Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Myth of Closure via Execution

Of all the arguments in support of capital punishment, perhaps the most emotionally compelling is that it provides "closure" for the loved ones of murder victims. Prosecuting attorneys, politicians and journalists commonly refer to how executions allow family members to "move on" from their pain, providing a sense of relief at knowing that "justice" was finally served.

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Muhammad died silently Tuesday night in a Virginia prison death chamber filled with lawyers, lawmen and his victims' survivors.
After the execution, Steven Moore said he thought about Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who received a life sentence for their crimes.

"Well, myself, I wish Malvo was right there beside Muhammad," said Moore, whose sister, FBI analyst Linda Franklin, was gunned down in Virginia. "They both committed the same crimes. No, I don't feel any closure. I mean, it's ... it ... nothing changes."

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The nationally publicized execution of Mr. Muhammad has once again brought controversy surrounding the administration of capital punishment to the forefront. Among these controversies is the impact of capital punishment on the victim's family and friends. Many believe that every family member wants to see the offender executed, which is simply not accurate.

There is also the perception that executions bring closure. Again, that is simply not the case. Many victims' family and friends have come to realize that a death sentence ensures prolonging the matter, thus delaying or denying the ability to begin the recovery process.

Several family members of Mr. Muhammad's victims attended the execution. While I hope that they do reach some kind of closure, the research on this subject does not provide for much hope.

I surveyed one of my classes on this subject. A majority support capital punishment for murderers, but a significant number would not attend the execution of someone who had been convicted of murdering one of the family members. While interesting, we need to better understand why people do and do not want to witness an execution. Such information may be invaluable to policy makers and may lead to improvements in the recovery process for all crime victims and their families.

Do some family and friends feel the only way to show how much they loved the victims is to demand a sentence of death and to view the eventual execution? What emotions do family and friends go through during the process? And what about the family and friends of the offender? Margaret Vandiver has already begun to answer some of these questions, but we need more research.

But we already know that some family and friends of murder victims do not support the death penalty or want to see the offender's execution. Arguing that death sentences and executions provide closure for everyone is a myth.

2 comments:

NC Sue said...

Have there been any reputable studies assessing the impact of execution on victims' families (whether or not they witness the event)? Do we truly know whether capital punishment achieves one of its apparent objectives, to bring closure or solace of some sort to survivors?

Dr. Michael Blankenship said...

There is a great deal of evidence about the impact of capital punishment on the lives of the victims' families. Margaret Vandiver has published several articles and book chapters on this topic. There are two organizations - Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights that address this issue (links can be found on my blog). Victims' families have also played a role in repealing capital punishment in New Jersey and New Mexico.