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Death Penalty Information

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Executions: creating more victims
Executions Create Generations of Victims

Mithre J. Sandrasagra
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 12 (IPS) - "They're going to kill him because he killed somebody, so when they kill him, who do we get to kill?" asked the 10-year-old daughter of Christina Lawson at the time of her father's execution by the U.S. state of Texas in 2005.
State executions leave such children confused and traumatised -- and entire families, too. Some are so affected that they are driven to the brink of insanity, a groundbreaking report entitled "Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families left Behind" graphically illustrates.

It has been published by Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), a Massachusetts-based organisation representing the family members of the victims of murder and state executions.

"Families of the executed are victims too," the report stresses.

The pain of one group of survivors should not be redressed by causing pain to another group of survivors. Society needs to address the ! emotional and physical harm that is being done.

"We must stop creating more victims," Robert Cushing, executive director of MVFHR, told IPS.

"There are obviously similarities between the experiences of those left behind after an execution and those who have suffered other types of violent loss -- like dealing with grief and trauma," he said.

But there were also major differences, he said, pointing to findings from the 36 families MVFHR surveyed for its report.

The families of the executed suffered from "shame, increased isolation and feelings of personal failure". They might also feel responsible for the crimes of their relatives or blame themselves for their inability to save them from execution.

Janis Gay, whose grandfather Alex Kels was hanged at California's Folsom Prison in 1924, confirmed just this in an interview with IPS.

"People assume violence ends with the execution," she said. "It doesn't. Just like with any murder! , the family is shattered, with the added impact of being crushed by s hame."

Her mother's promising writing career was halted by depression. Her brother died of alcoholism. All contact with the families of her grandfather's seven brothers and sisters was cut off forever.

The trauma can be passed on from one generation to another.

Gay, a teacher, entered therapy in 1991. She says she is one of the fortunate few who could afford to pay for a psychotherapist to help her cope.

"It's impossible to find support," she said. "There's no one to talk to, no one who understands. Food is provided and therapists are on hand before and after an execution for the families of the victims of the executed. But there is nothing for the families of the executed."

The MVFHR report gives other examples of mental health problems within the families of the executed.

Misty McWee was 14 when she learned that her father had been charged with murder. She was 28 when her father was executed.

McWee suf! fered severe depression in the year following the execution, culminating in a hospitalisation after a suicide attempt near the one-year anniversary.

"It felt like the two things were connected, my father's execution and my cutting my wrists," she recalled to MVFHR's researchers. "I didn't care what happened to me. I felt like I should go be with him.

"Why couldn't we have had someone to help us through it?" she asked. "When we walked in the courtroom, people gave us dirty looks, just because we belonged to our father. You wonder, what did we as kids do to deserve this? There's so much you're trying to understand and it doesn't help to have people judging you. People look at it like the whole family must be bad."

Irene Cartwright, whose son Richard was executed in Texas in 2005, also required treatment for depression afterwards and is today taking anti-depressants.

"I wish people could understand that everyone who is executed had a mother and ! father, maybe brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends, whateve r, and that each one of those people have been hurt and impacted by the execution," he told researchers.

MVFHR's report concludes that the needs of the families of the executed have not just been ignored, they have never been truly comprehended.

"The problem is that survivors are not recognised as victims," Cushing told IPS. "There are no execution victim families' support groups, there are no counselling services available to children left behind. Nobody knows where they are, they lead anonymous lives."

MVFHR is now calling for more studies of their problems.

"We challenge the metal health community to recognise that these victims exist, to recognise the uniqueness of their experiences and to devise appropriate treatment alternatives for them," Cushing added.

MVFHR specifically recommends that the short and long-term psychological effects of an execution in the family be included in literature and training directed at social workers, ! clinical psychologists, trauma specialists, and others who might come in contact with such families.

It also calls on lawmakers to give equal legal recognition to families of the executed as the relatives of murder victims.

They should all have access to assistance and support. This should include financial help to pay for medical care, mental health counselling and funerals, Cushing said.

MVFHR breaks new ground by calling for the suffering of the families left behind after an execution to be squarely placed within a human rights framework rather than a criminal justice one. The victims' families deserve protection accorded by the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1985.

The Declaration defines victims as those who have "suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental r! ights".

These victims "should be treated with compassion and r espect for their dignity" and "receive the necessary material, medical, psychological and social assistance".

"Leadership must come from the U.N.," Cushing concludes. "This is an international human rights problem." (FIN/2007)
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