Sunday, August 2, 2009


It's only news to those who didn't know it already. For most, there's no such thing as closure. The pain doesn't go away in a moment.

I'm talking about the families and friends of murder victims. You know, the ones who, it is said, find relief in death sentences for the killers and, later (much later, ordinarily), in their executions. Those things, we're told so often it becomes a mantra, provide peace and closure. Now, they say, they can have peace. And I suppose it happens. But it's not the norm. Revenge is not, ultimately, healing.

This isn't just me. Nobody ever said that my understanding of human psychology was particularly insightful.

(That's almost not true. Years ago, when the Ohio decided to prohibit inmates being executed from speaking their last words, I was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch as saying that they were trying to "pretty up the whole process, sanitizing the execution to distance all of us from it. It dehumanizes even further the person you are executing." The comment was quoted In Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions, and described as having been made with "telling psychological accuracy." When I saw it, I told my wife, proudly, that nobody had ever before accused me of any psychological insight whatsoever. Quick to deflate, she pointed out that authors had described me as an "ACLU attorney in Toledo," but had omitted my name, so it remained the case that I had never been so praised. But I digress.)

The idea of closure from death sentences and executions is a myth exploited by execution advocates but supported by no reputable studies. But both studies (here, for instance) and a wealth of anecdotal evidence say something different. Sharon Tewksbury, who is pleased that the man convicted of murdering her husband was executed by the State of Ohio, commented afterwards on how she and her family felt.
None of us felt elation. None of us felt overjoyed. I don't have strong feelings about the death penalty one way or the other now. My goal is to get all of the media to understand that 'closure' is a bad word, a word survivors don't understand. 'Transition' is the word we use. That doesn't mean everything is OK. Never will it be OK, and no execution, no jail sentence, nothing, will help in that process.
That should be self-evident. Killing doesn't heal. The sort of seemingly gentle killing we insist on in the United States doesn't even provide a sense of equivalence. How often we hear the cries for vengence that "he should die the way she did," yet those are the demands of individualized vengeance, not what government executions are designed to or can provide. And, yet again, vengeance may bring some sort of satisfaction, but it doesn't undo the harm, and it sure doesn't bring peace.

What it does, and this is always important to remember, is make us them. The victim becomes the victimizer. And the friends and family of the executed become new victims. It's classic feuding. Unchecked, it's Hatfields and McCoys (sorry to my friends in both families for bringing that up, but your families did broker a peace).

And then there's the time.

As this AP story from Connecticut notes, victim family members spend years, sometimes decades, hearing over and over, reliving again and again, the details of what was done to their loved ones yet having the focus of attention be not on the victim of the crime but on the convicted killer. As the article notes, there's significant evidence that death sentences are harder on victim's families than are life sentences - where the process commonly ends quickly.

There's something perverse about the delays, but they're an integral part of a system that some percentage of the time has sentenced factually innocent persons to death and, at other times, has simply made the wrong choice in deciding who should and who shouldn't be executed. Once it's done, the error really can't be remedied. And frankly, there aren't the resources to look for errors after the fact.

But how do you imagine the victim family and friends feel when there are doubts? Denial, surely. But buried somewhere a degree of uncertainty. My innocent was killed. So we killed yours.

I mentioned Sharon Tewksbury before. The family won't admit it, and the courts wouldn't accept it, but there's every reason to believe that John Byrd, who was executed for the murder of Monte Tewksbury, wasn't the actual killer. And, as something more than a mere aside, if he wasn't the killer, under Ohio law at the time and as he was charged, he couldn't legally have been sentenced to die.

Did we kill the wrong man? I don't know. But if I had supported the killing, if I'd watched it with some satisfaction, I'd sure be haunted by the question. Closure, I don't think so.

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