On the Row at Home features the voices and experiences of loved ones across North Carolina who do time outside, alongside their family members on the inside.
The death penalty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It does irreparable damage to families who must live with the threat that their child, parent, spouse, or sibling will be executed. These innocent people are the unintended casualties of a punishment that only increases the reach of violence and grief.
Many family members spend year after year in limbo, hoping for a successful appeal or a grant of clemency, dreading an execution date. Some travel long distances to visit, while others make do with letters and calls. Some lose touch. The result is more broken and traumatized families.
In some cases, an execution victimizes the same family twice — such as in the case of Elias Syriani, who was executed in 2005 despite the pleas of his adult children to spare his life. Elias murdered their mother, but years after her death, the adult children began to rebuild a relationship with their father and find healing. They spent his last hours with him before he was killed by lethal injection.
Note: Some families, concerned about endangering their loved one or unwittingly disrupting legal appeals, have asked to remain anonymous.
At age 19, Cerron Hooks was charged with murder. Two years later, he was sentenced to death. While he’s grown up on death row, his family has marked time on the outside.
His niece, Kayla, was two months old when Cerron was arrested; he calls her his timeline. In her teenage years, Kayla has struggled with severe depression and anxiety. On her 16th birthday, she received in the mail a drawing from her uncle. It said: May today’s tears water the seeds of tomorrow’s happiness. I am forever in your corner.
Even from death row, Kayla said, he has given me life. He’s helped me keep going.
Brenda was a teenager when she had Cerron. She said they grew up together: He was my baby, my son, my best friend. He’s now been on the row for half his life.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Brenda has truly seen her son. While she, Kayla, and their family friend Gale visit often, the prison’s visitation rooms separate the visitors from the loved ones with wire, bars, and a thick, scuffed glass that reflects glare from overhead lights. In order to see through the glass to her son, seated less than two feet away, Brenda must position her body to block the light, lining up her reflection with Cerron’s face, looking through her own face to see glimpses of his.
Shortly after her son was sentenced, Brenda got a tattoo over her heart: First Born, it reads. The ink, now nearly twenty years old, has begun to blur and fade.
Cerron’s drawing of America on the execution table is the cover image on Professor Frank Baumgartner’s book Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty. Cerron began drawing in high school. His art is his voice, Kayla says. You can’t look at his drawings and not see a human being behind them.
You can’t go back to your old life and you can’t go forward.
Have you ever felt guilty about eating an M&M? About sitting outside? Watching the sun set, a bird fly, a flower bloom?
What else can they do to us? They’ve destroyed us; they’ve destroyed him.
This is a hell on earth.
Tawana’s son, Quintel Augustine, has been on death row since 2002. She has boxes full of the letters and cards he’s sent her over the last sixteen years. Mother’s Day cards, letters after his grandmother passed, birthday cards, notes to pass on to his nieces and nephews. Letters of loss and longing and hope. They write to keep each other going forward, putting one foot in front of the other, while living under the threat of death.
You are in here, she tells him often, but you are not a part of this. This is not you. You just have to learn how to adapt until it’s time for you to be set free.
Nobody has ever seen me cry or break, but my husband, she said. Because I’m trying to hold up for everybody else… I’m the strong person trying to holding up, but when I get by myself I break. You know, I’m up in the middle of the night ’cause I’m crying, I’m missing him. I want to talk to him. I want to hold him. I want to touch him.
So, those are the things we go through with our loved ones being on death row.
It’s heartbreaking. He missed out on a lot of family things. Sometimes we don’t want to do nothing because he wasn’t here. It was times that we had family functions and I said, This is Quintel’s seat. Nobody sit there. When I go to church, I take his picture and I say This seat is taken. He’s sitting right here by me.