Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

Family legacy: Knowing right from dead wrong

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Courtesy of Richard Stack
Richard Stack, author of ‘‘Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & The Victims of Capital Punishment.”
Richard Stack’s parents imparted an invaluable worldview to him.

“By their words and deeds, I learned right from dead wrong,“ the Silver Spring author writes in the dedication to his new book.

The American University Associate Professor of Communication appropriated those two stark words for the title of “Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & The Victims of Capital Punishment.“ From the outset, then, his stance in the national debate on the death penalty is clear, “a succinct summation of my feelings.“

In crediting his upbringing for his moral code, Stack, 55, cites his father Norman Stack for having “worked hard promoting mutual understanding between different religious and ethnic groups“ as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis. The words with which he eulogized his father and were then inscribed on his headstone — “He understood understanding“ — are “probably my proudest, certainly most enduring, piece of writing.“

As for his mother Ida Stack, who is still alive, Stack says she “devoted her life to the teaching of all things Jewish — Hebrew, Yiddish, music, theater. And she taught people of all ages.

“From her, I learned the essence of teaching is the connection made between teacher and student. Her motto is ‘to teach is to touch.’“

His family’s views left “little room for negativity, violence or hatred.“ Both his mother and his grandmother, immigrants “to the U.S. from a very anti-Semitic Soviet Union in 1929,“ Stack says, taught him “to always look on the bright side.“

“Seems the happiest people are those who truly appreciate what they’ve got,“ he observes.

And Stack has taken that to heart as well.

“My time is divided between teaching undergrad⁄grad public communication courses; researching, writing and lecturing about my research interests, and enjoying the heck out of my family,“ he says, citing Beverly Ress, his accomplished artist wife of 25 years and their children Gabriel and Reva.

In what Stack describes as “perhaps a twisted extension of my parents’ harmonious outlook on life,“ he has always sided with the underdog. And, of course, coming of age in the “turbulent ’60s [characterized by] anti-war protests, civil rights demonstrations, the emergence of feminism and the environmental movement,“ further enhanced his sense of fairness and justice.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Indiana University, Stack chose to study law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. There, “next to the nation’s breadbasket,“ he points out, he wrote a thesis on “global resource utilization, trying to answer why some of us on the planet eat so well while others starve.“

A two-year stint in the Jackson County Public Defenders Office followed law school. His tenure there, he notes, “opened my eyes to the mistakes, large and small, made frequently in the criminal justice system.“

Stack came to D.C. in the late 1970s to work on “fighting hunger and poverty, first globally, then locally.“ The first in his series of jobs was with World Hunger Education Service. He subsequently served on the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington’s Hunger Taskforce; the board of directors of Second Harvest, the national network of food banks; and as board chairman of the D.C. Central Kitchen. For a decade, he was the Capital Area Food Bank’s founding executive director.

The association with American University began in 1984 with a course “Politics of Hunger,“ which he developed and taught as an adjunct in AU’s School of Government and Public Affairs. Since becoming a full-time faculty member, promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure in the 1990s, Stack’s “research niche [has been] the intersection of the courts and the media.“ As such, his earlier books were “Litigation Public Relations: Courting Public Opinion“ and “Courts, Counselors & Correspondents: A Media Relations Analysis of the Legal System.“

“Dead Wrong,“ in contrast, draws from his experiences as a public defender and as a pro bono media advisor to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He applied his theories of litigation public relations “to the cause of criminal justice reform, the abolition of the death penalty in particular.“

Inspiration came from the movie “Dead Man Walking,“ which he calls “a thoughtful depiction of the complexities of capital punishment. The film explored the painful, raw emotions surrounding an execution from both the victims’ and perpetrators’ perspectives.“

“I was so moved by the experience that upon exiting the theater,“ he immediately bought Sister Helen Prejean’s autobiography on which the movie was based, and “realized the death penalty could be fertile ground for the research I’d been doing in litigation public relations.“

Stack says his purpose in “Dead Wrong“ is to “reframe the national debate from ‘Is the death penalty a deterrent to crime?’ to ‘Can we trust our government to make such irreversible life and death decisions when it makes so many mistakes?“

In contrast to his more academic previous works, he says his target audience “is all those who haven’t made up their minds about he death penalty or who haven’t given it much thought.“

“Polls indicate two-thirds to three-quarters majority support for capital punishment,“ Stack explains. “But when respondents are given more information — the mistake-prone nature of the criminal justice system, the unfair administration of punishment — support shrinks to about 50⁄50.

“To me, that means the issue is a political coin toss. A good public education campaign can make the difference ... influencing public opinion which can pressure politicians to change public policy.“

For the immediate future, Stack will “continue the ride this book has taken me on. I have two very promising prospects, situations where I hope my thinking has an impact.“ The first: “A conservative state senator who many believe to be the swing vote on death penalty repeal has asked to see a copy of my book. I think this gentleman has an open mind and is truly agonizing over the right thing to do. I hope my book helps convince him that capital punishment is cruel and unnecessary.“

The second involves Troy Anthony Davis, who has been on Georgia's death row for 16 years — convicted without physical evidence on the basis of eyewitness accounts, most of whom have since recanted. Having spoken at rallies on Davis’ behalf, Stack says, “To play a small part in support of Troy and his family is both exhilarating and humbling. I pray the Georgia courts will do the right thing: free an innocent man and advance the cause of death penalty abolition.“

Stack also plans another book, this one “about individuals who authorities now believe are likely innocent though they have already been executed.“

“That would add a dramatic spark to the anti-death penalty argument,“ he concludes.

The elder Stacks taught their son well. And the author hopes that legacy will extend to their grandchildren.

“I feel strongly,“ he writes, “that I do not want my government telling my kids violence is an acceptable solution to problems.“