Capital punishment: victims and their families deserve better

WDADP 2019 posterIn announcing the Justice Department’s decision to resume executions for people sentenced to death under federal law last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr said, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Barr’s words reflect a common misunderstanding about justice and the interests of family members of people who have been killed in horrific crimes.

People often assume that after execution, family members will be able to “move on” or achieve some kind of “closure.” But not all family members share those sentiments. Research confirms that often after the execution family members realize that state-sanctioned killing did not bring them peace. In fact, prosecutors and officials like Barr who want to seem “tough on crime” too often use victims and their family members as pawns.

Tsarnaev jurors kept in the dark about family members’ wishes

One of the people most recently sentenced to death under federal law was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of crimes related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was one of three people killed near the finish line, had urged federal authorities not to pursue the death penalty for Tsarnaev:

We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.

The sister of police officer Sean Collier, another person Tsarnaev and his brother killed, also spoke out against the death penalty, as did two people who lost limbs in the bombing.

Yet despite these sentiments, prosecutors kept the Tsarnaev jury in the dark. When Bill Richard delivered his victim impact statement to the jury, he was not allowed to disclose his opposition to the death penalty.

Prosecutors not only benefit from but also perpetuate the misplaced assumption that all family members of victims want the death penalty. At least one juror in the Tsarnaev trial, Kevan Fagan, said knowing the Richards’ views probably would have changed his vote at the sentencing phase.

Victims’ families are organizing against the death penalty

Victims’ family members like Bill and Denise Richard who oppose the death penalty are often marginalized and mistreated in the criminal justice system. Renny Cushing, who opposed the death penalty long before his father’s murder, recognized that the structures that are designed to benefit victims and survivors are often reserved for people who support capital punishment:

These hard-won benefits are too often unavailable to victims if they oppose the death penalty. Whether this is because victim’s advocacy offices operate under the auspices of the prosecutor or because an assumption exists among advocates that all family members of murder victims will want the perpetrator executed, the result is the same. Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized, and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them.

(Earlier this year Cushing, who now serves in the New Hampshire legislature, successfully pushed for that state’s repeal of the death penalty.)

Several organizations organized by and for the families of murder victims are speaking out against the death penalty. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, has a mission to challenge the assumption that all families of murder victims support the death penalty. MVFHR plays an important role in educating the public and amplifying the voices of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, and its website includes a gallery of stories from victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty. Similarly, murder victim family members lead an organization called Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, a group that conducts public education speaking tours to address alternatives to the death penalty.  They testify side by side with family members of people on death row, family members of people who have been executed, and people who have been exonerated from death row.

Victims’ family members are better off without the death penalty

The President of Journey of Hope, Bill Pelke, co-founded the organization after four teenage girls murdered his grandmother. Pelke originally supported the death penalty for Paula Cooper, who was characterized as the girls’ ring-leader. But he “went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.” He then championed an international crusade and ultimately helped get Cooper’s sentence commuted from death to sixty years in prison. In Pelke’s words, “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. [It] just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims family members. We become what we hate.  We become killers.” Research backs up his words.

Dr. Marilyn Armour at the University of Texas and Dr. Mark Umbreit at the University of Minnesota conducted research comparing outcomes for family members of murder victims in Minnesota (which does not have the death penalty) and Texas (which does). Their interviews with family members of murder victims demonstrated that the death penalty results in more negative outcomes:

Although the [death penalty] is promulgated as the ultimate justice, this Study found that the critical dynamic was the control survivors felt they had over the process of getting to the end. In Minnesota, survivors had greater control, likely because the appeals process was successful, predictable, and completed within two years after conviction; whereas, the finality of the appeals process in Texas was drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable. It generated layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair. Although the grief and sorrow remained high for Minnesotans, no longer having to deal with the murderer, his outcome, or the criminal justice system allowed survivors’ control and energy to be put into the present to be used for personal healing.

These conclusions echo and reinforce the reasons the Richards gave in asking that prosecutors not seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of family members reported achieving closure after the execution of the perpetrator, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Lula Redmond, a therapist who works with victims’ family members in Florida, observed: “More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

Family members of murder victims deserve support and assistance.

As studies confirm, capital punishment is no panacea to “heal” family members of murder victims. Rather, true healing comes through support, assistance, and restorative justice. Instead of plowing scarce federal and state funds into costly death penalty cases, we would better spend our dollars on improving the scope and quality of victim services. Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler was murdered in 2007, remarked:

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

Take action

On July 25, the same day as Barr’s announcement, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced H.R. 4052, a bill to prohibit imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law. The bill currently has 12 cosponsors, including independent Rep. Justin Amash.

In introducing the bill, Rep. Pressley said, “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now and I am proud to introduce a bill that completely abolishes the use of capital punishment as a punitive measure. The cruelty is the point – this is by design.”

Encourage your Representative in Washington to cosponsor H.R. 4052 and contact your Senators and ask them to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate. If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, invite speakers from MVFHR, Journey of Hope, or Witness to Innocence to meet with your state elected officials.

The Advocates for Human Rights is proud to join with Journey of Hope, MVFHR, and Witness to Innocence as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Learn more about our work to abolish the death penalty here.

By Amy Bergquist. Amy is a Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and she currently serves as Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

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