Saying no to the death penalty

Couple opposes death penalty even after the murder of their daughter


by Steve Johnson 

ATCHISON — When their daughter moved to Philadelphia to pursue a doctoral degree, Sylvester and Vicki Schieber were no different than any other parents: They worried. They worried about her housing; they worried about her health. And they worried about her safety in the big city.

Sadly, their worst fear was realized in 1998 when their daughter was murdered.

Shannon Schieber died at the hands of the so-called “Center City Rapist.” In the months and years that followed, the family dealt with the horrific death of a loved one and endured the investigation, capture, trial and conviction of the killer more than four years later. In a riveting presentation at Benedictine College in Atchison on Feb. 2, the Schiebers told their story.

“I’m going to share with you tonight the most difficult test my husband and I have ever had to take,” Vicki said. And she was talking about more than dealing with the loss of a child. She was talking about dealing with the killer.

After the initial shock had faded, things took an unusual turn. Evidence mounted and police in Pennsylvania and Colorado began to connect the facts associated with a dozen other cases. A suspect came to light. As authorities closed in, the couple began to think more about the possible charge — capital murder. The district attorney in Philadelphia had made it clear she would seek the death penalty in the case, and the Schiebers were not comfortable with that. The next few weeks would again challenge their faith and test their resolve.

“The prosecuting attorney had gone out and said she didn’t care what the Schiebers’ position was; the appropriate penalty here was the death penalty,” said Sylvester. “The vast majority of people probably would not have stood up to that, but we were not about to be party to another killing.”

The prosecutors pressured the couple to go along with the death penalty for Shannon’s killer, a situation Sylvester suspects most victims’ families are subjected to.

The Schiebers, however, chose to stick to their values, to the stand by their Catholic belief in the sanctity of life and to actually work with the defense attorneys to help save the life of their daughter’s killer.

“If you really believe that life is sacred, then you don’t believe that life is sacred because somebody’s good,” said Sylvester. “You believe that life is sacred because life is sacred. And if that is your fundamental principle, then you have to stand by that principle even when it’s difficult — or [else] it’s not your principle.”

Ultimately, the murderer received several life sentences without the possibility of parole. The entire trial and sentencing process lasted five weeks, mercifully brief compared to the average 17 years of appeals and challenges associated with pursuing a death sentence.

The Schiebers felt they made the right decision.

“The trial, the constant hearings, and the seething hatred all add up to a real ordeal for the families of the victims,” said Sylvester. “The anger can consume you. We’ve seen it ruin people’s lives — ruin their health, ruin their marriages.”

“Instead of dealing with this for another 17 years, we were done with it in five weeks,” Sylvester continued. “We have peace. We haven’t got any anger left, and I haven’t lost a night’s sleep over him since they put him away.”

In addition to their Catholic faith, which they said taught them that life is sacred and hatred is a sin, the strain on the victim’s family is one of the key reasons the Schiebers have since become heavily involved in the move to abolish the death penalty across the country. Vicki has even quit her job to become involved in the movement full time.

“People really don’t understand the system and what it does to families,” she said. “What we went through in the criminal justice system, we call being re-victimized.”

The couple also took the time to explain their position as it relates to the Catholic faith and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“The Catholic bishops of the United States have spoken clearly and strongly against the use of the death penalty,” Vicki said. “They explained that their opposition is based on more than the concern for what it does to the guilty, but for what it does to all of us as a society.”

Sylvester went on to explain that the catechism does allow for capital punishment, but only if it is necessary and no bloodless alternative is available.

“If you read the modern-day catechism, it’s pretty unequivocal,” he said. “It says that there are, in fact, situations where, within a society, when you cannot bring a criminal under control, like a war-torn society where you don’t know what the institutions are going to be tomorrow. In those kinds of instances, the death penalty is justifiable. But in a modern-day society where these people can be held in a controlled environment so they are no longer a danger to the people in that society, you cannot justify the death penalty.”

To date, Vicki has helped grass-roots organizations eliminate the death penalty in New Mexico and New Jersey. Her visit to Benedictine College coincided with her efforts in Kansas toward the same end.

On Jan. 29, the Friday before their presentation, the Schiebers were pleased to get the news that the Judiciary Committee of the Kansas Senate had advanced SB 375, legislation that would eliminate capital punishment within the state and replace it with life in prison without parole. The bill will now come up for debate on the Senate floor and could then go to the House for consideration.

“We spoke to several senators, and we have hope,” Vicki said. “They love to hear from their constituents, and they listen. You really can make a difference. Right now we have 15 states that do not have the death penalty on their books. Kansas can be number 16.”

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