The bit of difference: what it means to “leaven the loaf”

I was disappointed – sock-in-the-gut discouraged, really – when a death penalty repeal bill failed in the New Hampshire Senate on a 12-12 vote last week. A friend and fellow activist who had worked hard on the bill said to me afterward about all the pro-repeal work, “None of it made a damn bit of difference.”

I understood how she felt. I had been thinking the same thing, right up until she uttered the words. Hearing her say them brought me up short. She forced me out of my funk.

Her work did matter. She was and is the kind of “leaven for the loaf” that I want to become.

I get questions about this blog’s name all the time. The person who created the logo lives in another country and needed clarification; he thought “leaven” translated to “leaf.” (I kept his leafy logo idea, though.) I’ve heard it pronounced LEE-ven instead of LEV-en. I’ve learned that the biblical metaphor of Christians leavening a community the way yeast leavens a loaf of bread is unfamiliar to some readers. Maybe I’ll change the blog’s name to something snappier and clearer someday. For now, though, the original name stays. It expresses the idea of one person being able to make the community stronger, simply by choosing life when it would be easier not to.

My discouraged friend is a longtime classic pro-lifer. One of the first things I heard from her when we met was that she wasn’t aiming to make abortion illegal, she was aiming to make it unthinkable. (We hit it off right away.) She and her husband make a formidable team. Over the years, by means of their philanthropy and a staggering amount of volunteer work, they have done a great deal to make New Hampshire a better place.

As a result, they have influence. They have earned respect from people who think most pro-lifers are far-right whackos. When this year’s death penalty repeal bill came up, my friend put that influence and respect to work. She started talking with people, one-on-one, quietly, behind the scenes. She had a tough audience: life-issue allies who support the death penalty for one reason or another.

Some of the most dedicated pro-life representatives I know fought hard against death-penalty repeal. A paradox, since these are people of good will. During the debate on the bill, they spoke of murdered Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, and how it would be an insult to his memory not to execute the man who killed him. (Briggs’s killer, Michael Addison, is New Hampshire’s only death row inmate.) They spoke of people for whom a life sentence isn’t enough; as one of the reps put it, “there are monsters among us.” Someone actually said that the death penalty had to be available for use as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.

None of those representatives was about to give ear to a repeal argument from someone who has voted against abortion regulation. You’ll kill the babies but not the convicted criminals, they think. They were nonetheless willing to listen to my friend and others like her who are stalwart pro-lifers.

People of consistent across-the-board prolife belief trying to bridge a divide with neighbors who are usually allies: how can that possibly be a waste of time? Not to mention that it’s hardly a waste of time to show abortion advocates what a consistent ethic of life looks like.

It’s funny that this loss on the repeal bill hurt me so much. As a prolife activist, I’m used to dealing with legislation that goes down by lopsided margins. No big deal; we just keep trying. But this one, a failure on a tie vote, stung badly. I saw an acquaintance shortly after the vote, and she asked “how’re you doing?” I found myself unable to speak. I couldn’t manage to say the usual fine-thanks-how-are-you. I was discouraged and fed up, and I was afraid if I opened my mouth, it would all come pouring out on the poor unsuspecting acquaintance who was just being polite.

The death penalty repeal fails; the New Hampshire legislature is halfway to nullifying the First Amendment within 25 feet of abortion facilities; fetal homicide legislation, while not dead, is in trouble. And you ask me how I’m doing …

It took my friend’s despairing remark – “none of it made a damn bit of difference” – to shake me out of my pity party. Dragging her out of discouragement is what I need to be doing.

Death penalty repeal efforts have come up before. A tie vote in the Senate, after getting the bill through the House? That’s fantastic progress. The Senate went on to table the bill, so there is a tiny chance it may yet be revived this session. A coalition with some bemused abortion advocates who can’t quite believe we’re agreeing on something? More progress.

Then there are those prolife representatives who defend the death penalty. They heard an argument in favor of repeal from someone they respect who has been with them in other legislative battles for a long time.

My friend could have been silent. No one would have thought less of her for staying out of this death-penalty debate. Instead, she went to work with the peaceful persistence and determination that has characterized every decision she’s made since I’ve known her. Her beliefs, and the way she lives them out, are touching people in ways that will last long after this vote’s been forgotten.

What a friend. What an inspiration. That’s what leaven looks like.

Repealing the death penalty: not an easy call

I listened intently online this week as my state legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. It wasn’t close: 225-104. The bill now goes to the state senate. I’m happy with the day’s result, even though it leaves me unsettled.

You see, I lobby for pro-life bills, not including capital punishment, on which my employer takes no position. A number of the legislators who dependably cast votes recognizing the right to life for preborn children do not recognize such a right for death-row inmates. By being against the death penalty, even as a private individual, I recognize with regret that I offend some of those legislators without winning over others who defend abortion and consider me “anti-choice.”  From a pragmatic point of view, my decision to speak out against the death penalty was asinine.

I don’t regret writing about repealing capital punishment, but I’m sure glad I didn’t do it to please anyone. I would have misfired badly.

This week’s debate in the New Hampshire House was beyond heartfelt. Gut-felt, is more like it.

The chief sponsor of the repeal bill, Rep. Renny Cushing, has a calm manner which paradoxically makes his arguments particularly compelling. His father was murdered some years ago, so no one can accuse him seriously of not understanding the grief and anger of families of murder victims. He has worked for years for repeal of our state’s rarely-invoked capital punishment law. His experience and the calm authority with which he told his colleagues “New Hampshire can live without the death penalty” kept the words from sounding like a trite slogan.

On the other hand, his colleagues who want to retain the death penalty were not so calm. They were angry and indignant. Some of them are cherished defenders of the rights of the preborn.

Rep. Jeanine Notter, for example. She’s one of my town’s state reps. She has sponsored legislation to promote women’s health by increasing public oversight of abortion facilities and stiffening informed-consent requirements. She’s also a determined advocate for the death penalty for heinous crimes. She went to the well and sharply spoke to her colleagues about the murder of Kimberly Cates and the attempted murder of Mrs. Cates’s daughter. No one who lived in New Hampshire in 2009 and was old enough to comprehend news reports will ever forget the horror of that crime. Jeanine reminded the House of every horrendous detail. The murderers are now serving life sentences. There was public outrage that the death penalty didn’t apply at that time to home invasions (the law has since been changed). For Jeanine, justice and fairness dictate that such killers deserve to get what they dished out to their victims.

What can I say to her? I know where she is on this, and she knows where I am – and we agree to disagree, unable as yet to bridge the gulf.

Then there’s Rep. Al Baldasaro, who tackles bills like the Marine he is (I dare not say “was,” since he once told me there’s no such thing as an “ex”-Marine). He spoke with an anger that came through clearly to me across the audio stream. “We have fifty million dead babies, and we’re concerned about capital punishment?” He knew perfectly well that some of the strongest advocates of repealing the death penalty are some of the most reliable votes against any bill to regulate abortion. Baldasaro could see that contradiction perfectly clearly.

He sees no contradiction in his abortion and capital punishment views. He sees innocent life vs. guilty criminals. So many supporters of repeal – including Rep. Cushing, judging from his voting record – see no contradiction between protecting women’s “right to choose” and eliminating state-sponsored killing.

I do see contradictions. But there’s a huge void between what I see and my ability to explain it.

One interesting if protracted speech today came from the pro-choice Rep. Steve Vaillancourt. Erroneous capital convictions haunt him. So does repeal without retroactivity. He tried to amend the repeal bill so that it would commute the death sentence of Michael Addison, New Hampshire’s sole death row inmate. He said if repeal is passed without applying to Addison, it would be like serving a meal to the whole community except for the one person “living under the bridge.” He’s right.

That’s how I feel about abortion-related bills with rape-and-incest exceptions. Lots of babies under that particular bridge. That hasn’t stopped me from supporting things like the Hyde Amendment, even with its exceptions.

His amendment failed in a lopsided vote. Everyone in the chamber knew that the governor has said she’ll sign the bill as long as it’s not retroactive. And so it’s not a “clean” bill. Someone will mutter “hypocrisy.” More hard feelings.

It was balm to my ears to hear the words of Rep. Robert Rowe, who spoke late in the debate. Pro-life across the spectrum, Rowe got his law degree about fifty years ago. He has never forgotten a case study from his student days, involving an erroneous conviction. “We can always restore freedom. We can’t restore life.” It was impossible for me to tell, listening from a distance, if anyone was still listening to the debate at that point. Late in the day, during lengthy debate, attention wanders. I sometimes wonder if the later speeches change anyone’s mind. I hope Rep. Rowe’s remarks did.

Rep. Cushing closed out the debate by saying, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, evil triumphs.” A few moments later, the House voted overwhelmingly for repeal – a decisive victory by any reasonable measure.

Yet I can’t help but think of the 104 representatives in the minority. I look at the roll call and see many names of compassionate defenders of innocent life. They offer nonviolent options to pregnant women, they fight to make abortion providers accountable for long-term outcomes to women’s health, they fight for the right of the babies to be born. They make the world a better place. When it comes to the death penalty, though, we’re far apart. And I’m the one who moved, after too many years of hesitation.

What can I do to reach across the divide?


A personal decision: going on the record against capital punishment

It’s time for some self-disclosure, as we used to say in psych class a generation ago. Deep breath now:

I am opposed to the death penalty.

There. I said it. I speak for myself and not for friends, family, clients, or employers. Some of you are thinking “so what? You’re pro-life. Of course you’re against the death penalty.” Others are thinking “that’s not our issue.” Others – probably the majority of the fine people with whom I’ve labored in the vineyard for years – will shake their heads and tell me that I just don’t understand the difference between innocent human life and those murderous thugs on death row. This isn’t an academic matter in my state, as we have a man on death row, and a bill to repeal the death penalty will be considered in Concord next January.

This isn’t a road-to-Damascus moment. It’s taken me a long time to get here, just as it took time for me to reject the laws that let us treat our preborn children as property. Unlike abortion or euthanasia, capital punishment isn’t cut-and-dried. Even in the official teachings of my religious faith, there’s a teensy bit of wiggle room on the death penalty that is utterly absent in discussions of abortion and euthanasia. (“[C]ases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not nonexistent.”)

It’s not the possibility of erroneous convictions that I find most persuasive. It’s the uneven results of sentencing hearings in capital trials, despite the careful consideration that characterizes every case.

Two trials, two outcomes

In my state, the death penalty is very rare; the state’s last execution was in 1939. A few years ago, two capital cases came up at roughly the same time. One was a murder-for-hire case. The other, prosecuted personally by then-Attorney General and now-U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, was the trial of a man who murdered a Manchester police officer.

Both defendants were found guilty, and I have no doubt that they were rightfully convicted. Then came the penalty phases. The man who arranged the contract killing got life in prison. The cop-shooter got the death penalty for murdering the police officer. (His case is under appeal.) The killers are of different races and sharply different socioeconomic backgrounds.

When the trials were over, the differing sentences jarred me. The disparity made no sense to me. I don’t see how Jack Reid’s family is any more or less bereft than Officer Brigg’s widow and children. The murder of a police officer is a horrible outrage against public order – as is hiring people to lure an innocent man to a place where men wait to beat him to death.

Vengeance is tempting, at least to me

Later, the horrific murder of Kimberly Cates and the accompanying attack on her daughter in 2009 led to convictions for five young men involved in her death (two killers, two willing bystanders, one accomplice after the fact). A more heinous crime is hard to imagine. The two killers were not eligible for the death penalty, because “home invasion” was not included in New Hampshire’s death penalty statute. (The age of the killers might have made that penalty difficult to impose in any case.) They got life in prison without parole.

The next legislative session brought a bill to add home invasion to the death penalty statute. Kimberly Cates’s husband supported it, which guaranteed its ultimate passage. I went to the House hearing and was one of the many people who had to listen from the hallway since the room was packed.

The desire in that room for vengeance was nearly palpable. Anger and grief and frustration overwhelmed all other considerations. My blood ran cold. I had never before been part of such a crowd. The thing is, if any one of Kimberly Cates’s killers had been in that room, I would have taken pleasure in seeing him get the same treatment he had meted out to her. That wouldn’t have made me right. It was sobering to realize the violence I’d have been capable of had the law been on my side.

I have no problem with self-defense. I just don’t accept that executing someone is self-defense, particularly when incarceration for life is an option.

Hearing from a family member of a murder victim

A few days ago, while contemplating this post, I listened to a presentation by Kristin Froehlich in Manchester. Kristin’s brother and four of his friends were murdered in Connecticut in a 1995 rent dispute (how much more pointless can a crime get?). The killer was up for the death penalty until the state changed its law; he is now serving life without parole. Still, the families of the dead men had to consider at first that the prosecution would lead to a death sentence.

“It’s been a wild journey. Never in my wildest dreams” did Kristin expect to be a public speaker, least of all on the abolition of the death penalty. But here she is. She professes an aversion to both violence and public speaking, but she immerses herself in both, “because I believe so strongly that the death penalty does not have a place in our society. I just don’t think we need to kill people to be safe.” She didn’t believe that at first. Her experience as a survivor changed her mind.

I won’t go over all she said. One of her arguments in particular resonated with me: the option of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment without parole “creates a hierarchy of victims.” True. Michael Briggs, Jack Reid, Kimberly Cates: are two of them less important because only the Briggs trial put a man on death row? Of course not. Their deaths were horrible crimes, where talk of “mitigating factors” is insulting to the families of the victims. Kristin’s quick to say she understands that some families of murder victims actually want to see the death penalty imposed; “they have every right to feel how they do.”

She recoils from the word “closure.” ” I hate that word. There is no closure from my brother’s murder.” So what has she done since the killer was convicted, and how has she moved to her current efforts to abolish the death penalty? She cites family, even though she has family members who disagree with her; peer support from other families of murder victims; counseling, and “telling my story.”

How does this add up?

“I think the death penalty is central to pro-life belief, because it’s the hardest,” says Kristin Froehlich. She’s right about it being the hardest. People of good will, some of them dear friends of mine, see a sharp distinction between the innocence of preborn children and the guilt of condemned criminals who chose to do evil. They strongly believe that a life for a life reflects justice, and that failure to support execution is an insult to the victims’ families.

At the hearings on New Hampshire’s repeal bill next year, I’ll see the same faces that I saw at the hearing for the bill that expanded the death penalty not long ago. I’ll hear the same arguments. I will be agreeing there with some people who are as adamantly and outspokenly in support of abortion as they are in opposition to the death penalty. They probably won’t know what to do with me.

I will not press the groups of which I’ve been a part to take up this particular fight. Moving past Roe v. Wade is a full-time job. It’s tough to establish a culture of life when the President says “God bless Planned Parenthood!” to the nation’s largest abortion provider, when medical standards for abortionists are not driven by concern for women’s health, and when even the “official” but undercounted tally by the government adds up to hundreds of thousands of abortions annually in the U.S. I don’t consider anyone a squish who fights peacefully for the moms and babies. I believe that in any case promoting a culture of life will inevitably lead to eventual reconsideration of capital punishment.

On the other hand, I have yet to figure out how opposition to the death penalty squares with support for abortion. Go to any hearing involving capital punishment, and look at who’s testifying for repeal.  Sure, there are some ministers and family members of murder victims who have a consistent ethic against abortion and the death penalty. They are outnumbered by people familiar to me: there’s the woman who argued against collecting statistics on abortion. There’s a legislator who holds that a preborn child is nonhuman. There’s the lobbyist for an organization that opposes informed consent for abortion, saying “trust women” without mentioning just what it is I’m supposed to trust them to do. When it’s mom vs. baby, they’re with mom. But are they saying “trust society” when it’s society vs. convicted killers? No.

Ah, well. If all I did was agree with my friends all the time, life would be way too comfortable. And this makes me very uncomfortable. I am under no illusion about the depths of depravity to which some people will descend – just look at the murder cases I’ve cited from here in New Hampshire. No getting around it, though: I can no longer abide capital punishment. Life-for-a-life is no way to run a civilization.

“I had to ask myself what kind of world I wanted to live in. The death penalty is not part of that,” says Kristin Froehlich. “The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life,” say the American Catholic bishops. “Do what Jesus would do,” said Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, asked to intervene on behalf of a condemned inmate.

I agree.