Murder victim’s son works against death penalty

Renny Cushing is what some might call a conundrum: the son of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty.

The New Hampshire man held that stance on capital punishment before his father was shot to death in 1988. He didn’t alter it afterward.

“If I changed my position on the death penalty, it would only give more power to the killer,” Cushing, 59, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Not only would they take away my father, they would take away my values.”

Cushing, the founder and executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, will speak in Billings on April 14 as part of the Montana Abolition Coalition’s annual meeting. The meeting and the talks by Cushing and Sabrina Butler-Porter are open to the public.

The coalition is made up of a group of individuals and organizations in Montana dedicated to replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

It includes faith, civil-rights and human-rights groups.

Butler-Porter is the only female death row inmate to have been exonerated in the United States. The Mississippi woman was convicted of capital murder in her baby’s death in 1990 and awaited execution until she was retried and found innocent five years later.

Cushing grew up in Hampton, N.H., a town of about 15,000. He graduated from the same elementary school as his father, the same school that his own children attended.

His quiet existence was shattered in the spring of 1988 when a stranger aimed a shotgun through the screen door of his parents’ home and shot twice, killing Robert Cushing Sr., Cushing’s father, in full view of his mother.

Everything in his life changed, including his frame of reference. Considering what should happen to a convicted killer “was no longer an intellectual exercise,” he said.

Cushing ran into an old friend a few months after his father’s killers were arrested. The friend told Cushing he hoped “they fry the bastards so you and your family can get peace.”

“I didn’t know how to respond because this was a guy who knew me my whole life and he knew I was opposed to the death penalty,” Cushing said. “He presumed that because my father was murdered, I must have changed my position.”

That’s when Cushing realized that to revise his views would violate his deepest beliefs. It didn’t mean he didn’t want to see justice done for his father.

“But if we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs,” he said.

About a decade later, Cushing was a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives when the matter of the death penalty came up.

A series of murders in the state had prompted a bipartisan effort to expand use of capital punishment.

Cushing introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty.

“I had a unique position as a legislator because people knew my father’s murder as a high-profile murder,” he said. “I spoke as a murder victim and someone who could cast a vote.”

Cushing’s bill didn’t pass, but neither did the other bill to extend the death penalty law.

In 2004, he helped found Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between death penalty abolitionists and the crime victims’ movement.

He educates abolitionists about the plight of families touched by murder, and talks to the families about his reasons for opposing the death penalty.

“I spend time in the victims’ community, talking about human rights,” Cushing said. “We don’t burn down houses of arsonists or rape rapists, and we shouldn’t kill killers.”

The death penalty tends to put the focus on the wrong person he said, sometimes turning murderers into “rock stars.”

Under the country’s imperfect legal system, Cushing said, 140 people have been wrongfully convicted of murder.

He doesn’t want to see people get away with murder. They need to be held accountable for their actions and isolated from society.

“But the whole idea of having a ritual killing by a public employee of a human being is just not the kind of society that I want to live in,” Cushing said.