The Death Penalty’s Hidden Damage to the Family of the Executed

Guest Post by Susan Hudson McBride

It was April 19 of 2000 when Tennessee executed Robert Glen Coe. That date stands out for me the way a birthday or holiday does. Robert’s family had been driving over to see him as often as they could manage. Each time they came a small group of friends would meet them at a local restaurant allowing them to debrief. This family, Billie Jean, Bonnie, Jimmy, and Frances, would stand by Robert until the drugs that snuffed out his life were administered. And when Robert was gone they would be left behind to grieve and maintain a picture of him as a beloved brother who was set up from childhood to walk a dark path.

It was forty years since the state had executed anyone and they chose a man who was so mentally ill he was given several medications to keep him as close to sane as drugs could do. Robert was different every time someone saw him. He could be thoughtful, terribly funny at times, and then turn on a dime into an angry, difficult being. His affect said there was something not quite right with him. His sisters had seen him horrifically abused by their father. When their father would rape one of the sisters Robert would try to stop it, but he was too small. The father would turn on Robert body slamming his head into walls and throwing him into a fast flowing creek near their house before he knew how to swim. At school he was called names and bullied. When the legal team requested mercy, the poverty, abuse, and lack of local resources and intervention for this family would not be enough for the governor of Tennessee to question the insanity of Robert being strapped with a death sentence.

In 1999 the sabers began to rattle loud enough to get the machinery of death cranked up. Robert had been locked up since 1979 and for some reason the DA’s office needed Robert to die twenty years later. Robert was accused of killing an eight year old girl. Philip Workman’s name, right alongside Robert’s, was accused of killing a police officer in 1982. The deaths of a child and a police officer would reignite the anger of a public who knew little about the facts of either case. It became a media event.

Something happened in the minds and heart of people prior to Robert’s execution. They began to ask questions. Local activists, musicians, and videographers donated their time and expertise to get a message out that something wasn’t quite right. When Robert’s family came to town a core group of people began to hear their story that had not been mined when Robert went to trial. At a gathering of mental health experts one psychologist who had worked on the case said to me, “It’s really too bad he didn’t have a family.” How, I wondered, did a legal team manage to completely overlook a family? Clearly his trial attorneys had been entirely incompetent in their representation of Robert.

Once dates for an execution were set Robert’s family began to come over more often and spend weekends attempting to sort out what was about to happen. A growing number of locals would show up to wish them well. At a house on Acklen Avenue near Hillsboro Village it was not uncommon for there to be a living room full of people singing and eating together with the Coes. They were from a little backwoods town in west Tennessee and quite unused to this sort of attention. We all grew on one another.

One day the family was waiting on a call from Robert while Ann Charvat and I were working on funeral arrangements. Robert called me to the phone. He wanted to know, “What’s the cheapest way to bury me?” I’m aware I’m talking to a man who is in reasonably good physical health about his planned death. I tell him that it looks like cremation is the least costly. “Okay,” he said. “That’s what I want. I’m real worried that my family is gonna have a big price to pay and I want it to be as little as possible.” His concern turned to him being pleased when he learned that several local churches were covering the cost and his family would not have to carry any of the debt. A local funeral home contributed the entire service at their cost with no profit to anyone. It was an odd victory on the way to killing a man.

In spite of the intent by the state to heap up a hateful end to Robert’s life it was the kindness of friends and a few strangers who allowed him to die in relative peace. That the family would be the ones left to suffer fell on very deaf political ears. The forgiveness they have shown makes them all the more remarkable.

Robert’s family continues to reach out to family members of those facing state execution in Tennessee.

Susan Hudson McBride first considered the death penalty as an issue at eight years old when her mother took her on a field trip to see Alabama’s “Yellow Mama,” the state’s legendary electric chair. Since time she has been involved with prisons as an activist for thirty-six years and as part of death penalty legal teams for twelve of those years. In 1998 she began work with murder victims’ family members including the loved ones of those who had been executed. Presently she is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Their Little Psyches

Guest post by Victoria Bryan

“They’re so concerned about their little psyches that you’d think they’d be handing out make-up for free in there.”

These words have played over and over in my head. They were spat at me after telling someone very close to me (whom I love and respect a great deal and find to be a very kind person) about a conundrum I’ve noticed while teaching English in prison. My realization was that I am not asked to take off my make-up when I enter a men’s prison to teach, but that a friend of mine who teaches at a women’s prison in New Jersey has been handed a make-up removal cloth every time she walks through the door.

“Why?” this person asked me.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just one of the weird inconsistencies in the prison system. Maybe it’s another way to control the women who are incarcerated—I’m just not sure.”

“That seems so backwards. The men are the ones who are going to sexualize their teachers.”

I sidestepped this opportunity to point out that women can be attracted to women and that men aren’t the only people who possess a sense of sexuality, and instead explained, “The general rule I’ve picked up on is that conformity is key for the people who run these prisons. Take away individuality and people are easier to control.”

“But they’re so concerned about their little psyches that you’d think they’d be handing out make-up for free in there.”

There it was. This person hadn’t called incarcerated women stupid or selfish or inbred or any number of other demeaning and degrading insults I’ve heard hurled at the shocking numbers of female prisoners in our nation. She just spoke from her own perception, albeit with an unmistakeable air of disgust.

I think it was the disgust that upset me more than the misperception, but I’ve examined and re-examined both since this encounter. This educated, kind, loving person had expressed a common misperception of our incarceration system—one built on the assumption that any attempt to offer opportunities to incarcerated individuals is a free-ride not afforded to the good, law-abiding citizens on the outside. Built on the reductive mistruth that those who are incarcerated are the bad guys and those who aren’t have never broken a law and must be protected from the Others.

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51 Years: The New Life Without Parole

Guest blog by Parrhesia

Tennessee is drawing wide attention for its policies on the death penalty. Less well known is how barbaric our sentencing laws are in general. For instance in Tennessee, all penalties for First Degree Murder, even for juveniles sentenced as adults, are equivalent to a death sentence, whether a social death sentence or a physical one. In Tennessee, the only options are the death penalty, life without parole, or a life sentence requiring service of 51 to 60 calendar years. 51 years is impossible to do in practice. No one in Tennessee on record has ever served longer than about 45 years. Therefore, there is no possibility of release with a life sentence in Tennessee.

In 1989 a bill was passed which gave the criminal sentencing structure in Tennessee an overhaul. The 1989 Sentencing Reform Act established a rigid sentencing structure with ranges based on prior criminal history and a maximum sentence of 60 years for those repeatedly convicted of the most serious crimes. Even someone who committed the worst crimes could still be eligible for parole after a reasonably lengthy sentence served day for day, usually around 25 years, if they were first time offenders, the logic being that first time offenders when they are young may still be capable of total reform, and the parole board could decide the matter.

All was well after the 1989 Sentencing Reform Act. Legislators were confident they had modeled a system which would carry them into the future, especially with the war on drugs ramping up and the luring scent of federal money in the air.
In 1993 another bill was passed which required at least 25 years of a life sentence to be served before parole eligibility and for juries to have the option of life without parole for those hard cases where the death sentence is not in play.

And yet, that wasn’t far enough.

In 1995 in Tennessee, the legislature and the business interests walked in lock step to pass a “Truth In Sentencing” law. From that point forward, men and women who commit certain crimes on an arbitrarily composed list, regardless of past criminal history or any other mitigating factors, no longer have any chance of consideration for parole and at least 85% of the sentence must be served regardless of how many sentence credits (good behavior credits) the inmate receives. Some of the legislators who first discussed the bill on the floor spoke of the law as a “three strikes” law. They can be heard on the tape recordings of the sessions, available at the state archives located in downtown Nashville. In Tennessee, we threw out the last two strikes and decided it was best to impose the maximum possible sentence, even for first time offenders and juveniles, a major change in policy regarding the hope of rehabilitating an offender or salvaging his or her life in any way.

Our legislature made the policy decision to throw human beings away like garbage in a land fill called the prison system.

I am a piece of that garbage. When my jury deliberated on my case after a week long trial, they considered the charge of First Degree Murder and lesser included offenses such as Second Degree and Voluntary Manslaughter. Each of the lesser crimes carried a lesser possible sentence. My lawyers argued that my state of mind was so impaired that the legal definition of the crime chosen should be reduced down from First Degree Murder. At one point the jury asked the judge how much time I would have to serve before being eligible for parole if given life in prison versus life without parole (the death penalty was not an option). The response: he could not tell them that information.

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In Solidarity: To and For My Friends at Riverbend

Guest Post by Tatiana McInnis

When our group of sleep-deprived, but eager and attentive graduate students first posed the question to insiders in Unit 2 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution of what could be done to fight against or reform the US prison system there was the briefest of silences—perhaps it was a tall order; what does it mean to pose questions to men on death row about the very system that has complete and utter control over their lives? And deaths? Perhaps the insiders were chuckling internally at these bright-eyed students with curious eyes, big ideas and even bigger hopes (I have had to be frequently reminded that I have not invented the proverbial wheel of working inside prisons or advocating for their reform). Perhaps they just needed a moment.

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