Paying Respect to the Kerry Sisters

April 4, 2012

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

I have never been numb to the loss of human life in murder cases, though my work to end the death penalty has meant that I have spent most of my time trying to prevent the executions of those who are convicted of murder.  The story of the 1991 “Chain of Rocks Murder Case,” as it is known in St. Louis, is especially poignant to me not just because I am working to stop the execution of Reggie Clemons—a man convicted as an accomplice to the murders and given the death penalty—but because I also have much in common with the two young women who perished.

I am not a family member of a murder victim, and I have no real connection to Julie and Robin Kerry, the women who died twenty-one years ago.  So I am grateful to Jeanine Cummins, one of their cousins, for having written about Julie and Robin Kerry, and the terrible journey their family experienced.  Her writing has helped me build a larger picture of the meaning of this case and the people it has impacted.

If Julie Kerry were still alive, she and I would about the same age. Like her, I am a white, middle class kid from a decent family with deep spiritual roots.  Their grandfather studied to be a priest at one point; my father is a pastor.  Like both of them, I became a supporter of Amnesty International as a teenager and had posters and t-shirts in support of social justice causes.  And while I don’t think I am the gifted writer that Julie was, I have, like her, used writing to proclaim my ideals and urge people to work for a better world.

The loss of these two young women goes beyond adjectives like “tragic” or “terrible.”  It is my hope that in society’s quest for justice in murder cases that we will not compound the tragedy of the victim’s death by putting other families through the excruciating experience of having their loved ones killed.  It is also my sincere hope that we in the anti-death penalty movement do not lose sight of or fail to acknowledge the original victims in capital cases: the murder victims.

The death penalty is such a charged issue that it often moves the spotlight from murder victims to those sentenced to death for the crimes.  For this reason, family members of some murder victims support the abolition of the death penalty, arguing that a life sentence would actually have given them greater and more rapid closure than the controversy and often lengthy legal processes associated with death penalty cases.

In our campaign to stop Georgia from executing Troy Davis, we used the slogan, I am Troy Davis to emphasize the humanity of a man whom the state had written off as “a monster who deserved to be killed.”  We sought a way to express the principle that human rights are inalienable and belong to us all, and that we all must therefore be invested in each other’s dignity and rights.

This is true not just for the innocent but for those cases in which someone has done the unthinkable.  It is equally true for murder victims.  I could say “I am Reggie Clemons” to make the same point.  And really, I could say, “I am Julie and Robin Kerry,” too, because all three were born with the right to life.

On this day, the 21st anniversary of the deaths of Julie and Robin Kerry, I would like to offer my deepest sympathy to their loved ones on behalf of an organization that was founded to decrease suffering and injustice.  And I continue to pray for a world where the human right to life is upheld by individuals and governments alike.