Two common assumptions are that family members of murder victims (i.e. co-victims) will achieve closure and perceive a sense of justice following the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Those acting on behalf of co-victims and purporting to represent their best interests often use closure and justice discourses to bolster their arguments in favor of capital punishment in a particular case. However to assume, unequivocally, that family members will view the execution as the last of several steps in the journey to closure and perceived justice is to ignore a significant number of co-victims who may feel differently. Drawing on family member statements from newspaper articles reporting on 138 executions in the United States from 2006-2011, the current study examined family member post-execution feelings and attitudes as reported in the media. The results indicate that family member closure and perceived justice following the execution, although among the most prominent and specific themes that emerge, are still relatively uncommon. For instance, only 35% of family members stated that the execution represented justice while only 31% of family members stated that the execution gave them closure, healing or a step toward either. Results are discussed in the context of previous literature on family member post-execution feelings and attitudes. Societal and policy implications are also discussed.
The current study addressed a research question concerning the feelings and attitudes that were most commonly expressed by family members of murder victims whose loved one’s killer was executed, according to newspaper reports following executions. Two common assumptions are that co-victims will achieve closure and perceive a sense of justice following the execution of their loved one’s murderer (Dicks, 1991; Wolff & Miller, 2009). This may occur because the execution represents the final chapter in a long, difficult process between the commission of the crime and the execution. However, what is known about the post-execution experience for victims’ family members is limited primarily to a small number of exploratory analyses of family members’ accounts of their post-execution feelings and attitudes (Burns, 2006; Gross & Matheson, 2003; Vollum & Longmire, 2007).
The current study is similar to others in regard to methodology and scope (Gross & Matheson, 2003; Vollum & Longmire, 2007). However, it is unique in that data are drawn from a nationwide sample of news articles covering executions rather than articles from one newspaper (Vollum & Longmire, 2007) and the data cover a time period of six years rather than three and a half years (Gross & Matheson, 2003). Using a nationwide sample of newspapers instead of only one newspaper from a conservative state such as Texas may enhance the range of data available in the news stories by introducing various sociocultural differences in reporting. Also, drawing the data from a nationwide sample of newspapers and covering a period nearly twice as long as the previous study to examine a nationwide sample of newspapers (Gross & Matheson, 2003) could support or call to question results from that study. In addition, the unit of analysis also differs slightly. Whereas Gross and Matheson (2003) and Vollum and Longmire (2007) used the actual execution or “cases” as their unit of analysis, our study examined the family members as the unit of analysis. In this regard, the current study addressed the experiences of individuals rather than sets of (presumably similar) family members. The data in this study were analyzed by way of content analysis. Family member statements from news articles covering 138 of the 273 executions occurring in the United States from 2006-2011 were content analyzed and divided into thematic categories. The analysis provided an overall view of the frequency in which each of the conceptualized varieties of themes (coded variables) were expressed. The family members’ responses in post-execution statements to the media were examined as well as how their remarks were influenced by the passage of time.
From a policy perspective, understanding how executions affect the co-victims of homicide may influence policies which encourage actors in the justice system to be more accountable to the needs of families in their decisions in death penalty cases. In addition, policies which currently allow family members to view the execution of their loved one’s murderer may need to be revisited. From a societal perspective, this study addressed assumptions about post-execution feelings of closure and justice and more specifically the arguments that prosecutors in capital trials make to juries in their closing arguments based on closure and justice discourses.
It is, at times, assumed that for the family member of a murder victim, the execution of their loved one’s killer is the final chapter of a long process that allows the family member to move on from the crime and their loss associated with the crime (Armour & Umbreit, 2006; Berns, 2009). The question is, what do family members “move on” from and to what degree does the execution serve such needs? Various works have suggested a number of individual feelings a family member may experience when losing a loved one to homicide as well as interpersonal conflicts that may arise. An examination of family member feelings and attitudes through use of semi-structured interviews (not employed in the current study) and through the lens of media reporting may serve as an initial step to address assumptions about whether the execution serves to ameliorate some of the negative effects of losing a loved one to homicide.
Following the homicide of a loved one, family members may experience myriad negative feelings. Some of these feelings are personal while others are interpersonal. Most broadly, such feelings include frustration with the criminal justice system (Armour, 2002; Rock, 1998), personal grief (Clements, Asaro, Henry & McDonald, 2005; Parks, 1993; Rando, 1993; Rock, 1998; Rynearson & McCreery, 1993; Spungen, 1998), stigmatization by family and associates (Hatton, 2003; Doka, 1988), apathetic attitudes about the world (Janoff-Bulman, 1992), and psychological maladies (Amick-McMullan, Kilpatrick & Resnick, 1991; Zinzow, Rheingold, Byczkiewicz, Saunders & Kilpatrick, 2011). In interviews with 15 children who had been the co-victims of the homicide of an older sibling, Freeman, Shaffer and Smith (1996) also showed many of the negative consequences of homicide co-victimization including depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other negative psychological maladies. In addition, King (2004) noted disparate grieving patterns between those who lose a family member to homicide and those who suffer such a loss due to natural causes. Losing a family member to homicide is much more overwhelming in the sense that the normal grieving process is compounded by anger or rage (King, 2004). In addition, co-victims of homicide tend to have a difficult time letting go of their grief and simply become more proficient in keeping such grief below the surface after a period of years (King, 2004). In cases in which the death penalty is sought, the process of grieving may be further prolonged and exacerbated (Dicks, 1991; Kanwar, 2002; King, 2003; Lifton & Mitchell, 2000). Each of these feelings may greatly hinder the processes of grieving and healing to an extent which potentially makes losing a family member to homicide worse than losing a loved one to more natural phenomena.
Interviews with family members have suggested that family members often perceive maltreatment by the criminal justice system (Armour, 2002; Rock, 1998). Family members may feel as though the justice system is unresponsive to their needs with regard to providing information about the case (Armour, 2002). Such information includes autopsy results or the progress of the investigation. In addition, family members may perceive a sense of injustice as the procedural aspects of the case take precedence over the needs and desires of the families. Such perceived maltreatment may be attributable to the justice system’s view of the crime as an offense against the state as opposed to a crime against the co-victims. Although family members are understandably curious about information surrounding a particular case, actors in the justice system have a right and responsibility to protect information that is crucial to investigations. If the police, for instance, release information about a suspect or the details of a death investigation to the families, they have no control over to whom the families may further disseminate that information. Therefore, family members should not view such treatment by the justice system as a personal affront but rather a necessary condition of conducting a proper investigation and trying to achieve justice for the victims (both the primary and co-victims).
Family members may also experience a number of negative social and psychological side effects as a result of losing a loved one to homicide. Such an experience has been linked to recurring nightmares (Rando, 1993), PTSD (Amick-McMullan et al., 1991; Freeman et al., 1996; Zinzow et al., 2011), survivor’s guilt (Rando, 1993; Rock, 1998), negative personality issues (Rando, 1993), the perception that the world is an unfriendly place (Janoff-Bulman, 1992), negative feelings about personal safety (King, 2004) an intense feeling of trauma that overrides the ability to mourn (Clements et al., 2005; Parks, 1993; Rando, 1993; Rynearson & McCreery, 1993; Rock, 1998; Spungen, 1998), a feeling of social stigmatization (Doka, 1988; Hatton, 2003; King, 2004), difficulty coping (Allen, 1996) and physical illness (Baliko & Tuck, 2008). Rock (1998) describes feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability experienced by the families because they could not save their loved one or prevent the crime from occurring. Family members may also experience powerlessness if they do not receive adequate assistance in “reconstructing their lives” or getting back to a sense of normalcy (Rock, 1998). These negative consequences may be experienced individually or in combinations. The death of a family member by homicide is characterized by the inherent suddenness with which it occurs. Thus, in an attempt to make sense of what has occurred and to begin the process of grieving, the sudden trauma of the incident can override the ability to grieve. The process may be further exacerbated by perceived maltreatment by the criminal justice system. In addition, other family members or associates (who may never have experienced a similar loss) may distance themselves from the traumatized or grieving family member due to a lack of understanding of the issue. Rock (1998) found support for the notion that even the most compassionate outsider could not fully understand the experience of co-victimization. While closure and a sense of achieving justice may not be explicitly stated by many survivors, these are issues that are common throughout the stated desires, needs and reactions of such persons. Being able to integrate the murder of one’s loved one to one’s life and to move on in a healthy, non-fixated manner is the common need of loved ones. These are needs that incorporate closure and a sense of justice.
There is limited scholarship examining the experiences of family members of offenders on death row (Jones & Beck, 2006; Smykla, 1987), as well as limited scholarship on the families of murder victims. Burns (2006) conducted the first empirical assessment (using semi-structured interviews) of families’ feelings and attitudes following the murder of a loved one. In her work, the researcher addressed family member feelings within the framework of satisfaction with and responses of the criminal justice system and victims’ rights. Her study reveals insights into the views and perspectives of the family members.
Drawing on 23 semi-structured interviews with family members whose loved one’s killer was executed, was on death row, or had previously been on death row, the feelings of such persons encompassed closure, justice and forgiveness (Burns, 2006). It should be noted, however, that the results of Burns’ work are difficult to generalize to those family members who viewed or experienced the execution. All of Burns’ interviewees believed there could never be full closure, primarily because the family member was still gone. The majority of her interviewees said they could not forgive their loved one’s killer and all of her interviewees favored the death penalty in some fashion, suggesting that they believed the execution to be just (Burns, 2006). In addition, most of the respondents in her study stated that the offender deserved the punishment he or she was receiving, supporting the belief that the execution was just.
While Burns’ research is informative, her results introduce nearly as many new issues as she addressed. Included among these family members were those whose loved one’s killer was still on death row, had previously been on death row or had been executed. All three varieties of family members are considered together, regardless of whether executions were yet to occur, no longer scheduled to occur, or had been completed. There may well be differences in how these sets of individuals feel about these situations.
The literature that specifically addresses the feelings and attitudes of family members of homicide victims whose killer has been executed is restricted in scope and focus. Vollum and Longmire (2007) examined executions occurring in Texas from 1982-2004. Family member post-execution statements were collected from newspaper articles covering 159 (49.5%) of the 320 executions during this time. As their lone source, the authors gathered statements from the Huntsville Item, a newspaper that regularly sends a reporter to attend executions occurring in Texas. Using content analysis, Vollum and Longmire (2007) found that in 40.9% of the 159 cases, family members expressed that the execution brought a feeling of closure. In 28.9% of the cases, the family members stated that the execution did not bring a feeling of closure. In regard to justice, in 22.6% of the cases, family members whose statements were reported by the media expressed that the execution represented “justice for society.” Family members expressed forgiveness for the executed person in 11.9% of cases.
Gross and Matheson (2003) examined news articles covering 138 executions occurring in multiple states from 1999-2000 and from January 2001June 2002. They noted that the most common issue raised by the family members in the media was closure, the hope that the execution would allow the family member to put the murder behind them, or the fear that they would never be able to do so. These issues were found in more than one-third of the executions Gross and Matheson researched. In about one-fourth of the cases, the family members were quoted by the media as stating that the execution represented justice. Finally, in about one-sixth of the cases, the family is reported to have asked for clemency for the condemned person or to have expressed compassion or well wishes for the executed person’s family.
The limited literature reveals that family members may experience a wide variety of feelings and attitudes following the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Our research (employing a similar methodology and analytic technique) expands on the question of how family members experience and respond to the execution of their loved one’s murderer.
Family member feelings and attitudes expressed in news articles covering 138 of the 273 executions occurring in the United States from 2006-2011 were examined in our research.1 This study expanded on previous work by examining a nationwide sample of newspaper articles as opposed to focusing on one newspaper (Vollum & Longmire, 2007) and covers a more recent and broader range of time than previous studies have addressed that also examined a nationwide sample of newspaper articles (Gross & Matheson, 2003). In addition, the unit of analysis in the current study shifted from executions or cases (Vollum & Longmire, 2007; Gross & Matheson, 2003) to individual family members. While it is possible, and perhaps even probable, that multiple family members may have witnessed or experienced the execution, the focus here is on the reactions of identifiable survivors.2
A list of all executions occurring in the United States from 2006-2011 was compiled from information on the Death Penalty Information Center website. Subsequently, a Google® search for local news stories related to each execution was conducted. These articles were from newspapers located in the same state as where the execution occurred (one exception to this would be the examination of articles from the local newspaper in Augusta, GA of executions occurring in South Carolina, because the relatively close geographic proximity). Additionally, the Clark County, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office website (which includes very detailed information about executed persons’ cases and executions) was also reviewed to identify additional news stories covering each execution.
Only post-execution news stories in which the victims’ family members expressed feelings about the execution, the executed person, or their fam ily that were published within three days of the execution were included in the data; however, it is unlikely that many stories about an execution appear more than three days following the execution. The purpose in limiting the analysis to those of statements gathered within three days of the execution was to capture the immediate feelings and attitudes of the family members at the close, or shortly following the close, of the judicial process. Family members included in the study were both immediate and extended family members (including mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, step-parents and step-children). From these stories, individual family member statements or collective family member statements were identified. Individual family member statements are those which reflect the feelings and attitudes of one individual. On the other hand, collective family member statements are those articulated by one individual on behalf of several family members. All family member statements were copied and pasted directly from the online article and into the database for this study. Statements from 196 family members across 138 of the 273 executions from 2006-2011 were included in the final analysis.
Data were analyzed using content analysis as outlined by Berg (2009). The first step in the analysis was to conduct open coding of the data, identifying and collating all possible themes or patterns that emerge in the data, however minute. In the current study, 40 such themes emerged (see Appendix A). Following open coding, a process of axial coding was conducted. In this phase, the product of the open coding process was sorted into larger, identifiable themes or concepts. The 40 themes identified during open coding were subsequently aggregated into seven, broader conceptual variables (see Appendix B).
The results are presented as the percentage of family members comprising each conceptual theme. Additionally, statements were assessed from family members who include references to the amount of time between the commission of the crime and the execution in their statements.
Examination of family member statements to the media following the execution of their loved one’s killer revealed that there are seven conceptual themes present in such statements. These themes were “Execution Represents Closure, Healing or Step Toward Either,” “Execution Does Not Represent Closure, Justice or Positive Feelings,” “The Execution Represents Justice,” “The Punishment Was Too Easy,” “Family Expressed Well-Wishes, Condolences and Forgiveness,” “Family Expressed Negativity About the Executed Person’s Demeanor” and “Family Expressed Positivity About the Executed Person’s Demeanor” (see Appendix B). The percentage of individual family members providing statements or collective family statements falling into each of the seven conceptual themes is presented in Table 1.
Table 1. Percentage breakdown of the seven variables versus total family members
The most commonly voiced themes emerging in these statements were “The Execution Represents Justice” (35% of all family members) and “Execution Represents Closure, Healing or Step Toward Either” (31% of all family members). Other themes present in the statements are “Execution Does Not Represent Closure, Justice or Positive Feelings” (19%), “The Punishment Was Too Easy” (13%), “Family Expressed Well Wishes, Condolences and Forgiveness (11%), “Family Expressed Negativity About the Executed Person’s Demeanor” (9%) and “Family Expressed Positivity About the Executed Person’s Demeanor” (4%) as the least frequently expressed view.
Overall, Table 1 provides support for the idea that family members see executions as being more of a positive than negative experience. In total, 31% of family members were reported as stating that the execution represented closure, healing or a step forward compared to only 19% of family members who were reported as stating that the execution did not represent closure, justice or positive feelings. In examining these two themes, it was important to draw distinctions between closure and healing as well as non-closure and non-justice. Closure was typically expressed as a feeling that the family member will no longer have to deal with the emotional pain or to be constantly reminded of the murder and the events leading up to and including the execution. This feeling was typically expressed in terms of finality as opposed to healing which is a process representing movement toward complete closure. These two feelings were categorized into one larger concept because in spite of one being more final than the other, the two feelings represent positive emotional responses. When family members stated feelings of nonclosure or non-justice, it was also important to make distinctions between these individual feelings. Non-closure is essentially the opposite of the feeling of closure; the execution does not bring final closure nor does it represent a step forward in the process of healing. A feeling of non-justice referred to any feeling that reflected the idea that the execution could neither induce a positive response regarding the justice system or for its actors nor could the family member philosophically believe that the execution was a fair punishment, even for murder. These two feelings were categorized into one larger conceptual theme (falling into “Execution Does Not Represent Closure, Justice or Positive Feelings”) because both represent negative responses to the execution itself.
Across these family members, a feeling of closure was expressed in a number of ways. For example, one victim’s son in a 2011 quote expressed a spiritual belief that the execution would benefit his late father.
It means finally, my dad’s soul is put to rest after 33 years. (Farrington, 2011)
Family members also expressed feelings of non-closure or non-justice in a number of ways. One victim’s wife in a 2011 quote said that the execution provides nothing in the way of closure,
Understanding, this execution will not bring Richard back nor will it give me the closure I am looking for. (Petersen, 2011)
Others stated that the execution did not bring them pleasure. A 2010 quote from one victim’s father clearly expressed this sentiment,
I didn’t expect pleasure, and I didn’t receive it. (Turner, 2010)
Another victim’s daughter was quoted in 2009 as stating,
This is a difficult day and there are no winners on either side (Graczyk, 2009b)
Providing further support to the notion that the execution is reported as more of a positive than negative experience for the family members is that 35% of family members were quoted as stating that the execution represents justice. This sentiment was also expressed in a number of ways across individuals. In a 2010 quote, one victim’s stepmother stated,
Speaking for my husband and I, we are glad justice has finally been done, and we can close this chapter. (Elofson, 2010)
Another quote given in 2009 as a collective family statement read,
What a great state to live in to know justice was served. (Graczyk, 2009a).
Also in 2009, another victim’s father commented,
I’m not a person that likes harm done to anybody, but I believe in justice being done. (Graczyk, 2009c)
Providing additional support to the idea that the execution is reported as being more positive than negative is the finding that only 13% of family members were reported as stating that the execution was too easy. A 2008 quote which clearly expressed this idea was given by one victim’s mother,
It was too easy. It’s as much justice as we’re going to get, as much closure as we’ll get, but it was just too easy. (Sims, 2008)
Another victim’s sister in 2009 stated,
I myself think it went too smooth. I think he should have gone through some pain for what he did. (Johnson, 2009)
Very few (11%) of the family members were reported as expressing well-wishes, condolences or forgiveness. A 2011 collective family statement released by one victim’s brother said,
We have no anger towards Mr. Bradford and forgive him. (Scott, 2011)
In 2010, one victim’s mother simply stated,
I have forgiven him. (Rainwater, 2010)
Finally, uncommonly expressed feelings included negative views about the executed person’s demeanor prior to the execution (9%) and positive views about the executed person’s demeanor prior to the execution (4%). Speaking negatively about the condemned person’s demeanor, one victim’s sister in 2011 commented,
It was fake, he wasn’t sincere. (Graczyk, 2011)
This statement was in reference to the executed person’s apology prior to the execution. Also in 2011, one victim’s sister stated,
My understanding is he had no remorse, he was unrepentant. (Turner, 2011)
However some family members expressed positive feelings. In 2009, one victim’s sister stated,
I really do think he was sincere. (Gordon, 2009)
In addition to the types of themes identified in the content of the family members’ statements, some individuals also commented on the length of time between the commission of the crime and the execution. In many cases, this included a statement regarding the belief that this period was too long. However, in many instances, family members simply noted the length of time between the offense and the execution. Regardless of whether explicitly criticizing the period as too long or not, family members conveyed a sense of having to wait a long time and feeling relieved to have the waiting completed. As one collective family statement given in 2009 read,
We have waited nearly 14 years for this day. (Murphy, 2009)
Another quote given by a victim’s mother in 2009 was,
I miss my son dearly and have waited for this day to finally get here. (Rainwater, 2009)
Clearly, family members who expressed these sentiments felt a degree of anxiety in awaiting the execution. However, whether this feeling of anxiety is related to what other varieties of feelings were experienced is not initially clear. Therefore, analysis also examines themes present in statements where family members do and do not specifically note the time between offense and execution. Table 2 presents the distribution of family members who express each of the identified thematic sentiments.
Table 2. Family members addressing length of time between crime and execution also expressing identified themes
Table 2 shows recalculated percentages from Table 1 where family members mention the length of time between the crime and the execution. Table 2 shows that even when family members mention the length of time between commission of the crime and the execution, the associated feelings remain more positive than negative (42% of the family members believed that justice had been served compared to 12% of the family members whose comments reflected that the execution does not represent justice, closure or positive feelings; 27% of the family members commenting on the length of time believed that the execution represented closure, healing or a step toward either). Table 2 also shows that fewer family members express each of the other themes than is present across the sample as a whole. Overall, 13% of the family members were quoted as stating that they felt the punishment was too easy but when the additional consideration of time is included, this number falls to 9%. Similar decreases were shown in the variables “Family Expressed Well Wishes, Condolences and Forgiveness” (a decrease from 11% to 6%), “Family Expressed Negativity About Executed Person’s Demeanor” (a decrease from 9% to 6%) and “Family Expressed Positivity About the Executed Person’s Demeanor” (a decrease from 4% to 0%).
According to Table 2, the media may present the image of a family member who believes that the time between the crime and the execution is lengthy (perhaps too lengthy) yet in the end, this sentiment did not affect their postexecution feelings and attitudes in a significant way. Forty-two percent of those family members who mentioned the lengthy process also believed that the execution was just. A 2011 quote illustrates this point. In this particular quote a victim’s mother stated,
Twenty-three years is a long time and this needed to happen. Justice is served today. (Gilbert, 2011)
Another victim’s mother expressed this sentiment in two separate quotes given in 2008,
Seventeen years is way too long to wait for justice. And without justice there is no closure. (Tisch, 2008)
In a subsequent quote from the same news story this individual commented,
The universe has brought about balance, justice and the law of consequence. (Tisch, 2008)
Table 2 also shows that when the media reported family members mentioning the lengthy judicial process, this was also more likely to be accompanied with media reporting of family member feelings of closure, justice or positive feelings. Twenty-seven percent of those family members who mentioned length of time fell into this conceptual category. One victim’s mother in 2009 said,
It’s been a long time coming, after tonight it will be relief. (Matthews & Hale, 2009)
In 2006, another victim’s brother stated that the execution was “long overdue” and,
We’re all relieved that it’s all over with. (Talley, 2006)
In contrast, only 12% of the family members mentioning length of time fell into the conceptual category of non-closure, non-justice or did not associate the execution with positive feelings. In 2010, one victim’s father said,
Seventeen years is a long time to have something eating on you like that. We think about those girls every day. (Tolson, 2010)
This same individual also stated,
We can say it’s the end, but it’s never going to be closure … The execution doesn’t really make me feel any better. (Tolson, 2010)
Very few family members (9%) were reported as mentioning the length of time between the crime and execution and a corresponding belief that the punishment was too easy. One victim’s mother in 2008 expressed this sentiment,
Seventeen years is way too long to wait for justice. (Tisch, 2008)
This same individual also stated,
That was the most peaceful passing I’ve ever been to, and I wish I could know that my son passed as peacefully. (Tisch, 2008)
In sum, these findings suggest that the family members were more likely to report positive as opposed to negative feelings and attitudes to the media following the execution of their loved one’s murderer. The most common expressions from family members were those stating that the execution represents closure, healing or a step toward either as well as a positive feeling that the execution was just. This result is similar to results found in other studies. In one study, Vollum & Longmire (2007) reported that family members expressed feelings of closure or the hopes that they would achieve closure in 40.9% of their cases while other family members expressed the negative feeling of non-closure in 28.9% of their cases. Similarly, Gross and Matheson (2003) stated that in slightly more than one-third of their cases, family members expressed feelings of closure or the hope that they would achieve it. This is most similar to the finding in the current study that 31% of the family members reported feelings of closure, healing or a step toward either. Supporting this idea is that very few family members were reported as commenting that the execution was too easy, perhaps implying that most family members believe that the execution was an appropriate punishment. Yet less common are family members who expressed the view that the execution did not represent closure, justice, or positive feelings. These themes in expressions and their relative frequency among family members did not show variation when the length of time between commission of the crime and the execution are included in statements.
The results of the current study both reflect and add to previous studies examining the reported statements of family members of murder victims whose killers are executed. This holds despite the focus in the current study on individual family members rather than individual executions or cases (Gross & Matheson, 2003; Vollum & Longmire, 2007). Similarities are evident between the current study results and those of Vollum and Longmire (2007) who found that in 40.9% of their cases, family members reported a feeling of closure or the hopes that they would achieve it, compared to 28.9% of their cases in which family members were reported as feeling non-closure. This compares most similarly to the findings in the current study that 31% of the family members expressed statements that communicated “Execution Represents Closure, Healing or Step Toward Either” and 19% of the family members whose statements reflect a belief that “Execution Does not Represent Closure, Justice or Positive Feelings.” Vollum and Longmire (2007) also found that more family members reported feelings of closure than nonclosure. In addition, in 11.9% of their cases, family members were reported as expressing feelings of forgiveness, according to Vollum and Longmire (2007). This result is nearly identical to the finding in the current study in which individual family members or family sentiments expressed in collective family statements expressed feelings of forgiveness, well-wishes or condolences (11%).
Similarly, Gross and Matheson (2003) reported that in slightly more than one-third of their cases, family members expressed feelings of closure or the hope that they would achieve it. This is most similar to the finding in the current study that 31% of the family members expressed feelings of closure, healing or a step toward either. In addition, in 16% of the cases in Gross and Matheson (2003), the family members were reported as having asked for clemency, implying that the family member had forgiven the executed person. The current study does show that 11% of the family members expressed forgiveness, well-wishes or condolences, feelings that can be seen as very similar to supporting clemency.
In sum, several themes identified in the previous research on the topic (Gross & Matheson, 2003; Vollum & Longmire, 2007) continue to emerge in similar fashion and frequency in the current study. The similarities are notable in that the data drawn upon in the current study are more recent and more broadly based than that used in previous studies. This suggests that results concerning family members’ feelings and attitudes following the execution of their loved one’s killer do not change much even when a slightly different methodology is employed.
It is also notable data on family members who mentioned the length of time between the commission of the crime and the execution do not show any substantial differences in their views or the frequency with which such family members expressed particular views. Future research which examines the number of months or years between the initial homicide and the execution may support or refute the idea that actual length of time (as opposed to the family members’ mentioning of the length of time) affects families’ post-execution feelings and attitudes.
The current study is not without limitations. The findings are based solely on what is reported in news stories. It is possible that other, perhaps divergent, feelings and attitudes are being expressed and are not being reported. Such a limitation is further exacerbated in that many of the news articles we used for research were gathered from the Clark County, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office website, which is often viewed as being heavily pro-death penalty. This study also only reports those feelings and attitudes being expressed within three days of the execution. Based on the present data, it is not possible to know how such feelings and attitudes would change months or even years later. Future research which expands on the work of Burns (2006) would be valuable in capturing potential changes in these feelings and attitudes. The reported feelings and attitudes in this study are based on only short quotations collected from family members who address the media in the immediate aftermath of the execution. To explore this issue in more depth and more comprehensively, future researchers would be wise to examine family members’ feelings and attitudes through one-on-one or focus group interviews, and perhaps after the passage of more time following the executions. The present study is limited as a matter of representativeness. The feelings and attitudes of the family members who either do not attend the execution or choose not to correspond with the media following the execution are not presented in the findings. The data in the current study were not subject to examination by an independent rater. However, most of the family member statements obtained from the news stories are explicit and could not be categorized any other way according to the coding method employed in the study. An independent rater is likely to find little if any variation in the results. Finally, the data used in the current study create difficulties distinguishing between family members who have achieved emotional closure or have achieved a sense relief as a result of the end of the criminal justice process, two very substantively different types of closure. Future research which more closely examines the differences between family members expressing these two very distinct types of closure would be beneficial and contribute greatly to the literature.
In spite of the limitations, the current study yields important implications. Often, it is assumed that the execution of a loved one’s murderer will bring about a feeling of closure and justice for the family members of murder victims. Although closure and justice are the most common themes in the current study, they are expressed by only a minority of all family members. The fact that 31% of all quoted family members expressed feelings of closure and 35% of all quoted family members expressed feelings of justice is hardly evidence that such feelings are universal, or even common. Future, more expansive research should address this assumption and if more support is found for closure and justice not being an overpowering theme, policies and practices driven by this assumption may need to be re-addressed. Future research should also examine the specific relationship between the amount of time between crime and execution and what effects passage of time may have on family member feelings and attitudes. Policies that may potentially need to be re-visited include those which allow family members to view the execution of their loved one’s murderer. If such an event does not yield the desired cathartic effect, it may be possible that this serves as more of a distraction to the process of carrying out the execution at the cost of not being beneficial to family members.
Additionally, defense attorneys may consider calling expert witnesses during proceedings to make the point that closure is not necessarily something that can be achieved through an execution. If juries are emotionally swayed by this discourse (which assumes family member closure), then it is possible that they could base their decisions regarding guilt or recommendations for sentences at least in part on family member closure, which could undermine due process for the defendant. In this case, defense attorneys may have grounds for objecting to such statements and if overruled, perhaps have laid the grounds for either a mistrial or reversal of conviction upon appeal. In addition, if judges are emotionally swayed in the same manner as juries, it may more difficult for them to make impartial decisions during the sentencing phase of a capital trial.
Prosecutors may also, as a general rule, need to be more responsive to the needs of the families when making the decision whether to seek the death penalty. If one assumes that justice is using available resources in an effective and efficient manner to serve the needs of the victim(s), or in this case, the co-victims of homicide, as well as to apply to appropriate sanctions against the offender, it may be that ignoring the needs of the families undermines justice. The degree to which prosecutors consider the needs of family members is an under researched line of inquiry that deserves research attention.
Family members are the co-victims of murder victims and experience a range of emotions as well as many psychological and sociological consequences following the death of their loved one(s). Such negative consequences are often exacerbated by perceived maltreatment from the criminal justice system or a lack of understanding by other family members or associates. Ultimately, co-victims seek ways to cope with and move on from the crime and their loss associated with it. The question is whether the execution of their loved one’s murderer serves such needs.
Our research demonstrates similar results as previous studies employing similar methodologies, and provides support for the notion that executions do help co-victims move on from the experience. However, it is important to note that the process of closure and restoration is much more complex than that which can be examined in this research. While our current study expands on and in many ways supports the previous literature on the topic, the need for future, more expansive research is apparent. The hope is that a deeper understanding of co-victims’ feelings and attitudes throughout the entire grieving process and beyond the close of the criminal justice process will influence, for the good, the ways in which society and actors in the criminal justice system view and treat family members of murder victims.
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Corey Burton is a doctoral student in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. He holds a M.S. in Justice Administration from the University of Louisville and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Louisville. His work focuses on the death penalty and criminal procedure. Corey previously served three years as a Uniformed Officer with the United States Secret Service from 2007-2010.
Richard Tewksbury is Professor of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The Ohio State University. His work focuses on issues of criminal victimization risks, sex and gender identity constructions and experiential aspects of living, working and being affected by the criminal justice system.