“I described to the jury how I had to tell my six-year old daughter that she would never see her daddy again. I told them about her putting a flower on the coffin, hugging his coffin. I pulled no punches, let me tell you. I made that jury understand how much pain I was in, how much pain my family was in. I was very persuasive.”
Dionne Wilson is explaining why an Alameda County jury sentenced 26-year-old Irving Ramirez to death for killing her husband, Nels “Dan” Niemi, a San Leandro Police officer, in July 2005.
“The facts of the case made the jury decide to sentence him to death. Dan was a police officer on duty, and when Irving shot him, he didn’t stop. When Dan was on the ground he kept shooting. He tried to hide evidence after the fact. Because of all those things he did, plus my testimony, they gave him the death penalty.”
Wilson said she wanted that verdict because she “made a decision. I didn’t make a mistake, I made a decision.” Her decision was based on “this narrative that the death penalty was cheaper than life without parole. That was wrong. I thought it would keep society safer. That was wrong. I thought it was a deterrent. That was wrong.”
Wilson said everyone, prosecutors, law enforcement, friends, “Everyone surrounding me,” told her that, “once he’s sentenced to death, you can move on. If he doesn’t get the death penalty you’re not going to heal.”
Irving Ramirez was sentenced to death in June 2007. “We were so elated,” she says. “We had these great celebrations. We won, we won.” The problem was that what everyone promised Wilson would happen, didn’t. “I waited and waited, but I didn’t feel better. In fact, I felt worse and worse.”
She embarked on a spiritual mission to heal herself. She took classes, talked to people of different faiths, spoke to other victims’ family members, all in a quest “to find out how people do this, how to acknowledge my pain, my family’s pain, how to do something positive.” Finally, she took classes at a Buddhist center, where she figured out that, “The world isn’t about us versus them, it’s about this life and what you can put into the world that is positive and beneficial and healing and helpful. I had let go of all the anger and hatred toward Irving. It just disappeared. I don’t hate him anymore, don’t want him killed in my name. What purpose would that serve?”
When she let go of the hatred she felt for Ramirez, she found herself thinking about his mother and what she had gone through, and how killing her son would only compound her pain. “It would completely devastate her. She’s already lost her son, and she’s living with the stigma of having a son who murdered a police officer. I put myself in her place. How would I even survive if my son killed someone in the way Irving killed Dan?”
She also thought about her husband’s mother. “I remember what it was like watching Dan’s mom go through the pain of losing her son. I didn’t want another mother to feel that way. I didn’t want to watch another mother go through the pain of losing her son.”
On the fifth anniversary of Dan’s death, Wilson wrote a letter to Irving Ramirez. It was short, and it was heartfelt. “I didn’t want to do too much. There were just a few things I wanted to say. I told him I forgave him.”
She had to convince his attorney to give him the letter, allowing her to read it first. She says the attorney called her on the phone, crying, after reading it, and said she would give it to him; but warned her she wouldn’t allow him to answer it, because his case is still on appeal.
“It doesn’t seem really fair,” Wilson says, “but I understand why we can’t communicate. I still needed to do it [send the letter], I needed to do it for me. I honestly don’t know how he feels about all this, how he feels about me, but that’s okay because my healing doesn’t depend on that. I can’t wait around for him to say the right thing. Even if he says he’s glad he killed him, go to hell, it wouldn’t matter how I’d feel. I’d feel bad for him, that he’s stuck that way. But I’m not stuck that way.”
When she found peace with all that had happened, Wilson also found her calling. She enrolled in a training program with the Insight Prison Project to become a facilitator for the Victim Offender Education Group program at San Quentin State Prison in September 2014. The group was composed of 11 men who were serving long sentences for violent crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Each of the men shared his story over a 20-month period, and in the process created an “amazing bond. It was the most amazing, healing, valuable experience of my life,” Wilson says. “I connected with people I never thought I could connect to. These guys unpacked the trauma of their lives, and it was easy to follow the path of trauma and how it turns into violence.”
Now, she is the Survivor Program Coordinator for Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice, a project of Californians for Safety & Justice, a statewide network that gives survivors of crime a voice in public policy.
She is also a consultant for Proposition 62, on the November ballot in California. The Justice That Works Act 2016 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. (Its proponent is Mike Farrell, who is on leave as president of Death Penalty Focus.)
Her opposition to the death penalty is unequivocal. “My number one hope for this campaign is to get people to examine all the facts, not just about the death penalty but also about the effectiveness of how we’re running our justice system. I’m the widow of a murdered police officer who’s done a 180 on the death penalty, and I want to give people permission to say that maybe we aren’t doing it right. The system doesn’t work, so how can we do this better, how can we do this smarter?”
She says her husband would support what she’s doing. “Dan was really smart. He was one of those guys who, when he got interested in something, would research everything about it, give a PhD dissertation on it. I truly believe if Dan had had the information I now have he wouldn’t be in favor of the death penalty either. He didn’t have a vengeance mentality. I carry him as my inspiration.”