Witnesses To The Execution: The Emotional Toll On Victims’ Families

When you hear about the death penalty in Texas, the discussion often focuses on criminal proceedings or policy. Often overlooked – how the death penalty affects victim’s families – the people left struggling to find healing in the wake of violent crimes.

For years, the Kelley family ran a pawn shop near downtown Houston. In 1988, Robin Kelley was 24 years old. One day, the shop had some unwelcome visitors: Leo Jenkins and Eugene Hart.

“They were drug addicts and broke so they were casing pawn shops on the street,” Robin Kelley says.

Robin’s brother and sister, Mark and Kara Kelley, were working that shift.

“Jenkins was pawning, wanting to pawn a rifle or radio or something small and my brother, Mark said, ‘No, I can’t give you any money for this.’

The two men came back later and tried to rob the place, but it didn’t go as planned.

“The next time that Hart and Jenkins came in and they just shot them up,” Robin Kelley says.

Mark and Kara Kelley died from gunshot wounds at the scene. Robin says their close-knit family never recovered.

“It shattered the lives of our family for the rest of our lives, for the rest of our lives nothing was ever the same.”

A Harris County jury sentenced Hart to life in prison. Jenkins, the gunman, was sentenced to death. Robin Kelley supports the death penalty. She thought Jenkins dying for the murders was the only way her family could find peace.

“When someone kills another, it creates an imbalance that cannot be fixed or mended until the soul who committed that crime is no longer on the planet,” she says.

In 1996, the State of Texas scheduled Jenkins’s execution by lethal injection. Prior to that year, families like the Kelleys weren’t allowed to witness these executions. It was a new thing, the Kelley’s would be the first.

“So, I was really scared, I didn’t know how I was going to feel after,” she says.

Before 1996, an inmate’s family could be present, but not the victim’s. A Houston victim’s advocate, Andy Kahan, helped change this. He’d worked with families of crime victim’s and convinced the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board to change their policy.

So one day in February, Robin and her relatives crowded into a viewing room at the state’s Huntsville penitentiary.

“I was expecting it to be violent and he would convulse and maybe scream and maybe you’d see some reactions that were really horrible, but nope, I didn’t see that.  So after it happened, he just had one final breath and that was it.  It was completeness,” she says.

Kahan says for most victims families, witnessing these executions gives them a sense of closure.

“I think it’s extremely vital. I’ll never forget one mother when she was asked, ‘Now that it’s over, what does it mean to you?’  And she very succinctly put it like this, ‘You know what it means, it means I’m done with the Criminal Justice system, no more this technicality, no more this administration, I can go to my daughter’s grave and tell her justice was carried out.”

Kahan says most victim’s families — about 75-percent — support the death penalty and ask to be present during the execution. But there’s the 25 percent … the families that don’t support the death penalty. They can feel like justice is out of their control.

“I have no idea why I’m against the death penalty, I just think it’s barbaric and I don’t want to be caught in a barbaric position,” says Houston mother Jan Brown.

In 1987, Brown’s 9-year-old daughter, Kandy Kirtland, was kidnapped out of her Bryan-College Station home, and ultimately shot by James Earhart. The stress of losing her daughter was overwhelming but she realized she didn’t want Earhart — or any criminal — to be executed.

“I have children and maybe one of [the] motivations is if they were ever involved in something like that I would certainly be against the death penalty,” Brown says.

During Earhart’s trial, Brown asked that her daughter’s killer be sentenced to life in prison. But, the state chose death. While that type of sentence helped the Kelley family heal, it was counter to Brown’s values.

Former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird says he understands Brown’s position, but…

“Ultimately the case is the case and the facts surrounding the murder and the prior criminal history of the defendant, those are typically the two things that weigh in whether a person received the death penalty or not.”

Baird says, while closure for families is important, it doesn’t trump public safety in Texas.

“I think we’re doing it right, so we’re doing it right from a judicial standpoint,” Baird says.

To Baird, the bigger question isn’t what families think … it’s whether the death penalty makes people commit fewer crimes in the first place.

— Ryan Poppe, Texas Public Radio

Public radio stations from across the state collaborated on this series looking at the death penalty in Texas – its history, how it’s changed, whom it affects and its future.

Public radio stations from across the state collaborated on this series looking at the death penalty in Texas – its history, how it’s changed, whom it affects and its future.

This story originally aired on the Texas Standard.

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