Victim's Mother Urges Death Penalty Repeal

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By Michael Frost
Capital News Service
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

ANNAPOLIS - Vicki Schieber wants to meet the man who brutally raped and murdered her daughter more than 10 years ago.

It's not what you might think. In fact, Schieber wants to help him reach a sense of peace similar to the one she and her husband, Sylvester Schieber, have found.

"I hope that he can find some sort of reconciliation -- mostly with himself," she said.

Schieber, who lives in New Market, will testify Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of a bill that would repeal Maryland's death penalty. Relatives of other victims will also be there to oppose the bill.

"I never expected to be involved in the death penalty debate. But the issue found me in the worst possible way," Schieber said. Her daughter's killer is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Schieber previously testified in the U.S. Senate and several states including New Jersey, which abolished the death penalty in 2007.

Last year, she served on the Maryland Commission on the Death Penalty. As part of its findings, the commission voted 20-1 that the effects of capital cases are more detrimental to victims' families than those that involve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Schieber began a talk at Hood College in Frederick Thursday by holding up a picture of her daughter, Shannon Schieber.

She then rattled off a list of her daughter's accomplishments that would make any parent proud, including serving as student body president of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and triple-majoring in mathematics, economics and philosophy at Duke University. After graduating in three years from Duke, Shannon was accepted on a full scholarship to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"It was there that our whole life changed," Schieber said.

On May 7, 1998, a serial rapist broke into Shannon's apartment.

A neighbor heard a scream and called 911, but police left without discovering anything. The next day, Schieber's son, who had come to visit his sister, broke down the door with the help of the neighbor and found his sister's body.

Schieber and her husband knew ahead of time that they did not want to seek the death penalty, even though they were pressured by the district attorney to endorse it. Schieber cited her small-town Illinois roots and Catholic faith as pivotal in this decision.

Seeing and talking to other victims' families has helped strengthen Schieber's conviction. Families often face divorce and dysfunction as cases can carry on for 20 years or more, she said.

"They're going through it time and time again. They're reliving everything that they went through," she said.

Schieber did not see speeding up the process as a viable option, either.

"Everything takes a long time because we want to get it right. We do not want to execute the wrong person," she said.

She cited the example of fellow commission member Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent two years on death row in Maryland and was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Schieber sees life without parole as a better option. That way, the family can close the book on the legal discussion, and lives are protected, including those of wrongly convicted prisoners and potential victims.

Her daughter's killer "will never ever see the light of day. I never wake up at night worried he's going to make another family suffer what we went through, and I know society is protected," she said.

During the process, Schieber reached out to the killer's mother, who told her that they both had lost a child. She learned about his troubled past, which included growing up amidst domestic violence and drug use.

While this didn't excuse what he had done, it did help Schieber understand what might have gone wrong.

A former teacher and social worker, Schieber now directs her efforts full time toward the death penalty issue, giving numerous talks around the state. She serves as chair of the board of directors of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which represents family members affected on both sides of the issue.

She also serves as co-chair of the board of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, where she has had considerable impact on the staff.

"She has taught me huge things about life and loss and forgiveness and how one can take their faith and what's at their core and move forward after losing what is unimaginable for most of us," said Jane Henderson, executive director of the group.

Schieber has reached out to others on death row, including Heath Burch, who was convicted of two murders in Prince George's County in 1995. While making no excuses for Burch's crime, she described him as "a totally changed human being" who demonstrated the "possibility for redemption."

She sees Burch's transformation as a model for her daughter's murderer to follow.

"I hope he can learn to adjust and try to find peace in his life in prison," she said. "I don't want him to be suffering."


Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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