Witness to an Execution

Closure is Elusive For the Grieving

February 7, 1999


For years, Sandra Miller looked forward to witnessing the execution of the man who kidnapped her 15-year-old son from a bus stop and brutally murdered him.

A few days before the big event, she told a newspaper: "I expect to weep tears of joy at seeing him go and tears of sadness for my son. I absolutely want to finalize this pain."

So, when the day came in February 1996 to watch William George Bonin - the "Freeway Killer," convicted of murdering 14 young men - die by lethal injection, Miller and other anguished parents were there at San Quentin. They had been anticipating the sweetness of that moment for 15 years. Afterward, they celebrated with champagne.

But it wasn't quite sweet enough. Several parents said they wished they had been given front-row seats. They were disappointed his death seemed so peaceful.

"I said to the warden, "Could you give me his body so I could kill him again?' " Miller recalled in a recent phone interview from her home in Riverside County. "I was filled with so much hate. Then I felt like I knew what it was like to be a killer because I felt like I could be one."

Now, two years later, she has realized there is no finality to the pain.

"It doesn't bring closure. I hate that word. They should've never invented it," she said. "It's an impossible thing. Nothing can bring closure to the death of a child."

It was a hard way to learn that lesson. While waiting for "closure," Miller says she became an alcoholic, had two heart attacks, fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide several times.

Unfortunately, Miller is not alone among family members of murder victims who cling to the hope that an execution will end their suffering.

At a hearing in Sacramento Tuesday, Vitoon Harusadangkul, the 31-year-old son of an Orange County grocery store owner killed in a robbery, made an emotional plea to the state Board of Prison Terms to execute his mother's convicted murderer, Jaturun Siripongs.

"If this continues, my self-esteem will suffer, my work will suffer, my relationships with people will suffer," he said. "What I'm saying is, I need this to go away. What he did, he should pay for. It's about time."

Siripongs is scheduled to die in San Quentin by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday for the murders of store owner Packovan Wattanaporn and clerk Quach Nguyen during a robbery in December 1981. Wattanaporn's husband has written a letter asking for mercy, saying, as a Buddhist, he did not seek revenge for his wife's death.

The notion that execution will bring closure is perpetuated by prosecutors, says Aba Gayle. "It's the big lie - 'We will catch him, we will convict him, we will execute him, and you'll be OK,' " she said.

That's what Gayle was told after her 19-year-old daughter was murdered in 1980. For 12 years, she believed it.

"I went for 12 years of anger and rage and hate before I finally found another way to be healed," said Gayle, a Santa Rosa resident.

Her daughter's murderer now sits on death row, but his execution is not an event she relishes. Gayle's peace of mind was found through forgiveness.

By practicing meditation and reading books on different religions - from Christianity to Buddhism to Hinduism - she felt compelled to write a letter to the murderer. He wrote back, expressing profound remorse.

Now, she has what she describes as a cordial relationship with him. She visits him twice a year and writes three to four times a year.

Forgiveness is not an easy concept to accept for a law-and-order society, and can be especially difficult for some victims' relatives to contemplate. In her travels around the country lecturing on the topic, Gayle hears comments such as, "I guess you didn't love your daughter as much as I loved mine."

To want to avenge a loved one's death may be human nature.

"It's very common," said Dr. Paul Berg, an Oakland psychologist who consults with both prosecutors and defense attorneys on death penalty cases. "In some people it seems to last forever. It's not a healthy reaction. No one can thrive on being pissed off all the time."

Some channel their rage into trying to change the system. For example, Marc Klaas has become a vocal spokesman on abducted children since his daughter, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped from her Petaluma home in 1993 and murdered.

Testimony from grieving family members is often a powerful tool in obtaining a death sentence in capital cases. "Seeing a mother crying over her child in court . . . I think those statements are very influential in giving (jurors) reason to avenge," said Berg.

Those going into an execution hoping to watch the convicted man squirm and suffer are usually, like Miller, bitterly disappointed. "The people I talked to didn't get much out of it because (Bonin) was pretty much dead by the time they opened the curtain," said Lavada Gifford of Long Beach.

Gifford's son, Sean King, was a Bonin victim, but she chose not to go to the execution because she had found peace of mind through her Christian faith. "My life wouldn't have changed one way or another if he died as he did or if he died in prison," she said.

Barbara Biehn, whose son, Steven Wood, was killed by Bonin, said she'd felt a little better after witnessing the execution but was still bitter and angry at the criminal justice system. To this day, Biehn, who lives in Arizona, has not been able to return to her job as a restaurant manager because of emotional problems.

"You spend 10 years hating someone, then you wake up the next morning, and he's dead," said Pat Bane, immediate past president of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. "What do you do with that hatred? They haven't healed because that grief has been put on hold, waiting for some magic bullet to end it all."

Banes' Massachusetts-based group has about 4,000 members, all firmly opposed to the death penalty.

Since Bonin's execution, Miller said she had channeled her rage into love for her grandchildren, but she still supports the death penalty. She said it was the only way to ensure that a murderer would not kill again. Miller doesn't trust the justice system enough to believe that a life sentence without possibility of parole means just that.

But for Gayle, her mistrust of the system cuts the other way. "I find the system to be so corrupt, I wouldn't trust it to even find and execute the right man," she said.

Bane said only a small minority of people actually wanted to meet their loved one's killer, but those who did, had a positive experience.

"I've not talked to anyone who has actually gone in and had a face-to-face meeting and not come away feeling good about it," she said.

One person who spontaneously decided to meet his parents' murderer described it as one of the "greatest experiences" of his life.

Brooks Douglass was 16 years old in 1979 when two drifters knocked on his family's door outside Oklahoma City. The two men, Steven Hatch and Glen Ake, hog-tied the family of four, stole $43 and his parents' wedding rings, raped his 12-year-old sister, then shot them all in the back and left them for dead. Douglass and his sister survived.

Fifteen years later, after numerous trials, retrials and sentencing hearings, Hatch was on death row while Ake was serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole when Douglass, now an Oklahoma state senator, took a tour of their prison as a state official.

For reasons he doesn't quite understand, he suddenly had a strong urge to meet them. Ake agreed to a meeting, but Hatch declined.

For an hour and a half, sitting across a glass divide from the man who shot his family and raped his sister, Douglass had "an out of body experience," saying words to Ake he never dreamed he'd say.

"It turned out, luckily for me, to be one of the best things I've ever done in my life," Douglass said.

Ake was extremely remorseful and cried through most of the conversation, as did Douglass. As he got up to leave, Douglass told Ake, "I forgive you."

When he said those words, "All of a sudden, it felt like it was poison pouring out of the bottom of my feet. It was one of the most physical sensations I've ever had, like someone took a clamp off my chest. I felt like I could breathe again for the first time in 15 years."

Less than a year later, he got an opportunity to feel another sort of release - witnessing the execution of Hatch. While Douglass said it was also useful in putting the bad memories behind him, his feelings about it contained none of the euphoria of his meeting with Ake.

"I was just happy it was over with and got the heck out of there," he said.

Douglass, a Republican, said he still supported the death penalty but only in particularly vicious and cruel cases. To him, it is a matter for the criminal justice system, while forgiveness is the answer to coping at the emotional and personal level.

Being able to forgive meant walking away from the hate, "just letting go and saying, "This isn't my fight anymore,' " he said.

For Gayle as well, forgiveness meant getting on with her life.

"I was recognizing that he was not (simply) the worst thing that he'd ever done in his life and that I was no longer going to give my energy and my power away to him by hating him," she said. "I could give up all hope for a better past."

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