WALLA WALLA — As a young woman, Victoria Thorpe followed a strict conservative and Christian upbringing, one that told her evil was perpetrated by evil people, and that something like the death penalty was justly merited when handed out.
That belief system was upended when Thorpe’s younger sister was convicted of a murder and sentenced to death more than 20 years ago.
Thorpe is the author of “Cages,” a detailed narrative of her sister’s life and an account of Kerry Lyn Dalton’s murder case in San Diego County.
A Spokane resident, Thorpe will be in Walla Walla Jan. 14-17 to speak about her work against the death penalty in the state and in California.
Her visit is coordinated by the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The nonprofit is working to repeal the state’s death penalty law for the more compassionate life imprisonment without parole.
As an anti-death penalty activist, Thorpe sees the benefits of doing away with the death penalty.
Abolishing the death penalty would free up money and resources to help reform the justice system, help victim’s families, and support law enforcement and investigators to conduct better, more thorough and just investigations, Thorpe and other activists believe.
Doing so would then help prevent the number of cases of wrongly convicted inmates on death row, and those who do not receive a fair trial.
“It happens a lot and it shouldn’t happen once,” she said.
“That’s one of the big problems with the death penalty,” she said. “It’s handed out arbitrarily.”
Seeing her sister navigate the criminal justice system, be eventually condemned to die, and seeing others on death row, helped Thorpe shed the idea that people are possessed by the devil, and began to see all people as human beings.
“Everyone I have gotten to meet within the system are people,” Thorpe said.
“Some are just more broken than others, and didn’t have the advantages that I have had, or you have had. It’s heart-breaking on one side, but amazingly wonderful to realize that no one really is evil. It has been a real gift to be free of that. I feel it’s much easier to be compassionate.”
Last year, Thorpe traveled through California, participating in protests and marches, to gain support for doing away with the state’s death penalty.
The proposition was rejected by voters in November.
The focus in Washington is to present a bill to the state Legislature later this month.
“This really is my life,” Thorpe said, including her children. “They all work on this with me. It’s our priority. It gets us a lot of satisfaction in doing something that’s worthy.”
In “Cages,” Thorpe explores her sister’s case, which was conducted with no physical evidence, no murder weapon, and no body.
Dalton was convicted based on interviews and informants.
“There’s no body, there’s no weapon, there’s no crime scene,” Thorpe said. “There was not even a murder determined while she was on trial.”
“Cages” is also a personal tale of Thorpe and Dalton’s connection as sisters.
The crime occurred in 1988, when Dalton was 28 years old. It was four years before she was arrested in May 1992.
Dalton will turn 53 this month, and has been incarcerated since that arrest.
Dalton is currently housed in the Central California Women’s Facility.
Thorpe is honest about her sister’s background.
Dalton became a meth addict, and the woman she is convicted of murdering was also a meth addict.
Testimony against Dalton came from other drug addicts and informants.
“Because of her case, and trying to help her, I’ve learned how broken the system is,” Thorpe said.
Thorpe has found inspiration from other anti-death penalty activists, like Jeanne Woodford, the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus.
Woodford previously oversaw four executions as the Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and Warden of San Quentin State Prison.
Thorpe also mentioned Mark Furhman, a former detective for the Los Angeles Police Department who worked on the OJ Simpson murder trial.
The Simpson trial occurred about the same time as Dalton’s case. Furhman has written several books on the justice system.
Thorpe hopes her book, and current work, will help people gain better understanding of the problems with the death penalty.
“If you can help people beyond just emotionally looking at the subject, then it practically takes care of itself,” she said.
“If someone is coming in with a lot of fear or a lot of anger, or a faith that says we must punish those we’ve decided are monsters, then it’s a lot more difficult. I enjoy talking with folks who have all those opinions.”