Second thoughts

People with murder experiences try to get others to take another look at the ultimate punishment

Nancy Hart of Reno wants people to think about the death penalty instead of recycling rote arguments on each side.

Nancy Hart of Reno wants people to think about the death penalty instead of recycling rote arguments on each side.

Photo By David Robert

Information on the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty can be obtained from

“I am opposed to the death penalty.”

It was an arresting sentence, coming from a woman whose child was murdered.

Marietta Jaeger-Lane began her talk to packed pews at Reno’s First United Methodist Church with that clear statement. She was in Reno at the invitation of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The group participated for the first time in an annual observance called the National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty.

Nancy Hart of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty described the week as an opportunity for local churches (Jaeger-Lane also spoke at Temple Sinai) “to examine their views. … Most faith communities have teachings that are in favor of mercy, healing, forgiveness and against the death penalty.”

Jaeger-Lane told the story of a June night 30 years ago during a family camping trip in Montana. The 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was taken from her tent. A subsequent ransom demand led nowhere.

“I knew that I could take his life with my bare hands and a smile on my face,” Jaeger-Lane said of the kidnapper. “That’s how furious I was, how I wanted to hurt him the way we were hurt.”

One year later, the kidnapper telephoned her. That call and a subsequent conversation led to his confession and arrest. Jaeger-Lane learned that her daughter had been killed within days of that fateful night in Montana and that the murder was preceded by molestation. That intervening year of uncertainty brought a change to Jaeger Lane.

She sought out and comforted the devastated mother of her daughter’s murderer. She said she wrestled plenty with what she calls “God’s desire for forgiveness” because reconciling herself to forgiving Susie’s killer meant wrestling with a sense of guilt that she was betraying her daughter.

“Forgiveness is hard work,” Jaeger-Lane said. “It takes daily, diligent discipline. And anybody that thinks forgiveness is for wimps has never tried it. It’s tough stuff.”

That forgiveness changed more than Jaeger Lane’s heart three decades ago. It also changed the mind of Helen Nolte in Reno last month.

Nolte attended church that Sunday as usual, not knowing beforehand about the special talk about a murdered daughter. Afterwards, Nolte related her experience as a juror 14 years ago in Washoe County. She and the other 11 jurors found the defendant guilty of murder and sentenced him to death.

“Each of us [has] an opportunity to transform our lives,” Nolte said, explaining her change of mind. “When we take the life of another, we cut that short. … And so we play God. And I was willing to do that in that capital murder case because I could justify that as an appropriate outcome for that person … guilty of murder. Today I would be willing to find that person guilty … but not to end that person’s life.”

Others, however, were unswayed by Jaeger-Lane’s words.

“Why put him in prison?” Gene Steele of Reno asked. “Why spend all the taxpayers’ money? Back in the old Western days, [murderers] were killed at sundown. You killed somebody, they hung you. … Your tax dollars and mine and everybody else’s have to take care of this murderer.”

Proponents of capital punishment sometimes say that the expense of keeping a convicted murderer on death row for decades is greater than the cost of execution. But Nevada Coalition’s Hart said that statistics show differently.

“Over and over around the country, studies continue to show that the cost of maintaining a death penalty from trial all the way through to execution is far more expensive [than] maintaining someone in prison for the rest of their natural lives. … If you just take the annual cost of keeping someone in prison times 45 or 50 years, it’s far less than the cost involved in all of the legal fees, the court fees, the juror fees, the investigation fees, the extra security, the appeals … that are involved in death penalty fees.”

Hart pointed out that although she knows of no cost analyses of Nevada’s capital cases, “There’s no reason to believe that Nevada’s death penalty is any different.” She cited studies posted on the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Beyond cost, deeper issues emerge. Jaeger Lane believes there is simply no justification for taking a convicted murderer’s life away.

“Hear me,” she said at First United Methodist Church. “I’m not advocating forgiving violent people and putting them back out on the street again. I know the cost of that violence, and I don’t want that for anyone. But we don’t have to kill people in order to keep society safe. Every time we take on the same mindset as the killer did to solve their problems, we demean and degrade ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves. We demean our own worth and dignity by becoming people who kill people.”

Yet, Hart said she understands how people like Steele who hear Jaeger Lane’s talk might continue to support capital punishment.

“Certainly there are many people that would have a hard time thinking about forgiving the murderer of their own child,” Hart said. “If you don’t resonate with the message that [Jaeger Lane] delivers about forgiveness and healing, I would nonetheless encourage … everyone to find out about how the death penalty works in our state because it is arbitrary.”

Hart provides a sheet of statistics about the death penalty in the Silver State: “About 38 percent of Nevada’s death row population is African-American while representing only 8 percent of Nevada’s general population. … Nevada has the highest per capita death row population in America. … All of Nevada’s approximately 85 death row inmates are poor and unable to hire an appeal attorney.”

Hart and Jaeger Lane want opponents of the death penalty to make their voices heard.

“Speak up,” Hart said. “Speak to your neighbors. Speak to people that go to your church. Make it a topic of discussion that you have with your friends because people tend to shy away from it. They think it’s a yucky subject. … But it needs to be talked about.”