Murder Victim Families Can Change President on Death Penalty

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front.)

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front).

President Obama, according to his former law professor, Harvard’s Charles Ogletree Jr., is close to opposing the death penalty. I’ve worked to abolish capital punishment for 31 years and would welcome his support.

Obama should advocate for the end of the federal death penalty and offer hope for possible reprieves to the 62 persons awaiting executions in federal prisons. The President’s advocacy for abolition would furthermore send a powerful message to the 31 states, which still have the death penalty: it’s days are numbered.

Obama has held the death penalty should be reserved for the worst offenders, but concerns about racial bias in capital punishment’s application may prompt the President to change his position.

I hope the fact persons who kill white persons are three to six more times more likely to receive death sentences compels Obama to conclude, like former Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, he “will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

If, however, the President still needs persuasion to change his position on capital punishment, perhaps listening to the Journey of Hope members’ stories will convince Obama to support abolition.

I serve on the Journey of Hope’s board. Begun in 1993, and led by murder victim family members, this national organization conducts educational tours against the death penalty.

Beginning with a World Day Against the Death Penalty Conference in Dallas, the Journey will conduct a tour in Texas October 9 -25. These tours emphasize love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation to break the cycle of vengeance, death, and violence prevalent in our society. Journey members embraced their messages of hope through experiencing a family member’s murder.

After 15-year-old African American Paula Cooper was sentenced to death for stabbing his beloved grandmother Ruth Pelke 33 times to death in May 1985, Bill Pelke, the Journey’s President, thought the death penalty was justified.

However, the white crane operator from Indiana, while sitting atop his crane on morning in November 1986, was brought to tears, recalling his Nana preached Jesus’ message of forgiveness to everyone she met.

Her example converted Pelke to become part of an international movement that spared Cooper’s life in 1989, because she was a juvenile at the murder’s time.

Emotion almost overcame Pelke when he re-told his story at the annual Fast and Vigil against the death penalty outside the Supreme Court in July. It was first time he spoke publicly about Cooper’s recent suicide, a few days after the anniversary of Ruth’s murder.

Although tragic death has cycled painfully full for him, Pelke still believes “love and compassion for all of humanity is the answer.”

Also speaking that night, SueZann Bosler, faced unique challenges learning to forgive as Pelke has.

On December 22, 1986, Bosler was 24 and happy. She and her dad the Reverend Billy Bosler planned to travel to Indiana to meet her first niece and his first granddaughter. That day, she wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

As she got ready in her bedroom at the Church of the Brethren Parsonage in Opa-Locka, Florida, where her father was the pastor, Bosler heard strange moans from the living room.

When Bosler investigated, she discovered a man stabbing her dad. Bosler went to help her dad, and the man stabbed her in the head.

High on drugs, James Bernard Campbell stabbed Rev. Bosler 24 times to death, and Bosler 5 times. She only survived because she played dead, and several surgeries repaired her brain injuries.

As a preacher’s kid, Bosler had been taught forgiveness was central to her faith, and she publicly forgave Campbell, while privately conceiving ways to hurt him.

Five and half years after the murder at a second sentencing hearing for Campbell, Bosler finally understood the depth of her forgiveness when she said, “James Bernard Campbell, I forgive you.”

Her new understanding liberated Bosler. And despite a Judge’s threat to cite her for contempt for objecting to the death penalty, the white hairdresser fought to save the life of the African American man who assaulted her and killed her dad.

June 13, 1997 Bosler considers her day of victory because that day a jury voted to spare Campbell’s life.

As Bosler told her story that July night, her throat caught when she said it upset her when others implied her support for Campbell meant she didn’t love her dad or cherish his memory.

She worked to end capital punishment to honor her dad, who opposed the death penalty, and whose favorite hymn was Let There Be Peace on Earth.

Bosler, Pelke and other Journey members re-live the worst experiences of their lives to show us the way to peace. Their heroic testimonies, I hope will convince the President to urge others to embrace the peace that comes from abolition.

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