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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

The Ultimate Punishment Part 5: Closure

This is part 5 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:


Arnie was in sixth grade when his father told him his beloved grandfather had been murdered. Little by little, Arnie discovered the details. His grandfather had gone to his own hardware store late at night to get an item he’d forgotten and interrupted a burglary in progress. The thief quickly grabbed a hammer, hit Charlie Alpert on the head, and fled the scene. Charlie died as a result of his injury.

What Arnie recalls most from this time, when he was just 11, was how grief-stricken his grandmother was and how the entire town and family members he never knew he had, rallied around her in support. The world literally appeared to stop and focus on her.

Arnie recalls no talk of the killer during the time immediately following his grandfather’s death. He says that he thinks his family’s attitudes during this time, helped him grow up to devote his life’s work to ending the death penalty. In his words,

“I am morally opposed to state sponsored killing of all sorts, but also believe the death penalty fails as a matter of public policy. Looking back, I think my family knew what was most important. They devoted their attention to my grandmother, and to each other, not to my grandfather’s killer. For me, their love interrupted the cycle of violence instead of perpetuating it, and made it possible for an impressionable child to mature into an adult who has devoted his life to the practical application of nonviolence, including ending the death penalty.”

In 1990, a teenage boy entered the home of Nancy and Richard Langert, shot both dead from point-blank range, and later told friends he just wanted to know what it felt like to shoot someone. Nancy had been 3 months pregnant at the time, making the death toll 3 in total.

Jennifer and Jeanne Bishop, Nancy’s older sisters, were devastated. They learned that her very last act in life was to draw in her own blood a message: “love you”. The two have opposed the death penalty ever since.

“Our sister’s last act as she was dying was to write a message of love in her own blood. We can’t imagine making the death of another human being her memorial.”

Many death penalty supporters insist that execution will lead to closure for a family. The idea is that the process of investigation, trials, appeals and finally setting the execution date, makes it hard for a family of a murder victim to move on. An execution would allow the family to not have to think about it anymore and feel some sort of closure.

The problem here, I think, is obvious. The idea that the family of a murder victim could one day be able to “stop thinking about it” is ridiculous. Asserting that killing another human being will somehow make someone feel better about the loss of their loved one is insulting. It’s insulting to that victim’s family, making them out to be cold and heartless, insinuating that only more death can ease their pain. It’s also insulting to the memory of their lost loved one, basically saying that the pain of their loss is easily overcome through more death.

There have been family members of murder victims who have experienced the execution of their loved one’s murderer, who insist that it brings no closure.

Deborah Carlson was murdered by Karla Faye Tucker with a pickax in 1983. Tucker was sentenced to death and Deborah’s brother, Ron, was relieved. “They got what they deserved”, he said of Karla and her co-defendant. Over time, however, Ron, felt less anger and when he witnessed the execution of Tucker, he had this to say:

“Watching the execution left me with horror and emptiness, confirming what I had already come to realize: Capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful, corrosive effect on society.”

Ron’s words make it seem as though the death penalty further victimizes a murder victim’s family, rather than being able to ease their pain or bring them closure. Being left with horror and emptiness doesn’t sound like closure to me.

At Stanford University, David Spiegel conducted a study of 15 reporters who attended the execution of Robert Alton Harris, convicted of killing two boys. What he found was that the reporters all suffered from severe after-effects. For some, their trauma got in the way of keeping their regular schedule and performing normal work tasks. In Spiegel’s words:

These men and women were displaying many of the reactions usually associated with acute stress. They had difficulty managing the emotions that the execution aroused. More than half of our sample said they felt distant from their own emotions, a third reported that they felt “confused and disoriented,” 60 percent were “estranged or detached from other people,” and more than half said they tried to “avoid thoughts or feelings about the execution.” One-third reported feeling “despair or hopelessness,” and 20 percent felt “uncontrollable and excessive grief.” I happened to speak to the wife of one of them some six months later. When I asked how her husband was doing, she replied: “He is a basket case. If he ever covers another execution, we’re getting a divorce.”

Spiegel, who has devoted his research career to grief and trauma, explains that to truly find closure for something so horrific as murder, you must distance yourself and your lost loved one from a person that would kill. You have to see yourself and the victim as different from the type of animal who would end the life of another human being. The death penalty does the exact opposite.

In another study, conducted in 2014, researchers compared families of murder victims in Texas, which leads the US in executions, and murder victims’ families in Minnesota, which does not have the death penalty. They found that the families in Minnesota showed signs of being closer to some kind of closure than those in Texas. They were more satisfied with the justice system, they showed higher signs of emotional health, and overall, were more psychologically healthy than those in Texas.

In 2009, Gail Chasey conducted research with the New Mexico Capital Punishment Inquest Committee and found:

Families devastated by the murder of their own loved ones described the cruel impact of the death penalty on them. Far from providing closure or comfort, death penalty trials and constitutionally guaranteed appeals re-open the wounds for many families. Their hearts simply break again and again when all attention focuses on the defendants and their fate, rather than on honoring the memory of those they lost.

In 2011, in a study at the University of Louisville, Thomas J. Mowen and Ryan D. Schroeder found that:

The American public continues to support capital punishment for the most atrocious crimes, mainly on the basis of promoting closure to victims’ families through retribution, but the evolving victim clemency movements and the prior research on covictim closure through capital punishment both suggest that the contemporary justifications for the death penalty do not accord with the lived experiences of covictims.

You get the picture. The research continually points to the fact that the death penalty does not, in fact, provide closure for the families of murder victims, and can even be a source of further torment and grief.

Nancy and John Bosco were murdered in their home in 1993. John’s mother, Antoinette Bosco opposes the death penalty. She says,

When I got the news of the brutal murders. I wanted the killer dead. I wanted to kill him with my own hands. But that feeling also tormented me, for I had always been opposed to the death penalty. I felt now I was being tested on whether my values were permanent, or primarily based on human feelings and expediency. When it hits you personally, the anger and pain of your loss makes you want to tear apart that person who stole your loved one and your happiness. But does this do any good in the long run? And should we be in the business of killing people? In time, in spite of my grieving, which will always be a permanent state of life for me, I was able to grasp again that the state is no more justified in taking a life than is an individual.

Stephanie Crino was murdered by her boyfriend in 1995. A few days later, he shot himself. Stephanie’s sister had this to say,

I had been vocal in my opposition to the death penalty before my sister’s death. On the plane to El Paso to claim her body, I remember thinking, ‘This might change everything.’ But when we went to my sister’s apartment, seeing evidence of her killer’s death splattered all over the walls didn’t make us feel any better. It didn’t give us that sense of ‘closure’ they are always promising murder victims’ families. It just meant that there were two people dead instead of one. My sister was killed in Texas, the state in our nation with the most severe reputation about the death penalty. This might have been why her killer did not want to deal with the justice system and why he killed himself. But it didn’t protect her. She was just as dead. Whatever her murderer thought about Texas justice, it didn’t stop him from killing her in the first place. I went from a theoretical opposition to capital punishment to the sad realization that it does not do what others promise. That is what changed for me in this experience.

The death penalty provides little relief or solace to the victims’ families. When you stop and think about it rationally, you come to the same question over and over: why would it? Why would more killing fix killing? Why would creating another grieving family somehow ease the grief of your own? How can blood erase blood? It doesn’t. The entire idea is silly, laughable and state-enforced “closure” is just dragging it out, and tormenting the families of men, women and children who have been lost to murder.

Grief is a process that requires counsellors and support groups and honouring the family member that passed. It demands an institution be erected around the victims’ families to provide them with healthy and effective avenues of healing. Sadly, in death penalty states, victims services programs have had their funds depleted time and again. Where have those funds gone? The expensive capital system.

As someone who values rational thought, and evidence-based policy, I ask you, does it make sense to take services away from the families of murder victims, services which have actually been proven to bring healing, and replace them with a system of death from which there springs little recovery, solace or closure?

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This is part 5 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:

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