Reflecting on the Death Penalty and Victims’ Families

As an intern here at TADP, I have the opportunity to reflect on many aspects of the death penalty. I will be sharing some of these thoughts here occasionally, and I hope you will consider engaging in a dialogue with me.

Watching proposition 34 fail in California was a disheartening experience for me. But, this loss opened my eyes to a strange side-effect of the death penalty on our sense of justice. Many in our society continue to see the death penalty as an important aspect of carrying out justice. One of the prevailing messages of maintaining the death penalty is that it gives closure to murder victims’ loved ones.  In fact, I think that it only complicates the suffering of the family and friends of murder victims. Letting the death penalty remain allows us to pretend that relieving their loss and giving them justice is a simple process. Truth, however, continues to resist such simplifications.

Whichever side of abolition one stands on, we all care for the suffering of those who shared a life with victims. The death penalty is a response, however, that allows us to simplify this suffering. If the perpetrator is executed, we hope that the family will find closure and be able to move on with their lives. We want it to give a concise endpoint to their suffering. Listening to families of murder victims has taught me that death penalty cases last years, meaning ‘a clear cut endpoint’ is in fact a far distant, uncertain future. In other cases, the Alford plea is offered which allows a defendant who may have real evidence of innocence to plead to a lesser charge  and leave prison while maintain his or her innocence. This plea is often granted because the prosecution fears that it will lose during a new trial. Such an outcome leaves these families, again, with no legal closure. It goes down as a “win” because the plea is still guilty. The case is closed, regardless of the fact that the victims’ family and friends will never have an answer to their questions.

It is an unfortunate truth that no amount of legal process will ever replace the loved one lost. Neither judge nor jury has the power to heal these hearts, but we can certainly cause more or less harm through the process. The death penalty pretends that suffering can be turned off and on by a single action. I have not yet met anyone who has lost a loved one whose grief is that straightforward.

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