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Winter 2004

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Does the death penalty deliver solace?
by Barbara A. Melville

When John Muhammed was convicted last November for his part in the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings, a radio news report included the comment, “The families of the people killed by John Muhammed need solace, and his execution will provide that.” But do executions actually provide solace, or justice, or healing?

A small but intense national conference at Skidmore last fall, titled “The Impact of the Death Penalty on Victims’ Families,” sought answers in the diverse collective wisdom of some fifty people who daily wrestle with that question. Springing from the research and personal passions of David Karp and Beau Breslin, Skidmore sociology and government professors, respectively, the conference was co-sponsored by the University at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice and by Justice Solutions, a nonprofit victims’ aid group. It was the first such forum ever to bring academic researchers, legal scholars, and social scientists face to face with more than a dozen relatives of homicide victims, and with victims’ advocates (many of whom are themselves survivors of violent crime.) The group included both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, further ratcheting up the emotional tension.

“Five, ten, even two years ago, a conference like this couldn’t have happened,” marveled Michael Radelet, a Colorado sociology professor. “Researchers would have said, ‘What can I say to families of murder victims?’” Indeed, one researcher murmured, “This feels like holy ground.” And in his opening remarks to the victims present, conference organizer Karp said gently, “We understand that for you, this conference is not academic.”
It certainly wasn’t academic for Clementina Chery, whose exemplary teenage son Louis was killed in gang crossfire. Or Roberta Roper, whose daughter Stephanie was raped and murdered. Or Stanley and Phyllis Rosenbluth, whose concert-pianist son Richard and daughter-in-law Becky were murdered one Thanksgiving. The unnerving, stomach-knotting power of stories like theirs hummed electrically throughout the conference’s public sessions and invitation-only discussions; it was augmented by a student-curated photography exhibition and a moving, much acclaimed production of a play based on victims’ stories gathered by criminal-justice expert Howard Zehr.

The actual “ impact of the death penalty on victims’ families” seemed impossible to pin down. Little research has been done—researchers quake at the thought of taking standardized emotional measurements, pre- and postexecution, from grieving families. Recent statistical studies do indicate that grief due to homicide is worse than the grief of other sudden loss, accompanied as it is by “greater rage, desire for revenge, fear, and horror,” Karp explained. “There is something particularly difficult about knowing that it could have been different, but the murderer chose to pull the trigger,” noted Margaret Vandiver,a Memphis criminology professor. When one academic panelist prefaced his remarks with “I’m sorry for your loss,” a father in the audience spoke up hotly, objecting, “My son was not ‘lost.’ He was taken from me.”

Many conference participants talked about “secondary victimization:” grieving family members, already feeling powerless because they couldn’t save their loved one, are plunged into a byzantine criminal-justice system and made to feel powerless once again. Phyllis Rosenbluth said, “We were suddenly in a world we didn’t know—different language, new people—at a time when we were so out of it that the victims’ advocates had to tell us when to eat and sleep.” Sometimes police blame a victim of domestic homicide because “she didn’t just leave” or assume that a youngster caught in crossfire “must have been in a gang.” In the case of a slain prostitute or other “bad victim,” prosecutors might not even consider the death penalty. And victims’ families who oppose capital punishment—estimated at 10 percent—often face prosecutorial hostility and may feel shut out of the process.

Nor does the nightmare end once the murderer is convicted and sentenced. The emotional trauma may continue shifting over the two days or four weeks or five years after an execution, said Albany-based victims’ advocate Janet Gordon Koupash ’84. “All along the way, there will be anniversaries—of the homicide, the execution, the victim’s birthday—so some days will be worse than others.” Victims’ services consultant Sharon English, whose mother was killed by a man she had visited in prison ministry, used a loud, jarring cowbell to illustrate the repeated shocks dealt by the appeals process. “Someone gets fifteen to life…but then there’s a parole hearing.” Clank! “My mother’s killer has been on death row in Ohio for more than ten years. We keep getting e-mail updates about possible appeals.” Clank! Life goes back to normal for a while, and then—Clank!—another e-mail announces another appeal.

VictimsR negotiate the trial process and support them whether they seek clemency or execution; if it comes to an execution, they may shield them from the attendant media blitz and candlelight protests, said Koupash. “Our whole office is personally against capital punishment,” another advocate said, “but we’ll all jump up and down to celebrate a death sentence if that’s what the victims wanted.”

Reflections : Curators Sarah Luckenbach '04, Matthew Sweet '04, David Karp, and Beau Breslin face themselves in a "Viewing Gallery" that's part of a tang exhibit on the death penalty.

The conference revealed that, for some, demanding capital punishment is a way of insisting that “my victim, my beloved, has value,” while others may demand “the worst penalty possible because they don’t trust the system to deliver justice.” But a number of conferees said they see the death penalty as a way to “end a long and tragic chapter” in their lives or to guarantee that “the killer won’t take another life”—in short, to find “closure.” A word often hated by victims’ families, it is nevertheless the rationale cited by 60 percent of Americans in a 2002 poll, as California legal scholar Frank Zimring noted. Interestingly, he added, until 1989 newspapers never used “closure” and “death penalty” together. By 2001, they had done so 751 times, reflecting “an official public justification” and “a governmental theory of extraordinary power.”

But it’s only a theory, observed others, who pointed out that 95 percent of intentional killings don’t result ina death sentence. In the 2–3 percent of cases that do, families might wait twenty yearsor more before the convict’s appeals are exhausted. One study found that 67 percentof death sentences are reversed on appeal. “In civics class, justice is described as swift, severe, and certain,” said Dan Levey, president of the 100,000-member Parents of Murdered Children. When his family sought the death penalty for the shooting death of his forty-year-old brother on a basketball court, Levey learned that “in reality, justice is slow, lenient, and uncertain.”

Some have a different definition of justice itself. Bud Welch, whose twenty-three-year-old daughter Julie died in the 1995 Oklahama City bombing, found a measure of peace in commiserating with the bereaved family of executed bomber Timothy McVeigh. He even became an activist against capital punishment. In fact almost all of the victims at the conference were activists—as Tina Chery explained, “using our story, our pain, our anger, and turning it into something positive.” (The foundation she and her husband established in their son’s name has developed a state-approved school “peace curriculum.”)

Some victims are helped by meeting with murderers on death row. What many families really want, said Seattle ethicist Judith Kay, is not punishment so much as truth and, especially, human communication. “They want to know, ‘Why did you kill my son after he gave you the money?’ or ‘What were my daughter’s last words?’ People are suspended in their grief if they get no answers.”

In the last session of the conference, victims and advocates produced dozens of ideas for improving the system—a victims’ resources Web site, a Victims’ Rights Amendment, an assistance hotline, and much more. Some of the academics had a more delayed response—“We’re still stunned and processing,” admitted one researcher—but already a book is in the works, with more than a dozen conference participants lined up to write chapters. And attorney John Howley ’80 (who has enlisted the help of Breslin’s students as researchers for his pro-bono clemency appeals) saw clear progress: “This day and a half in Saratoga has sensitized me more than a decade working in the field. It’s begun to change the way I think about approaches to victims’ families in my cases.” Another legal scholar said, “Wannabe lawyers have to understand as early as the undergraduate level that there are human beings involved in this process, family members on both sides.”

“The problem is the brittleness and tenuousness of the law,” said soft-spoken David Kaczynski, who turned in his mentally ill brother, the notorious Unabomber, to the FBI. “We need to bring humanity into this process,” he urged. “Humanity as part of law is not a majority view,” drily commented Robert Blecker, a New York law professor. “But there is a rising tide that emotion is very much a part of the judicial process, a focusing force that allows appropriate behavior.”

Tapping that emotional “focusing force” at the Skidmore forum heightened the sensitivity of even those who already espoused victims’ stakes in the judicial process. Criminology professor Vandiver confesses, “In class, when I talk about the recently arrested Green River serial killer, I will mention by name this man who killed forty-eight women. But I will feel bad about not being able to name the victims.”

Barbara Melville has covered earlier death-penalty work by Profs. Karp and Breslin.


Want to read more? David Karp recommends these sources:

Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims, by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2001)

America’s Experiment with CapitalPunishment, by James Acker, et al.(Carolina Academic Press, 2003)

Facing Violence: The Path of RestorativeJustice and Dialogue, by Mark Umbreit, et al. (Willow Tree Press, 2004)

The Contradictions of American Capital
Punishment, by Franklin Zimring
(Oxford Press, 2003)

Death Penalty Information Center:

Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation: www.mvfr.org

National Organization of Parents of
Murdered Children: www.pomc.org


© 2004 Skidmore College