Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Automatically Welcomed

In his post today on the Texas Death Penalty blog, Dallas Morning News editor Michael Landauer offers these comments on the idea of closure for victims' families:

The story this week about a widow struggling with the upcoming execution of her husband's killer illustrates a difficult truth about the death penalty: It is not automatically welcomed by families.

I have spoken with and read about families torn apart by disagreements over the death penalty for the killer of a loved one. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case here. The family is uncomfortable with the death penalty, but in their case, the unremorseful killer doesn't exactly make them want to oppose his death.

What bothers me is that pro-death penalty people often argue that we owe it to these families to kill the people who took so much from them. That they deserve closure.

I have three main objections to this logic:

1. It is demeaning to families to assume that execution will give them closure. I doubt the living victims of these crimes will ever fully gain closure. The word, I think, some want to use is vengeance, if they were totally honest. To the extent that close is possible, it seems wholly unrelated to the death penalty. To be sure, some families reach what can be described as some degree of closure merely with conviction of killers, and the vast majority of killers are not executed. So why, if you believe in closure, do you only support the highest levels of closure for some families?

2. We do not set punishments based on what might make victims feel better. That's not justice. It's not at all part of the legal standard, which focuses instead (and rightly so) on future dangerousness and the facts of the crime itself.

3. Even if you have no objection to emotion being used to justify punishment or with the assumption that executions ease the pain of the victim's family, you totally ignore the impact on other blameless people involved: The killer's family, the members of the victim's family who oppose execution. The destructive effect on these lives might be worth it, I suppose, if you could guarantee that the victim's family members who want execution feel that elusive closure, but I've never heard of a case where a family walked away from an execution and said, "There, now we're even and we can all move on." That's simplistic fiction that takes no account of others who are blameless in the loss of human life.

We're glad to see the idea of closure being questioned in this way. If you haven't already, take a look at the special issue of MVFHR's newsletter that focused on the topic "Rethinking Closure."

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