Friday, May 22, 2009

Children live with the heartbreak of parents on Death Row

By DAPHNE DURET, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Click here to watch a video with an interviewwith the boy

Daddy did something in the woods. That's all the boy knows.

He hears tidbits of information from whispers at school, and when he lingers in the hallway after his mother tells him to go play in his room while she talks to guests about his father's case.

He smiles and chats happily whenever visitors come to his West Palm Beach home. He shows them his new puppy, April, his bird, Polly, and his massive collection of stuffed animals.

But within 10 minutes, Ricardo Sanchez III blurts out what is weighing heaviest on his mind.

"They won't let me see Daddy at jail anymore," the 6-year-old says. "I'm supposed to be 9."

No one has told him exactly why he's not able to see his father.

The increased restrictions on Ricardo Sanchez Jr.'s confinement in federal detention, and the reason his son can't visit, lie in a reality he will inevitably find out one day:

His father is going to Death Row.

U.S. Senior District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley on May 13 sentenced Sanchez, 25, and Daniel Troya, 26, to die for the 2006 slayings of two boys and their parents on Florida's Turnpike in what prosecutors say was a drug-related killing.

For Sanchez's son, whose family calls him "Three," the death sentence joins him to a group suffering from the weight of loving a parent whom society has deemed unfit to live.

"They really are the forgotten victims in death penalty cases," Susannah Sheffer, director of the No Silence, No Shame project for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, says of Death Row inmates' children. "It's not something that has been part of the debate about capital punishment."

Little has been done to study the effect of an execution on an inmate's children, but some say the combination of the loss of the parent, shame about the crime for which he or she is convicted, and conflicted feelings about the government often come together to inflict deep emotional and psychological trauma that follows them into adulthood.

Desiree Babbitt, now 30 and living in New England, was a toddler when her father, Manny, was sentenced to death in California for killing a 78-year-old grandmother after he broke into her house while suffering a flashback to his time in Vietnam.

She grew up knowing he was in prison but unaware he was on Death Row. After she found out, she spoke out on his behalf. She asked anyone who would listen to keep her father from being executed, saying she needed him.

In the meantime, Desiree said, her father was her world. He sent letters full of poetry and math problems, which prison guards helped him devise as she aged and her proficiency in the subject surpassed his.

Manny Babbitt was executed in 1999. Desiree was 21.

His death is a cloud that hangs over her life, she says.

Since then, she has been hospitalized more than a dozen times for mental illness. She works for several months at a time, lately as a booking agent for a club, but after awhile her depression sets in and she can no longer function.

"I'm OK today," Babbitt said Tuesday. "But if you would have called me yesterday, I probably would have been crying on the phone."

For Misty McWee of South Carolina, the death sentence and 2004 execution of her father, Jerry, fueled a downward spiral that included years of drug and alcohol abuse, a violent marriage and a suicide attempt.

She was 14 and living with her father, a former police officer, when he was charged in the murder of a convenience store clerk in 1991. She was 28 when he was executed.

Now in her early 30s, McWee says she is just now regrouping from the toll of her father's execution.

The birth of her son, now 3, has changed her life for the better, but she says she still wrestles with deep issues of anger. For years, she said, she cried for the children of her father's victim, sad that they would never see their father again.

"I hated him for what he did. I hated him for putting all of us in that situation," McWee said of her father. "But in the end, all the love you have for him takes over."

Sheffer says a death sentence for a parent leaves a child with questions. Chief among them, she says: "If killing is wrong, then why is the state killing daddy?"

The answers, or lack thereof, often breed a resentment of government institutions.

Two weeks ago, Ricardo Sanchez III's mother, Maria Lopez, had to drag her son, howling and screaming, into her car after they were turned away at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.

"He asked me, 'Why are they being mean to me? I don't like this jail anymore,' " Lopez said.

Defense mitigation specialist Lisa McDermott spent months talking to other children of Death Row inmates to help Sanchez's attorney, Donnie Murrell, in preparation for the penalty phase of the trial.

McDermott says she has tried to get Lopez to take her son for counseling. Lopez says she will do so.

But even if she goes, Sheffer says, it is difficult to find a counselor trained in how to deal with children in Ricardo's situation. No one has even come up with a number of the children across the country who have a parent on Death Row.

It is clear on a Thursday morning, though, that Ricardo III understands none of that. He plays with his soccer ball, watches Scooby-Doo and offers homemade brownies to guests at his house before he runs to his room and emerges with his favorite bear.

His mother and grandmother got it for him at a Build-a-Bear workshop. He made a wish on a heart that went into the bear.

For weeks, the boy has refused to tell anyone what he wished.

But after holding the bear for a few minutes that Thursday, he releases a clue in a tiny whisper, his hand cupped around the side of his mouth so no one else will hear.

"It's about Daddy," he says.

Then he pulls away quickly to say goodbye and asks to pass a message along to his dad, a request he makes to anyone he thinks might see Sanchez.

"Tell him, 'I love you ... and be good,' " he says.
(Article taken from the Palm Beach Post, 5/22/09)

No comments: