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photo of Gus Lamm and SuZann Bosler
On the eve of an execution, relatives of murder victims gather at BC.

Standing before an audience of her peers this past June in Boston College's McGuinn Hall, SuZann Bosler told a harrowing story. On December 22, 1986, in the parsonage of the Miami First Church of the Brethren, her father, the Reverend Billy Bosler, was assaulted by an intruder, who began stabbing him repeatedly with a knife. SuZann, then 24, rushed to his aid. She was stabbed six times herself before dropping to the floor, where, in desperation, she feigned death by holding her breath. The assailant, a young man named James Bernard Campbell, proceeded to ransack the house while SuZann--rapidly losing blood, frozen in place, and still fearing for her life--could only watch as her father bled to death.

Bosler gave her account during a national conference held on June 6-10, cosponsored by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Boston College, called "Healing the Wounds of Murder." The presentation was at once gut-wrenching and humbling, not only because of Bosler's ordeal and the courage it took for her to revisit it, but also because most of the people in the audience were themselves family members of murder victims. To distinguish themselves from other attendees at the conference, and to make introductions less awkward, they wore small green circles on their name tags--silent badges that announced not just a murder in the family but also a shared desire to do something other than kill in retaliation.

James Bernard Campbell, the Reverend Bosler's murderer, was apprehended within a week, and the state of Florida immediately sought the death penalty. The outcome never seemed in doubt. Campbell had committed a horrendous crime in a notoriously pro-death-penalty state, and he also happened to be poor and African-American. The case took an unexpected turn, however, when SuZann spoke out against capital punishment. She and her father were both opponents, on religious and ethical grounds, and he had once told her specifically that if someone were to murder him, he would not want the killer executed. That put the state in an uncomfortable position: It was seeking a form of justice that the victims, SuZann and her father, did not want. Nevertheless, the case went ahead, and soon a jury and a judge sentenced Campbell to die.

So began SuZann Bosler's lonely battle--waged over the course of 10 years, three trials, and two sentencings--to commute Campbell's sentence from death to life in prison. Ultimately she was victorious (on June 13, 1996, Campbell's sentence was commuted to three consecutive life terms), but not before she had alienated the Florida prosecutors seeking justice in her name, and not before a judge presiding in the case threatened her with contempt of court if she revealed her views on the death penalty to the jury. By actively working against the state's ultimate punishment, SuZann had become, in the eyes of many involved in the prosecution of the case, a "bad" victim.

As it happened, the conference at BC was held in the final days leading up to the execution of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, on June 11--an impending event that hung like a building thundercloud over the proceedings. One of the featured speakers was Bud Welch, an outspoken opponent of the McVeigh execution, whose 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, had been killed in Oklahoma City. Others included Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, and Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the founder of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, in Memphis, Tennessee. As Professor Alan Rogers of Boston College's history department pointed out in one of the opening sessions, the conference represented a continuation of the 300-year-old tradition of opposition to the death penalty in Massachusetts. Rogers also highlighted the important role played by the leadership of Boston College in the past century in convincing state officials to work to commute sentences of death and, ultimately, in 1975, to ban the practice altogether.

The beating heart of the conference, though, was the diverse group of people who wore green circles, whose children, siblings, spouses, or parents had suffered unspeakably horrible deaths. With a serenity and grace that was nothing short of astonishing, these men and women told their stories, struck up conversations with strangers, made jokes, and, yes, networked. The group, one participant pointed out, possessed a unique credibility and moral stature in its opposition to the death penalty.

But abolition was only one item on the conference's agenda. Just as important was the desire, expressed repeatedly, to see that this country recognize, in principle and in law, the rights of murder victims' families--the right, for example, to receive, at the state's expense, immediate counseling, financial support, and legal advice, whether or not a suspect is apprehended; and the right to speak out in opposition to the death penalty during the prosecution of a murder.

At the same session at which SuZann Bosler told her story, another speaker, Gus Lamm, also told his. In 1980, his wife and her best friend had been murdered in Nebraska by a man named Randy Reeves. Lamm and his daughter, Audrey, who was two at the time of the murder, successfully filed suit in 1999 to stay Reeves's execution, but to date they have not been allowed formally to register their opposition to the execution in front of the Board of Pardons--a body that nonetheless has allowed another member of Lamm's family to register her support for it. The execution may well go ahead. Gus and Audrey have been ostracized, by the state and by pro-death family members, for the stand they have taken. Nevertheless, their resolve is undiminished, and the spirit that animates them is captured in a quote, from the apocryphal Chinese sage Lao-Tsu, that Gus recited during his presentation. "Man is not the executioner," he said, speaking from memory. "Nature is the executioner. And when man attempts to usurp nature, it is as though the apprentice has taken the master's cleave, at which point he stands a better chance of harming himself than of completing the task."

Toby Lester

Toby Lester is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Photo: Survivors SuZann Bosler and Gus Lamm recount their experiences as "bad" victims. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

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