A Place of Peace
Nearly a dozen years after her daughter’s murder, death penalty abolitionist Vicki Schieber arrives at tranquility—but not rest.
Vicki Schieber feels the presence of her late daughter, Shannon, whenever she and her 2-year-old granddaughter are feeding the ducks and swan on the lake of her 6-acre Frederick County farm. “I know that Shannon’s watching over us,” Schieber says. “I know that she led us to this beautiful place.”
Schieber, 65, and her husband, Syl, 63, have carefully restored the property’s Civil War-era brick farmhouse and red barns. They moved to the farm in July 2008, after selling their home in Chevy Chase where they had lived for almost 30 years.
Nearly a dozen years have passed since the Schiebers’ 23-year-old daughter, a first-year doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was strangled by a serial rapist who climbed in through the balcony door of her Philadelphia brownstone apartment. Four years later, Shannon’s killer was caught and convicted. But the Schiebers, citing personal and religious objections to the death penalty, refused to press for his execution. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Shannon Schieber was president of her 1992 graduating class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and graduated in three years from Duke University in Durham, N.C., with a triple major in math, economics and philosophy. She wanted to make a difference in the world, her mother says. Believing that the best way to honor Shannon’s memory was to uphold the moral principles with which her daughter was raised, Schieber quit her marketing job four years ago in order to devote herself to the campaign to end capital punishment.
In June 2008, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent, appointed Schieber to the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, and in December 2008 that panel voted 13-9 to recommend its repeal. In March, however, a repeal bill was narrowly defeated in the Maryland Senate. “It broke my heart,” Schieber says. “But I’ve come to understand that change in politics is incremental.” A compromise bill passed later that month made Maryland’s death penalty requirements the most stringent of the 35 states that allow executions, according to Schieber: Prosecutors in Maryland can seek the death penalty only in murder cases where there is DNA evidence, a videotaped interrogation and confession, or videotaped evidence of the crime. Schieber hopes O’Malley will introduce another bill for repeal. “I believe he’s inclined to do that, but first we have to get him re-elected [in November],” she says.
In the meantime, Schieber crisscrosses the country almost weekly, speaking at colleges, law schools and churches. She tells Shannon’s story and narrates her own awakening to the idea that putting her daughter’s killer to death would not lessen her grief or redeem Shannon’s life. “I am very hopeful that we can change more hearts and minds,” Schieber says. “I haven’t had eggs or tomatoes thrown at me yet, but it’s difficult.” What restores her, she says, is returning to the peacefulness of the farm. Syl has retired from the Social Security Administration and has converted a barn to a woodworking shop. Their son, Sean, who builds custom furniture, lives less than a mile away with his wife, Jess, a violin maker, and their two small children.
Since 2006, when Schieber began her quest, two states—New Mexico and New Jersey—have outlawed the death penalty, and Montana’s Senate has voted for repeal. To celebrate those events, lights were turned on in the Coliseum in Rome, where Christians were once thrown to lions and gladiators fought to the death. Schieber’s dream is to attend a ceremony commemorating the end of capital punishment in Maryland. “I’m never going to give up,” she says.
Kathleen Wheaton lives in Bethesda and writes frequently for Bethesda Magazine.