surrounding executions. It is like it's a party. That is incredibly disrespectful to victims.

At the end of the day we will be deciding whether to abolish the death penalty, to keep it as it is or to expand it. But, no matter what the outcome of today's discussion is, there is nothing to celebrate. No one should leave here feeling good about having to have a talk about murder. It represents a colossal failure of society and of individuals.

My youngest daughter's name is Grace; Amazing Grace like the song that Cliff referred to, the song written by a man who was a murderer and a slaver and turned into an abolitionist. Every day I think about murder. When I hear my children's laughter, I hear the sound of my father. I miss him. I wish Icould bring him back. I'm sure a lot of people would like that. I can't bring him back. What I can do is honor his life and try to lead my life upholding the ideals that he instilled in me.

I'm going to spend a long time wrestling with my father's murder. I'm going to try to figure out a way to relate to those who caused me such pain in taking from me the most influential person I have known. I don't know if it will ever be possible to come to reconciliation. I am glad they are serving life without parole instead of the death penalty. I don't want to spend my life consumed by hatred. I want to hold out the possibility that someday I'll be able to forgive. As one victim, as a colleague, I stand before you to ask that you vote to abolish the death penalty, not so much because I want murderers to live but because if the state kills them, that forever forecloses the possibility that those of us who are victims might be able to figure out how to forgive. We've lost enough already. Don't take that option for healing away, please.

New Hampshire State Representative Robert Renny Cushing is a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. Rep. Cushing made the above speech during floor debate on House Bill 1025 at Representatives Hall at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire on March 12, 1998.


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