Friday, June 18, 2010

It only hurts victims' families

Yesterday's AOL news page posted this piece by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation director Beth Wood, "Death Penalty Only Hurts Victims' Families":

This week we are, yet again, focused on one celebrity offender.

We know his name -- Ronnie Lee Gardner -- and how he wants to die -- by firing squad -- and where he will meet his end -- in Salt Lake City.

We also know that the victim's family does not want him executed for the 1985 murder of Michael Burdell, a view shared by an increasing number of murder victims' families.

Most important, though, we know that the money devoted to executing Gardner could have been far better spent.

Fewer than 1 percent of convicted, death penalty eligible murderers are actually sentenced to death and actually executed. This means that more than 99 percent of murder victims' family members aren't getting the so-called "justice" of an execution. And it means that 100 percent of these families would benefit if all the money wasted on capital punishment was instead reallocated to meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Post-tragedy, family members of homicide victims face a myriad of needs. They face the very immediate needs of dealing with the media and burying their loved ones. They face longer-term needs, such as replacing lost wages, counseling expenses and caring for orphaned children.

Some needs are universal to all family members, such as a need to know what happened and why, the desire for the right offender to be apprehended and held accountable for his actions. And the need to be made whole again after such a cataclysmic rending of their world. These are common needs, familiar to family members whether they believe that the death penalty is appropriate or not.

Too often, these needs go unmet because so many resources are directed at so few criminals. Consider what could be accomplished:

Catching more killers

Chris Castillo, whose mother, Pilar, was murdered in 1991 in Houston, believes the money wasted on the death penalty could be better spent enhancing cold-case investigations. His mother's murderer was never caught, and he believes that solving this case and similar ones would protect society by getting more murderers off the streets.

Chris and his family are joined by others. The California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty just released "The Silent Crisis in California," a report about the crisis in unsolved cases in California.

Giving law enforcement the resources it needs to solve cold cases would meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Helping victims' families

Pat Songer started out thinking the death penalty was the right punishment for her son Jeffrey's killer. Twenty-seven years later, she is still waiting and is sure it was not right. She has not received closure or healing from the death sentence.

Her years of waiting have been punctuated by painful trips to hearings where her wounds were again ripped open and laid bare. If Jeffrey's killer is executed, Pat says, she "cannot believe it would make our world a better place." Not only does she feel that the death penalty doesn't meet any of her needs; she also feels the long and painful process further traumatizes her.

Putting murderers in prison and refocusing our resources and attention on family members of homicide victims would meet their real needs.

More mental health services

Nick and Amanda Wilcox's daughter Laura was murdered by a man who was mentally ill. Amanda notes that the more they learned about the tragedy, the more they realized that had the killer received proper mental health care early on, their daughter would still be alive.

Read about the Wilcoxes and 20 other families like them in "Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People With Severe Mental Illness."

Reallocating wasted dollars and attention from the death penalty to mental health resources would meet the real needs of murder victims' family members.

Gardner's high-profile execution is an opportunity for the country to rethink the death penalty. Let's put murderers in prison and turn our attention and resources to the real needs of murder victims' family members.


Adrianna said...

Thank you so much for writing this, and this blog, too. I have been against the death penalty my whole life and I always get the "What about justice for the murder victims' families?" thrown in my face. It does not occur to them that not all murder victims' families feel the same way or that killing someone won't bring the murder victim back or help families rebuild their lives in any way. I really wish more people would read the stories on this site, and I am spreading the word. I cry every time I read them and I think it would stimulate a lot of thought about what really goes on inside America's death machine from all points of view.

I also wonder what will become of the families of the executed. There is so little support for them and their pain has to be one of the worst types of pain imaginable. The person being executed might be guilty, but the family members are innocent. How can we inflict such pain on innocent people?

Susannah Sheffer said...

Thanks for this comment, Adrianna, and for helping to spread the word that not all victims' family members want or support the death penalty. In response to your very important question about families of the executed, I encourage you to look at some of the material from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights' "No Silence, No Shame" project, which focuses on that very question.