In the nearly 14 years I’ve covered the State House in Annapolis, I’ve heard a lot of arguments for and against the death penalty. Proponents often insist the ultimate punishment deters violent crime and exacts justice. Opponents say it’s inhumane and unfairly targets minorities.
Few people have provided more powerful personal testimony against the death penalty than Vicki Schieber, the mother of a murder victim whose Catholic faith propels her to forgive.
Below are excerpts from a story I wrote a few years ago in The Catholic Review, along with a CR video clip featuring Vicki. The Schiebers will discuss much more at tonight’s talk and answer questions. Everyone is welcome.
When police arrested the man who brutally raped and murdered Shannon Schieber in 1998, the Schieber family faced unrelenting pressuring to seek the death penalty.
The district attorney, prosecutors, members of the media and others in Philadelphia assured Shannon’s parents that putting their 23-year-old daughter’s killer to death was the only way to serve justice and bring them “a sense of closure.” Some even implied that failing to pursue the death penalty was a sign they didn’t really love their daughter.
Reflecting back on those heart-wrenching days, Vicki Schieber, Shannon’s mother, said her family was “re-victimized” by the debate surrounding the death penalty. Knowing the Catholic values her daughter embraced, Mrs. Schieber said there was no way she could demand the taking of another life. “The death penalty wasn’t going to honor Shannon’s life and it wasn’t going to bring her back,” said Mrs. Schieber, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., who spoke at a Nov. 7 forum on the death penalty sponsored by the archdiocesan respect life office at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland.
“I thought about everything we ever taught Shannon to believe — to turn the other cheek, to show compassion and to be forgiving,” Mrs. Schieber said. “If you have a set of principles and then don’t live by them when you are tested, were they ever your principles to begin with?”
Mrs. Schieber’s request for a sentence of life without parole was ultimately given to Troy Graves, who also pleaded guilty to 13 other sexual assault in two states.
What Shannon would have wanted
Mrs. Schieber said it wasn’t an easy decision. She and her family struggled with tremendous anger that someone would snuff out the life of a daughter she described as the “joy of our lives.”
Shannon was gifted “beyond belief,” according to her mother. At 18 months, she was already reciting the alphabet — forward and backward. By the time she was 3, she was reading at a second-grade level. In school, Shannon earned top grades, serving as president of her high school and president of her freshman class at Duke University, where she graduated in three years with a triple major in mathematics, economics and philosophy.
Shannon was also very committed to social justice. She earned a full scholarship at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia — not with the intent of making boatloads of money for herself, Mrs. Schieber said, but to have a successful career in finance so she could help the poor.
“After her death, Shannon was sitting on my shoulder, telling me, ‘Don’t let him kill all of you, too,” said Mrs. Schieber. “She was telling me to take all that energy and do good with it.”
To pursue the death penalty would have put her on the same footing as the murderer himself by being willing to take a life to satisfy one’s own ends, Mrs. Schieber said.
‘No such thing as closure’
It is wrong to suggest that executing people brings a sense of closure, according to Mrs. Schieber. Every time she sees a beautiful young family in church, she is reminded that her daughter will never have the chance to marry and raise a family of her own. Even if the killer were executed, those reminders will persist throughout her life, Mrs. Schieber said.
“There is no such thing as closure when a violent crime rips away someone you love,” she said.
Mrs. Schieber pointed out that the death penalty is a human institution and subject to mistakes. More than 120 people have been exonerated for murders they did not commit, she said. At a practical level, the death penalty is also a waste of money, according to Mrs. Schieber. Sustaining the death penalty infrastructure and appeals process costs millions of dollars per case, she said. “It only costs about $50,000 (annually) to keep my daughter’s murderer in prison,” she said.
As the Maryland General Assembly is expected to debate a bill replacing the death penalty with sentences of life without parole, Mrs. Schieber urged Catholics to sign petitions in support of the effort to help convince lawmakers to support a culture of life.
“All life is sacred,” she said.