My sister’s tragic death may have been years ago but the memories of the journey of finding her deceased and the process that follow would be a lifelong enduring process of revealing grief. Grief is a can of worms that affect many people differently when ones loved one passes by murder. When Jessica died, it didn’t just open a can of worms but blew the whole lid off the can.
As yet another person died by the death penalty recently in America, I am filled with despair. Our current president made a pledge to end the death penalty here in America earlier this year… but yet several people have still died with this American regaled testament of heightened anger called capital punishment.
When you’re the sibling of someone whose killer, if in another state, could have been potentially eligible to receive the death penalty for their crime, the news of folks receiving the death penalty has a heavy effect on you. The discussions about this topic among families are notably terse.
Grief is a web of emotions from sadness, shock, emptiness, and, I would quickly see, vengeance appear repeatedly throughout my family’s personal discussions … and lack of discussions. One relative spoke in disappointment of how the death penalty was available in their state but not in the one that my sister had been murdered in. One family member said that he would do what he could to “make some calls” to ensure that my brother-in-law did not have a comfortable stay since the death penalty wasn’t an option. There would be several of these types of dialogue occurring in my family. Pleas bidding empathy would be met with silence. I was viewed unfavorably when I dared say that I was thankful that it wasn’t on the table.
Some folks think that when the killer of their loved one receives sentencing that a weight is lifted because justice is being served. My family was so upset about my lack of vengeance for my brother-in-law that they did what they could to attempt to block my victim’s statement. My commentary was not to be welcomed. They believed that I had no business saying anything although Illinois law where my brother-in-law was sentenced stated that I did.
Grief affects people differently and the sentencing of my brother-in-law would be emblematic of that. It was filled with a lot of understandable emotion. I understand that my family was upset about what he did to my sister. I do not support what he did in any way. My family, however, failed to see this as understanding. They were too caught up then, and are still caught up now.
The ultimate sentencing that my brother-in-law received was considerable, even if it wasn’t the death penalty. My brother-in-law received a sentence which, although it was not a life sentence, may as well have been. He was in his mid-thirties when he received his forty-five-year sentence. He has lots of time to think about what he did. So does the family. I’d hoped that with this, that my family would someday perhaps cease the vengeance they held in the time before the sentencing. I would be wrong.
When the pandemic hit I immediately thought of my brother-in-law. Our carceral system is rife with problems – problems that I believe potentially drove my brother-in-law to do what he did – and one element of that is a societal disregard and lack of care for people who are incarcerated. During the onset of the virus, many incarcerated folks were being left to die in facilities. I found this to be horrible and wrong despite what my brother-in-law had done. I called the facility he was housed at to try to verify that he was alright. My family was tremendously upset at this. How dare I care about this human being who did what he did? He should have gotten the death penalty anyway. Who cares if he died in prison of the virus?
My brother-in-law’s crime might have made him less of a person to some, but he did not stop being a person to me. As we see others who face our carceral system I bid others consider how much this “thoughtful” version of vengeance does not serve anyone. It doesn’t bring our loved ones back. It doesn’t change the ineffectiveness of this system.
The death penalty is not what we need to deter crimes. What is needed is a complete overhaul of our outlook at why folks who either commit or are innocent and who are accused of crimes (another major downfall of the death penalty) get to where they are in the first place. People are still people. They need services and programs to assist them in their lifetimes inside and outside of the system. That is the route that we need to approach. It is the thing that will literally save lives.
As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Our incarcerated neighbors deserve love and kindness even after a dark moment. This is not because we approve of what they have done but because we should all desire empathy and care for the world to be better for all of us. Our loved ones might not be here to urge us to kindness but their memory deserves that far more than vengeance ever will.
The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.