“How many people in this audience have been affected by murder, knowing a victim or a perpetrator?” asked professor and filmmaker Rick Stack following the screening of In The Executioner’s Shadow at American University on the occasion of the 2019 European and World Day against the Death Penalty (October 10th).
Nearly 20 people in attendance raised their hand. But despite heavy exposure to violent crime in the United States, there is very little debate about the death penalty and how to seek justice for the victims of murder. Sister Helen Prejean, a leading advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, explains that “the death penalty persists because people do not want to think about it.”
The documentary film offers a penetrating look at the consequences of the death penalty through the testimonies of the parents of a murder victim, a Boston Marathon bombing victim, and a former executioner.
Sparing the life of their daughter’s murderer
Vicky Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was raped and murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, explained why she and her husband, Syl, ultimately asked the court to spare the life of the murderer and called for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole instead. Despite their immense suffering and the feeling that “part of us had died,” as Syl Schieber described, they adopted a principled position against capital punishment.
“As hard as it may be,” Vicki said, “you need to try to avoid anger, as anger only kills you and your family…You need to find ways to heal. It may take 15-20 years or much longer for someone to be executed. We saw the effect this had on family members, destroying their lives.”
Prosecutors on the case had a different opinion. “Rather than respecting our views, the prosecutors insulted us,” regrets Vicki. “The district attorney even publicly questioned our emotional health merely because we did not support the sentence she wanted to pursue.”
“I had to transform myself into a person that would take a life”, says former executioner Jerry Givens.
Former Chief Executioner of Virginia Jerry Givens, who served from 1978–1999, recounted the more than 62 executions he had performed, telling no one in his family.
“If people who recommend the death penalty also had to perform the execution, I think that it would be different story,” he said. With lethal injections, “you have to use seven tools of chemicals. As an executioner, I am at the end of each syringe. I am pushing the poison down the tube into the body.”
Jerry explained how he was seven days away from executing a man, Earl Washington, who was then found innocent. Earl had already been moved to the death chamber, the last phase before the execution. Jerry cannot help but wonder if he has killed innocent people, especially since several had claimed their innocence until their last breath.
Jerry also felt like he had become a murderer himself: “the death certificates read ‘death by homicide.’ It did not make sense, I did not want to be considered as a person that committed homicide, but that’s what it reads.”
Stavros Lambrinidis, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, called on all U.S. states to abolish the death penalty.
“We stand with the victims. We abhor murderers. But we can’t allow a killer to turn us into killers,” he said. He highlighted the many flaws of capital punishment, including the risk of executing innocent women and men. “For nine people who have been executed in America, one has been exonerated,” he noted. With the death penalty, judicial mistakes become irreversible.
Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, added that “we have ample evidence that the death penalty does not deter, does not help heal, perhaps we can see this for what it is. The death penalty is inconsistent with free democracy.”
- EU Now Podcast, Season 3, Episode 2: “Victim’s Parents Speak Out Against the Death Penalty”, with Vicki and Sylvester Schieber (who appear in the documentary film)
- EU Now Podcast, Season 1, Episode 8: “Back from Death Row”, with death row exoneree Harold Wilson, who passed away on May 18, 2019
- Joint Declaration from the EU’s High Representative and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on the occasion of the 2019 European and World Day against the Death Penalty
- Video statement from EU Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis on the death penalty
- Trailer of the film documentary “In The Executioner’s Shadow”