Linell Patterson

Linell Patterson

I was shocked and saddened when I opened the newspaper several weeks ago and read an op-ed from Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman (“Governor’s moratorium violates his oath of office,” Perspective, Feb. 22) in which he claims, “I have never pursued a death verdict when a family is opposed and/or simply wants to avoid the appeals.” His words did not ring true for me.  

My father and stepmother were brutally tortured and murdered in 2001, and over my sister’s and my  strong objection, Stedman sought the death penalty for one of the three people who killed them.

The conversation my sister and I had with Stedman in the aftermath of losing our father and stepmother was one I found very upsetting and bewildering. When asked how my sister and I felt about the death penalty, we responded that we didn’t believe it would honor our father and stepmother.

What could have been a conversation that made us feel included and respected ended with us feeling that our sentiments were deemed irrelevant and unreasonable. In contrast to what he said in his op-ed, Stedman was quite clear with us that despite our wishes, he would pursue the most aggressive punishment possible.

Although my sister and I were my father’s immediate family members, there were other relatives who supported the death penalty and their views took priority.

During the trial, we met the family of one of the young men who was on trial. His family grieved with us and was desperately sorrowful about the acts that had occurred.

Regardless of our clear opposition to the death penalty, it was continually said throughout the trial that justice was being sought for my family and me. When the death sentence was announced, I heard a cry rise up from the family of the young man who was condemned to death. It was a cry that I will never forget. It was a cry I felt in my bones, and one that I understood deeply.

It was the same wail that I had cried upon learning of my own family members’ deaths. It is haunting that another death could take place in the name of bringing me “justice.” It is a burden I carry, and it is not something I need or have ever supported.

In my family’s case, two young men and one woman were convicted of murder; one of the men, Landon May, is on death row. The other two are in prison serving life without the possibility of parole. I do not feel that  justice was served in one case over the others.

To me, justice means keeping violent criminals in prison, restrengthening our communities after trauma, and investing in programs and services that prevent future acts of violence.It also means providing victims’ families with help when it comes to understanding what to expect regarding grief, the funerals, the trials, and the future.  

Though some murder victims’ families may not share my perspective on the death penalty, we do share many common goals. We all oppose innocent people being tried and executed for crimes they didn’t commit. We all want a justice system that is financially prudent, fair and effective.

The death penalty is exponentially more expensive than imprisonment for life, and it has been proven that the current system does not deter any more murders than locking up prisoners for life. Also, our current system has a track record of making mistakes — six men have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania since the 1980s. Our current system has an ugly history of being unfair, especially to the poor and minorities.

Often, victims’ family members are grouped into one category — one that desires another death to obtain justice.  Speaking with other victims’ families, I know we have different feelings about capital punishment, but another death will not assist in my healing. I will not feel justice when capital punishment has been implemented. It will not make me feel safer, or less angry, or facilitate healing. It will not bring me peace. It will not bring my loved ones back.

As for victims’ families, because we all feel differently, it seems appropriate to neutralize emotions from the debate and prudent to call a moratorium while exploring all aspects of capital punishment.

Linell Patterson became active in anti-death penalty work in 2002, shortly after her father, Terry Smith, and stepmother, Lucy Smith, were murdered in their Ephrata home in 2001. She currently lives in Virginia.