Secondary Trauma of Executions

Those who must carry out executions in the name of the state and those who must witness the executions share an unlikely bond: They are at the center of capital punishment. The folklore is that executions heal wounds, but studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that executions can interfere with healing while creating new victims.

Executions Traumatize Corrections and Government Officials

Every execution requires a team of executioners who watch the inmate in his or her final days, who strap the inmate to the gurney, who insert and reinsert the needles, and who remove the inmate from the gurney following the execution.

They are the ones who deal with botched executions, who struggle with inmates fighting to stay alive, and who pull inmates away from their families when it is time for their final goodbye. Their stories provide insight into the effects of executions:

  • New Jersey’s last executioner, who also served as an executioner for New York, committed suicide. So did New York’s prior executioner.
  • Executioners and wardens in Mississippi and Alabama all attributed their mental and physical health problems to their involvement with lethal injection.
  • In many states, the government offers psychological counseling to the execution team because of the psychological trauma of participating the execution of another human being.

Executions Traumatize Clergy, Jurors, Journalists, and Others

  • Carol Pickett, a minister who witnessed almost 100 executions in Texas, attributed his severe health problems to the stress involved with executions. Whether the person to whom he was ministering was executed was not his decision to make, but his witnessing of the execution haunted him years after he stopped ministering to death row inmates.
  • Studies have reported on the emergence of anxiety symptoms among journalists who recently witnessed an execution. Other problems reported include short-term psychological distress (such as nausea and nightmares) and dissociative symptoms.
  • A 1993 study found that jury members who serve on trials in which the death penalty is sought are likely to endure prolonged distress as a result of determining whether someone should live or die.

Executions Create New Victims

Executions also create a new generation of murder victims in the families of the condemned. Families of condemned death row inmates must face “a prolonged period of anticipatory grieving” and must live with the shame that their family members “have been formally . . . judged unworthy to live.”1

Robert Meeropol, whose parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 when he was six years old, was anxious and confused on the night of his parent’s execution. He says he only survived because of a supportive community.

When Bill Babbitt realized his brother Manny, a veteran, had taken the life of an elderly woman, he turned Manny over to authorities. He was told that Manny, who was seriously mentally ill, would get the help he needed. Instead, Manny was executed and Bill, his elderly mother, and the rest of his family became yet another set of victims.

Executions can Interfere with Healing

When his mother was murdered in Pennsylvania, New Jersey resident Bill Piper’s family divided over whether her killer should be executed. At the very time they needed each other the most, the death penalty “polarized” the family – and exacerbated their suffering.

Felicia Floyd was just a child when her father murdered her mother in Georgia. When many years later, the State executed him for that crime, she felt victimized all over again.

When the Commonwealth of Virginia executed the man who killed Maria Hines’ brother, it interrupted her long and difficult healing process. For Maria, a key part of that process was coming to an understanding that nothing society does to the killer will bring her brother back. The execution only added to her pain.

Information about Secondary Trauma adapted from New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

1. (Vandivier, “The Impact of the Death Penalty on the Families of Homicide Victims and of Condemned Prisoners,” 1998).