Sunday, October 22, 2017

Speech to Parents of Murdered Children

For the second time in five years, Parents of Murdered Children, the non-partisan support group for the families of the murdered, invited me to speak at their remembrance ceremony. It was an honor to be with the families, and to discuss accountability and forgiveness. The talk was given in Oregon City on September 25, 2017.

Thank you for inviting me back for this solemn memorialization of this wall and the sad task of adding names to the wall of remembrance.

I need to say a word of remembrance for possibly the greatest pioneer of victims’ rights in this state - Dee Dee Kouns, who died last week at 89. Dee Dee and her late husband Bob never ceased fighting for murder victims -- their daughter and the all too many other victims represented on these walls and by those of you here today. I remember Dee Dee from the tough political days of the mid-1980s, when those who stood up for victims’ rights were accused of trying to undercut civil rights. Times have changed.

Since I last spoke to you we also lost Hardy Myers, long-time Attorney General and champion of victims’ rights. Bob and Dee Dee had a great deal to do with changing Hardy's view of the rights of victims, so thank you Dee Dee, for all your work.....for all those years.

Thanks to Clackamas County DA John Foote, who was Dee Dee’s good friend for many years, right up to her sudden death this week. John has been an outspoken leader in the prosecution community on behalf of victims’ rights. You here in Clackamas County are lucky to be represented by him, but I suspect you don't need me to tell you that......!

As I approach the end of my career in trying to hold accountable those who tear and attempt to destroy the lives of others, I am reminded of the advice I gave a newly hired Deputy District Attorney, something that happens less often as the profession of prosecution becomes much more of a career and a lifelong mission and less of a stop-over en route to seven-figure salaries and second homes.

That advice is never to say to a family member 'I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH.” Unless she or he has had the have horrible experience of losing a family member to murder, they cannot say "I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GOING THROUGH."

Over the 32 years I have been prosecuting homicide cases I have come to form deep, long-lasting relationships with the family members of murder victims. I never cease to be amazed by their grace, their dignity, and most of all their incredible eloquence.

But sitting through trials with family members, explaining the decades-long appeals process, or attending the scene of a brutal murder when the smell of blood, like copper, never seems to leave, is NOT the same as what you and other family members have been through.

I detest the phrase "closure" and find myself snapping back at legislators or attorneys who use the expression too easily, implying that like an expiration date on a bottle of prescription medicine, the family can expect to have resolved all their feelings by some arbitrary date or juncture in the justice process. The criminal justice system can...sometimes....achieve a measure of FINALITY, but never "closure."

For over 20 years I prosecuted a brutal killer named Randy Guzek. The name Guzek matters little. The good people he gunned down in the summer of 1987 were Rod and Lois Houser. Like virtually all murder victims for whom it has been my honor to speak as the prosecutor of their killers, I never knew Rod or Lois in life. In the strange world of homicide investigation and prosecution I only came to know them through the stories, photos, and memories of their surviving family their case their two adult daughters, their brother and nieces and nephews.

Guzek had already been tried and sentenced to death when I became Chief Deputy DA in Bend, in 1990. I was hired, in large part, to re-try Guzek after all of Oregon's death sentences were overturned in 1989. In 1991 I slowly gained the trust of the Houser family during the second trial, where a second jury gave a second sentence of death. I moved on in 1994 to the job I hold now, as DA of Clatsop County, in Astoria, but I made a promise to the Houser family that if they needed me, I'd come back.

It was sooner than I thought. In 1995 the case was overturned again. I moved back to Bend for a few months to prosecute Guzek for a third time. Again the jury sentenced Guzek to death and again the Houser family endured with dignity and gave the testimony that shone the little light the law allows on the lives (not the deaths) of Rod and Lois Houser. Doug Houser, Rod's brother and one of the most prominent lawyers in this part of the nation, had the jury - and me - in tears as he told how as kids he and his brother made a pact that whoever died last would take the ashes of the other to a remote but beautiful lake in the Willamette National forest -- Duffy Lake.

But the 1995 trial brought neither closure NOR finality. In 2005 the Guzek case went to the US Supreme Court, where our side won unanimously. That did not stop a FOURTH trial, held in 2010 - 22 years after the first trial. At that point about $3 million had been spent defending the murderer Randy Guzek. Many of the original witnesses and even some members of the Houser family had died, but Doug Houser and Sue Shirley, the victims' daughter, were there every day.

The fourth trial resulted in a fourth death penalty. Of course the case went to the Oregon Supreme Court, who finally have denied Guzek's direct appeal. This last February the United States Supreme Court denied cert - meaning they declined to review the conviction or sentence.

Of course most of you know that is NOT the end of the case. Guzek will now claim Post Conviction Relief, that one of his five teams of lawyers rendered so-called "inadequate assistance of counsel"
But last summer the family of Rod and Lois Houser asked me to hike with them the three miles off the trail head in the Cascades that leads to the silent but beautiful Duffy Lake, where Doug Houser said a few words in memory of Rod and Lois.

I recall another homicide prosecution of a driver who was drunk and high on drugs when he came around a corner on the Sunset Highway in Clatsop County and slammed into a van driven by a father whose wife and two children were in the car. As all too often happens, the drunk was essentially unhurt while the father and mother died instantly. One of the children died shortly after at the hospital in Portland. The sole survivor was the young son, Ben. I went to his relatives’ home outside Portland to discuss a possible resolution of the case with his guardians – his aunt and uncle, and to assess whether the boy could handle getting on the witness stand, if necessary. I’m not a father and I’m honestly not great with kids so I was trying to find a common point of reference with Ben. It turned out we both loved cats. He explained he couldn’t have a cat because his relatives were allergic, and his cat lived in the house where nobody lived any more. I had not really considered the enormity of his loss until that moment. I realized that before he was in 7th grade his entire family was stolen from him, violently and without cause.

Ben’s family did not particularly want to go through a trial, but I was able to secure a 15-year prison sentence under Measure 11. Most cases do resolve by plea, not trial, saving a family the anguish and uncertainty that comes with a trial. The sentencing was – nonetheless – very emotional. The victims played a memorial video in court and gave the defendant a fancy bible into which a family photo had been embossed. The Portland TV stations were all in court and afterwards they asked me if I was surprised by the Christian forgiveness the family expressed for the man who killed three members of their family. I replied that I was moved by their willingness to forgive, and I didn’t think I would be so generous. Buta criminal trial isn’t about forgiveness, it’s about accountability. To quote the Bible at MATTHEW 22:21 “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's".

The drunk driver received their forgiveness, in the personal and spiritual sense, but it is not the State of Oregon’s place to grant forgiveness.

I come from a family who have been pursued by governments meaning to do ill to my ancestors. My mother’s grandfather was a Mormon polygamist chased into the wilderness of southern Utah by the US Army during the “Mormon Wars” of 1858. More recently my father and his entire family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s to avoid persecution and death for being ethnically Jewish.

Today is part of what an observant Jew (I am not a religious person of any denomination) would call the “DAYS OF AWE” –5 days after Rosh Shonna, Jewish New Year and 4 days before YOM KIPPUR, the “Day of Atonement.” In that faith God keeps “books” on a person’s life and the ledger can be altered by particular acts of atonement during these “days of awe.” Events like these always remind me of a tale recounted by Canadian writer Anne Michaels in her book FUGITIVE PIECES. She tells the parable of a rabbi, renowned for his wisdom and great knowledge, who is invited to travel to a nearby, wealthier congregation to speak. For reasons known only to the Rabbi, he dresses as a poor peasant on the train journey and is treated poorly by some of the passengers, who turn out to be members of the congregation that invited him.

After the rabbi’s speech , members of the congregation come to him and ask his forgiveness for their thoughtlessness and poor behavior. He smiles sadly and tells them he cannot. As the Day of Atonement approaches they re-engage the rabbi and ask him how, he – a holy man – can deny them forgiveness on of all day this Day of Days, YOM KIPPUR.

He shakes his head and tells them the only person who can forgive them is the man on the train, and he no longer exists.

As Anne Michaels writes: “Nothing erases the immoral act. Not forgiveness. Not confession. And even if the act could be forgiven, no one could bear forgiveness on behalf of the dead. No act of violence is ever resolved.”

But if you can find it in your heart to forgive, I applaud you. That is your choice, morally and spiritually. Sometimes it can be a healing act, not just for them but for you. But don’t let anyone or any institution bully you into thinking you are required to give that forgiveness. It is yours to give or with-hold. In a society that increasingly finds ways NOT to hold people accountable for their thoughtless, even cruel acts, you have the freedom and right to give or with-hold.

It has been my honor to work for over 35 years as someone who helps support victims, demand accountability on their specific behalf in court, and in the community in policy discussions. Join me today in remembering all those whose names were added to the wall, the names already there and those who just left us, like Dee Dee Kouns.

Joshua Marquis
Clatsop County District Attorney

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