I felt such a sense of horror when I read about a 14-year old girl who petitioned the state of Missouri asking them not to execute her father for the gruesome murder of her mother and sister. Her petition was turned down, and the state executed Richard Strong this week. The state willfully orphaned her, saying that this is what “justice” looked like, with the vocal support of some of her relatives.
It’s like a scene from some movie about a king or queen executing a peasant to show how powerful he is, and a child begging for mercy to no avail. Except that this is real.
This happened in the form of legal briefs and lethal injections, so it may seem sanitized and “civilized.” But just because you can justify killing someone (no one disagrees that he committed two gruesome murders), it doesn’t erase the reality: the state of Missouri forced a child to beg for her father’s life, and then the state turned her down.
This is something that supporters of the death penalty willfully ignore: every person we execute is part of a family. Every executed person is someone’s child or sibling or parent. They are someone’s cousin or they have nieces and nephews. They are connected to other human beings, maybe only the people they met while incarcerated, but connected nonetheless.
You can justify killing someone by saying that the person to be executed did something heinous – but how can you justify the punishment delivered to their family and loved ones? What justifies the pain we inflict on family members when we carry out an execution? Is it the “satisfaction” that family members of murder victims sometimes say they want? But the state is not a “hitman” hired on their behalf – and a system that provided long-term support to family members of murder victims and worked out actual restitution plans would likely be more satisfying.
Since losing my own brother to murder 30 years ago (in circumstances that some people still seek to justify), I have had the chance to talk and listen to many other family members of murder victims.
I have seen that there are many differences in circumstance between people who are killed deliberately by individuals acting on their own, and people deliberately killed because they have been judged in a courtroom to be guilty of a capital crime.
But there are fewer differences than you might think between family members of murder victims and family members of the executed. Most importantly: our hearts are broken.
Our hearts are broken because we have experienced the consequences of someone’s decision to take a permanent action — the act of killing another human being.
Our hearts are broken because someone forgot that our loved one could’ve actually gone on to do great things, to have loving relationships, or to remain an active part of our family.
Many murders involve judgments by someone that the person being killed “doesn’t deserve to live.” When you say that about a person executed by the state, you are saying the same thing that people have told some of us family members of murder victims. Don’t assume that you are correct in judging our loved one, or that we are wrong because we continue to see our loved ones’ potential for good.
To that brave young girl, or any family member of an executed person, all I can say is that I have some small glimpse of your grief from my own experience grieving my brother. In my listening to other family members of murder victims over the years, here’s what I’ve observed:
At some point, many of us adjust to a “new normal” without our loved ones–because we have to. At some point, we wake up in the morning and we know there is no chance we will see our loved one’s face again. We know that there is no chance to tell them about some great new thing happened. Our life has to expand so that it can have joy in it again, even though we will never get to share that joy with them. Every new milestone in our lives is a reminder of what has been taken from them, milestones they will never have. And we know that there is an actual person who is responsible for our loss. It is heartbreaking and infuriating and many other things.
For myself, I have found a grudging acceptance of being in this world without my brother. And I get to decide how his murder shapes me. It can make me as bitter as I wish, or as compassionate.
Because now I know what happens when people make permanent decisions — like killing someone — from hatred, judgment and anger.
Now I know how important it is to take the long view before we act on fear, anger or vengeance. Because I of all people know intimately that killing someone is permanent, and once done, can never be undone. No matter what stories people tell themselves about how it was justified because of their anger – however righteous – killing another human being has consequences for their loved ones that you can try to overlook, but they’re not less real.
All of us who have experienced the deliberate killing of someone we love have important things in common, and I will not forget that nor lose sight of it. This is yet another reason why we need to end the death penalty and stop executing people, and focus instead on providing a strong long-term network of support to family members of murder victims.
If you want to support an organization that brings together family members of murder victims and family members of the executed for mutual support and activism, here are a couple:
My brother Edward Pimental was one of three Americans killed in an attack on the US Airbase at Rhein-Main in 1985 when he was 20 years old. He was murdered in Germany, where there is no death penalty.
Image from MO Dept of Corrections