The Closure Myth

How the death penalty fails victims’ families

To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. It prolongs pain for victims’ families, dragging them through an agonizing and lengthy process that promises an execution at the beginning but often results in a different sentence in the end. Meanwhile, it dedicates scarce resources to a small handful of cases while the real needs of the vast majority of victims’ families are ignored.

[The death penalty means victims’ families are] putting their lives on hold for years, sometimes decades, as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder.

— Gail Rice, whose brother Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver policeman, was murdered in 1997

Justice Neither Swift Nor Sure

  • “A serial killer ripped Deirdre away from us in 1982. My family had no idea, then, that our ordeal was just beginning. All we knew was that the worst of the worst had happened, and the person who did it should pay the ultimate price – the death penalty. From 1982 until 1990 I lived day to day, appeal to appeal, decision to decision. We woke up every day wondering what might happen that day. Will there be another appeal? Another motion? What new decision might come down? The toll it took on me and my family was horrendous…I learned the hard way that the death penalty is an albatross over the heads of victims’ families.1
    —Jim O’Brien, whose daughter, Deirdre, was murdered
  • A study examining the experiences of families of murder victims found that those navigating the legal process in a state without the death penalty exhibited better psychological and physical health as well as a higher overall satisfaction with the criminal justice system than those facing the same challenges in a state with the death penalty.2
  • In a letter to lawmakers, 179 Connecticut murder victims’ families called for the death penalty’s repeal because it “is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system.”3

More Victims’ Voices

The money that we spend on the death penalty would be much better spent funding support groups, providing ongoing counseling to survivors, ensuring that every person who is murdered is able to be buried with dignity, and doing everything we can to prevent the tragedy of murder from ever taking place.

— Henrietta Beckman, whose son, Randy, was murdered in 2003

The death penalty fails to meet the real needs of surviving families

  • The death penalty’s complex process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that victims’ families need to help them heal, including specialized grief counseling, financial assistance, and ongoing support. In most states, these services are sorely lacking.
  • The few services that are available are often provided through the prosecutor’s office, so when the criminal case is over the services for the victim’s family end along with it.
  • For families in unsolved murders, there is the added pain of never learning what happened to their loved ones. The people responsible remain undetected while countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing a handful of executions instead of solving more cases.
Case in point: Gail LaSuer’s daughter, Monique, was murdered in Colorado in 2000. The killer was never found. There are 1,200 unsolved murder cases in Colorado alone, and families like Gail’s launched a campaign to end the death penalty and use the savings to fund a cold case unit to find the people who killed their loved ones. Gail said, “I would rather have a larger number of people caught than have a few executed."4
The death penalty is not given out equally. It’s about saying certain cases are more important than others, certain crimes are more heinous than others...and for families it’s a real slap in our face.

— Khalilah Brown-Dean, whose cousin was murdered

The death penalty divides families when they need each other most

  • The death penalty has split families apart, forcing relatives with different views on the issue to engage in a polarizing debate at the time when they need each other most.
  • It’s supposed to be reserved for the “most heinous” murders, but that implies that most murders are ordinary. There is no such thing as an “ordinary” murder for the grieving family left behind. Many families feel these kinds of distinctions are a slap in the face.
  • When the defendant and victim are related, families are even further torn apart. In a number of cases, for example, children must first cope with the murder of one parent and then suffer a new layer of trauma and grief when the other parent is executed for the crime.
Case in point: Felicia Floyd was 11 when her father murdered her mother in a drunken rage. Felicia’s father was on death row in Georgia for 21 years, during which time the family was able to find some reconciliation. Felicia and her brother pleaded with the state not to execute their father, but were ignored. The execution left them orphans

Can we make the system faster?

  • The death penalty is irreversible. The process is longer because a life is on the line. Many of the extra procedures are legally required to reduce the risk of mistakes. Even these safeguards are not enough – at least 166 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would only heighten the already real risk of executing an innocent person.
  • Even states with the fewest protections and a faster process take years or decades to carry out an execution. In Texas, for example, 20% of the people on death row who have been there for over twenty years.5

We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 40 years – and those lessons have meant pain and suffering for the families whose loved ones have been murdered. What was supposed to provide comfort to victims has become a colossal failure that has prolonged their pain. Isn’t it time to say enough is enough?

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  1. Jim O’Brien, “Death penalty punishes victims’ families, too,” Morristown Daily Record, November 25, 2007.
  2. The Death of the Death Penalty?” University of Minnesota, January 23, 2014.
  3. “Connecticut Senate Poised to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal,” Death Penalty Information Center, April 2012.
  4. Alan Gathright, “House panel votes to abolish death penalty; Money saved to go toward cold cases,” Rocky Mountain News, February 8, 2007.
  5. Offenders on Death Row, Texas Department of Criminal Justice.