Science Challenges Myth that Death Penalty Brings Victims’ Families Closure

Proponents of capital punishment have long argued for the death penalty on the grounds that it brings closure to family members of homicide victims. But science suggests that achieving closure through execution may be a myth, says family and child therapist Linda Lewis Griffith (pictured) in a May 6, 2019 column in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and that capital punishment may actually make matters worse.

To underscore that point, Griffith cites studies in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found “subjects who were given the opportunity to vent their hostilities had higher levels of aggression and anger than those participants who did nothing at all” and “people who punish others in the hopes of making themselves feel better actually feel worse.” The death penalty, she says, “keeps victims involved in the tragedy for years, even decades, as multiple hearings, appeals and trials drag on.” As a result, family members “feel stuck in a time warp, being repeatedly re-traumatized by the legal system and accompanying media coverage.” In cases in which the death penalty is eventually carried out, “[e]xecutions do not offer emotional catharsis as many would suggest.” Instead, Griffith says, “executing perpetrators actually increased family members’ feelings of emptiness because it didn’t bring back their loved ones.”

A University of Minnesota study published in 2007 attempted to quantify the extent to which victims’ family members achieved closure as a result of capital punishment. The study found that only 2.5% of victims’ family members—roughly one in 40—reported achieving closure, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. A 2012 study published in the Marquette Law Review compared the emotional well-being of survivors in Texas, a death penalty state, and Minnesota, a life without possibility of parole state. The study found that “victims in Minnesota experienced greater control over the sentencing process,” while the “drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable” capital appeals process in Texas “created ‘layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair’” for family members.

Given these studies, Griffin believes that life without possibility of parole offers “[a] more emotionally satisfying solution” for victims’ families than does the death penalty. “Instead of proceeding with archaic and inaccurate information, let’s consider the data and do what really works best” for victims’ families, she says.

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New Hampshire Governor Again Vetoes Bill to Repeal State’s Death Penalty

For the second time in as many years, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu (pictured, left) has vetoed a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty. Sununu’s action on May 3, 2019 sets the stage for an anticipated attempt later in the legislative session to override the Governor’s veto. A two-thirds vote in each house is required to override.

The New Hampshire legislature also voted to repeal the death penalty during its 2018 legislative session, but fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override Gov. Sununu’s veto. The legislature again approved a repeal bill this session, this time with veto-proof majorities in both houses. In February, the New Hampshire House of Representatives conducted a public hearing at which more than 100 witnesses—including representatives of law enforcement, family members of homicide victims, death-row exonerees, and faith leaders—testified. The witnesses voiced overwhelming support for the bill. On March 7, the House voted 279-88 in favor of repeal. After holding an additional public hearing, the State Senate voted 17-6 on April 11 to pass the repeal bill.

As he did in 2018, Governor Sununu made law enforcement the visual focus of his veto message. Flanked by uniformed police officers In a photo opportunity at a community center named for slain Officer Michael Briggs, Sununu called the repeal bill “an injustice not just to Officer Briggs and his family, but to law enforcement and other victims of violent crime across the state.” Sununu said: “I cannot thank those standing behind me enough. They put their lives on the line every single day. Every day they walk out that door and put their lives on the line. They don’t ask a whole lot, but they do ask for our support.”

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of 31 years of FBI homicide data has shown that the death penalty makes no measurable contribution to public safety or to protecting police officers. DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham summarized the findings in testimony before the New Hampshire House Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety during the February legislative hearings. The FBI murder data, Dunham said, “shows that officers are disproportionately murdered in states that have the death penalty, as compared to states that don’t.” Four of the five safest states for police officers had no death penalty at any time in the last three decades, and seven of the eight safest states for police officers either never had the death penalty or had recently abolished it, he said. Overall, Dunham testified, “[t]he data … strongly suggests that having the death penalty has not made officers safer.”

The repeal bill was introduced by State Rep. Renny Cushing (D – Rockingham; pictured, right), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in unrelated incidents years apart. Cushing has described the death penalty as a “ritualized killing” that does nothing to compensate for a victim’s family’s loss. State Sen. Ruth Ward (R – Stoddard), whose father was killed when she was 7 years old, also supported the measure. “[My father] never saw us grow up,” she said. “My mother forgave whoever it was, and I will vote in favor of this bill.”

New Hampshire last carried out an execution in 1939. It has imposed one death sentence since reinstating the death penalty in 1991, sentencing Michael Addison to death in 2008 for the murder of Officer Briggs. The bill would not affect Addison’s sentence, but death-penalty proponents argue that the courts would overturn his sentence if the death penalty were to be repealed.

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One Month Later, Strong Emotions About California's Execution Moratorium

One month into California’s moratorium on executions, the historic action by Governor Gavin Newsom (pictured) is drawing high praise from exonerees, mixed reviews from victims’ families, and unusually personal condemnation from political adversaries. Kirk Bloodsworth ­— the first former death-row prisoner exonerated by DNA evidence — wrote that he was “thrilled” by the news of the moratorium. Bloodsworth, the interim executive director of the death-row exonerees’ organization, Witness to Innocence, said the moratorium would prevent the “unforgivable and grave mistake” of executing an innocent person. Beth Webb — whose sister and a close friend were killed and whose mother was wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County history — said she “could not be prouder to have Gov. Gavin Newsom standing with me and other loved ones of victims for whom the death penalty has created years of prolonged pain and suffering rather than any sense of justice.” At the same time, several California district attorneys staged a press conference with family members of other victims to denounce Newsom and the moratorium, and four prosecutors authored a CNN op-ed accusing the governor of ignoring victims and “singlehandedly undermining” California’s democratic government.

At an April 11 press conference in Sacramento the day after prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Joseph DeAngelo — linked by DNA to at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s — Orange County District Attorney said “Governor Newsom took a knife and stabbed all the victims and all the victims’ families in the heart.” Ron Harrington — whose brother was murdered and sister-in-law was raped and murdered called the accused Golden State Killer “the worst of the worst of the worst ever. He is the poster child for the death penalty,” Harrington said. In their CNN op-ed, District Attorneys Anne Marie Schubert of Sacramento County, Michael Hestrin of Riverside County, Lisa Smittcamp of Fresno County, and Gilbert Otero of Imperial County derided the moratorium order as “a slap in the face to crime victims and their families” and an “autocratic decree [that was] a disgraceful day for democracy.”

In an op-ed in the Mercury News, Bloodsworth called the moratorium necessary to address California’s “long history of wrongful convictions.” He wrote that, “[s]ince 1989, 191 men and women have been exonerated of serious crimes in California. And since the death penalty was reinstated in the state, five men have been released from death row.” Those wrongful convictions, he said, had been caused by “witness misidentification, the use of junk science, false informant testimony, misconduct by police or prosecutors, and false confessions,” with multiple causes often present in each case. In an April 28, 2019 op-ed in the Orange County Register, Webb described how years of deliberate misconduct by Orange County sheriffs and prosecutors forced local courts to bar the death penalty for convicted mass murderer Scott Dekraai. “From the beginning, it was clear the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office were so focused on pursuing the death penalty that they were willing to cheat, withhold evidence and even lie on the stand” to stonewall the investigation of a multi-decade scandal involving the deliberate misuse of prison informants. “Because of the way some overzealous prosecutors pursue the death penalty at all costs, this case that should have been quickly concluded dragged on for six years, subjecting me, my family and the loved ones of the other victims to unimaginable pain,” Webb said. She also warned of “another, insidious, evil of the death penalty... [, that] it is wielded as a tool to score political points by an increasingly small group of prosecutors.”

Newsom’s moratorium order also drew support from six former governors who had granted clemency, imposed moratoria, or ended the death penalty in their states. In a blog post, Governors Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya wrote that Newsom’s action “took great courage, and the ability to see that his state’s death row … exemplified just how broken the system is.” The former governors praised Newsom for recognizing that “inaction isn’t an option” and assured Newsom that “he isn’t alone.”

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In Act of ‘Christian Forgiveness,’ Tennessee Victim’s Daughter Asks Governor for Mercy for Her Mother’s Killer

A Tennessee murder victim’s daughter is asking Governor Bill Lee to honor their shared faith by sparing the life of her mother’s killer. In what they describe as an “exceptional” clemency plea, lawyers for Tennessee death-row prisoner Don Johnson (pictured) write that Cynthia Vaughn, the daughter of Connie Johnson, has requested a meeting with Gov. Lee to tell him her story of “Christian forgiveness” and ask that he commute Johnson’s sentence to life without parole. The clemency petition describes such a request as extremely rare, saying “[w]e know of only one other case in the history of the State of Tennessee in which the child of the ultimate victim has begged the Governor for mercy for the murderer – and in that case clemency was granted to Gaile Owens.” Johnson’s clemency petition also stresses his remorse and redemption, explaining that he has become an Ordained Elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and now ministers to his fellow prisoners. Vaughn and Johnson’s lawyers hope his story of Christian redemption will be of particular interest to Gov. Lee, whose campaign for governor in 2018 repeatedly emphasized his Christian faith.

In a letter to Governor Lee that is excerpted in the petition, Vaughn describes her change of heart about Johnson. For most of her life, she supported his execution, publicly saying, “I want the freak to burn.” However, in 2012, she sought a meeting with Johnson in prison to tell him about the pain he had caused her. “After I was finished telling him about all the years of pain and agony he had caused, I sat down and heard a voice. The voice told me, ‘That’s it, let it go.’ The next thing that came out of my mouth changed my life forever. I looked at him, told him I couldn't keep hating him because it was doing nothing but killing me instead of him, and then I said, ‘I forgive you.’” Forgiving Johnson, she said, has freed her from her anger and allowed her to live her life more fully. “Letting go of anger has let me love more,” she wrote.

Johnson’s religious conversion is the subject of much of the clemency petition and includes numerous testimonials about the positive effect he has had on other prisoners. It also details his personal journey from the routine beatings and psychological abuse he endured from his father and in the juvenile justice system to what the petition characterizes as his religious redemption. "What is most remarkable about Don Johnson’s life story is not that he ended up on death row following a loveless and hate filled childhood, it is that he overcame that childhood to become the man of God he is today," his petition states. Prison ministers and volunteers wrote in support of clemency, describing Johnson’s remorse and his impact on the lives of others. “Don has asked for forgiveness of his sins and crimes he committed years ago and by the grace of God has become a new person in Christ,” wrote Linda Faulk, a prison volunteer who has known him since 2004. “Donnie is no ordinary person and he has unusual perceptivity. I am aware that the prison uses his talents as a counselor and his unit has one of the best behavioral records in the State of Tennessee. Many people rejoice that he has served so well in spite of his environmental circumstances,” said Dr. John L. DuBosque, a visitor and telephone advisor of Johnson’s since 1998. Johnson’s petition concludes with a plea for a grant of mercy by the governor: “Cynthia Vaughn, the person with the greatest claim on his life, deserves to have her forgiveness honored. She should not have her own healing journey ended with an unnecessary and unwanted execution. Don Johnson should not have his journey from the darkness into the light ended in the death chamber.”

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Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

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To End Years-Long Delays, Prosecutors in Three States Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in separate capital cases in Indiana, Florida, and Texas have dropped pursuit of the death penalty in order to end notoriously lengthy delays and facilitate healing for the victims’ families. On March 8, 2019, St. Joseph County, Indiana prosecutors agreed to a plea deal instead of a third death-penalty trial for Wayne Kubsch (pictured) at the request of the victims’ family. Kubsch was initially sentenced to death in 2000 and received the death penalty a second time in 2005, but both times his triple-murder convictions was overturned. In announcing the plea agreement, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter said “[t[he family actually asked us to take the death penalty off. They wanted to remember their loved ones, not remember him every time he came back with another appeal.” Kubsch pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole, agreeing to waive his right to appeal his sentence. “I'm 75 years old. I'll soon be 76. And we decided that the best thing would be life in prison, because that way we don't have all the appeals. We don't have all this to go through and the kids don't have to deal with this constantly,” said Diane Mauk, the mother of victim Beth Kubsch. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Eric Tamashasky said, "For the family, this gives them the closure that they’ve so desperately needed for 20 years.”

Prosecutors also decided to drop the death penalty to end lengthy pre-trial delays in cases in Florida and Texas. After eight years of proceedings in what news reports described as Hillsborough County’s “longest-running murder case that has yet to see trial,” Florida state attorneys announced on February 4 that they would no longer seek the death penalty against Michael Keetly. Keetly had been in pretrial detention for nearly 3,000 days. Keetly’s attorney, Lyann Goudie, said she had recently presented mitigating evidence to the prosecutors in an effort to persuade prosecutors that they were unlikely to obtain a unanimous vote for death, and had challenged the ballistic evidence and eyewitness identification the prosecution intended to present at trial. Following the prosecution’s decision, the case is now scheduled to go to trial in June.  Todric Deon McDonald was charged with two counts of capital murder in McLennan County, Texas, more than four years ago. In 2018, with the case facing additional delays to permit the defense to prepare for a potential penalty phase, the victims’ families told prosecutors they supported withdrawing the death penalty if it meant the case would proceed to trial as scheduled. The prosecutors dropped the death penalty in August 2018 and jury selection began on February 11, 2019, after McDonald had spent 1,733 days in jail. McDonald was convicted three days later and sentenced to life without parole.

A death-penalty trial requires extensive pretrial preparation, because defense attorneys have to conduct an in-depth investigation into their client’s life history and mental health to present mitigating evidence in the event their client is convicted. The longer pretrial period is one of many reasons why death-penalty trials are significantly more expensive than trials in which a death sentence is not an option. There is also a lengthy appeals process if a defendant is sentenced to death, and at that point, the most likely outcome is that the conviction or death sentence will be reversed.

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NEW VOICES: Basketball Star Stephen Curry—“I Don’t Believe in the Death Penalty”

Stephen Curry (pictured, right, during a 2015 visit to the White House), star of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and executive producer of the upcoming documentary Emanuel, has publicly voiced his opposition to the death penalty. Emanuel tells the story of the murder of nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. It is the first film produced by Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, and was co-produced by Viola Davis’s company JuVee Productions. After a January 23, 2019 advance screening at Howard University, Curry participated in a panel discussion of the movie’s themes, including faith, race relations, forgiveness, gun violence, and the death penalty. Asked about his views on the death penalty and Dylann Roof’s death sentence, Curry said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty. I feel like there are situations where an individual can be redeemed or be healed and mentally or physically with whatever the issue is and the root of why they are in that situation.” Curry also spoke about taking inspiration from the forgiveness that victims’ family members offered to Roof. “It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes and empathize with what they’re going through. But it’s so inspiring the way they handled it. They chose forgiveness. They chose faith. They chose to support each other and the community. That alone speaks volumes for humanity and hope of humanity.”

Curry also addressed the issue of athletes becoming involved in social causes. “Athletes in general, especially in the NBA, guys are educated. They know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They know what they believe. And there’s a reason when you say something there are headlines. People want to hear what you have to say. We shouldn’t shy away from it.” He praised the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, for “support[ing] us in using our voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And I think this era of athlete is unafraid to be unapologetically themselves, whatever that means.”

Emanuel will be released in select theaters on June 17, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

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