Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
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this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific Conversations.


Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus

 

Lewis says she feels society blames her for her son's deed. She had to endure the unthinking glee with which her co-workers greeted the execution of Timothy McVeigh; some, as if it was a football game. Most nights she doesn't sleep. For a while she took to working the night-shift as a way of doing something useful with her anxiety. But what do you do with an endless parade of colleagues, neighbors, church parishioners, who loudly proclaim their support of capital punishment? "When you say that, you're saying you want my son dead," Barbara Lewis always tells them.

And the answer comes back: "Barbara, we weren't talking about you!"
But it is about her. If all fails, it will be Barbara Lewis who will have to comfort her son in the days before the execution. She'll have to be present at that terrible death moment so that he doesn t die without someone nearby who loves him. Most certainly, it will be Barbara who will have to bring her Robert's body home from the execution chamber, and it is she, when it is all over, who will have to bury the child she once gave life to.
Meanwhile, what Ms. Lewis sees when she visits her son is devastating. "He is housed in a 24-hour lock up-- 45 minutes of recreation three days a week," she explains in a whisper. "He needs interaction with other human beings. It's taking its toll on him. He's become morose. You treat people like animals and you get what you pay for."

Now, Robert Gattis's crime was horrible in a fit of rage, he shot his estranged girlfriend, Shirley Slay. Ms. Lewis partly blames herself. She'd lived in an abusive marriage for many years. She wonders now if her son didn't see too much as a child.

The facts in Gattis's case read like those in a hundred other capital cases that end in a death sentence: a crime, court appointed defense lawyers working at $60 an hour, some turns of bad legal luck.

Gattis's special legal misfortunes began, Ms. Lewis believes, when a local prosecutor was criticized for being lax about black-on-black crime. It's her view the Gattis case was used to disprove the accusation. Thus what might have been manslaughter in another locality or time was instead murder. The second piece of misfortune was that Gattis was tried around the time a new state law was enacted transferring death penalty decisions from the hands of 12 unanimous jurors to a single judge. Gattis's judge exercised his newly-won powers by ordering an execution.

During the trial, Ms. Lewis tried to reach out to the victim's family, but her efforts at reconciliation were thwarted by the prosecutors who had a stake in the enmity between the two families. There's not a day that I don't think about that family, she says.

The current status of Gattis's case, and life, is that all of his appeals have been exhausted. His last legal hope lies in Delaware's courts reviewing whether recent decisions on the constitutionality of judge sentencing apply retroactively (since his crime was committed under the old law and tried under the new, now unconstitutional, one). If it does not go his way, he will be given a new, final, date to die.

Somehow-- I can't imagine how-- Barbara Lewis just keeps going. She goes through periods of nervousness, depression. Several of her daughters ' children live with her, and she worries, perhaps more than the average grandmother, about the violence they see on television.

Remarkably, whenever she can, Barbara Lewis tries to stop the death penalty for everyone. With her best friend ( my chosen sister ), Anne Coleman, whose daughter was murdered, they are a two-woman lobby against Delaware's state-sponsored killing. Together they've founded Because Love Allows Compassion, which offers support to both crime victims families and to the families of death row inmates. "I also hope that our communities can learn to accept that killing is a tragedy on all sides, "she once told a reporter. "There is never just one set of victims."

Nonconformists, caretakers, victims alike: The circle of violence never ends. What Barbara Lewis, Sunny Jacobs, and Brittany Holberg know, and what the majority who still support the death penalty have yet to learn, is that capital punishment kills the humanity in us all.

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