One of the most difficult tensions that victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty can experience is the tension over whether to deliver a victim impact statement during a capital trial. Charisse Coleman writes about this dilemma in another excerpt from her essay in the book Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty (see yesterday’s post for the first excerpt):
Why did I choose to testify? Why not at least honor my opposition to capital punishment by staying silent, by not participating in a process that could lead to an outcome I found insupportable? It’s a fair question, and not one I can necessarily answer to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all my own. What I can say is that, along with the opportunity to speak my love and sorrow in the public forum of the murder trial, and my decision to embrace that opportunity, came an agreement to enter a sort of devil’s compact.
How else to describe the intensity of the dilemma? Part of the dictionary definition of “testify” is “to bear witness.” If my bearing witness to my love for Russell brought another human being closer to death, then it felt like a terribly selfish thing to do. Yet I desperately wanted to speak. It would be the only chance I had to say even one small, true thing about Russell, my love for him, our loss. The formality of court proceedings would take the act of speaking to the level of public ritual, participated in and acted out, not only by me but by friends and witnesses, by people the community regarded as authorities, and by a representation of the community itself – those twelve people sitting in the jury box.
If Russell had been a soldier, maybe we would have had uniforms and “Taps” and a folded flag to say: The world beyond your family makes note of what another member of society has taken from you. If we’d been more devout, maybe our religion would have given us something to enact. But neither of those scenarios held for me and my family, and no other offer had come along to have our experience recognized, treated seriously, publicly, and with respect. However imperfect the setup, I couldn’t resist the pull of that ritual, even one created by the criminal justice system and played out in a worn, cheerless room of dirt-brown walls and speckled linoleum floors. Here, in a Louisiana courtroom, we would be able to speak in our own voices, and attention would be paid.
Yet I could not escape the obvious: to the extent that I spoke with any eloquence at all, to the degree that the jury felt closer to Russell, closer to our suffering, they might be moved, however slightly, nearer to a choice I found repellent and wrong. I could keep silent and preserve the integrity of my beliefs (which felt remote and abstract compared to the desire to declare my love for my slain brother), or I could swallow my discomfort and take the stand. The fact that my desire to bear witness overpowered some of my deepest beliefs about right and wrong only added to the confusion and suffering of being a murdered man’s sister. There is so much that feels wrong about losing someone you love to murder, so much that makes you feel in the wrong. My decision to speak just became another stone weight tossed onto the pile of wrongness that had been accumulating since the moment of Russell’s death.
Quoted from Wounds That Do Not Bind, edited by James Acker and David Karp (Carolina Academic Press, 2006). Charisse’s essay in this book is adapted from her memoir A Bad Goodbye: Reckoning in the Aftermath of Murder, which is currently seeking publication.