When the Death Penalty Got Personal

The murder of Syl and Vicki Schieber’s daughter by a serial rapist took them to the crossroads of retribution and forgiveness, the law and Church teaching.

Author: Sylvester J. Schieber ’72M.A., ’74Ph.D.

Syl and Vicki Schieber.
Photography by Jonathan Timmes

At 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, May 7, 1998, my daughter, Shannon Schieber, was up studying for her final exam in a finance class as she wrapped up her first year in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She planned to meet with a study group at 9, meet her brother, Sean, for lunch at noon, take the test on Friday morning and then head for home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to celebrate Mother’s Day with my wife, Vicki, and me. Closing her books that night, Shannon was surely tired but appears to have been too pent up to sleep, so she decided to run a bath to relax.

Shannon lived in a second-floor apartment in a converted row house in Center City, Philadelphia. It had a little balcony with a patio door. Barbed wire, coiled around the trunk of a tree near the balcony, provided some security from would-be intruders, but that night it wasn’t enough to protect Shannon. As she ran her bath, a man managed to press his way up the three-foot gap between Shannon’s building and the house next door and swing onto her balcony. It was a muggy night, and Shannon had locked the screen door, but the inner door was ajar. She seems to have thrown her robe on the bed just before the man pried open the screen and grabbed her.

In the ensuing struggle, Shannon managed to scream for help. A neighbor heard her, ran across the hall, knocked on her door and heard a choking sound. He went back into his apartment and called 911. He then dashed downstairs to get help from the neighbor who lived directly below Shannon, thinking they might break in and rescue her. A woman answered the door and said her fiancé was working in a lab at school, so the man went back upstairs and waited for the police to arrive.

Two patrol officers arrived within seven minutes of the call. The woman downstairs led them up to the second floor. The officers knocked on Shannon’s door. Receiving no answer, they suggested to the neighbors that no one was home, but the woman insisted she had heard a scuffle, and the man said he had heard a voice like Shannon’s scream. The police questioned whether the scream might have come from down the street. One officer went outside to shine his flashlight on the balcony and saw that the door was closed and the curtains drawn. The neighbors could not convince the officers to break into the apartment. Within five minutes, they were gone.

When Sean arrived at Wharton for his lunch date with his sister, friends from Shannon’s study group said she had never shown up, and they had not been able to reach her. These were the days before most people had cell phones, so Sean drove to Shannon’s apartment and rang her doorbell. He noticed her balcony door was wide open but the curtain was closed. Worried, Sean raced to the home of his friend Samantha so he could call his mother. Vicki told him to go back immediately and find someone to let him into Shannon’s building.

Sean and Samantha rang every unit’s doorbell. The neighbor who had called 911 early that morning came to the door. As Sean explained the situation, the man went pale and described what had happened in the night. Together they broke down Shannon’s door and entered the apartment, where they found Shannon face down on her bed, naked and clearly dead.

Samantha called Vicki to tell her the horrible news. Moments later I received a hysterical call from Vicki.

Shannon’s murder would devastate us. When she died, part of us died, and while we have learned to live with the void, we have never filled it. The circumstances of her death, though, opened up to us a perspective from our Catholic faith that we had never anticipated.

Vicki and I arrived at Shannon’s apartment around 7 on the evening after she was killed. The street was clogged with police cars and media trucks covering the early part of a story that would grip Philadelphia for several years. After pushing our way past reporters who were barraging us with questions we couldn’t possibly answer, we were met by two plainclothes Philadelphia officers from the homicide unit. It was clear they were investigating a murder.

We were taken to police headquarters and were each questioned about where we had been the night before, where Sean had been, what his relationship with his sister was like and whether we knew of anyone who might want to kill Shannon. After a half-hour or so of this, we were brought back together and told we would need to stay in the city overnight so we could identify the body the next morning.

Friday turned out to be a nightmare in the middle of what already seemed like a bad dream. We were supposed to be taken to the city morgue at 9 a.m., but the officer assigned to escort us did not pick us up until 1:30 p.m. Because of that delay, the autopsy was not completed until after 5 p.m. By then the coroner’s office had closed for the weekend, so we were told they would not release the body until the following Monday. We needed our daughter’s body before then to prepare for the funeral. People would be coming from as far away as Miami, Seattle, Hong Kong. After many phone calls to city and university officials, we managed to arrange for the body to be released on Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, we were caught in a vortex of emotions — a powerful desire to escape the horror while having to confront our new reality. We had to buy a funeral plot, a casket. We even had to find clothes we could bury Shannon in, because her wardrobe was impounded in her apartment. Tasks that might have seemed sorrowful — or just mundane, under normal circumstances — became poignant reminders of the tragedy that had befallen us. It is not normal for parents to bury their children.

Shortly after the assailant was apprehended, his attorneys signaled in the media that he was willing to plead guilty to the charges against him in Philadelphia, including the rape and murder of our daughter, if that meant he would not face the death penalty.

That evening we were back in Maryland. Grasping for a bit of normalcy, Vicki and I went to Mass. Other than the celebrant, Father Percival D’Silva, announcing what had happened and asking the congregation to pray for us, Mass proceeded without event until we came to the Lord’s Prayer.

I was raised in a Catholic family that prayed a daily rosary together. I went to a Catholic boarding high school where we attended daily Mass. Later I enrolled in a Catholic college as an undergraduate and pursued my doctorate at Notre Dame. I had said the Lord’s Prayer thousands of times, but that night as we reached “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I was struck dumb. Suddenly that prayer had meaning I had never fully grasped before.

A week after Shannon died, the Philadelphia police allowed us to clean out her apartment. The two officers we had talked to on the evening of her death met us there again. They described some details they had pieced together and explained the charges that might be brought against Shannon’s assailant if he — they were certain about the attacker’s gender — was caught. They said the case would almost certainly be treated as a first-degree murder. If the assailant was found guilty, the mandatory sentence options in Pennsylvania were death or life in prison without parole.

Most people seem to think about the death penalty in abstract terms. They hear about horrendous crimes committed against hapless victims who received no compassion from the perpetrators. One month after Shannon was killed, three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, killed James Byrd Jr., a Black man, by chaining him behind their pickup, dragging him three miles down an asphalt road and then dumping his body parts in front of a Black church. It is hardly surprising that many people, upon hearing this gruesome story, feel Byrd’s murderers deserved to be executed.

After Shannon was killed, the death penalty was no longer an abstract concept for Vicki and me. In trials of the sort we then anticipated, prosecutors often include victims’ families in their news conferences. They may ask the families to make public statements or to express the damage the accused have done in victim impact statements. One thing prosecutors almost always fail to tell families is that the cause of death stated on the death certificate of an executed prisoner is “homicide.” We soon understood that, if the assailant was going to be sentenced to death for Shannon’s murder, we would be expected to be accomplices.

That idea was extremely sobering to both of us. Vicki’s background is similar to mine: Catholic education through high school, then five years in the convent before graduating from DePaul University and earning her master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago. Once she and I were aware of what we were facing, we became more attuned to the issues.

During our 49 years of marriage, Vicki has often accused me of being too literal, but I believe words have meaning and should be taken seriously. Upon reflection, I took the meaning of “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and of the teaching in St. Matthew’s Gospel telling us to “turn the other cheek,” to be fundamental Christian principles. Some ask, “What would Jesus do?” Often the answer isn’t as easy as the question suggests. For us, when it comes to executions, the answer is clear.

The Gospels tell us how Christ was confronted with an execution about to take place. He did not question the law that had been violated, the evidence against the condemned or the injury caused. He simply turned to the would-be executioners and said that the one among them without sin should cast the first stone. They all had to walk away. As we thought through the issues and reflected on our upbringing, we decided we would not be party to a death-penalty prosecution.

That fall, details of Shannon’s murder were featured three times on America’s Most Wanted, a television series that sought public help in identifying and capturing alleged sex offenders and murderers. Each episode provided a telephone number viewers could call with information that might pertain to the case. For the segments on Shannon’s murder, Philadelphia police sent detectives to the Fox studio in Washington, D.C., to take phone calls. Before each broadcast, the detectives stopped at our suburban Maryland home to see us. During one visit, we told a detective over dinner that we would not support the death penalty when it came to trial. He asked that we not make our position public because it could complicate the prosecution.

It would take four long years for police to solve Shannon’s murder and capture her assailant. In the end, we learned that she was attacked by a serial rapist — the fifth victim in a series of six assaults in her neighborhood. Linking those attacks alone took Philadelphia police 17 months from Shannon’s death, despite their having DNA evidence in each case. Police tested the DNA in two of these cases only after Philadelphia Inquirer reporters uncovered them. The reporters also discovered the police had classified those two particular cases as noncrimes. Reporters would go on to document that Philadelphia police were classifying 25 to 30 percent of reported rapes and sexual assaults as noncrimes as a way to reduce reported crime rates in the city.

Shannon Schieber
Shannon Schieber

The sixth attack occurred in August 1999; the perpetrator is now remembered as the Center City Rapist. The community was frantic, but then the attacks stopped. Later we learned the rapist had joined the Air Force and was trained as a missile technician. He ended up in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2001, had a security clearance for his work and was married. But he was again attacking young women. By the third attack in Fort Collins, police knew they were pursuing a serial rapist and warned area residents. That September, they released a national notification to law enforcement agencies linking the assailant to Shannon’s murder. By the spring of 2002, police had reports of six attacks in Fort Collins. The assailant was finally identified and arrested shortly after midnight on April 23, 2002. Shannon was the only one of his victims to be killed; hers was the only case in which police responded during the attack.

By that time, Philadelphia police and prosecutors were well aware we opposed the death penalty, but our position suddenly became controversial and newsworthy. A story in the Philadelphia Daily News on April 24 noted that Vicki and I opposed the death penalty for our daughter’s killer. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported we were not seeking such vengeance and quoted Vicki saying, “I have forgiven him. We have to be forgiving people.”

Late on April 24, police confirmed that the DNA of the man arrested in Fort Collins matched the DNA of Shannon’s killer. Shortly after that announcement, city district attorney Lynne Abraham held a press conference indicating her intention to pursue the death penalty. Over the next few days, the media were nearly as fixated on our dispute with prosecutors as they were on the man who had terrorized their community and was now behind bars.

The issue came to a head when Michael Smerconish, a local attorney and talk-radio host, published an open letter to Vicki in his column in the Daily News. His view was that Shannon’s murderer “should pay with his life” for his crimes. He said he did “not believe that any one citizen’s feelings should determine that decision — even if that citizen is the victim. That would result in disparate sentencing in society.

“Society’s interests require serious consideration of a death sentence,” he continued. “We never want another promising young woman to have her life cut short by a murderous thug, and we must consider the deterrence that a death sentence in this case might provide.”

The Daily News graciously published our response. We explained that we opposed the death penalty on three grounds.

First, we noted the tenets of Catholicism. In a 1995 encyclical Pope John Paul II had written that executions were allowed only in the most extreme circumstances, when society could not otherwise be protected. “Christianity and other religions hold life to be sacred,” we told Smerconish. “We embraced these principles long before Shannon was murdered. Our concerns about the death penalty generally or in regard to this case are not about our own miserable situation. They are about the appropriateness of the death penalty given what we believe. Under the circumstances of our daughter’s death, our beliefs about appropriate punishment have been severely tested. But we have no choice but to adhere to our principles.”

Second, we wrote, we believed the “death penalty is often applied in discriminatory and arbitrary ways in our society.” We cited studies showing that Pennsylvania’s use of the death penalty was heavily biased against minorities, especially Black men. We did not have the statistics then but would later learn that nearly half the prisoners on Pennsylvania’s death row had been tried in Philadelphia, many under district attorney Abraham.

Finally, regarding the safety of the community, we cited the news reports after Shannon’s death that revealed how Philadelphia police were systematically classifying reported sexual assaults as noncrimes. While sex-crime investigators had known of the activities of a serial rapist in the community, they had warned neither residents nor the police commanders in charge of district patrol operations.

We felt that the failure to warn the community had heightened the risk for Shannon and others who lived there. Shannon “was followed by a man fitting [the assailant’s] description as she walked home from a movie just two nights before she was killed,” we wrote. “Had she known that a serial rapist was working her neighborhood, she would have been far more concerned about this incident than she was. She would likely have called police.”

If Smerconish wanted a safer community, we concluded, he should have demanded “accountability from police regarding their handling of the cases linked to the Center City Rapist” and changes in how they handled reports of sexual assaults.

Shortly after the assailant was apprehended, his attorneys signaled in the media that he was willing to plead guilty to the charges against him in Philadelphia, including the rape and murder of our daughter, if that meant he would not face the death penalty. Fairly quickly, prosecutors and the defense team reached an agreement. On May 30, 2002, the killer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing Shannon and an additional 60 to 120 years for the sexual assaults on six other women. He had already been sentenced to life in prison in Colorado. The Center City Rapist would never be free to attack again.

A few hours after the sentencing hearing, district attorney Abraham held a press conference. According to the transcript, she said it was “important to note that the feelings of the Schieber family regarding the death penalty played no role in my decision not to seek the death penalty.

“As a matter of fact,” she continued, “while we are mindful and always thoughtful of victims’ feelings, it was my decision in consultation with other members in this office to have sought the death penalty irrespective of the Schiebers’ position regarding the death penalty had [the assailant] not pleaded guilty today, which would have left the Schiebers in the anomalous position of testifying in favor of saving the life of a person who had no regard for the life of their own daughter. However, this was our position. It was unmovable, unshakeable, and that was my decision and that was what we were going to do.”

While capital cases have become, for some prosecutors, an ultimate symbol of their commitment to law enforcement, they often fall far short of satisfying the yearning for justice.

But Dan Stevenson, one of the defense attorneys, had a different interpretation. He wrote me that when Abraham first told the media she would pursue the death penalty for Shannon’s murderer, she meant it. But when they were faced by our public statements and our op-ed piece in the Daily News, we had erected a hurdle the prosecutors couldn’t clear.

At the time, many people were surprised at what they perceived as our generosity toward Shannon’s killer. In time, we came to realize the real benefits that our stance accrued to us.

If we had supported Abraham’s intention to pursue the death penalty, and she had succeeded, we would almost certainly still be waiting for that sentence to be carried out. The Byrd murder case illustrates the point. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998. Two of the three men found guilty for his murder were sentenced to death and the third to life in prison. The first execution took place on September 21, 2011; the second on April 24, 2019. Such a length of time between crime and punishment in the carrying out of capital sentences is common. It is instructive that Byrd’s son, Ross, became a strong advocate for the elimination of the death penalty. The lengthy intervals take a tremendous toll on family and friends, who often feel obliged to attend the appeals and hearings and to rehear the gory details of their loved one’s ordeal. The passions this foments are destructive to a person’s psychological and physical health.

I never fully understood the meaning of wrath as one of the deadly sins until I came to know people who were 15 or more years into this marathon-watch. A popular saying comes to mind: “Anger is an acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

Some death penalty advocates argue it provides an extra measure of justice or “closure” for the families and friends of the victim. In the despair and grief that comes in the aftermath of the crime, these needs may seem especially valid to consider. But while capital cases have become, for some prosecutors, an ultimate symbol of their commitment to law enforcement, they often fall far short of satisfying the yearning for justice. Many people who have suffered what we have acknowledge that the killing of another human being will never bring back their loved ones or fill the holes in their hearts left by such loss.

Since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania has performed only three executions. While more than 140 prisoners remain on the state’s death row, Pennsylvania has placed a moratorium on executions. Rather than waiting 18 or more years to learn the fate of Shannon’s killer, we saw it determined rather quickly — in just over five weeks, with one court session.

Ever since our death-penalty encounter, we have worked in tandem with many dedicated people to end executions in the United States. In 2011, Vicki was recognized as Abolitionist of the Year by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Such efforts are making a difference. When Shannon was killed in 1998, only 12 states had discontinued their use of the death penalty. Today 22 states have abolished it and four states have imposed moratoriums on its use. The annual number of executions nationwide peaked at 98 in 1999 and has dropped steadily since then. States carried out only seven executions last year. If not for the resumption of federal executions in 2020 after 17 years, the country would have seen the lowest number of executions since 1983.

Meanwhile, for every 10 executions carried out since the 1970s, one person sentenced to death has been exonerated by the consideration of new evidence. The risks of executing an innocent person are not trivial.

The Church’s position on capital punishment has only become firmer since John Paul II’s pronouncement that cases in which it was “not possible to . . . defend society” without use of the death penalty were “practically nonexistent.” Even so, when Vicki and I made presentations in the 2000s, we met opponents who still sought loopholes by which to rationalize executions.

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI called for the abolition of the death penalty. Four years later, Pope Francis declared to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty that capital punishment was not acceptable no matter how serious the crime it was supposed to redress. In 2018, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was modified to say that capital punishment is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Some 2000 years after Christ bid those without sin to cast the first stone, the loopholes have been hammered shut from the perspective of Catholic teaching. Vicki and I believe that advocates for the death penalty would find greater peace by embracing the Church’s current position.

Syl Schieber is a private consultant who specializes in retirement and health policy issues. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Notre Dame.