The Death Penalty Harms Murder Victims’ Families

My younger brother David was 22 when he and four of his friends were brutally murdered in Connecticut in 1995. The killer was David’s landlord, who also burnt down the house to hide the murder evidence. David was identified by dental records.

This quintuple homicide shocked and hurt not just my family, but our entire community. The prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Because it was a death penalty case, it took much more time and exacted a huge emotional cost on me and other family members, who had no say about whether or not to pursue the death penalty. We waited three years for the trial to begin. The killer was ultimately sentence to life without parole.

Had David’s killer been sentenced to death, even now, seventeen years later, I would likely still be caught up in the legal process, waiting for an execution that might never happen. The media would cover every appeal, giving undeserved attention to the killer. The life without parole sentence David’s killer received allowed me to begin my journey toward healing unencumbered by worries about the killer’s fate.

The Closure Myth

The same is true in Delaware. For the vast majority of murder victims’ families in Delaware, the death penalty is not a factor in the legal process. The death penalty divides victims between those who are worthy of a death penalty case and those who are not. These distinctions are incredibly disrespectful to victims’ families and a source of great pain. And since the vast majority of murderers will not face the death penalty, it is inaccurate and hurtful to act as if the death penalty is a real solution for murder victims’ families.

Even when offenders do get the death penalty, convictions and sentences are often overturned. A recent study of Delaware’s death penalty by Cornell University School of Law found that Delaware’s reversal rate is 44%. When this happens, families who have been told that the death penalty will heal their pain are subjected to another painful blow that adds to feelings of powerlessness.

By focusing on the death penalty as a solution for victims, the state fails to address the real needs of victims’ families. What victims’ families like mine need in the wake of a terrible tragedy is respect, support, and honesty. We need time and energy to grieve and heal. Some of us need professional counseling help. Some need financial assistance. We all want to feel safe in our communities. We need guidance toward resources that can help us regain our power, not sacrifice it to a death penalty system that may never reach its goal.

We do not need controversial sentencing that tells us some murders are more heinous than others. We do not need unnecessarily long and publicized trials. We do not need the false promise that an external act, such as an execution, could ever bring real justice or the ridiculous term “closure”.

What makes our over-simplified reliance on the death penalty harmful, instead of simply misguided is the fact that the death penalty is so expensive. Studies in a variety of other states have shown that capital cases cost much more than non-death penalty cases. The wasted money starts flowing during preparation for the initial trial. These funds would be much better invested in services for victims’ families and programs to make society safer.

As I have worked against the death penalty for the last eleven years, I have learned that I don’t have to create unnecessary divisions between myself and others to feel powerful. Whoever is trying to work toward positive change in the world is my friend and ally. Over the years, I have corresponded with, met, and worked with death row inmates and their families and death row exonerees. They were all grieving losses, trying to heal, honoring loved ones, and trying to make a positive difference, just as I am. I feel more powerful joining with them as well as other victims’ family members. We don’t need the death penalty to move forward in our work or in our lives. In fact, it’s a smoke screen that impedes our progress.

Kristin Froehlich is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Delaware. She is a board member of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty and a member of the advisory committee for the Delaware Repeal Project.

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