Fighting for Life

UPDATED 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

SUEZANN BOSLER WAS GETTING ready to go Christmas shopping on Dec. 22, 1986, when she heard her father, Rev. Billy Bosler, answer the door at the First Church of the Brethren parsonage in Opa-Locka, Fla. Then, hearing crashes and groans of pain, the 24-year-old hairdresser ran to investigate and found an intruder savagely stabbing her father. As she turned to flee, the assailant plunged a knife into her back, then renewed his attack on the 53-year-old clergyman. After stabbing SueZann twice more in the side of the head, he left her for dead. Two years later, James Campbell, 22, a local gardener, was convicted of murdering Billy Bosler during an apparent robbery and sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair.

A higher court eventually overturned that sentence twice, citing first a judge's error, then a prosecutor's misconduct. In June another Dade County jury convened to consider the matter of sentencing, and SueZann Bosler was there to persuade them—not, as one might assume, to urge that the death penalty be imposed once again, but in the passionate belief that it shouldn't be. Though many find it incomprehensible that Bosler, who nearly died from a shattered skull, has spent a decade fighting to save the man who attacked her—and killed her father—it makes sense, profoundly, to her.

"Why kill people to show that killing people is wrong?" she asks. "If the government were to kill James Bernard Campbell, my father wouldn't pop out of nowhere and be back here alive." Bosler, who believes the death penalty only creates additional victims—the families of those who are executed—draws inspiration from the words of her father's favorite hymn: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." "That's very powerful," she says, "and that's how I feel."

Today, Bosler travels around the country speaking on behalf of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a Virginia-based organization of more than 4,000 members who have had relatives murdered or executed. "SueZann makes a real emotional connection with audiences," says Pat Bane, the group's director. "She shares so much." Believers in the nonviolent doctrine of the nearly 300-year-old Church of the Brethren, Bosler's family—mother Phyllis, 64, and sisters Jill Best, 37, and Lynette Casper, 29—support her. "We all feel exactly the same," says Phyllis.

Before Bosler testified at Campbell's sentencing hearing June 10 in Miami, Judge Marc Schumacher instructed her to speak only of the crime's impact on her and her family and not to mention her opposition to capital punishment. But Bosler seized the moment when prosecutor Michael Band asked how she was employed. "I do hair," she said, "and I work for an organization that wants to abolish the death penalty." Asked later, by Campbell's lawyer, "Do you hate this man?" Bosler answered unequivocally, before the judge could sustain Band's objection, "No." Three days later the jury, which had also heard graphic testimony about the extreme abuse Campbell suffered as a child, sentenced him to life in prison. Afterward, Bosler told jurors, "This is the happiest moment of the last 10½ years for me."

According to her family, Florida native SueZann Bosler inherited both her determination and compassion from her father. "Out of all of us girls, SueZann is the strong one," says sister Jill. "She's a lot like Dad in that way." Billy Bosler had followed in his grandfather's footsteps, leading a peripatetic life of pastoring for the Church of the Brethren (which claims 144,000 members in 1,000 congregations) and teaching English, mostly around western Michigan. But after moving his family in 1978 to Opa-Locka, a low-income, high-crime suburb of Miami, Bosler seemed to have found a home. He revived a dwindling congregation and refused to be scared off by frequent robberies at the church. "There is no place I'd rather be!" he told a parishioner in 1985. "I plan to be here till the Lord calls me elsewhere."

After the attack, three days passed before SueZann recovered consciousness in the hospital. "She asked what day it was, and I said it was the 25th," says Best. "And she said, 'Merry Christmas.' I knew then she was going to be okay." For the next year, her mother lived with SueZann in a small apartment near the hospital, nursing her back to health. "I spent eight months," says SueZann, touching her left temple, where she has a plastic plate, "without a skull on this side."

Now recovered except for recurring headaches, Bosler shares a third-floor apartment north of Miami with Sylvester, a parakeet. Though she has won a personal victory, she plans to continue to speak out against the death penalty. "She knows she can make a difference," says sister Lynette. "She has in this case, that's for sure."

BRUCE FRANKEL
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Miami

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