December 9, 2002

Statement regarding A1913

Bill Piper

Let me begin by giving a brief background to the case that brings me here today, that has forced me to give long and serious consideration to death penalty issues, and that leaves me with no choice but to ask, for the good of the families of murder victims and for society at large, that this Assembly seriously consider further study of the effects of the death penalty on society.  From my own experience, I can only conclude that the death penalty is nothing but negative, that it is has no positive value whatsoever.  Fresh from this case, I have no desire to re-open the wound so soon, but if I can help other families avoid what Iíve been through, Iíll describe the crime, fill you in on the conclusion to the case and describe why I feel the best course was taken.

The crime:

On July 18, 1999, my mother, Arlene Piper, was raped and murdered in her home sometime before dawn by a man who entered through a side window. His entering her home woke her up.  She was 6 weeks from her 75th birthday.  The murderer, Christopher Yon, had no apparent motive other than the knowledge that she would probably be an easy victim.  He was acquainted with my mother only by sight.  He removed nothing from the home except the car keys, which were not on her person, and after the rape and murder, stole her car.  I start with these facts to make clear from the outset that I do not believe there is any way to excuse what Christopher Yon did that night.  My mother was asleep, she had never met Christopher Yon, and he was under enough cognitive control to select a victim based on ease.  The auto theft seems like an afterthought.  On a scale of inexcusability, this crime ranks near the top.

The conclusion:

On September 16, 2002, Christopher Yon accepted a plea bargain for 2nd degree murder, rape, etc. He is in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary for life without parole. He is currently in his mid-twenties. 

I believe that this was the best possible outcome for this case.  I want to emphasize that the decision not to pursue the death penalty was the best outcome for not only Christopher Yon and his family, but for my family as well.   The law has begun to recognize that an act of criminal violence has far reaching repercussions.  We do not perceive a crime as an isolated interchange between criminal and victim, but as an interchange between:

  1. a person who, given circumstances, could be considered to more or less tend toward further violence (from self-defense to pathology) and
  2. another person who from somewhere on a scale of passive to active triggered the act of violence, with
  3. the understanding that both perpetrator and victim within a society and network of relationships whose surviving
    members have strong emotional responses that need to be taken into account.

Iíll look at each of these below in relation to the death penalty.  Most emphasis will be on the third point.

Point 1:
Society needs to protect itself.  Given the logic of his choice, Christopher Yon seems like a very dangerous person.  He is in jail and away from people like my mother.  He cannot do any further damage there.  Yon is borderline retarded and not capable of running a criminal network from the penitentiary.  It does no logical good to kill him.  He only costs the maintainence of life, not the money that would go into appeal after appeal were he on death row, not to mention the cost of up to twenty years wasted on vengeance and anger as old wounds are opened again and again during appeals processes, as blood lust and old disgust and sorrow reawaken every time a new phase comes up for review.

Point 2:
My mother is dead, and she did nothing to trigger Yonís selection.  She was a good woman, whose goodness is only dishonored by remembering her with Yonís death.  How does a life of such natural kindness justify killing? 

Point 3:
I am in the network of relationships my mother had.  My mother and I had a warm and affectionate relationship that was improving with every year. I had visited her the week before her death and she was in excellent spirits and thoroughly enjoyed being with my wife and me and our then 3 year old son.  As a point of comparison, I should mention that my father died a natural death when I was 25, so I am acquainted with more normal
grieving.  This brings up

1.    the process of a victimís grieving, and
2.    circles of relationship beyond the immediate.

Simply enough, grief is the agent of relinquishment.  It is a healthy psychological process more or less hard-wired in the human mind as a way to cope with loss, so the death penalty interferes with victimsí familiesí healthy psychological functioning.  In that regard, the death penalty is both cruel (to the victim) and unusual.  We usually move from pain to grief to relinquishment in a healthy grieving process.  If our relationship with the lost was difficult there is usually a lot of questioning and some anger involved, anger at the deceased or at ourselves, but not at an outside party, such as in this case.  Immediately in capital cases, anger is either (or both) displaced onto the perpetrator of crime or intrudes on a process that goes better in its absence.  As the close family member of a murder victim, one is called on to provide evidence, hear about arrests, see the perpetrator, hear details of the loved oneís death over and over again, hear about rape long after the fact of murder settled in, give opinions as to legal courses of action, review evidence, attend pre-trial hearings, attend trials, prepare victimís impact statements, suffer through delays and appeals while bringing it all to court, etc.  These stages in the motion toward legal conclusions happen without warning. You no sooner move toward acceptance after the last wave of misery and detail, than another wave comes along to throw you back to the beginning. For my family, it took over three years to bring it all to legal conclusion.  It is only now that I can begin to bring it to psychological conclusion. 

And that is because grief is the giving up of control.  All through the process of a capital case, victimís families are offered control, or an illusion thereof, thereby retarding the necessary process of grief and relinquishment and standing in direct opposition to what would be healthiest for the victims.  It locks you into a vacillation between pain and sorrow and futility and anger (and you forget what youíre angry with half the time) while the legal system grinds on fully cognizant that it can either take or reject your advice as it sees fit.  One of my relatives said that if we gave up the death penalty sheíd feel there was nothing more we could do for my mother.  Thatís exactly the point.  There is nothing we could do for her; giving it up was the simple acceptance of the reality of death over the illusion of control. Itís like growing up.

As adults, we recognize weíre responsible political agents, and as such, I had choices to make.  As a long time opponent of the death penalty, I had to act my conscience.  This brought about a lot of unnecessary distrust between me and many other family members who were so wrapped up in their feelings of disgust and horror and they wanted to push this through to a capital end.  This was despite their knowledge that the appeals process could go on for up to 20 years.  Political divisiveness in a family is not a healthy was to approach grief.  When we first learned of my motherís death, the family pulled together, and it began to unravel over the stress put on us through the death penalty decision.
They used a brand of fundamentalist Christianity I find rather confusing to claim that the death penalty was Godís justice.  This also assured them of their correctness in not letting go, and allowed them to place me on the social outside at a time when I most needed their comfort.  I had only my wife and a few death-penalty abolitionists for support. 

Politics in dissonance with psychological necessity is miserable.  I cannot begin to say how glad I am to have this decision made.  We hear a lot about victimsí need for closure, but the pursuit of the death penalty does really quite the opposite.  It allows us to prolong the suffering of relinquishment and the illusion of control.  It prolongs our suffering even as, and because, it prolongs our illusion of control.  Our family finally has closure.  We are finally left with our private suffering, which is where this belongs.

Finally, my son Hank learned of his grandmotherís murder when he was three years old.  For the next three years of his life he had to deal with his parentsí sometimes discussing details of capital punishment and murder, or stopping in mid-sentence and leaving a detail or idea about his grandmother in the shadows, seeing our pain and confusion opened up time and again.  We are usually very open with our son, and he perceives that there are things too horrible for us to mention (for example rape, his beloved auntís saying she prays every day that God would kill Christopher Yon).  This means he has to imagine them.  From many things he says in play and the description of his nightmares I know this has to have an ill-effect on him.  If the case had gone to a death penalty phase Hank would have had to deal with this probably throughout his adolescence and into his young adulthood. 

Children need to learn proportionate punishment and a reluctance to violence.  When there is no proportionate punishment, nothing to bring back Grandma, you are left with nothing but nightmares, sleeping in your parentsí bed at 6 and also a very thoughtful mind which has learned too young how critical, real and difficult compassionate and measured responses to horror and violence are.  There are children involved in many families murder touches and will touch.  If we teach violence, what more can we expect from children than violence and justified killing.

 In conclusion, I ask you to vote to re-examine and carefully study the far-ranging social effects of the death penalty.  From my experience, I can only see that the death penalty as currently practiced in the US causes nothing but deep social scars and unspeakably prolonged misery for the families the law is designed to protect.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to vote YES on A1913.