Relatives of prisoners sentenced to death

In debates about the death penalty, the family members of death row inmates and the impact of a death sentence on them seem too often forgotten.

Impact of death sentences on family members

Having a family member on death row places an enormous burden on the entire family. Several factors exacerbate this. For example, most death rows in the U.S. allow only non-contact visits: mothers can no longer hug their sons, wives can only see their husbands through glass, and children can no longer touch their mother or father. According to renowned psychiatrist Karl Menninger, such visits are unnecessarily harmful.

Trauerndes Kind
Kids Against the Death Penalty beim Weltkongress gegen die Todesstrafe in Genf
Kids Against the Death Penalty at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva

Dealing with the act of a loved one is already not easy. This burden is exacerbated by the number and scale of trials, some of which are endless.

Often, family members of perpetrators are met with scrutinizing stares and demeaning comments as they leave the courtroom. The public and news press are rarely “friendly” to death row inmates or their families. Family members sometimes suffer the most from this behavior.

In addition, suspicious eyeing by neighbors often follows, and children are often rejected and ridiculed by their classmates.

They have to endure their fathers (more rarely: mothers) being declared “monsters” in the headlines, family members sometimes lose their jobs, and families break apart because they cannot withstand the stress in the long run.

Family members often know the exact date of death months in advance

These families must also endure knowing the exact date of their loved one’s death. In many cases, they know about the execution weeks or months in advance, including the exact time. All of this increases the stress and strain, which reach unbearable levels. Family members are especially likely to suffer from depression and anxiety during this time. They often feel hopeless and suffer from many other psychological problems. In many cases, the family has to cope without the main breadwinner during incarceration and after execution.

Witnessing an execution can be a grisly experience in itself. The impact on individual family members can be devastating. Often, people suffer from the experience for the rest of their lives.

There is no help for such families from the state. Any help must therefore come from the family itself.

In some cases, church congregations help. Often the families cannot afford even privately paid psychological assistance. Most of society is simply not interested in the burden these families face. They become victims themselves, but instead of being caught by society, it often even seems to hold them responsible for what has happened.

Relatives of those sentenced to death are also victims

The organization ‘Murder Victim’s Families for Human Rights’ also sees the families of death row inmates as victims. For this reason, they created the project “No silence, no shame” to draw public attention to the enormous suffering that the death penalty brings to the families of death row inmates.

When these effects are considered as a whole, it is concluded that the families of death row inmates face the same stress as the death row inmates themselves, in all countries that still practice the death penalty.

In countries such as Japan, Belarus or China, families are often not even informed of the impending execution of their loved ones. In some countries, family members only learn of the execution when they are ordered to pick up the body.

Families are left in the dark about whether their loved one is still alive or may have been executed months earlier.

Sometimes the families of the perpetrators even have to pay the cost of the execution themselves, which means that in some cases a bill arriving at the house is the first piece of information about the death of a loved one.

Witness account by a relative

The execution of Troy Kunkle: Report of his wife

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court had twice halted the execution of Troy Albert Kunkle at the last moment, most recently with a 5-4 decision on Nov. 17. In its November decision, the Supreme Court had conceded that executing Kunkle was unconstitutional for failing to adequately consider mitigating circumstances, but shortly thereafter declared itself without jurisdiction.

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In 2019, the World Day Against the Death Penalty focused on the children of prisoners sentenced to death. The German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty created a video (see below) and collected further contributions and sources in a website!