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Murdered man’s sister advocates healing and justice – not revenge
July 14th, 2008
By Michael Vick

Judy Kerr, whose brother James was murdered in 2003, told members of the Archdiocese of San Francisco's Restorative Justice Steering Committee how her experiences both before and after his death shaped her view of the death penalty.


An East Bay nurse for nearly three decades, Kerr said in the course of her work she has encountered many victims of violence. Around 20 years ago, she said, she cared for a young survivor, a 4-year-old gunshot victim. The same bullet that paralyzed the child had killed his mother. The killer: the boy's own father.


"It was the first time I had personally had any real experience with something that was that violent," Kerr said in a talk delivered April 1 at the Pastoral Center.


Kerr and the other nurses debated whether his father should be put to death for his crimes. She ultimately concluded no justice would come from killing the boy's father.


The child "invariably asked for his parents at night, which was heartbreaking," Kerr said. "Seeing and feeling and touching a life that has been changed forever by violence really guides my opposition to the death penalty."


Her later, more immediate experience with her brother's murder led her to devote time to activism against the death penalty. The case remains unsolved, which is one reason she remains steadfast in opposition to capital punishment.


"I would very much rather that the money being spent for capital punishment be spent to arrest people who are, in fact, criminals and get those people off the street," Kerr said.


The U.S. Department of Justice estimates 570,000 homicides have taken place in the nation since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 - including about 30,000 in California. Around a third of the cases are unsolved.


"Some may be in prison. Some may not be living," said Kerr of the unknown murderers. "But there are, without a doubt, a lot of people who are free on the street. What that means is that there are thousands of people like me" with family members' killers at large.


George Wesolek, director of the Archdiocese's Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns, said he welcomed Kerr's voice and her advocacy on behalf of survivors of crime. Wesolek, a member of the local and statewide restorative justice committees, said the Church's efforts to promote restorative justice must include not only prison ministry and rehabilitation efforts, but also the active involvement of people like Kerr.


"We're involved with the perpetrators," Wesolek said. "We call it detention ministry, and that's good, but we really don't understand the victims. The families of the victims share this pain. It's community-wide."


Kerr said only by understanding the inner struggle of the families of crime victims can the gap be bridged between those who oppose and defend the death penalty.


"My opposition to the death penalty is absolute," Kerr said. "I also understand the pain and the suffering of people who support the death penalty. I know what it is to lose someone you love to murder. We share a need to get murderers off the street."


Jesuit Father Stephen Barber, chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, said attempts to abolish the death penalty must take into consideration the complexity of the issue and the wide-ranging arguments for its use. He said death penalty opponents often oversimplify the motivations of those in favor of capital punishment.


Father Barber described his testimony on behalf of a defendant in a death penalty case in Virginia. The murder for which the defendant faced execution was 20 years old, but the victim's family still sought the death penalty. The priest argued that desire for the death penalty was not simply the product of a knee-jerk, vengeful attitude on the part of a grieving family or a shocked society.


"It is a very dangerous thing to sit in a presumptive observation of the victims and their families and say, ‘They must still be very angry,'" Father Barber said. "In the same way, I would not have expected all 12 of the jurors, who one assumes are rational people, to be acting out of a bloodthirsty, 20-year-old pent-up anger."


Father Barber said restorative justice ministries will not be able to achieve the end of the death penalty until the natural feelings of family members and average citizens are adequately weighed.


"How does one address oneself to the emanation of a particular kind of moral evil, when one has no prior record?" asked the priest. "You're simply a bus driver, and suddenly you're introduced to a particular moral evil. The person you have to convince is the bus driver who is in the jury pool and is faced with this kind of evil, and has to make a moral calculus."


The steering committee is spearheading plans for a Mass for persons impacted by crime, abuse or violence Oct. 26 at St. Mary's Cathedral.


From April 11, 2008 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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