Victims’ Families

How the death penalty fails victims’ families.

Often we hear the claim that the death penalty brings “closure” to family members of murder victims. While “closure” is a convenient word for use by politicians and media professionals, it actually causes many family members of murder victims to bristle. Families left with the gaping wound caused by murder know that the hole in their lives is permanent and they do not even want to close the book on the loved one they cherish but no longer can see or touch.

Family members report that they desperately do want some form of resolution. They want the crime solved, the perpetrator held accountable and the sentence settled. The term some use is judicial resolution. Many family members report that only after the case is resolved and the sentence settled can they finally begin to heal and rebuild their lives. Most have this kind of resolution on the day the trial ends. However, a death sentence for an offender can mean the victim’s family is sentenced to 15 to 25 years of uncertainty and seemingly endless appeals.

Justice neither swift nor sure.

● “And I oppose the death penalty not just for moral and religious reasons but because I believe that it hurts rather than helps victims. Prosecutors promise victims’ family members that they will finally experience peace and resolution when the death penalty is carried out, so families hang on to that lie for dear life, putting their lives on hold for years, sometimes decades, as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder. These family members are further devastated when they find that the death penalty, if it is carried out, does not bring them peace. If the murderers were instead sentenced to life without parole, those family members could have moved on with their lives.[2]”
–Gail Rice, Sister of Bruce VanderJagt, murdered in Colorado in 1997

The death penalty ignores the MANY needs of surviving families.

● The death penalty’s cumbersome and expensive process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that homicide survivors need to help them heal, including specialized grief counseling, financial assistance, and ongoing support. In most states, these services are sorely lacking.

● The few services that are available are often provided through the prosecutor’s office, so when the criminal case is over the services for the victim’s family end along with it.

● For families in unsolved murders, there is the added pain of never learning what happened to their loved ones. Meanwhile, the perpetrators remain on the streets, free to kill again, while countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing a handful of executions instead of solving more cases.

Case in point: Gail LaSuer’s daughter, Monique, was murdered in Colorado in 2000. The killer was never found. There are 1,500 unsolved murder cases in Colorado alone, and families like Gail’s launched a campaign to end the death penalty and use the savings to fund a cold case unit to find the people who killed their loved ones. Gail said, “I would rather have a larger number of people caught than have a few executed.”[3]

The death penalty CAN divide families when they need each other most.

● The death penalty has split families apart, forcing relatives with different views on the issue to engage in a polarizing debate at the time when they need each other most. Families are asked to weigh in on the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty at a time when they are still processing the shock of the news of the murder. They are in no position to evaluate how the long process will effect them years down the road.

● In cases where the defendant and victim are related, families are even further torn apart. In a number of cases, for example, children must first cope with the murder of one parent and then suffer a new layer of trauma and grief when the other parent is executed for the crime.

Case in point: Felicia Floyd was 11 when her father murdered her mother in a drunken rage. Felicia’s father was on death row in Georgia for 21 years, during which time the family was able to find some reconciliation. Felicia and her brother pleaded with the state not to execute their father, but were ignored. The execution left them orphans.

Can we make the system faster?

● The death penalty is the nation’s only irreversible punishment. The process is longer because a life is on the line. Many of the extra procedures are legally required to reduce the risk of mistakes. And even these safeguards are not enough – at least 139 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of an innocent person.

● Even states with the fewest protections and a faster process take years or decades to carry out an execution. In Texas, for example, there are people on death row who have been there for over two decades.

We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years – and those lessons have meant pain and suffering for the family who’s loved ones has been murdered. What was supposed to provide comfort to victims has become a colossal failure that has prolonged their pain. Isn’t it time to say enough is enough?