By Stephen Cooper
The death penalty victimizes the innocent children and family members of condemned men and women. These are citizens of this country who have committed no crime, and yet, because of capital punishment’s ignominious existence, they are punished too.
Their state-sanctioned suffering, one that Californians will be directly responsible for promoting if they vote for Proposition 66, is severe.
For the children, just think about it: they didn’t do a damn thing wrong except be born. And then, on an especially dark, dreary, and evil day, they’re being brought to prison to see their pa or ma one last time. And they’re in some sterile room, and everyone’s watching; the warden, the prison chaplain, the press, a gaggle of attorneys and guards, all of them are watching to see how these children of the condemned are going to carry it.
Are they going to cry? How are they holding up knowing the human race has decided the person they love (and who gave them life) is so damn defective that they must be cast out into the unfathomable, the ungodly, the unknown? What can they be thinking, some of them just toddlers? What possible chance for a happy/normal life can they have after watching society exterminate their father or mother (or other caregiver) like a parasite, a cancer, a plague?
On its website, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner observes: “There are few studies available which describe the experience of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or who have had one or both parents executed. From the available information, however, it is clear that children who have lost parents because of lengthy prison sentences or executions suffer deep and lasting grief and trauma.”
In remarks to a panel discussion on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to death or executed, Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, said: “The sentencing of a parent to the death penalty compromises the enjoyment of a wide spectrum of children’s rights.”
Associate Professor Sandra Jones of Rowan University explained to the panel, “[t]hese children feel terribly alone [and] tend to isolate themselves and suffer from internali[z]ed shame. Often these children feel they have to defend the parent in prison, and they live in fear waiting to hear they have been killed. These children typically have to deal with many psychological issues – depression, anxiety, [behavioral] problems and aggression. Many of them go on to become offenders.”
Of course, the children and family members of those who have been murdered are victims; that’s so obvious, no one needs to study the phenomenon. But, when as a society we chose to descend to the killer’s level by sanctioning the death penalty, we must acknowledge all of the dirty, nasty consequences, many of which can hardly be described (or swept under the rug) as “collateral.” Ms. Pais warned the assembled experts at the United Nations: “It is critical that the situation of children of parents facing the death penalty get the urgent attention and action required.”
In California, on November 8, just like the citizens of Nebraska and Oklahoma, we have an opportunity to forever put an end to the uncivilized, gruesome, state-sponsored spectacle of innocent children having to watch a parent be executed: Vote “No” on Proposition 66 and “Yes” on Proposition 62.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.