Earlier today we shared an essay by Elizabeth Beck, one of the authors of In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families. Beck has been kind enough to answer a few questions for OUP about her experiences with death row inmates and their families.
OUP: Do you think there is a theme that ties the defendants on death row together, other than their alleged crimes?
Elizabeth Beck: Yes, I have intimate knowledge of the psychosocial background of close to 20 capital defendants. I often say that the murders can almost be viewed as a logical occurrence to psychosocial histories riddled with mental health and family backgrounds that lined up in an unique and devastating confluence.
For example, the book examines two men who killed their fathers. These boys grew up in homes where there fathers beat them, locked them out of the house, and shot at their feet. When each of them kills their father it is predictable, not only because their father brutalized them, but because the violence imposed on them by their father was compounded by layers of additional factors such as bullying in school, police not taking their fathers violence seriously, ineffective child protective services, and others. In each of the cases there was a precipitating factor to the actual murder. As a member of society, I find this rather comforting because it means that people don’t just tend to “snap” and kill others. It also means that murder is preventable. In both of the cases the mothers wanted to leave. In one case when she tried to leave with the help of a neighbor the father shot and killed the neighbor, and received almost no prision time. In the other the father kidnapped her son when she did leave and she had no idea if her boy was alive or dead for three weeks. She then determined that it was emotionally easier for her and safer for her son to stay. We as a society should never have let that happened, and had we not others would be alive.
OUP: What do you mean when you say the psychosocial history of defendants holds the key to crime prevention?
Beck: If you look at the example above, it shows that at the time in which these men were growing up women did not have access to domestic violence services, especially in the rural areas where these families lived and that child protective services missed important clues even though people in both of these boys’ towns were afraid of their fathers. Also, as a child, one of the men did poorly in school and still no one intervened to get to know him and find out what his home life was like. These psychosocial histories show that we must do more to make sure that our systems designed to support the physical and mental health of children and adults are doing that, and children are growing up in environments in which they are not brutalized and are getting their basic needs met. If not we as a society will feel reverberation, it may not be murder but it will be a reverberation.
I have heard Steve Earle, the author of the book’s foreword say that he is against the death penalty because when the state kills someone he, as a member of a democracy, has played a role in that execution and that is not palatable to him. The more time I spend with defendants the more I believe that when a person is murdered by an individual who was failed miserably, we as a society bear some of the responsibility.
OUP: How did you first get involved with family members of death row defendants?
Beck: I started consulting on capital cases and saw their pain. Once I realized the profound nature of that pain it became startling to me that here was a population so intimately affected, and yet they were entirely left out of capital punishment discourse. Consequently their needs for services and support were ignored and they were excluded from the debate regarding capital punishment. As a social worker our job is to identify needs, take on unpopular populations and causes, and bring important voices into the public eye. So I suspect in some ways, once I saw the pain, I really had no other choice.
OUP: What do you wish the public understood about death row families?
Beck: First, that they did nothing wrong, and I am confident that most would like me to add that despite this they are blamed and punished. Many are blamed by their communities, some are shunned by their churches, and all feel abused by the criminal justice system
The combination of their worry for their family member, their own experiences of punishment, and feelings of guilt or shame, result in feelings of intense pain. Their pain is real, profound, and has affects on their own lives and health as well as the lives and health of their families and communities. Their pain occurs against a backdrop of silence and isolation.
The experience of having a loved one on death row is unique. I recently read a book that explored the emotional consequences of having a family member in prison. Because the book was written in England the author did not have to contend with the death penalty, and basically what she said is that after several years, about three, the families stabilize and move forward. This is not the case for many death row family members. These individuals live multiple years in suspended animation and then, all too often, faced their most dreaded fear.
OUP: What alternatives are there to the death penalty that might be more productive for society to invest in?
Beck: Basically for murder or other capital offenses such as terrorism there really is only two choices– prison or the death penalty. While there is a lot of literature about the death penalty, its costs, biases, and deterrent effect, I think it comes down to asking what can be gained if there was not a death penalty, and Colorado, for example, has developed an interesting answer. Given that death penalty trials are expensive, there has been a move in the state legislature to abolish the death penalty and to use that money to solving cold cases, a move largely supported by family members who lost a loved one to homicide.
There are many useful ways in which money could be diverted, and if that were to occur I believe that family member who lost a loved one to homicide should be a part of determining those usages.