Invisible Victims, Hidden Pain: The Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of Offenders

Susan F. Sharp, University of Oklahoma

America is obsessed with murder, as evidenced by headlines such as a recent one proclaiming, "Killings Increase In Many Big Cities" (Butterfield, 2001). This fascination with murder is somewhat difficult to understand given the reality that murders accounted for only 0.1% of the Index Crimes in the year 2000 (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2000:5). Nonetheless, we are obsessed with murder. We love to be afraid, and we love to hate offenders. Indeed, Americans appear to want the media to help the average citizen distance her- or himself from victims and offenders alike. As one journalist stated, "Crime reports are cathartic; we feel relief that the victim and offender are not like us." For obvious reasons, we do not want to be like the victim, who has suffered or is dead. We also do not want to be like the offender, who is seen as possessing some degree of "other-ness," to be somehow less fully human, particularly when the crime is murder. When the offender is seen as "other," it becomes far easier to sentence that offender to death. Not only does the offender become defined as "other,' but the family members of the offender may be seen as having "Otherness by association." In the current paper, I present a typology of family members based on their reactions to the strains of dealing with a relative facing capital punishment, including this sense of "otherness." According to recent statistics, 6,588 men and women have been placed under a sentence of death since reinstatement of capital punishment under Gregg v. Georgia, (1976), with over 700 executions carried out at the time of the writing of this paper. As of December 31, 2000, the number of prisoners on death row was 3,593 (54 women and 3,539 men). In 2000, 85 inmates were executed, and in 2001 another 66 were executed. (Snell 2001). These numbers exclude those who were charged with a capital offense but for some reason - plea bargain, acquittal or lesser sentence - were never sentenced to death. It is imperative that we remember that those facing or under a sentence of death do not exist in a vacuum. They are someone's brother or sister, mother or father, daughter or son, friend. Thus, our system of capital punishment creates stress, hardship and pain for persons other than those accused of a capital crime. Furthermore, the hardships occur whether or not the offender is executed. The question this project seeks to address is how America's focus on murder and the concomitant response of capital punishment affect the families of those accused as well as those convicted and sentenced to death. In particular, this paper seeks to examine the problems faced by these family members, how they respond, and how their responses are shaped by social history, social placement and social support. The question arises, why study the families of persons facing a death sentence? First, they are a small group, as we have seen. Murder itself is an infrequent crime, and the death penalty is sought in only a small fraction of all murders. Second, the families of murder victims are seen as less culpable than families of those facing potential execution. Violent offenders frequently come from horrific backgrounds, fraught with abuse and neglect (Haney 1998; Lewis et al. 1988). Thus, the families of those accused of a capital crime are not only guilty by association, but they may be viewed as guilty in their own right. I suggest that as long as America maintains a system of capital punishment it is important to assess the costs of that system, both economic and social.

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Updated 05/20/2006