For The Dialog
LEWES – While Delaware’s judicial system studies the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty statute and the legislature haggles over whether the state should even have such a law, Kristin Froehlich views the issue from a personal perspective.
Twenty-one years ago, her 22-year-old brother, David, and four of his friends were shot to death in a dispute with a landlord over a bounced rent check in Redding, Conn. The landlord, Geoffrey Ferguson, set the apartment afire in an attempt to cover the crime.
Prosecutors decided to pursue the death penalty without any input from the Froehlich family, Kristin Froehlich said, a decision that led to many frustrating delays in the court proceedings. Eventually the state decided not to seek Ferguson’s execution.
“Had I waited for an execution to end my pain, I would have been cruelly disappointed,” Froehlich told about 15 people at the first of a monthly series of talks called “Mercy Monday” at St. Jude Church on Feb. 8. “Having been freed of that expectation, I was able to get on with the necessary grieving and healing.”
Froehlich is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Wilmington and vice president of Delaware Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
The Mercy Monday talks will be held the second Monday of each month during the Holy Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, said Kathy Ebner, pastoral associate at St. Jude.
Delaware courts have temporarily stayed capital case proceedings until the state Supreme Court reviews state law in light of a United States Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty as applied in a Florida case is unconstitutional. Since Delaware has similar laws, Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden asked the state Supreme Court to answer five specific questions over what roles judges and juries play in deciding the punishment phase.
The stay is for 120 days from Jan. 28, when the Supreme Court agreed to respond to Jurden’s questions.
That same day the Delaware House defeated Senate Bill 40, which would have stricken the capital murder statute, in a vote of 23 against and 16 for its passage. The bill had previously passed the state Senate.
A request for a revote, on a procedural move, may come the week of March 8, when the legislative session resumes at full steam following a recess to allow Joint Finance Committee hearings in its process to write budget legislation.
The Delaware Department of Corrections website shows 13 inmates currently are on Death Row.
Froehlich, in her talk, cited arguments that show life imprisonment costs less than pursuing capital punishment, in large part because of the huge cost of a capital trial and its appeals, and that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime.
Many in Froehlich’s audience were already against the death penalty, even though many also cited relatives or friends who had died or been victims of serious crimes that could have easily escalated into capital offenses.
Yet some struggle with the issue. One said she was against capital punishment “unless it was one of my loved ones” that was murdered.
Another, Debbie Nolan-Reilly, was swayed to support capital punishment after a good friend was murdered during a gas station robbery some 40 years ago. “They took him to a back room and murdered him for $25.”
She changed her views after becoming involved in pro-life work.
“You’ve got to be pro-life no matter what,” she said. But “like so many things in life, it’s not all black and white.”
Froehlich knows that there are many gray areas. She, too, went through “the normal anger, despair and confusion that accompanies the murder of a loved one” but was able to work through it.
Her transition came when a friend she met in a grief support group helped her separate her feelings toward Ferguson from her love and grief for her brother.
“The trial is different from the grieving process,” the friend told her. Its focus is the guilt or innocence of the defendant, and if guilty, the punishment – not the person or people killed.
While the loss of her brother remains, she remembers him for who he was, and not how he died or what happened to his killer.
It also is why she is disturbed by pro-death penalty arguments that it will provide closure and help the victim’s family heal.
“Whether the killer lives or is executed does not change the value of a life,” she said.