Community Voices: Dr. Ann Charvat on the Trauma of Execution for Family and Friends of the Executed

When I look at the faces of the young people who were killed by Paul Dennis Reid I cannot help but cry.  He stole their innocence, and the innocence of my children.  He ruined so many lives.  He contaminated the idea of first jobs for high school students, honest work for young families, humbling one’s self to bring home a paycheck.  Instead, we had to worry about letting our children out of our sights.

When I see these faces, theirs and his, I am filled with intense anger. These young people were defenseless.  No amount of training could have saved them. This man wanted money that was not his, and they stood in his way. Insanity.  There is no other explanation.

And yet, out response appears to be equally insane.  We want to kill the killer.  We want justice, and we don’t seem to care about what it costs or how we get it.  We want justice, and even though few of us would consider that it belongs to us any more than that money belonged to Mr. Reid, we don’t want anyone to stand in our way.

Looking into the faces of these beautiful innocent people, the notion that justice could be found anywhere escapes me.  Perhaps in the hereafter, but nothing man made will ever bring justice for the unadulterated insanity of these deaths.

Following a period of four years without an execution in Tennessee, death row once more moves to the top of the heap as we prepare to execute another insane man, Billy Ray Irick.  His history of mental illness is indisputable, but has somehow been legally separated from the explanation of his crime.  Another child was killed; one who had inexplicably been left in the care of a man with a long history of mental illness.

I would argue that insanity is the only explanation for all these crimes.  Further, I would argue that our response, the state killing the killers, demonstrates an equal degree of insanity.  None of these victims would have been spared if their killers knew they would face certain death when apprehended.  Our death penalty simply expands the pool of victims.

Incarceration offers us the ability to protect future victims of offenders.  We can watch them, monitor their actions, and enforce sanctions when behaviors move in questionable directions.  We can take away a myriad of human rights and we can literally ensure the public safety.  Execution, on the other hand, provides no genuine social benefit.  It reinforces a false sense of security at an incredible price.

Today, mental illness runs rampant and fewer and fewer interventions exist for successful treatment.  Those who will be most vulnerable to the trauma a new execution will produce will be families of those who have loved ones incarcerated or working with the prison, children, and, of course, the mentally ill.   The rest of us will divert our attention.  These folks, like the very sick people who find themselves in situations where killing makes sense, will have a harder time doing that.

Laws change. It is time for this law to change.

Dr. Ann Charvat is a certified sociological practitioner in Nashville, Tennessee, who has worked on the social histories of more than 100 defendants facing death sentences.


About rethinkingprisons

Art, philosophy and activism from Tennessee's death row
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