When the state executes an offender, many people see it as justice done. A harm has been answered with a proportional measure of harm. But for Susannah Sheffer, that is not the end of the matter. Sheffer is the project director for the international nonprofit, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). She works closely with survivors of homicide victims and the families of the executed, and has studied the impact of state executions on the attorneys who handle the appeals. She says that many of these attorneys had never been asked about the emotional impact of representing clients on death row before she contacted them.
Walter C. Long is a criminal defense attorney who has represented Texas death row inmates in their final appeals for many years. He founded the nonprofit Texas After Violence Project, an oral history project designed to listen empathetically to people directly affected by criminal violence and state executions. He is now a graduate student in psychology, studying trauma systems.
Sheffer's and Long's workshop at the recent 14th IIRP International Restorative Justice Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia focused on victims of the death penalty who go mostly unrecognized: the families of the executed and the defense attorneys who handle their death penalty appeals.
For the families of the executed, the period of bereavement begins before the death. The trauma includes shopping for a casket for a loved one who is going to be murdered - before it happens. The exact date and time of their death is known. If a stay of execution is granted at the last minute, there is joy over the victory that is often followed by the execution that was merely delayed. Then there is the death certificate that describes the cause of death as homicide. We ambiguously identify the perpetrator of this murder as "the state." Who killed their son, daughter, brother or father for "the state"?
We rarely consider the impact on the children of the executed. How do you explain to the children that the "state of Texas " killed their dad? How does this impact their future relationship with the state? How to they reconcile being told that killing is wrong, but it was okay for "the state" to kill their dad?
Misty was 14 when her dad was charged with a capitol offense and 28 when he was executed. There were no victims' advocates ready to help her. Misty tried to commit suicide after her father's execution.
Among the Texas After Violence Project's reports of stories located at the University of Texas' Human Rights Documentation Initiative is a video of Jamaal, Napoleon Beazley's younger brother. After Napoleon was put on death row for a crime he committed at age 17, Jamaal lost his parent's attention during the years they were consumed with Napoleon's appeals. Every weekend for 7 or 8 years Jamaal and his parents visited his brother on death row. Napoleon was executed three days before Jamaal graduated from high school. After that, Jamaal's father seemed to pull away, which Jamaal speculates is because of the pain of losing one son, and not wanting to be hurt that deeply again. The family's grief was in essence "disenfranchised" because the loss could not be openly mourned or socially acknowledged. There was no space for the mitigation of Jamaal's loss.
There is little space for the family members of the executed to discuss their grief. They face the question, do you hold a funeral, and if so, who should attend? They are innocent people who often feel ostracized.