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.