American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
"It was all so horribly implausible"
Kurt Rosenberg is the national death penalty project assistant for the American Friends Service Committee and the national coordinator of the Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty.
It was all so horribly implausible.
The stabbing deaths of Janet Mesner and Vickie Lamm would have made any advocate of nonviolence cringe. But it was the scene of the crime and the people involved that made the killings of the two young women in a residential section of Lincoln, Nebraska, seem so incongruous.
Nearly two decades ago, Mesner and Lamm were murdered in a Quaker meeting house, where Janet was the live-in caretaker. Both were remembered as peace-loving, gentle people deeply devoted to nonviolent social change. They were the victims of Randolph Reeves, a troubled but quiet young Native American adopted and raised in a loving Quaker family in rural Central City, Nebraska. He grew up in the same Friends meeting as Janet Mesner and had no history of violent behavior.
Downstairs from where the murders took place, members of the Religious Society of Friends have gathered for worship for many years. Friends have no formal creed, but among the few virtually indisputable tenets of Quaker theology is a steadfast opposition to violence of any kind. While the blood that stained the floor of the Lincoln Friends Meeting on the morning of March 29, 1980 left an indelible mark on all concerned, the tragic event did nothing to blemish Friends' repudiation of vengeance or their core belief that there is that of God in each of us. Quaker values had been put to the test earlier this year when Reeves was scheduled to be killed in Nebraska's electric chair on January 14.
Depending on one's viewpoint, Friends' witness against Reeves' execution was either a remarkable phenomenon or simply an expression of faith in action. In the weeks leading up to the execution date, Friends helped spearhead efforts to stop the execution, starting in Philadelphia (where AFSC and the Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty formulated an organizing strategy) and Lincoln (where the plan was implemented), spreading throughout the country, and eventually generating international attention.
Less than 48 hours before he was to be electrocuted, Reeves was granted a stay by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Friends had been advocating on Reeves' behalf almost since the moment the tragedy occurred. In a powerful display of love and forgiveness the day after the murders, Central City Friends placed two flowers in the sanctuary before gathering for worship. One was for Janet who was a member of that worshiping community, the other for Randy. They had been put there by Janet's family.
"Taking Randy's life for revenge is not an option," said Ken Mesner, who has testified at hearings to repeal Nebraska's death penalty. "It will only cause more pain and suffering, and not bring Janet back."
Janet's family was involved in efforts to save Randy's life from the very beginning, Vickie's husband and daughter Gus and Audrey Lamm, despite painful disagreement within their family, flew in from their homes in Oregon shortly before the schedule execution to confront politicians and speak passionately against the death penalty to anyone who would listen. "It pains me to think that in some indirect way, my mother's death could cause another person to lose his life," said 21-year-old Audrey, who was two at the time and sleeping in another room in the house where her mother was murdered. "Killing another person doesn't do any honor to her memory."
The forgiveness and activism displayed by members of Janet's and Vickie's families is one of many poignant chapters of a compelling story that continues to unfold. Like many death penalty cases, this one was filled with what many believe to be constitutional errors. Racism and politics, such familiar watchwords when it comes to capital punishment, have figured prominently as well.
From a legal standpoint, Randy probably should never have been considered for the death penalty. A presentencing investigation contained damaging inaccuracies. At trial, jurors were not instructed that they could convict him of a lesser offense such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. And the prosecutor falsely warned jurors that if they didn't convict him of first-degree murder, Randy could walk out of court a free man.
Randy was three years old when he was removed from the Omaha Indian reservation and was later adopted by Don and Barbara Reeves. His birth mother had never surrendered her parental rights to him. Though he grew up in a stable Quaker family, Randy's self-identity seemed fragile at best. Shortly before he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced to die, he was heard talking about genocide and the killing of the buffalo. At the time of the murders he had been using peyote and drinking heavily for 24 hours.
Troubled by what appeared to be Randy's impending execution, the Omaha joined forces with Nebraska's activist and religious communities to express their opposition. Tribal leaders appeared at press conferences. Indian drummers played and sang at rallies. Omaha children held signs at vigils in front of the governor's mansion in freezing weather.
For a full six weeks, Lincoln became a stronghold of anti-death penalty activism as efforts mounted to save Randy's life. The religious community took the lead, holding daily vigils outside the state capitol. Three roses-one for Janet, one for Vickie, one for Randy- became the symbol of the campaign, modeled on Central City Friends Meeting's moving gesture following the murders. The day after newly elected Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns refused to hold a clemency hearing for Randy and also refused to accept a rose from Audrey Lamm, he received an offer he couldn't refuse: she placed 2000 flowers on the front steps of the governor's mansion.
That afternoon, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a stay. It was the result of a last-chance appeal based on a new amendment to the state constitution that guarantees equal rights under the law. The appeal claims that Nebraska's death sentence discriminates against minorities. A decision is not expected for at least several months.