lost his grandfather and granddaughter to murder, in two separate cases. He has devoted much of his life to working on restorative justice, a way of healing through reconciliation. He is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.
The campaign to halt the execution of Troy Anthony Davis has brought together a diverse group of people, including many whose lives have been affected by murder. Twenty-nine years ago, Atlanta resident John Starbuck lost his grandfather to murder. In a terrible twist of fate, Starbuck’s daughter, Meleia Willis-Starbuck, was also murdered years later in 2005. In the face of extreme tragedy, Starbuck has now devoted much of his life to working on restorative justice—a way of healing through reconciliation. He is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Last week, Starbuck helped deliver a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that was signed by 110 murder victim family members and called on the board to grant clemency to Davis. John Starbuck joins us along with Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Outkast playing "Liberation," an Atlanta group. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And that is where we are today, on the road in Atlanta, Georgia, headed to Jackson, Georgia. I’m Amy Goodman, with Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz co-hosting today on this special day of broadcast. Renée?
RENÉE FELTZ: That’s right. We continue our coverage of Georgia’s scheduled execution of Troy Davis tonight at 7:00 p.m., sentenced to die for the 1989 murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. Davis has always maintained his innocence.
Well, we turn now to our next guest, who is the son of a murdered police officer. Twenty-nine years ago, John Starbuck’s grandfather, Lester King, was murdered. His daughter, Meleia Willis-Starbuck, was also murdered years later in 2005.
AMY GOODMAN: John Starbuck lives here in Atlanta and is a member of the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He has devoted much of his life to working on restorative justice, a way of healing through reconciliation. Last week, he helped deliver a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that was signed by 110 murder victim family members and called on the board to grant clemency to Troy Davis.
John Starbuck, welcome to Democracy Now! We’re also continuing with Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA. John, briefly, if you could tell us your story. It is a remarkable one. Your grandfather, a police officer, was murdered?
JOHN STARBUCK: Yes. He was a police officer and then a detective and then an inspector for the district attorney’s office in Alameda County, where he retired from. He was a homicide inspector at the end. And he was brutally beaten to death while taking my grandmother to a medical appointment. Then my daughter, in 2005—she was 19 years old—was shot and killed in Berkeley, California. And it was after my daughter’s—after my grandfather’s death, I kind of shut down.
AMY GOODMAN: You were raised by your grandfather.
JOHN STARBUCK: He raised me from the age of two until he died when I was 22.
AMY GOODMAN: You called him your father?
JOHN STARBUCK: Yes, I called him "Dad." We had aunts and uncles in the house that were close to my age, and everybody called him "Dad," so he was "Dad" to me. My own biological father, I didn’t get to know ’til later.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you oppose the death penalty for the person who killed your father—your grandfather?
JOHN STARBUCK: It was the first political position I ever took. I remember being 15 years old. I was at the Junior State Summer School in Sacramento, California, and we had to pick an issue. And I picked the issue of the death penalty, just because I thought it would be easy to research. And I got into it and pretty quickly came to the conclusion this isn’t right, this is where I think the world is heading eventually—not then, but looking into the future. And I didn’t do much about it, in terms of political action in my life, but it was always the position I took. And then, particularly in the context of what happened to my grandfather, and then what happened to my daughter, it made it very real, because it became, for me, instead of a political position, a choice.
AMY GOODMAN: What does "restorative justice" mean?
JOHN STARBUCK: I was introduced to the concept of restorative justice first by my cousin, Chea Castro phon., who put me in touch with the Georgia Council for Restorative Justice in the context of Meleia’s death, and got to know Pam Leonard. And she gave me a whole course in it.
Essentially, what it is is it’s a call for a radical reinventing of the justice system to be based on the balancing of the harm that’s been done both to the victim of the crime, what we traditionally call "crime," and to the person we call the "offender," not the criminal, who committed the act, because invariably what we have found is that offenders have suffered greatly in their lives, and that usually is what leads to them being offenders, economically or otherwise. And it’s based on Native American circles. The biggest proponents of it in the United States, starting in the ’70s, I believe, were folks like Howard Zehr, who came out of the Eastern—out of the Mennonite religious tradition.
It hasn’t caught fire. I think it will. Places that have incorporated restorative justice principles so far are primarily juvenile justice situations, where you get a sympathetic judge and who basically says, "I don’t want to deal with this in traditional criminal justice terms. Why don’t you folks deal with it?" And it’s been quite effective. And it’s our hope that we can extend it to the whole judicial system someday.
RENÉE FELTZ: And John Starbuck, you’ve been through this remarkable journey. Now, not only are you dealing with what you’ve been through, but you’re speaking out about Troy Davis’s case. Talk about what you’ve done and why.
JOHN STARBUCK: Well, when I spoke out about Meleia’s case starting in 2008, it took me about three years to get my head together about it.
RENÉE FELTZ: This is your daughter.
JOHN STARBUCK: My daughter. In 2008, when the trial of her—the person who shot her happened, I began to think I really need to take seriously my opposition to the death penalty. And I found, through the help of folks in the church that I attend, the Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, as well as Amnesty International. And it was very shortly from there—I had heard of Troy Davis’s case, I was with Troy all these years, but hadn’t done anything. And GFADP, when I got seriously involved about a year ago, was gearing up for this moment today.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Georgia Families Against the Death Penalty?
JOHN STARBUCK: Yeah, Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. And they’re the ones who really got me active and going on it.
Let me say one thing. Restorative justice is all well and good, and it is what guides much of my political activity. This is not a case calling for restorative justice. Troy Davis didn’t hurt anybody. If anything, we owe him. And we owe him for 22 years of false incarceration, in my viewpoint. So it’s not—it doesn’t quite fit into the paradigm that we’re seeking to push.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Larry Cox, this issue of alternatives to the death penalty, if you can talk about Amnesty’s position on this.
LARRY COX: Well, we know from experience. We don’t have to guess or speculate about it. As I said, two-thirds of the world’s nations have done away with the death penalty. Virtually all of our allies—in Europe, for example—don’t use the death penalty, can’t imagine using it. They’ve all found alternatives. And some of the alternatives are closer to what we’ve just been discussing in terms of restorative justice. Everyone has recognized that the paradigm that’s being used, of vengeance, of killing, doesn’t lead to healing, does not lead to a way to heal the terrible, you know, wounds that are given every time there’s a crime. And we are way behind other nations in terms of this.
AMY GOODMAN: It also gets in the way of law and order, because if the U.S. wants someone extradited, often a country will not do it if that person might face the death penalty in the United States and that country is opposed to the death penalty.
LARRY COX: Yeah, this is absolutely correct. And if you go around and you talk with people in the law enforcement community in those countries, they are absolutely astounded that the United States of America continues to kill prisoners. They just cannot imagine why. And they—yes, they absolutely refuse to cooperate with it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I thank you both for being with us, Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA and John Starbuck. His grandfather and his daughter were murdered. He opposes the death penalty. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, two men who were on death row, now free, they’ll join us. Stay with us.