The Closure Myth

Impact on Surviving Family Members of Murder Victims

The Closure Myth: How the Death Penalty Fails Victims’ Families

To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. Capital punishment can prolong pain for victims’ families, dragging them through an agonizing and lengthy process that holds out the promise of an execution at the beginning, but often results in a different sentence in the end. A life without parole sentence, on the other hand, begins as soon as victims’ families leave the courtroom and is served outside the spotlight of the news cameras.

Justice Neither Swift Nor Sure

“For surviving family members dealing with the horror and personal trauma of losing a loved one to murder, the death penalty only adds to their suffering by freezing them at a moment in time for years, forcing them to relive over and over the tragic circumstances of the murder with every new twist and turn in the legal process. This process never allows them the opportunity to painfully struggle to go on with their lives as my family was able to do.” – Charles Strobel, whose mother, Mary Catherine, was kidnapped and murdered in Nashville in 1986

The Death Penalty Ignores the Real Needs of Surviving Families

  • The death penalty’s cumbersome and expensive process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that victims’ family members need to help them heal, including specialized grief counseling, financial assistance, and ongoing support. In Tennessee, these services are sorely lacking.
  • For families in unsolved murders, there is the added pain of never learning what happened to their loved ones. Meanwhile, the perpetrators remain on the streets, free to kill again, while countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing a handful of executions instead of solving more cases.

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. Families are asked to weigh in on the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty at a time when they are still processing the shock of the news of the murder. They are in no position to evaluate how the long process will effect them years down the road.
  • In cases where 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.

Can We Make the System Faster?

  • The death penalty is the nation’s only irreversible punishment. 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. And even these safeguards are not enough – over 165 people have been exonerated from death row, including three from Tennessee –after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of 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, there are people on death row who have been there for over two decades.

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?