In the contentious death penalty debate, they are a group that often goes overlooked.
Family members of the condemned haven’t committed the crimes that landed their loved ones on death row. But they often feel punished anyway, by a society that sometimes shuns and vilifies them, by a grief that few understand.
Their unique experiences are detailed in the report “Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind,” by Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. The antideath penalty organization in Cambridge, Mass., is made up of families of murder victims and families of the executed.
“These are victims, too,” said Susannah Sheffer, co author of the report, which is based on interviews with 36 relatives of executed inmates across the nation. “These people exist, they are harmed and we need to address that harm.”
Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, more than 1,000 people have been executed in the United States.
There has been little research conducted on the effects executions have on families of the condemned. But a few who have studied the issue agree that such families face distinct challenges. Some attempt suicide. Others lose their jobs. Most feel isolated by their grief.
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The social stigmas family members of the condemned face can be severe, said sociologist Susan Sharp, author of “Hidden Victims,” a book that examines the impact of capital punishment on families of those facing execution. She found family members who had been threatened, lost jobs, had their tires slashed — one woman even told Sharp her pets were killed by others who blamed her for her relative’s crime.
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Robert Meeropol was 6 years old when his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 after being convicted of conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. He has dealt with his grief by becoming an activist and serving as a voice for children of the condemned.
“This had a profound affect on my life,” said Meeropol, 59, of Easthampton, Mass. “It left me with a kind of suppressed rage and anger about what happened that didn’t really have an outlet.”
Young people who lose a parent to execution have the additional challenge of trying to comprehend what has happened, Meeropol said.
“I knew something terribly wrong was happening, and I knew that somehow it involved my parents, and I knew that it could get worse — and I didn’t really understand what it was,” he said.
Sheffer hopes the report will get people thinking about these families. At the very least, she said, they should be offered assistance to help them deal with their grief.