The Impact of Capital Punishment on Families of Defendants and Murder Victims' Family Members

By King, Rachel | Judicature, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Capital Punishment on Families of Defendants and Murder Victims' Family Members


King, Rachel, Judicature


The families of both murder victims and defendants are adversely affected by the death penalty.

I have spent much of the past decade immersed in the study of how capital punishment impacts those most directly affected by it. In 1996, I began interviewing and photographing family members of murder victims and family members of the condemned. While I was predisposed to oppose capital punishment before I began this project, seeing how the process made the families suffer turned my intellectual opposition into a calling to work to end the practice.

There are many ways in which the death penalty harms families. For the murder victims' family members, the death penalty establishes a hierarchy of victims where some lives are valued more than others. It turns family members against each other. It creates a class of "good" victims and "bad" victims. The families of the condemned are traumatized by the process and feel ostracized and alienated as they watch their government systematically prepare to kill their loved one. They feel as if their entire community has turned against them. And worst of all, the death penalty teaches people, especially children, that killing is an acceptable way to solve problems.

Hierarchy of victims and offenders

Bill Pelke's beloved grandmother Ruth was stabbed to death by four teenaged girls who went to her home under the guise of wanting to take Bible lessons, but with the intention of robbing her to get money to play video games. The girls stabbed Ruth 64 times, so vigorously that her body was literally pinned to the dining room carpet. The girls were all under the age of 18. The state only sought the death penalty for 15-year-old Paula Cooper, believing her to be the ringleader. Paula pleaded guilty to the crime without any promises or deals from the state and was sentenced to death, making her, at that time, the youngest female on death row in the United States.1 Paula Cooper was African American and poor.

Initially, Bill supported capital punishment. He and his family wanted all of the girls to be sentenced to death, especially Paula Cooper. They sat in the court room watching as the judge pronounced the death sentence on Paula. When asked his opinion on the sentence, Bill remarked that it wouldn't bring his grandmother back, but he felt that it was a fair sentence. Bill felt that as long as there was a death penalty then whoever killed his grandmother should get the punishment. If his grandmother's killer did not get the death sentence, the Pelkes believed that meant that Ruth Pelke's life wasn't as valuable as others.2

As long as there is a death penalty, it is natural that families will feel that their loved one's killer should get the most severe punishment. However, not all criminal cases receive the same level of treatment. Most homicides are not even solved. Anne Coleman's 19-year-old, AfricanAmerican daughter was murdered in her car in Los Angeles. No one was ever charged with the crime. Authorities told Anne that there were dozens of homicides in the city every week and they couldn't possibly solve all of them. Anne felt that her daughter's life was not valuable enough for authorities to put the resources into solving the crime.

In other cases, it is baffling to try to figure out why one offender is sentenced to death and another is not. A particularly disturbing example of this was the case of Manny Babbitt, who was executed by the state of California in 1999. Manny grew up the child of immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands who worked in the cranberry bogs on Cape Cod. He dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Marines where he was sent into active combat in Viet Nam.

After returning from the war, Manny started acting strangely. He was dishonorably discharged and after repeated instances of bizarre, and at times, violent, behavior, he ended up at the infamous Bridgewater State Hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia.3

After his release, without any treatment plan, the family decided to move Manny to California to live with his brother Bill and his wife, Linda. …

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