The death chamber of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. Photo: Press Association/Eric Risberg.
Thank God, I’ve never had a child murdered. I hope I never do, and I hope that nobody else ever does. But tragically this is an occasional feature of our world, and of the people I’ve met who have lost children, the overwhelming sense I get is that it never leaves them. They learn to ‘live around it’, but they never ‘get over it’. And nothing, short of the impossible ask of bringing the child back, can ever fix it.
Which is just one of the reasons why the call by UKIP leader Paul Nuttall for the death penalty for child killers is wrong. Execution doesn’t take away the pain and it doesn’t provide closure. Speak to families of murder victims in the USA and, while different families want different things, one consistent thing is that the wrongs are not righted by killing a killer, even if justice is said to be done. For families who hoped it would be the end of their ordeal, the aftermath of execution can be bitter new stage of grief.
Many of the arguments about the death penalty have been repeated time and time again; prominent among them is the question of innocence. No justice system gets it right all the time, but you can’t release someone from death the way you can release them from prison. Indeed, of the three controversial cases that helped to end the death penalty in the UK, two of them involved men (Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley) whose were later found to be innocent, while in America, for every ten people executed since the 1970s (when new safeguards were put in place), one person has been exonerated. Less mentioned, but crucial for any victim-centred approach to the issue, is that wrongful executions mean the victim’s family will also have to live knowing that an innocent person died in the name of their loved one.
A central consideration of any issue of criminal justice, in fact of any issue full stop, should be: “What will do the most good and the least harm going forward, given where we are now?” The death penalty is not the least harmful response to murder, because of all the people it affects. The ripples spread far wider than just the killer, the victim and the victim’s family.
If you execute a child killer, then clearly somebody has to do the execution, but that also means someone has to carry the weight of doing it, of putting a fellow human to death. While there are some executioners who cope with their job (usually by focusing on it as ‘just a job’ that they try to do well), others do not. One former executioner in Kazakhstan, who was ‘initially chosen as an executioner because of his strong psychological coping capacity, reported frequent nightmares and deterioration into “a lonely and secluded life”’. American prison staff have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of their role in executions, while in Indonesia, prison guards who participate in executions get three days of mandatory spiritual guidance and psychological assistance afterwards, to help them deal with it. Prison systems come up with ways to try to stop people feeling like it was ‘their fault’: in Japan, three different staff press identical buttons to hang the prisoner, but only one button is live and they never find out ‘who did it’; in the USA, this diffusion of responsibility goes even further, with guards given apparently trivially small tasks such as tying down one leg of the prisoner to the lethal injection gurney. But when you have to work so hard to make something okay, maybe that’s a sign that it’s not okay.
Lawyers are also affected; as one from India put it in a report by Penal Reform International:
“I specialise in end-stage death cases … I dread these cases, and shudder every time a new one comes my way. Having taken it on, I feel I am living with a coffin tied to my back. It takes over my life, dominates my thoughts during the day, corrupts all pleasure and invades my dreams at night. I habitually have nightmares of executions, some of which I imagine are taking place in my apartment or just on the ledge outside the balcony where a scaffold has been erected, and the prisoner is being dropped from the balcony ledge with a rope tied to his neck. While preparing the case, I sometimes get so afraid that I am unable to work, and have to curl up under a blanket and go to sleep. Alcohol has a soothing effect on my nerves, and I have to stop myself from having more than one drink in the evening, or beginning the day with a gin and tonic. Ever since I started doing this work, people have been telling me that I age six years in six months.”
And then there is also the other family: the family and children of the person sentenced to death. Speaking to these children and the people who work with them, you get a sense of a group who are themselves innocent of a crime but suffer because of the crimes of others. They are traumatised, by the crime, by the death sentence and (if it happens) by the execution; they face the stigma of being related to a killer, which can remain long after the execution; and they have to live knowing that their parent will be put to death, and while they often recognise that the parent has done wrong, they still love them and would rather the parent was alive, even if in prison. When the child is related to both the killer and the victim (such as when the mother kills the father), it becomes even harder. A parental death sentence stays with a child for their whole life.
Unsurprisingly, people want the harshest sentence for the worst crimes. But that doesn’t mean the sentence should be as harsh as you can possibly imagine. We don’t need to kill to show how much we disapprove or how sad we are that a child has died. We should be asking for sentences that allow something better to come out of a horrible, tragic situation. We cannot undo what has already happened, but we can work to make a better future, to try to ensure there are no more crimes and no more victims.
(Oliver Robertson is a Quaker working on issues of peace and human rights. He specialises in criminal justice matters, particularly the death penalty and children of prisoners, and on climate change).
This story was first published on openDemocracy.