Community Voices: Reflections on Love, Loss, and the Death Penalty by a Murder Victim’s Family Member

Victims of violent crime, children in particular, are rarely provided with meaningful opportunities to be heard. I, on the other hand, was placed on the stand when I could just barely see above the bar and across the gallery. I was asked to share my thoughts on my mother’s murder as well as what I considered to be the proper administration of justice.

“All I think is that what the bad man did to my mom should happen to him. It’s really sad for our family ‘cause she was the greatest mother I’ve met,” I said.

While I acknowledge that my statement might seem naïve given the realities of our justice system in practice, I can still sympathize with my previous ignorance. My mother is still the greatest I’ve ever known, and I am still plagued by sadness when I think about the way she left this world.

What I would like others to know, however, is that I retract the blessing I gave to those who once seemed so eager to cast stones in my name. Having been scarred by personal experience, and having witnessed the wounding of others, sometimes as a result of my own actions, my faith now resides in the law of love alone. No, I have not gone as soft as those words sound. I am still angry, perhaps angrier than ever before. The difference now is that my anger is not adversarial.

I am not innocent. I acknowledge that I, as a child, participated in a process that led to the sentencing of another person to death, and I will raise my hand for indictment should the state-sanctioned homicide ever take place.

I was raised in a culture of violence that seems to have lost faith in the capacity of people to treat each other with genuine compassion. In the charged atmosphere that surrounded my mother’s death I lacked the emotional and moral insulation that would have helped me to resist the influence of a system that was eager to crown me with compensation.

In spite of all the struggle to secure a sentence of death, and after an insufferable amount of time spent on “death watch,” in what I can only describe as a place of purgatory, it is unlikely that the state of California (where the conviction occurred) will even perform the operation as promised. Unlike many staunch abolitionists, I take little solace in the direction that states like California are moving. To provide an explanation for my lack of enthusiasm is beyond the scope of this statement. Let it suffice to say that I believe there is more to a life than the way in which it is lost— this certainly applies in the case of my mother.

While I am delighted that we are starting to question whether we have the right to kill people, I am troubled by the thought that this is as far as the discussion will take us. True, tragedy will not be “remedied in terms of restoration,” but so long as we allow the causes of crime to go unexamined and deny both victims and offenders the opportunities, should they desire, to be reconciled— violence, in its many manifestations, will continue to metastasize.

Many are quite satisfied with the status quo. I myself am utterly convinced that the criminal justice system, and the death penalty in particular, is an “arbitrary and capricious” institution that targets those most trapped in cycles of disparity—first as victims and then as victimizers. Yes, real people who made real choices have committed unspeakable crimes and they need to be held responsible. But can anyone expect a perpetrator to reckon with his or her act in a meaningful way when we withhold the very thing that fosters transformation— that is, humanity, and the hope that one might learn to walk uprightly?

I was wrong. There is not a life or a limb in this world that can replace the ones I have lost. My mother’s sight was sacred and, even if what I desired was an eye for an eye, I know I could never hope for more than 20/20 vision. Despite its extraordinary capacity for bias, I have doubts, untempered by contradiction, that the criminal-justice system is sensitive enough to appreciate the subtle qualities that endear one person to another. My mother had green eyes, one of which was lazy. Her murder’s eyes are blue. If I allow this cycle to continue, what color will my justice be?

– Clifford O’Sullivan, Jr., Nashville, Tennessee



About rethinkingprisons

Art, philosophy and activism from Tennessee's death row
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