Name: The Reverend Jack Sullivan, Jr., D.Min.
Title: Executive Director
Organization: Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation
I speak as one who represents a demographic whose real-life issues and experiences are frequently overlooked and most often undervalued: relatives of those who have been murdered. This demographic includes me, for 19 years ago I lost my beloved little sister Jennifer to murder in my hometown, Cleveland.
Jennifer was murdered in July 1997. She was 21 years old. Jennifer was shot down in a house she shared with her two-year-old daughter, Imani. Her killer or killers were unknown then, and they are unknown now.
I received word of Jennifer’s death while attending a church convention in Denver, Colorado. Once I learned of her murder, I made my way home, planned her funeral, and began the process of raising her daughter and carefully weaving her into the fabric of my household. During the days, weeks, months, and years following Jennifer’s death, my family, which included my older sister, the Reverend Theresa D. Conner of Cleveland, received tremendous spiritual and moral support from church leaders, congregants, family members and friends. Looking back, I gratefully confess that we could not have gone very far as a family without those levels and networks of care and compassion.
Interestingly, though, I painfully confess that we experienced an awesome, nearly deafening silence with respect to attentiveness from law enforcement, social services, and the State of Ohio during the days, weeks, months, and years after Jennifer’s funeral.
Here is one illustration of my point: Days after Jennifer’s funeral, I made application to the Ohio Victims’ Assistance Fund, believing that officials there would at least offer assistance to Jennifer’s daughter. That was in 1997. Except for letters of acknowledgement of my request, I have yet to receive any reply of substance. I have been waiting nearly 19 years for a response.
This is not to say that officers of the Cleveland Police Department were not kind to us; they were. I believe they were deeply interested in seeking the name and whereabouts of Jennifer’s killer. Of course, we appreciated that very much. Yet, the fact remains that they were in crime solving mode, rightly so, while no one connected with any level of government was in “murder victim family care” mode.
Once again, I look back. It would have been wonderful if city, county and state resources would have been available to assist us in addressing the immediate needs of Imani, Jennifer’s daughter, like assessing her young mental state as she may have actually witnessed her mother’s murder. It would have been quite helpful for the county or state to have assisted us in meeting the cost of Jennifer’s funeral, a painful service that obviously had to be carried out.
I wonder how much stronger our family would have been if government had dispatched mental health professionals to our house, or at least made them available to us, in ways that could have helped us to understand the grieving process and address obvious and unprocessed anger and sadness, sadness that we would know for years. What would have happened if the city, county or state had linked us with other families for mutual support?
What I am establishing here is that there are many more issues surrounding homicide cases than just bringing suspected murders to trial. Families of murder victims need immediate and ongoing support, and I believe that as guardians of goodwill, elected officials such as yourselves can extend that society’s goodwill as you serve as champions of the care and compassion for victim family members.
I must report that one of the most helpful and hopeful signals ever sent regarding support for murder victim families was the establishment of your committee. Yet, I am amazed at the relatively few numbers of people who actually know you exist and how they may offer experiences, ideas, and aspirations to help guide your work. During a meeting with Senator Coley earlier this year, I was impressed and delighted by his excitement over our proposal to study the services provided to murder victim families and to enhance the state’s efforts to serve their needs. I must also report that I was shocked to have learned that this initiative was shut down.
Inasmuch as I represent and serve families of murder victims nationally, with a strong base of members in Ohio, I am honored by your willingness to receive and consider my words today. MVFR offers resources to murder victim families. One such resource is a short yet impactful book titled, “What To Do When the Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss,” by Bill Jenkins. Imagine how much more informed murder victim families would be if police departments or someone connected with government would present them with this resource or a similar one.
While no one wants to experience the catastrophic murder of a loved one – and by the way, every murder represents the worst of the worst to victim family members – families who receive those painful telephone calls or visits announcing murder would benefit greatly from having access to the wealth of information provided in this book. I would think police departments would do well to have this resource as well.
Finally, I report to you that I have had the honor of getting to converse with the survivors of the horrific murders at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, and to connect with the congregation itself. I have sat in the very room where the killer carried out his grotesque acts and crimes against humanity. What amazes me are the ways the larger Charleston community, as led by Mother Emanuel and the victim family members themselves, and people of goodwill, have come together to boldly deny giving hate and death the last words, and have decided to live in solidarity with Mother Emanuel.
Moreover, I was transformed by the willingness of two of the Mother Emanuel victim family members to offer forgiveness to the killer of their loved ones. While the death penalty has been suggested for the Mother Emanuel murderer upon conviction, it is worth wondering, just how will the killing of this misguided young man help the community heal? Just how will his execution bring closure?
Are not such assertions no more than justifications for state sponsored vengeance and retribution? As vile and heinous as the killer’s actions were, are we exempt from similar descriptions of the state-sponsored death simply because we find shelter under the umbrella of the law? Does the fact that the killer showed no mercy and extended no grace provide grounds for us to resist being governed by mercy and grace, even amazing grace, as well?
The death penalty is not transformative; it merely puts a governmental face on the matrix of death as it advances the mechanics of misery. It does not help victim family members reach closure. It does not bring a community together. It affords no roads toward redemption, and no routes toward reconciliation.
What actually is transformative is authentic care and compassion delivered to victim family members before, during, and after the funeral services of their loved ones.
Rather than investing taxpayer money in the death penalty, a system that sends a clear and present signal of vengeance, brokenness, and ineffectiveness, I ask that you allocate funds to give visible, reliable, and consistent support to the families of murder victims. Help Ohio to be known not for its creativity in crafting ways to execute people, but for its innovative acts toward extending care and compassion to murder victim families during times when they need these acts the most. Thank you very much.