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.
(Linda Lewis Griffith, Does the death penalty give victims closure? Science says no, San Luis Obispo Tribune, May 6, 2019.) See Victims and Studies.