Restoring Community

Here's a post written by Sylvia Clute on her Genuine Justice blog and based on a workshop she attended at IIRP's 14th Conference in Nova Scotia last summer. The workshop was given by Susannah Sheffer and Walter Long, who both advocate for abolishing the death penalty. Sylvia has written about several talks given at the conference, which she has given me permission to re-post. I begin with this one because of a personal connection:

I met Susannah Sheffer the other month when I began a new part-time job at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens, a community-based education center for teens seeking to pursue their own learning path outside traditional channels. I noticed that Susannah was offering a weekly class called "Harm and Punishment" which smacked of restorative approaches. When I asked her about it she said that she'd presented at Halifax. I said I'd thought I'd come across Sylvia Clute's post about her work, and we've been having conversations about restorative justice and restorative practices ever since.

But beyond the personal connection, I think this piece provides real food for thought in terms of thinking about the entire community that has been affected by wrongdoing and harm. Including all affected parties - and therefore first being aware of who they might be - is such an crucial component to effective restorative practice.


 

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 habeas corpus 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.

What can be done about this? If we recognize the family members of the executed as victims, how will we define the framework for meeting their needs; is it state violence, a human rights violation, a murder? Who should provide counseling: school counselors, therapists, victim rights advocates, human rights activists?

Long briefly described what it is like to handle a couple of rounds of habeas corpus appeals. A direct appeal attorney reviews the trial transcript. The habeas lawyer looks for errors that are mainly located outside the transcript, for example ineffective assistance of trial counsel or state misconduct. Sometimes the case may be re-investigated for innocence. If a stay of execution is secured, sometimes even a few months later the execution may nonetheless proceed.

As the attorney charged with trying to stop the execution, he developed a sense of responsibility to prevent it. While he intellectually knew that his client’s death was not his fault, Long described it like seeing someone tied to the railroad tracks when the train is coming, and being powerless to stop it. Sometimes he spent the last hours before the execution with family members: a hysterical mother, a sobbing brother. After an execution he sometimes experienced nightmares or panic, feeling like the bedroom door was locked and he couldn’t get out.

Sheffer described signs of recurring trauma that she had found in defense attorneys she had interviewed:  hyper arousal, insomnia, depression, panic upon seeing a film depicting an execution, or periods of disassociation when they couldn’t be around people, even their friends. Even when such symptoms subside, she said, attorneys reported "an abiding sadness that never goes away."

Sheffer has interviewed 20 post-conviction attorneys who had lost at least one client to execution, and described this as unexplored territory - they are suffering in ways that haven't yet been attended to. These attorneys are expected to continue to practice law right away, and many do, but they may remain traumatized for months after the client is executed. Many do not recognize the trauma they have experienced - another unrecognized victim of state executions.

The position of MVFHR is that the death penalty is a human rights violation. Articles 3 and 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights protect the right to life, and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane, or degrading punishment or treatment. They assert that human rights supercede government policies, and thus, the death penalty should be abolished by all nations.

 

Sylvia Clute's Web Site: sylviaclute.com