Vicki Schieber began her pitch to the undecided Maryland senator recently as she often does, by sharing the details of her story.
Her daughter, Shannon, was raped and murdered the day before she was planning to return home to Chevy Chase from the University of Pennsylvania for the summer. Shannon’s brother collapsed when he found her body. But no matter how horrific the crime, Schieber pushed back against prosecutors’ wishes to argue for a death sentence after the killer was caught.
“We didn’t want him put to death,” Schieber told Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) at a recent meeting in his office. “This wasn’t the way we were going to find peace and closure.”
Schieber has made a similar pitch dozens of times over the past decade in Annapolis, as part of a cadre of activists pushing unsuccessfully for repeal of the state’s death penalty. On Thursday, she will be back once more, offering testimony to a pair of legislative panels.
Only this time, there’s reason to believe the result could be different.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has made repeal of the death penalty one of his top agenda items for the 90-day session, and a bare majority in the Senate — the more resistant chamber in recent years — have said that they plan to vote for the bill.
Those who have voiced support include Astle and Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick), both of whom Schieber visited as part of a lobbying effort before Thursday’s hearings. Both cited Schieber’s story as a factor in their thinking.
Although prospects for the bill appear strong, nothing in Annapolis is guaranteed, and potential pitfalls remain.
“I’m both hopeful and scared,” Schieber said in an interview this week when asked about what could happen in the coming weeks, as lawmakers start voting on the legislation.
Schieber has been effective over the years because she is not what lawmakers might expect from the family member of a murder victim, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the legislation.
“When people meet Vicki, they meet a woman where the worst possible thing happened — she lost a child,” said Jane Henderson, the executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. “While Vicki would never say she speaks for all victims’ families, she makes a compelling case that goes to the heart of the matter.”
On a recent Wednesday, Schieber, a Catholic, arrived at Astle’s Annapolis office accompanied by Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore and a lobbyist for the Catholic Church.
Astle was one of a handful of senators who had not announced a position at the time.
Schieber, now a grandmother who lives in Frederick County, told him about her daughter, a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and Duke University.
For a few months in high school, Shannon dated C. William Frick, who is now a Maryland delegate.
“She was this beautiful, vivacious woman who would work on physics problems for four or five hours until she got it right,” Frick (D-Montgomery) recalled. “She was a special person and unquestionably headed for great things.”
Shannon, who was 23 when she was killed, was attending graduate school in Philadelphia. Four years after her death in 1998, her killer was captured in Colorado, where he confessed to a string of rapes in Philadelphia and Fort Collins, Colo. Shannon was the only woman he is believed to have murdered.
Prosecutors in Philadelphia wanted the death sentence for Troy Graves, but Vicki Schieber and her husband argued against it. Graves was sentenced to life in prison.
“Vengeance can destroy you,” Schieber said. “It doesn’t hurt my daughter’s killer at all.”
Schieber’s story touched Astle, who looked directly at her and said: “I really know what it’s like to hurt, too.”
He shared that years ago, when his son was 23, he was killed in a car crash as he and some friends were on a hunting trip. The driver was drunk.
“He spilled out his heart,” Schieber said in the interview. “It was so personal. We connected in a whole different way.”
Like many lawmakers, Astle said his thinking on the death penalty has been influenced by a variety of things. But Schieber definitely made an impression on him that day.
“What she said about vengeance resonated with me,” Astle said. After his son’s death, he said, he had been determined not to blame the car’s driver, who he said was going to have a difficult enough time coping with what happened.
Young, with whom Schieber met the same day, said he was struck by the same appeal.
“If people who’ve had that happen can get over it and look at this the way she does, then certainly I should be able to, too,” said Young, who attributed his decision to support the repeal effort to “a combination of factors.”
In the years that Schieber has grown into the role of an anti-death-penalty activist, she has traveled to 22 states to tell her story, including four of the latest five where lawmakers have repealed the death penalty.
If a repeal bill passes in Maryland, Schieber says, her days as an advocate could wind down. She has one unfulfilled personal goal, though. She said she would like to talk to her daughter’s killer one day.
“I want him to know that we aren’t angry people with all sorts of vengeance,” Schieber said. “We want him to find peace.”