Friday, May 22, 2009

Heartbreak lives in children with parents on Death Row

Heartbreak lives in children with parents on Death Row

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

WEST PALM BEACH — 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, 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 dad.

The increased restrictions on Ricardo Sanchez Jr.'s confinement in federal detention - and the reason his son can't visit - lies in a reality he will inevitably find out one day: Ricardo III's father is going to Death Row.

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

For Sanchez's son, a boy 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, executive director of the 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 a while her depression sets in and she can no longer function.

"I'm OK today," Babbitt said on a Tuesday afternoon. "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 McWee fueled a downward spiral in her life 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 arrested in 1991 for the murder of a convenience store clerk in Aiken County, S.C. She was 28 by the time 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 breeds 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.
Babbitt fears these experiences for Ricardo III, who wants to be a police officer, will start of years of negative impressions of law enforcement and the government.

"It happened to me," Babbitt said. "I used to want to be a lawyer, or a politician, but now it's like 'Are you going to let me run for office knowing who my father was?'"

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 Ricardo III's mother, Maria Lopez, to take him for counseling. Lopez hasn't done so yet, but says she will.

Even if she goes, Sheffer says, it is difficult to find a counselor who is trained on how to deal with children in his situation. No one has even come up with an approximate 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 recently. He made a wish on a heart that went into the bear.

The boy for weeks 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 will see Sanchez before he does.
"Tell him 'I love you... and be good,' " he says.

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