When my daughter was murdered in Auburn in 1980, the district attorney told me the death penalty was the answer. He said it would heal me, bring me justice and help me close the door on my loss and anger. I would be able to move on, knowing that the man who took my Catherine’s life would lose his.
None of that happened. His death sentence didn’t bring me peace. In fact, 39 years after he killed my child, the man sentenced to die for her murder is still alive.
Some people will be surprised to hear that I’m now very grateful for that.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that California is suspending executions is good news for many victims’ families. In my experience, the death penalty system is a false promise that can get in the way of – or outright prevent – true recovery from the aftermath of violent crime.
One day, I got a call from a sheriff saying that my beautiful, loving, warm 19-year-old daughter had been stabbed to death. It was something I never expected. I had no way to cope with it. It plunged my entire family into despair.
The district attorney told us he would seek the death penalty against her killer, Douglas Mickey. He told me that we would feel better and be able to put it all behind us. We believed him. He had experienced murder and its aftermath. We had not.
Mickey got the death sentence, but it didn’t bring us any relief. Years passed. Every so often, I would write a letter to the district attorney’s office to ask why he hadn’t been executed yet. It went on and on. Life didn’t get easier.
No one told me, when the state decided to seek death, that her murderer would probably never be executed. I didn’t know that the process, including exhausting all legal appeals, takes many years to conclude. I didn’t know that more than 700 people live on California’s death row, where most of them will die of natural causes.
After years of prayer and spiritual contemplation, I took a huge leap. I wrote a letter to Mickey. Nothing else had helped. Twelve years had passed since Catherine’s death and I knew I had to do something different. The moment I opened the mailbox and dropped in my letter to San Quentin’s death row, I began a journey that has finally helped me heal.
Mickey replied with a letter expressing profound remorse. I eventually visited him on death row. I came to understand how much pain he was in when he made the terrible decision to end my daughter’s life.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that my healing began when I sent that letter, not when I received one back. When I recognized that Mickey is a human being and a child of God, just like myself and Catherine – that is what healed me. When I opened the door to seeing his humanity, that’s what allowed my humanity to overtake my own anger.
I’m deeply grateful to Gov. Newsom for officially stopping executions in California. I’ve seen how capital punishment is used as a false promise to grieving families. It doesn’t provide closure. It risks executing prisoners who may actually be part of a family’s healing process.
While prosecutors can still bring death penalty cases, I hope the governor’s actions bring us one step closer to abandoning the death penalty.
Many other families of victims have spoken and written about experiences similar to mine. They, too, have been consumed by the same anger that the capital punishment system feeds and depends upon. Many of us found peace and healing only when we stop being angry and acknowledged our common pain and humanity.
It took years. But I’m glad Douglas Mickey was still alive when I needed to talk to him.