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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Murder victim's mother takes unlikely stance

Grace Maalouf, of Baylor University's The Lariat, wrote a story this week focusing on Jeanette Popp, whose daughter was murdered in 1988 in Austin. Jeanette pressured the Travis County DA not to seek the death penalty against her daughter's killer.

Popp's daughter was murdered in Austin in 1988, but during the trial of her daughter's killer, Popp was strongly against the death penalty.

Two men were wrongfully convicted for her daughter's murder and spent 12 years in prison, she said.

"Had they been given the death penalty, they surely would have been executed," Popp said. "And what does that make us? That makes us murderers, just like the people we're killing."

So when her daughter's murderer was convicted in 2001, she begged him to take a plea bargain.

"He told me he would rather die than spend the rest of his life in a Texas prison," Popp said.

So she said she went public with her appeals.

"I asked people to call the district attorney's office and demand that they take the death penalty off the table, and they did," Popp said.

She said the offender got two consecutive life sentences, which was what she wanted.

"I wanted him punished, but without punishing his loved ones," Popp said.

Popp said the support of family and friends kept her from turning her grief into anger. But she also said her religious beliefs were the biggest factor in healing after the murder.

"My faith in God helped get me through this," Popp said.

Popp, who is Catholic, said her religious beliefs also contribute to her views on the death penalty. But not everyone shares those views.

...

Popp said her religious objection is to human unnaturally taking any life.

"We have no right to take human life," Popp said. "No one gave us that right. That's God's right."

"I don't care if it's the man that murdered my daughter, a drunk driver, abortion, whatever. We have no business doling out the final punishment."

Not everyone agrees with her stance on the death penalty, though, including some family members, Popp said. But Popp hasn't let that stop her from turning her pain into a passion.

"I've been an activist for six years now, and I'm very proud of what I do," Popp said.

She said she and others who share her vision have worked hard to influence the state and local governments.

Popp also pointed out the change in sentencing options for jurors.

In June of 2005, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill giving juries the option of sentencing capital offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Before, if it was a person who had committed a murder, the only choice (the jury) had was life in prison - which gives them the possibility of parole - or execute them," Popp said.

She said she thinks the new option represents important progress.

"I believe you will see less and less execution as jurors are given that choice," Popp said.

Popp said the possibility of innocent people being executed is one of the biggest objections she has to the death penalty.

"The death penalty is such a final thing," Popp said. "And with over 100 people exonerated from death rows because they were there for crimes they didn't commit, we're making mistakes. And if we're making mistakes, we don't need to be in the business of killing people."

Popp believes life in prison without the possibility of parole is the best answer sentencing options because any potential mistakes won't be final. With the death penalty, she said, all the punishment creates is more victims.

"Everybody we execute has a mother, a father, a husband, children, people who love them," Popp said. "And you're victimizing those people, because you're murdering their child like that man murdered my child."

"I would not put another mother through that pain for anything."

From 2001 to 2004, Popp served as chairwoman of the Texas Moratorium Network.

"Our goal is to create a moratorium on executions in Texas along with a study commission that would look into the problems of the administration of the death penalty," said Scott Cobb, president of the organization.

"We work with different organizations that are interested in criminal justice reform, as well as churches and faith-based groups," Cobb said.

He said the group currently has about 10,000 members trying to influence the Texas legislature and local governments to pass moratorium resolutions temporarily suspending use of the death penalty.

The organization also supports an office of statewide defenders of capital punishment cases to handle cases of people from when they're arrested throughout the appeals process, Cobb said.

"A lot of people executed received the death penalty where they really should have been punished with a lesser punishment like life without parole," Cobb said. "And in some cases they were completely innocent and there would have been a different outcome had they had better representation."

Popp said she now views what she does as an effort to honor her daughter.

"Neither one of us believed in death penalty," Popp said. "I hope what I do honors her memory."

"Because I would much rather honor her in that way than to murder in her name."

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