This is a part of Disorder in the Court, a weeklong series on the legal press and the most explosive Supreme Court in generations: how we cover it, how we’ve failed, and how we can do better. In these installments, we’re looking specifically at those who have suffered at the hands of SCOTUS decisions, as their stories are too frequently overlooked.
When the federal death penalty was formally reinstated in 1988, the country didn’t rush to use it. In 2001 the U.S. executed Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and followed that up with two more executions later that year and in 2003. The federal government did not execute anyone else until 2020, when, under the Trump administration, 13 prisoners were killed in just six months. This spree would not have been possible without Barr v. Lee, a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that swatted away a lower court’s concerns that lethal injection’s potential for respiratory distress could count as “cruel and unusual” and lifted that court’s injunction on the procedure.
The case is just one instance of a Supreme Court decision’s having profound consequences for real people. To get an understanding of the human toll that executions can have on those left behind, Slate spoke with Christine Towery, 61, of Portland, Oregon. Towery lost her brother, Robert, in 2012, after the state of Arizona executed him by lethal injection. Robert had been convicted of murdering a 68-year-old man during a home robbery in 1991. Robert, who was 47, was the second person executed in Arizona in eight days. This as-told-to essay has been edited and condensed for clarity. —Molly Olmstead
My brother was the only boy in the family. He was the baby, and we were very close. He’d like to hang out with me and my friends. When we were kids, we had fun in Louisiana going fishing with my grandpa, swimming in the bayou, stuff like that. But those memories are very, very few. Most of it was just trauma.
Our mom was abusive. Physically, emotionally. We were beaten pretty much every day, for whatever reason. The first memory I have is, once, when Robbie was being too noisy, my mom tied him up, duct-taped his mouth shut, and threw him on the floorboard of the car. I was so little my feet didn’t even hit the end of the seat. And Robbie was looking at me, begging me to help, but I was so afraid she’d kill me, literally, that I couldn’t help him.
When my stepdad was around, everything was sort of OK. We were still being abused, but Robbie was fine. But then my parents divorced, and he had no adult male in his life to steer him in the right direction. When Robbie was probably 12, some man in his 20s came into his life. He was working on my mom’s car. But in the meantime, he was teaching my brother how to steal cars. So this older person just started taking him down the wrong road.
When he was about 16, he and my mom moved to Louisiana. He got in some trouble there. I forget what the crimes were; I think it was theft. That’s when he first went into juvenile detention. And then, when he came out, they extradited him back here [to Arizona], and he spent five years in prison here.*
He got out when he was 25. The institutions do not provide a reassimilation program. Now there’s a place called Hope for Prisoners that helps people get back on their feet, but my brother didn’t have that. Still, he was doing really well. And then he had a motorcycle accident. And when that happened, he sort of just went back to what he knew best.
All of us coped with the pain of our childhood in different ways, and my brother ended up doing crystal meth to the degree that the amount of methamphetamines he was doing should have killed him. He was out of his mind. So he killed the guy. He was on drugs, and that was that.
During the trial, I was very upset that there was our side and their side. I kept looking at the victim’s sister, and all I could think about was, “She lost her brother, and now I’m losing my brother.” People tend to assume that the family members of the person who committed the crime are also bad people. So, on the elevator the day of the sentencing for my brother, I handed her a sympathy card and I said, “I’m sorry for the loss of your brother. Today I lost mine too.” She looked at me kind of weird. And then, once they read the verdict that they were going to execute, I stood up and looked at her, and people just moved out of the way. It was movie-esque. She and I met in the courtroom, and we hugged each other and cried together.
Then it was 20 years of visiting him in the institution, pretending like he wasn’t actually going to be killed.
I started taking my kids to visit him when they were babies because he needed to see family, even though we were always behind glass doors. He mentored my son; in fact, my son, Christian, who’s 29 now, refers to him as his pseudo-dad. Because Robbie gave him advice: how to be a man, how to be a good father and husband one day, and just how to be a better person than Robbie was.
When you come from a broken home, what you want more than anything is to create a family unit and create something that you didn’t have. And that was Robbie’s mission. He dated this woman and was the adopted father of her kids. He was loyal to a fault. He loved very, very hard. And he wanted so much to be better. After about five years in prison, once he was sober, he was not the same guy. He totally took responsibility for all that he had done.
At the clemency hearing, the attitude was: “He had an abusive childhood—so what? He was on drugs. So? Why should he be special?” And my response to the clemency court was: “Every one of these people should be considered special and given the help they need.” If he had had a mentor in his life, or if he had had somebody to help him with his addiction early on when he first started getting in trouble, instead of just putting him back in jail—I want people to know that execution is not the solution. It’s just murder for murder. You’re just killing one more person and creating this whole set of victims because they’re suffering a loss.
When they tell you they’re going to execute somebody, in the beginning you don’t think about it. But then every time I went to visit him, it was like something that was on the back burner came to the front burner, and the reality smashed me in the face. Every time I left, I was depressed again.
Usually you get one date, which isn’t the right date, and then you get the second date, which is the real date. They gave him the first date for October, and he’s like, “Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.” But then, when they set the March date, we knew it was going to happen. We found that out in January, and those three months were just torture.
I watched Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon, where she plays Sister Helen Prejean, and I remember her saying, “I want the last thing you see to be eyes of love.”
I decided, right then and there, that I was going to be there. I had to fight him; he didn’t want me to be there. Obviously he was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. And my son actually witnessed it with me. He was 18 at the time. He was like, “Mom, you’re not going through this by yourself.” And I’m like, “Man, this is going to change you.” And he’s like, “Yeah, but we have no choice. This is what we do for family.”
The night before, I knew what he was going to eat for dinner. So we drove around and found a restaurant so we could have the same exact meal he had at the same exact time.
Then, the next morning, we went through the execution. I had thought that you’d get to see them. On television, you get this family meeting before they go, right? You say your goodbyes and all that. But one day I asked, “When do I get my final meeting where I can hug him and all that?” One of the attorney assistants goes, “Oh, that doesn’t happen in Arizona.” I’m like, “Are you kidding?” I started crying. I wanted to tell him goodbye. I wanted to hold him.
I was dating someone at the time, Jason, and he drove us there. He was like, “If Christian is going to be there for you, I’m going to be there for both of you.” It was just me, Jason, my son, and the attorneys. I kept thinking, “Why are there no people here?” At the end, 20 years [after the murder], the guy who had died—his sister was gone. There was no one there from the family.
That day, I was sort of in soldier mode. “I’m here to do this thing for my brother.” When you walk in there, there’s a huge side for government officials, newspaper reporters, and the victim’s family, and then there’s a tiny little section past that for the family of the person being executed. When I got in there, they had guards with us to make sure we didn’t freak out or do something stupid. My brother wore glasses, so when they opened the curtains and I saw he didn’t have his glasses on and I was so far to the right, I was like, “He can’t see me. And I need him to see me.” I wanted to move forward, but I was so afraid I would get kicked out. He definitely knew I was there, but I don’t think he could see me.
My brother apologized to us. He apologized to Mark’s family, who wasn’t there, but he apologized anyway. When they were inserting the lines, it was delayed over an hour. And when they finally opened the curtains and I looked at my brother, I knew they had done something wrong.
What happened was apparently they couldn’t find a vein. He ended up with a femoral artery insertion. And on the autopsy, he had over 15 to 20 poke marks on his arms. So he was tortured just getting the lines in. My brother’s attorney took that to court, and now they videotape the insertion of lines to make sure it’s not cruel.
Execution by lethal injection is not painless. They paralyze them, and then they start to drown in their own fluid in their lungs. And then they stop their heart after that. And I think people just need to understand that. I don’t think anyone leaves that room feeling like justice was served or anything was resolved. It’s just sort of like doing one more murder, creating a whole lot more victims.
After, I was so numb. We just drove home, and we drank tequila. And I passed out from crying.
If I were to be really honest, I would say that I shut down the processing of it completely in the beginning. What happens is so clinical, so sterile, so wrong that there’s no words. It’s so weird and dark and surreal. You can’t manage it other than just to shut it down. And there was no one to talk to who really knew. After witnessing the execution, there was literally nobody. We met with one counselor who the attorneys sent over. It was the very next night after, and that guy was saying, “Oh, you know, you’re going to have to move on at some point.” I Googled resources for helping cope with execution, and there are none. A regular therapist can empathize. But they don’t know. No one knows. I went 11 years before I found anyone that actually knew what it was like.
The trauma of my childhood actually helped me to power through. It was spring break; I had to go back and teach my students in a week. So I had to get it together and get back into my job and take care of my students and my family. Inside my heart—I call it “the box”—all that pain that I felt that day is locked away and I don’t open it. I’ve never opened it because if I do, I don’t know that I’ll come out of it. It’s just such a depth of anguish and sorrow.
My sister paid for him to be cremated at a mortuary in Florence [Oregon]. After he passed away, I reached out to them and asked, “Can I see the body at all?” They said, “We’re not sure if we can make that happen.” And I’m like, “Please.” So the director of the mortuary called me one day and said, “If you can get out here, you can see him.”
That day was probably the hardest day. They set him up like it was a funeral viewing, but it was just me in the room. They had taken his head off, and covered his head because they do autopsies to find out, I don’t know, what happened in his brain during [the execution] or whatever. I went up to him and I touched him. And I had this really strange sensation of “Oh my God, he’s free.” I couldn’t leave. I would cry and hold his hand and kiss his face. And then I would sit down for a minute and go, “OK, I’m going,” but I couldn’t get out of that room. I just couldn’t. At one point I’m thinking, what is it, Weekend at Bernie’s, where they take the dead body everywhere? I’m like, “He’s on wheels; I could take him home.” I wanted to. I went back and forth. Finally, I went out and just walked out the building. Jason took me home.
I honestly didn’t think it took that great of a toll on me until the BBC put out a documentary about how it affected me. All my friends that they interviewed had said, “She’s not the same.” Only, I didn’t notice that.
The biggest thing is, I’ve never been able to feel love for new people. I can still feel love for people who I loved before that day, but I’m unable—or unwilling, I guess—to take risks again and have my heart broken, because I don’t think I’d survive it. It just created this feeling inside of me that if one more bad thing happened that hurt my heart, I would be gone. I haven’t seriously dated anybody since Jason. When I moved to Portland in 2015, I dated someone for a few months, but I couldn’t love them. It’s been seven years since I even dated anyone and probably 10 years since I had anything serious.
My son went down a pretty dark road afterward. He ended up doing drugs to cope. He started smoking heroin. When he got caught, I took him to rehab, and he’s been fine since then. But that was a real shocker because Robbie kept him doing the right thing. I think my son was just trying to cope and get rid of the pain in his way.
Trying to convince people is difficult. My brother, when he was sober, would never, ever have hurt anyone. He was out of his mind. Most people think people in prison are just bad people. And they’re not. They did bad things, but they’re not necessarily bad people. But it’s really hard to convince people. Our civilization is very detached from prisons. Once you go in, you’re not a human, in the eyes of most people. You’re just labeled bad or evil. I was working at a restaurant, and I heard from another server I was working with that the bartender had said to her, “Well, he deserves to die.” I wanted to jump across the bar and take her out. I ended up quitting the job because of it, because I couldn’t be around her anymore. And she knew me.
They used to do public executions, and they stopped because it was too horrific for people. But I feel like now, if somebody were to watch an execution live or even on television, they’ll change their mind. You can’t watch that and not change your mind. Unless you actually experience and witness, there’s no way to understand how incredibly tragic all of this is.
Correction, May 24, 2023: This article originally misstated that Robert Towery had been extradited to Oregon. He was extradited to Arizona.