WASHINGTON (CNS) — Murder leaves plenty of collateral damage to the living. Just ask Vicki Schieber and Terri Steinberg.
Schieber’s daughter was raped and murdered by a serial rapist. Steinberg’s son languishes in a Virginia jail despite having been exonerated of the crime that put him on death row in the first place.
Both women gave their testimony — Schieber by video — during a Feb. 8 presentation on the death penalty as part of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, held this year Feb. 7-10 in Washington.
Schieber’s daughter, Shannon, like the rest of the family, was an active, practicing Catholic. She graduated from Duke University in three years with a triple major, and got a full-ride scholarship to study at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Philadelphia neighborhood she lived in for grad school was not the safest, and a serial rapist had been preying upon women in the vicinity — but nobody alerted residents to his presence. One night, the man broke into Schieber’s apartment, raped and murdered her.
“It was terribly devastating,” Schieber said. “You do not know the devastation it created.”
The Schieber family, she said, had followed Catholic teaching, including its admonition against use of the death penalty. But the family’s stance was being tested now. “When you have to apply it to your own circumstances, it’s very difficult,” Schieber said.
After much discussion, the family said that, should the criminal be caught and tried, the prosecution should ask for “a life sentence with no possibility of parole.” Despite pressure from the local district attorney’s office, the Schiebers held fast. “It was the best way to honor her,” she said of her murdered daughter. The man was eventually caught, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole.
Steinberg said she raised her son, Justin Wolfe, the oldest of her five children, to be loving and truthful. “He wasn’t perfect” and had done some things wrong in his young life, but he was incapable of murder.
Except Wolfe was tried and convicted on capital murder charges after the gunman who had fatally shot a drug dealer said Wolfe had asked him to do it.
At first, Steinberg said, she was so shaken at her son’s charges that “I started grocery shopping at different stores. I started going to Mass at other churches. … People stopped talking to us.”
While initially not knowing much about capital punishment, Steinberg grew acutely familiar with it during Justin’s years on death row. “The death penalty is the legalization of vengeance,” she said.
Fighting back tears at several points during her remarks, Steinberg said her son’s death sentence was vacated after the shooter admitted lying to police to avoid the death penalty himself. He had received a 32-year sentence instead.
Moreover misconduct by prosecutors in Prince William County, Virginia, shielded this evidence from her son’s defense lawyer. State judges have twice ordered Wolfe released from prison. However, prosecutors have slapped drug charges on him and have indicated they would retry Wolfe on the original capital murder charge.
“When you go 14 years not knowing whether he’s going to live or die, I tell you, it is a form of torture,” Steinberg said.
Wolfe has nearly been released twice. One of those times, Steinberg and Justin’s siblings were driving to pick him up from prison and were 45 minutes away when she got a phone call informing her he would remain jailed.
Steinberg added that her youngest child, who was 4 years old when Wolfe was convicted, is now 18 years old and about ready to go to college.
But now, Steinberg said, the girl doesn’t know if she wants to go. “She says, ‘I want to be here when my brother gets home,” Steinberg reported.