The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure

The notion that death sentences and executions provide closure to victims’ families is a myth, says Susan A. Bandes, Centennial Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at DePaul University law school. In a January 8 commentary in The Crime Report, Bandes, a pioneer in the study of emotion and the law, takes on and debunks the idea that executions bring victims’ family members closure.

Prosecutors, including former Attorney General Bill Barr, often offer the promise of closure as a justification for capital punishment as a policy and for carrying out particular executions. When the Department of Justice announced its intention to resume federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, Barr declared that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” Yet, Bandes explains, earlier in his career, Barr had cited deterrence and retribution as his reasons for supporting the death penalty. “Barr’s shift mirrored a subtle but powerful change in the national conversation about capital punishment,” she says. “As the deterrence rationale proved hard to justify, and the retributive rationale began to sound too angry and vengeful, both have been replaced with a kinder, gentler-sounding justification: by carrying out executions we can honor the victims and help their families heal.”

Despite its popularity as a justification for the death penalty, closure has no basis in psychological research, Bandes says, and there is no evidence that executions provide relief to victims’ families. In fact, research has shown that families often feel re-victimized when an execution does not bring about the closure they had hoped for.

“The most telling finding is that a number of family members feel relieved simply because they are finally free of the legal system,” Bandes writes. “As Matthew Shepherd’s parents and the Richard family (victims of the Boston Marathon bombing) understood, much of the pain comes from the capital system itself—lengthy, heart wrenching legal proceedings in which the family would be called to testify and the defendant would remain at center stage for years.”

In other research, a 2012 study comparing the wellbeing of victims’ family members in Texas, which has the death penalty, and Minnesota, which does not, found that the family members in Minnesota had “higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health.”


Susan A. Bandes, The Death Penalty and the Misleading Concept of Closure’, The Crime Report, January 82021.