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.