"No Silence, No Shame" Statements
I want to talk about the connection between mental illness and the death penalty. My brother Manny served two tours of duty in Viet Nam with the United States Marine Corps. He fought in five major battles.
During the siege at Khe Sanh, Manny picked up severed arms, heads, and legs of his fellow Marines. Then he got wounded and medevacked out in a helicopter on a pile of dead bodies. Ever since he returned home, he suffered from post-traumatic symptoms. It was like he never really left Viet Nam. He would hallucinate; he would act as if he was still on the battlefield.
Manny was sent to a state hospital in Massachusetts, where he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. After he was released, he came to live with Linda and me in California. We gave him money and tried to help him get work. But I was worried. He was acting strange. I saw that his demons were coming to the surface.
Then something terrible happened. A 78-year-old woman died during an intrusion into her home. When I began to suspect that Manny was responsible for that woman’s death, I agonized over what to do. One option I thought I had, as his older brother who loved him, was to give Manny a bus ticket and just get him out of there. But if I did that, I would have the dear grandmother’s blood on my hands. I couldn’t live with that. I couldn’t live with the risk that there was someone else out there who might become a victim of my brother and his war-induced demons.
I went to the police and told them what I suspected. They promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. I agreed to help lead them to Manny. After they arrested Manny, an officer said to him, “You’re not going to go to the gas chamber or anything like that.’
I believed that. My mother believed it. We never really thought he would be executed, right up until the last half hour when I watched my brother be put to death at San Quentin on May 4, 1999. Manny’s 50th birthday was on May 3. I was inside witnessing the execution and my mother was outside the prison at a vigil that was taking place while Manny was being killed. I was always remember how she looked that night. I pray my mother forgives me for taking part in her son Manny’s demise.
For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my mentally ill brother in and that led to his death. I wish we had been able to get Manny the help he needed. I wish that as a society we would devote our resources to treating people like Manny instead of imposing the death penalty and creating more funerals, more grief, more tears.
I promised my brother that I would work to end the death penalty. I’m proud to do that by working with Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization that recognizes the grief caused by all kinds of killing, and I’m proud to join with other family members of the executed today as we say let there be no silence and no shame.
I was born and raised in El Paso, and raised my three children there. I live in Georgia now. I have lost children to two different kinds of killing.
In 1979, my daughter Joyce was murdered in Florida. Fifteen years later, my son Jerry was executed by the state of South Carolina for the 1991 murder of John Perry, a clerk in a convenience store.
In both cases, I lost a child, but there is such a big difference between the two kinds of losses. When they call you and say your child has been murdered, you don’t know anything about what happened. You don’t know if she suffered or if she tried to get help.
That’s how it was with my daughter. But with my son, I knew that the day was coming. I knew that he was going to be killed. In the weeks before, I went to visit him every single day, but even though we knew what was going to happen, it was so difficult to talk about it. We couldn’t even talk about things like, what hymn would you like them to play at the service. When somebody’s ill, you can discuss that sort of thing with them, but with Jerry, we just couldn’t do it. I had to fight with him because he didn’t even want me to be present at the execution. He didn’t want to see me cry. He said, “You’ve cried enough,” and I said, “I promise I won’t.”
When the day of the execution came, I kept my promise to Jerry. In the one instant that he turned to look at me, I wiped my tears away so he didn’t see them.
I don’t know how to explain to you that when the state executes someone, they are killing someone’s child. Jerry was my son, the child of my body, and I sat and watched him strapped to a cross – not a gurney, because what it looks like is a cross, with the arms straight out – and I saw him take his last look at me and then I saw all the blood drain from his face.
I know that this experience has had a big effect on me. A huge effect. Some days I wonder about my ability to go on. But I have seen that many families of death row prisoners withdraw from everyone after the execution takes place. I know that I don’t want to live it like that. I know that I want to help others who have gone through this. I know that we are stronger if we join together. I know that ending our silence and moving away from our shame will help us heal ourselves and help us bring about a better world.
I’m Robert Meeropol now, but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in Sing-Sing prison on June 19th , 1953 when I was six. I believe my brother, Michael, and I are unique in American history. We are the only people to have both their parents executed by the government.
I was three when my parents were arrested and six when they were executed. How does a child who has just turned six understand such events? How does something like that affect a six-year-old?
My earliest distinct memories of my parents are of visiting them on death row. I have even clearer memories of the last week of my parents’ lives. On Monday June 15, 1953, when the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer, my parents were scheduled to die that Thursday. On Tuesday a special petition was presented to Justice Douglas as he left for vacation. On Wednesday Douglas stayed the execution and went on vacation. On Thursday the Supreme Court was recalled into special session. On Friday morning Douglas’ stay was overturned by a 6-3 vote. My parents were executed that evening, Friday June 19, one minute before sundown so as not to “desecrate” the Jewish Sabbath.
I saw this on TV and heard about it on radio. My six year-old’s interpretation of these events was that the Supreme Court Justices asked my parents’ lawyer to give them ten reasons why my parents should not be killed and he did. So the Supreme Court stayed the execution. But then they recalled the court and asked the lawyer for an eleventh reason, and he was unable to provide it. So my parents were killed. I think I confused repeated radio references to “eleventh hour appeals” with giving an eleventh reason. I pretended not to understand so adults would not fuss over me, but I got the essence.
What impact did this have on me? Clearly, I didn’t understand what was going on, but I had a sense that “they” were out there, “they” were very powerful, and “they” were attacking “us.” Of course I didn’t know exactly who “they” and “we” were. So I had a generalized sense of anxiety, an incomprehensible sword of Damocles hanging over me. I was frightened, angry and grew up with a suppressed need to attack those who had attacked my family. I survived because a supportive community surrounded me, but what about other children who do not have such a support system?
As far as I know no one has studied how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children. We don’t even know how many children have an immediate family member on death row in the United States today. Worse, we don’t know the effect that having a parent executed will have upon their impressionable lives, and the cost society may pay, for that impact. As far as I can tell no one has bothered to study this even though these children are all innocent victims of the state’s efforts to kill their loved ones.
And this disregard is matched by apparent indifference to the families of the executed. I was also unaware of their needs. But I’ve begun to redress that ignorance today. Although I’ve helped initiate the No Silence No Shame campaign, until today I knew almost no one who shared my experience outside of my immediate family. This is true even though I’ve been speaking publicly about my parents’ execution for over 30 years.
But I’ve spent the day with dozens of people who have endured one of the most emotionally painful experiences a human being can bear – the execution of an immediate family member. I’ve met my brothers and sisters of shared suffering. We’ve been isolated for too long. We’ve been silent for too long.
We have gathered here to end our isolation, and to proclaim to Texas, the USA and the World that we will bear our victimization in silence no longer.