When the whole family does time: speech from Natalie Skinner
Highlights from the CEDP's convention
Featured here is an excerpt from one of the workshops at the convention titled “When the Whole Family Does Time.” The panel featured Sandy Jones from the Delaware chapter of the CEDP (and now a board member); Natalie Skinner, whose father is on death row in Texas, and Erica Estrada, whose uncle is on death row in California.
Natalie’s father is Hank Skinner. The Supreme Court issued a stay of execution to determine whether to allow for DNA testing in his case. Hank came within 30 minutes of being executed on March 24, 2010. The Supreme Court recently ruled in Hank's favor.
FIRST OF all, I want you to know that I didn’t grow up having my father in my life. He and my mother separated when I was roughly a year and half old. He moved away to Texas when I was about three, and by the time I was four, my mother had done everything in her power to make sure that he couldn’t come anywhere near me.
I was Daddy’s little girl. I of course don’t remember that, but I know when I looked my father in the eyes this past March, something clicked for me. It was the first time I’d ever met him, and it was three days before he was supposed to be executed, so I was dealing with meeting my father for the first time, and saying goodbye at the same time.
I’ll tell you now, my father is innocent. He has always said this, he has never confessed. You’ll never hear me say it again though, because I don’t care. He’s my dad, period. He is a human, and in any case, for me, even if he had committed the crime, I wouldn’t have cared, because he’s still my daddy, he’s still human, and we all make mistakes.
People don’t understand that. I’m currently being harassed viciously on the Internet because I have decided to start supporting my father publicly. I was 14 years old when he was sentenced. I found out because my mother handed me the newspaper and said, “Look what your daddy did.” That was it. That was all I was told.
When articles first start getting printed about cases like his, they’re horrendous.
They’re ugly, and there was no mention that he claimed his innocence. So I spent the next eight months just trying to make sense of everything. I was on the wheel of unanswerable questions. Every question I had just led to another question and then back around again: “If he did do this, if he is capable of this, and that’s my father, what does this mean for me?”
I was 14 years old having to contemplate this. I had no one to turn to, and when I did try to talk to my friends about it, they told me I was lying. That I was making it up, that my father was on death row. Instead of just picking up the newspaper and finding out for themselves, they pushed me away. And that’s what all of society has done.
At the time, Dad didn’t attempt to write to me because he knew that my mother wouldn’t let me get the mail. She had already been blocking the mail from him for years anyway. So when I turned 20, he tracked me down on his own. He wrote to people back home in my county, and he said, “Find my daughter, find her address. And out of the blue one day, I got a letter in the mail, and he said, “I know things are crazy, but I just want you to know that I love you.”
For a while, we wrote back and forth, and then when I was about 24, I had a lot of personal things going on in my life—I have a thirteen-year-old daughter who was nine at the time. I’m a single parent; I have been since I had her at age 16. I just couldn’t handle the extra stress, and I asked him to not correspond with me anymore. And he honored that. I did not hear from my father for three years.
In February of this year, I was over at a friend’s house, and we were talking about family, and they asked me if I looked more like one parent than the other. I pulled up a picture of my mom on the computer and she goes, “You don’t look like her. Do you have any pictures of your dad?” And I said, “Oh yeah, Dad’s all over the Internet.”
The first search came back with “Skinner execution date set, February 24, 2010.” So to me, I had just found out that in 24 hours my dad was going to be executed.
And at that time none of those searches had informed me that he had already received a technical stay for 30 days. His execution date had already been pushed out to March 24.
I lost it. I had always just figured that Daddy would show up at the door one day and say, “Hey, I’m here, let’s do life, for real.” And I never stopped to contemplate what would happen if he were really executed. I didn’t believe that to be a possibility, because my dad is innocent. My friends searched again and found out he had a stay. People talk about how stigmatized death row inmates become. They immediately stop being human when that gavel is slammed. And people like me stop existing. Technically, I’m not here with you today, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I don’t exist, my father’s a monster, and God would have never given him kids. That’s their idea of it. But obviously you all see me. I don’t think we’re
having a mass hallucination together. I just don’t want another child to have to go through it like I did, and that’s the bottom line. I don’t care about me anymore, I’m grown, I’m okay. I survived, it’s fine. But I do care about the next one. Let’s find those kids and let them know, “I’m here if you need to talk, I understand your situation.” Just so they know they’re not alone.
Thanks to Karen Domínguez Burke for transcribing this workshop.