Dr. Jones’ conversation today is with Athena Kheibari, a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. Athena talks about the reward and struggle of conducting forensic interviews with death row inmates and also her work in suicide prevention. We discuss her personal connection to suicide, and how it is inspiring her work in this area.
Bio: Athena Kheibari, M.A., serves as the doctorate teaching assistant in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. Ms. Kheibari also works as a capital mitigation specialist for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. She has worked on a number of federally funded research grants with faculty, including an NCI sponsored research initiative to reduce cancer health disparities in rural Appalachia. Her research interests focus on attitudes toward suicide and the impact of stigma on suicide loss survivors. She is also passionate about forensic social work and criminal justice issues, with a particular interest in sentencing advocacy in capital cases and the effects of cognitive biases on legal decision making. Ms. Kheibari is a first-generation Iranian American with an appreciation for challenges related to cultural differences and bicultural identity.
Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.
Social Work Conversations – Episode 2 – On Death Row Saving Lives – a conversation with Athena Kheibari
Dr. Jones: [00:00:00] Today I’m joined by Athena Kheibari. Thank you so much for joining me.
Athena: [00:00:03] Thank you for having me. It is a pleasure to be here.
Dr. Jones: [00:00:07] It’s so good to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you and but I’ve never been able to meet you so I’m so excited to learn about your work. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit. You are a doctoral student here in our college. You’ve been here about three years. Yes that right. And you have kind of an unusual job. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you do.
Athena: [00:00:29] Sure. So a couple of years ago I got into the forensic field in social work and started doing capital mitigation case reviews so at first I would attend these meetings and then I actually start practicing. So basically what capital mitigation investigation is is in a death penalty case when somebody commits a death eligible crime like a murder they get assigned a counsel. So a public defender. And so part of that team that a team of attorneys includes a mitigation specialist and the sole job of the mitigation specialists is to develop a life history or narrative of the defendant’s life highlighting maybe some of the negative events in their life also a positive. And coming up with a theory of behavior and crime so trying to explain who this person is telling the jury and the judge. You know this is a person not just a monster or a criminal and ultimately trying to get the death sentence moved or get an alternative sentence like life without parole. So it’s a very in-depth process getting to know the defendant’s family history social history pretty much anything and everything about that person’s life. At the end of the process learn more about them than they probably know about themselves.
Dr. Jones: [00:01:55] So you must become very close to these primary. I’m assuming primarily men. Yes. You work with.
Athena: [00:02:01] Yeah. There’s definitely a bias in this system the criminal justice system we get a lot more male defendants and in these cases. But yeah you develop a relationship with them. You know one of the questions I get asked the most is how are you able to sit in a room with a murderer you know. Are you afraid that they’re going to lunge at you and attack you and it’s just the complete opposite. You walk in there with an open mind and you’re there to listen to their stories with investigative twists. So you want to look for certain elements of their life to sort of dig in. But yeah I mean the kinds that I’ve had to especially learning about their early childhood and the conditions that they grew up in the support systems that they lacked places where social services sort of failed them and you really begin to empathize for them and in no way is this an attempt to excuse their you know alleged crime or to try to say that they’re not responsible but you’re simply trying to humanize this person.
Dr. Jones: [00:03:10] Sounds like there’s a huge amount of trauma of all kinds. Do you have some statistics or are some research that you can kind of tell us about in terms of how many of these folks have been traumatized in some way.
Athena: [00:03:24] Sure. I don’t have any specific numbers. Just because the information is collected about this area it is not specifically focused on how many but I would say the majority of them if you know nine out of 10 cases they probably had some major life event early on and a theme that continues throughout their life. So one major thing we look for is organic damage to the brain and how that impacts decision making abilities. Impulse control. Looking at those key elements into deciding well what happened in this person’s life that they turned down this path and why weren’t they able to maybe follow the same sort of social rules that society expects us to. And so sexual abuse as a child emotional abuse neglect from parents. Yeah it’s a it’s a whole lot of issues it’s never really just one.
Dr. Jones: [00:04:23] What has surprised you about working with this population.
Athena: [00:04:28] Man that’s a good question. I think part of it for me was how it would affects my thinking every time I leave that jail when I see a client or every time I leave an interview with a witness or a family member I just it’s a very self-reflective process. You know you think about how does this information fit into my work in this case in building. But then you also start applying it to life outside of the case and you think about you know my best friend my dad. Did this or you know thinking about your own life and you’re like wow this is this key element here that’s a fact that somebody is life here kind of is similar to other cases that I’ve seen. And you also develop a compassion for people and understanding. So that was surprising because I just thought it was solely about the client and that it wouldn’t affect my life or the way I saw other people outside the case.
Dr. Jones: [00:05:25] Interesting. I know that you also do some research around suicide prevention. And this is really interesting to me that you’ve chosen as your life’s work life to save people’s lives in a way or to help help do that. And I’m I’m curious about if you could talk a little bit about that work and how it weaves in your current job and what what made you come to this place in your life where you really chose this as your were.
Athena: [00:05:58] Sure. I’m glad you actually said focusing on saving a life because a lot of people look at my work and some people are concerned they think Oh you’re very you know caught up in death. And why do you want to talk about you know people killing themselves or why do you want to talk about somebody who’s killed somebody else and then is going to get executed. And I see it a totally different way and you know growing up I always had the interest in forensic psychology and forensic work and profiling and all of that and then and then in my early 20s my sister died of suicide. And my trajectory in education and where I want to do my career went a totally different direction. So I decided to focus on that and to help people that are struggling with suicide and especially bereaved individuals. And so I took a step back from the forensic area that focus until surprisingly halfway through this program that I’m in. I realize that I can still focus on doing suicide research but I can step outside of that too and not feel like I’m bound to this interest just because of past trauma. We all know social workers have their own wounds sort of like wounded healers. Some refer to social workers. And so I feel that yeah while that happened that’s an important part of my life and I chose to dedicate my time for that. I also felt like this would be a great way to also let myself explore. And I just think it fits really well. I mean it’s about having compassion for someone. It’s about understanding what has happened in their life that has brought them to this point and so to ultimate consequence death so yeah it’s just really it was intriguing to me.
Dr. Jones: [00:07:51] I can kind of see in your eyes those passion that you bring That’s so touching. This is a really heavy topic. And you know I wonder I think for all of us as social workers you know I’m I’m a therapist part time and deal with a lot of people who are suicidal and in other kind of traumatized people and what I found in my life is that I need something else in my life and for me it’s my family and music and different things. But I wonder for you know how do you how do you kind of just keep charged. How do you take care of yourself.
Athena: [00:08:30] So definitely you know in this sort of area that I focus and it can bring you down a lot. And certainly when you feel like you don’t have the power to necessarily change someone’s life or to make that difference that you can just do your best but just walk away at the end and say you really tried. So for me what I do is the relationships I have in my life are really important. Very supportive individuals that I can talk to about this. You know my work and find that validation there. But also I think I’m pretty good at distracting myself with the fun things I like to do. Like I’d love to travel. I love to read are sometimes i draw and then I’m I’m really passionate about politics lately. Not you know to go in specifically and to into that but seeing up with current events kind of keeps me really distracted from work that’s been sitting on my desk or just some problem that I can’t fix.
Dr. Jones: [00:09:34] Yeah that’s great. So I want to kind of ask a little bit of a different question.
Athena: [00:09:42] Sure.
Dr. Jones: [00:09:43] Pretend that you were at a conference. I know you go to a lot of conferences and present and Bill and Melinda Gates were there and they came up to you and they said you know we’ve heard about you we’ve heard about your work we’re going to fund whatever you want to do with have an unlimited amount of money for the next five years what do you think that would be for you. How would you use their money to bring some good in the world.
Athena: [00:10:11] That’s a good question actually preparing for the job market after I graduate. I always think about that. You know what does your five year plan. What sort of research do you want to focus on. And I think for me I have so many different ideas and so many different projects that I’ll think of and I’ll I’ll really want to do it. Like I said that you know while the suicide aspect is a big interest to me I would really love to work with offenders that are coming out of the system and to help them reintegrate. You know specifically for these death penalty cases the chances are I’m not going to be able to help. Very few of them actually exit the system or get a sentence but they’d be out. So looking at the prison population in general and when they come out of vengeance are ways that we can get the society to change their attitudes and welcome them and see them see the prison system as a rehabilitation effort rather than These are just some bad guys coming out one specific project that I think would be really cool. And this is farfetched kind of totally crazy but it is theater therapy. And so in I forget what say that was. But they have inmates in prison act out Shakespeare plays. And so they do this role playing and they take it very serious. And what I was thinking is what a great way to get these individuals to act out role play characters that you know in some way highlight an aspect in their life. So for example if they were to do a play where you know they’re acting out a scene of parent interaction or something stressful and that person can really embody that character can really empathize with their character. Think about what how would this person actually feel in this situation and sort of take perspective taking. Also being able to act out maybe some of the motions that they have that they might not be willing to just talk about but to express it through acting. So yeah I mean that’s a crazy idea but it would be so much fun to to use that as a you know addition to therapy in general and that not being the only thing but a creative way to maybe address some of those things that necessarily therapy by itself might not be able to do.
Dr. Jones: [00:12:35] Yeah I love that. I love the creativity of that. I’ve heard of similar things where prisoners have speech debates. Know say in the end it’s like really really serious and they travel to other prisons in there. They’re judged by their debate skills that sort of thing. I think you know it seems like giving them a purpose yes instead of just housing them. That’s kind of what you’re talking about. Yeah. And and giving them kind of a trajectory when they are you know most prisoners are released at some point. Right. And there’s a higher recidivism rate so I kind of having a life after prison.
Athena: [00:13:13] Yeah right. If you’re in prison why not learn the skills to cope with you know negative emotions or stressors that they’re going to face when they go back out into the community. So you know it’s not really the focus. What play are they acting but it’s really just training them to practice those skills I think would be really beneficial.
Dr. Jones: [00:13:36] Yeah. Well I want to thank you for joining us. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Athena: [00:13:41] Thank you for having me.
Dr. Jones: [00:13:42] And yes good luck in your program. Hang in there – don’t quit – keep going!
Athena: [00:13:48] Getting close to the end. I’m going to stick it out this point.
Dr. Jones: [00:13:51] Yes.