Sally Mauk: Execution opponents hold out hope to halt digging

Via the Missoulian:

Montana has had three executions since 1943. I covered the first one – Duncan McKenzie in 1995. If I were a reporter in Texas, where 24 people were put to death just last year, I likely would have covered many more.

I’m glad I’m not a reporter in Texas.

Marietta Jaeger Lane was one of a handful of anti-death-penalty protesters holding vigil just outside the prison the night of McKenzie’s execution. She was in western Montana again recently, as part of a speaking tour sponsored by the Montana Abolition Coalition, which is working to abolish the death penalty in Montana.

In 1973, Lane and her family were on a camping trip to Montana. Her 7-year-old daughter Susie was snatched from her tent, raped and murdered. A year to the day from the kidnapping, the murderer called Lane to taunt her – and that’s when she found out for sure he had killed her daughter.

Lane urged the court to spare the man from the death penalty. He later committed suicide in prison. Lane says she learned how to turn her “fury into forgiveness.”

“For me, the whole business was about how do I honor my little girl’s life – the beauty and sweetness of it,” Lane said. “And to kill somebody in her name would profane and violate her … (and) insult her memory. She was worthy of something more whole and honorable and beautiful than a state-sanctioned killing.”

Terri Steinberg has a different but equally compelling story. In 2002, her 20-year-old son Justin became the youngest person on death row in Virginia. He was convicted of hiring another man to kill his drug supplier. Steinberg is convinced of her son’s innocence and clearly has a personal reason to oppose the death penalty. She hadn’t thought much about the death penalty before her son’s conviction.

“I had been raised to believe that all life was sacred,” Steinberg said. “Killing another person to prove that killing was wrong, made no sense to me.”

The toll a murder takes on a victim’s family is obvious and irrevocable. Steinberg seeks to give voice to the family of someone on death row. Former friends and neighbors now shun them. And it was tough to explain to Justin’s younger siblings what he faces.

“There really was no way to explain the death penalty to a 4-year-old,” Steinberg said. “I mean, how do you tell a 4-year-old that the brother she loved, the one who watched Disney movies with her and took her to McDonald’s, he was gonna be walked down the hall and killed on purpose?”

Both women can cite statistics showing the number of people on death row who were wrongly convicted and exonerated (more than 130 so far). And they can produce figures showing it costs more to sentence someone to capital punishment than to keep them in prison for life. They also know that if someone you love is brutally murdered, emotion, not logic, is driving your response.

Lane, especially, knows this.

“Initially, I would have been happy to kill this man (who murdered her daughter) with my bare hands,” she said. “That’s a normal, valid human response. But you can’t stay there. Hatred just isn’t healthy. Those people who retain a vindictive mind-set, all they do is give the offender another victim: themselves. You know, the Chinese have a proverb: ‘Those who seek revenge should dig two graves.’ ”

Montana’s fourth execution in the last 60-plus years could be just around the corner. Death row inmate Ronald Allen Smith has exhausted all his appeals. Only a grant of clemency from Gov. Brian Schweitzer stands between him and the death chamber.

If the execution goes forward, Marietta Jaeger Lane will once again keep vigil outside the prison – honoring her daughter’s memory, hoping to stop the digging of another grave.

Sally Mauk is news director at KUFM, Montana Public Radio, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly Saturday column for the Missoulian.