Op-Ed: My sister was killed in the Seal Beach massacre. I still oppose the death penalty
My sister, Laura Webb-Elody, was murdered in the Seal Beach Salon Meritage massacre on Oct. 12, 2011. She died along with seven other people that day, many of whom I knew and loved. My mother also was shot but survived.
In the last five and a half years, I have learned more about the criminal justice system and the death penalty than I could have anticipated, all of it disturbing. Yet nothing has shaken my conviction that capital punishment is wrong and unnecessary. Far from bringing peace to victims’ families, I’ve found it brings yet more heartbreak.
On that dark day in 2011, a man filled with hate, a man whose name I will not speak, went to the salon where Michelle Fournier, his ex-wife, worked beside my sister. Filled with an insane need to punish Michelle, he walked into the salon and shot her, then continued shooting at will, later referring to his other victims as “collateral damage.” While my mother is the only person who was shot and survived, many others who were there saw him, saw what he did and ran to safety.
When satisfied with the carnage in the salon, he strolled to his car, where others watched him shoot and kill a man who happened to park next to him. People got his license plate number and called 911. He was pulled over and arrested several blocks away, still in possession of the three guns used to murder those eight people. He confessed to the crime.
Authorities have tried to bring families closure through the death penalty, but have succeeded only in keeping old wounds open.
I wanted that man to pay for his crimes. Even to suffer. But I thought — and still think — that a life term in prison without parole is as close to justice as I would ever get. Why should society answer death with more death?
Society, however, did not take my desires into consideration. The powers that be wanted capital punishment.
Capital cases always take a long time to conclude — even when they’re so open and shut. However, in their hunger to solidify an argument for the death penalty, local prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department made matters worse. They placed an informant in the cell next to the defendant to buttress their case, tainting the whole process. As it turned out, this was common practice in Orange County.
During the years since the initial hearing, I have sat through hundreds of hours of testimony from habitual informants, the Sherriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office. What I heard often was evasive and at times clearly untruthful. The wrongdoing became so obvious that the presiding judge, Thomas Goethals, took the extraordinary step of removing the district attorney’s office from the case.
The California attorney general’s office has now taken over. Despite requests from most family members to take the death penalty off the table and accept a sentence of life without parole to get this matter resolved, the office continues to pursue capital punishment.
Over and over again, the authorities have tried to bring families closure through the death penalty, but have succeeded only in keeping old wounds open.
If these complications can so befog the biggest mass murder in Orange County history, a case in which guilt is clear and the accused has confessed, then the possibilities for confusion or misconduct in other cases must be simply immense. Of course that includes cases in which the accused is actually innocent. In fact, a deluge of evidence stemming from our case about the use of informants in Orange County has undone multiple verdicts. To date, at least half a dozen people convicted of murder here have been set free, and many others are in various stages of appeal.
Through these painful years, it’s become clear that personal and political ambition have so corrupted the death penalty process that it does not serve us, nor does it serve the interests of justice. At a recent hearing, when the attorney general announced his decision to continue pursuing the death penalty in this matter despite the time, cost to taxpayers and pain it visits and revisits on victims’ families, I stood up and said, “They are not doing this for my family; they are doing this to my family.”
I now watch knowingly as every few weeks across this country some new person is freed from prison, having been exonerated by new evidence. Because we know innocent people have been sentenced to death, how can we pretend not to know that we have executed innocent people? If we can justify killing the guilty by accepting that some innocents are acceptable “collateral damage,” then we are no different from the man who murdered my sister. As a mom, I teach my children “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
I do not want the man who killed my sister killed in my name or my sister’s name. Laura was a kind and loving person, and we do her memory a disservice by advocating hate and revenge in the name of justice. Her killer’s death will not bring her back to us. I want him sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison so he can think about what he has done, and we can put this horror behind us.
Bethany Webb is a wife and mother of two, a mortgage loan officer and a real estate agent.
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