Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Regarding closure

One of the most common justifications we hear for having a death penalty is that it brings "closure" to the murder victims' family members. Putting aside for a moment the fact that many murder victims' family members oppose the death penalty (see here, here and here), this argument never made much sense to me.

First, when you lose a family member to violence, you'll never fill that empty chair at the dining room table. Such a loss cannot be replaced, cannot be "closed."

Second, when murder victims' family members are interviewed after executions, we frequently see comments such as "It was too easy" and "he didn't suffer enough."

The other day, I was pleasantly surprised to find in my mail box a letter from Dale Wisely. Dale is from Alabama and is active in Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, our Alabama affiliate. Dale wanted to address the issue of "closure."

This is what he wrote:

I recently gave a talk to a group of young adults at a Catholic church near my home in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a good evening. The audience was attentive, engaged and I think more sympathetic to the anti-death penalty cause than I expected.

During the Q&A someone said, "I don't know...I just think that the death penalty may be the victims' families' only chance for closure."

i expected the question and was prepared. I even had a couple of PowerPoint slides. I am writing about what I shared with the audience.

I'm not going to use names here because I don't want this to be construed as in any way critical of the family involved in the incident I'm about to recount.

A man was executed last year in Alabama. He was convicted of a very brutal murder of an elderly woman. Here's a portion of the Birmingham News account of his last moments. (I've redacted it a bit so as not to use names.)

"I just want to say I'm so very sorry for hurting you like this," (the inmate) said as he lay strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber. "I know this has been a long time coming. If I could go back in time and change it, I most certainly would. I hope this brings you closure and someday you can find forgiveness for me."
"There was no closure for us," (one of the victim's daughters) said after the execution. "The only person there that got closure was him. We have to live with what he did for the rest of our lives."

(She) contrasted (the inmate's) manner of death with her mother's. "It was very soft," she said. "It was very white. It was very sterile. It was just as sweet as you would want to die. No pain, no nothing."

This man chose, in the last minute or two of his life, to try to take responsibility, apologize, and ask forgiveness. He wanted his death to bring closure. The victim's daughter responded with what I read as bitterness. Maybe I would, too, if I were in that situation.

He attempts to do the right thing at the end of his life and the response is bitterness, not closure. If he had failed to address the victims' family, I believe the result would have been bitterness, not closure. If he had proclaimed his innocence, or had made an excuse, I believe the family would not have experienced closure--they would have been angry. I hope that, in time, the family will get closure. But I wouldn't be surprised if they don't.

As is almost true in these cases, a horrendous, vile crime had occurred. But, executions do not bring closure to families. They snuff out a life. The aftermath of the crime continues. Death is piled upon death.


Anonymous said...

Criminals are not punished in order to provide "closure" to victims.

We punish criminals for a number of purposes: (1) deterence; (2) protection (by confinement or execution; (3) retribution; and (4) to affirm societal norms.

Families of murder victims may acheive a sense of retribution from executions, but whether that will lead to closure, who knows?

Closure is a recent psychological term. The death penalty predates any modern notions of closure.

Anonymous said...

I agree that criminals aren't punished in order to provide "closure." And, of course the death penalty predates the concept of closure by a few thousand years.

That does not stop people from arguing that the death penalty provides closure and including that among their arguments for it. One hears from this from the victim's rights movement and from other well-meaning citizens.

Barbara's Journey Toward Justice said...

"Journey Toward Justice" Changed my mind about the Death Penalty. A Book Recommendation: This is the Companion book to The Innocent Man, Journey Toward Justice by Dennis Fritz. True Crime, Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. Journey Toward Justice is a testimony to the Triumph of the human Spirit and is a Memoir. Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder after a swift trail. The only thing that saved him from the Death Penalty was a lone vote from a juror. Dennis Fritz was the other Innocent man mentioned in John Grisham's Book which mainly is about Ronnie Williamson, Dennis Fritz's co-defendant. Both were exonerated after spending 12 years in prison. The real killer was one of the Prosecution's Key Witness. Read about why he went on a special diet of his while in prison, amazing and shocking. Dennis Fritz's Story of unwarranted prosecution and wrongful conviction needs to be heard. Look for his book in book stores or at Amazon.com , Journey Toward Justice by Dennis Fritz, Publisher Seven Locks Press 2006. .
Read about how he wrote hundreds of letters and appellate briefs in his own defense and immersed himself in an intense study of law. He was a school teacher and a ordinary man whose wife was brutally murdered in 1975 by a deranged 17 year old neighbor. On May 8th 1987, Five years after Debbie Sue Carter's rape and murder he was home with his young daughter and put under arrest, handcuffed and on his way to jail on charges of rape and murder. After 10 years in prison he discovered The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization. With the aid of Barry Scheck and DNA evidence Dennis Fritz was exonerated on April 15,1999 Since then, it has been a long hard road filled with twist and turns and now on his Journey Toward Justice. He never blamed the Lord and solely relied on his faith in God to make it through. He waited for God's time and never gave up.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the Victims not looking for closure but "Justice" for my loved one.What Justice truly is-Is if this person would be tried for the murder of our loved one.Since that will never happen the next best thing is punishment.You tell me what would the best punishment for a person that has murdered 20 & then some,lives.He has been on death row now 20 years(given the death penalty)Pretty much says to me he's had 20 more years to live then his victims.He has not suffered for the crimes he commited.Will we ever fine closure???Never!!! We will live with this the rest of our lives. We know all about him and he doesn't even have a idea let alone remorse for the families left behind.When his day does arrive I hope he then thinks of all the victims and how their lives were taken,by his hands.His death will be in a more human way.