by Martha K. Baker
A life sentence, rather than execution, provides more closure for victims than execution does, according to a recent study, begun under the auspices of The Episcopal Church. In addition, that closure comes sooner and is healthier.
A life sentence, imposed on the perpetrator of a capital crime, produces more emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefit to surviving victims, concludes the study, “Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two-state Comparison.” The study, published in the Marquette Law Review, contradicts long-held, but unstudied, thinking that victims gained closure — with the gratification that justice is done — from the capital punishment of murderers. Never before had the impact on victims been analyzed scientifically.
The directors of the study are Mark S. Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, located at the University of Minnesota, and Marilyn Peterson Armour, director of The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin. “Given the steadfastness of the public’s opinion that the death penalty brings satisfaction and closure to survivors, it is surprising that there has been no systematic inquiry directly with survivors about whether obtaining the ultimate punishment affects their healing,” wrote Umbreit and Armour.
The Episcopal Church initially called for the study by resolution of General Convention in 2003. The study was designed to cover a period of years due to the necessity of following a number of cases in both states from start to finish in order to sufficiently satisfy the scientific requirements for analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data.
In the end, these data agreed to a stunning degree, adding considerable weight to the conclusions.
Individual bishops provided the initial funding of $50,000. According to the Rt. Rev. Joe Morris Doss, a lawyer and the retired bishop of New Jersey, “We initiated the study and did our part in seeding its funding out of our need to provide ministry to victims, usually loved ones of someone killed in a capital crime, and out of our long-standing opposition to the death penalty.” Bp. Doss said that bishops’ support comes “in no small measure” out of their concern for victims who, too often, “are exploited by the nation’s justice system to secure capital convictions and, ultimately, to carry out executions.”
The opposiing argument declares that victims need the sense of justice and the benefit of closure provided only by an execution.
“We needed data, based on scientific study,” explained Doss, “to determine if our view was correct or to admit that we have been incorrect.”
The conclusions are significant, said Doss. “We have studied the last argument in favor of the death penalty that can be considered rational – unless one concedes that vengeance is rational.” Other claims, such as deterrence, are no longer countenanced by objective experts, he noted. This study, he added, provides sufficient proof that warrant for the death penalty can no longer be based on the needs of surviving victims because it studied the real effects of executions on victims.
Doss went on to say that the church can now speak to the issue supported by independent and objective scientific analyses. The conclusions match the experience through the years of countless numbers of clergy and lay professionals who have counseled victims of violent crime and offered the ministry of the church to them.
According to these,
Victims should not have to deal with the problems that come of the role that society tends to impose on them for the purpose of securing an execution.
Victims should not be expected to hold to hatred in their hearts.
Victims should not be expected incapable of the ability to forgive – and if not to forgive, victims should, at least, be given the opportunity to move on with their lives.
The Church’s resolution had been made feasible in 2003 due to the recruitment of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, located at the University of Minnesota, where, coincidentally and fortuitously, The Episcopal Church was holding its convention. Bishops chose UM’s justice center because of the trust of victims’ groups, both for and against the death penalty.
Marquette University Law School supported the study not only with renewed interest in restorative justice but also with the bulk of the funding. Professor Janine Geske, former Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, provided leadership.
Umbreit recruited Armour, an expert on homicide survivors. She has written extensively on the aftermath of murder for family members of homicide victims, including studying the concept of victims’ “closure” through convicts’ executions. Umbreit’s and Armour’s universities are located in two states primed for a comparative study of this subject: Minnesota does not allow the death penalty; Texas had the highest number of executions during the time period of the study.
Armour focused on a comparison of executions in Texas with life sentences in Minnesota. The study used in-person interviews with a randomly selected sample of survivors. It covered four time periods in order to examine, according to the study’s introduction, “the totality of the ultimate penal sanction (UPS) process and its longitudinal impact on their lives.” In addition, the study assessed the differential effect of two types of “ultimate penal sanctions” by comparing survivors’ experiences in Texas, a death-penalty state, and Minnesota, a life-without-the-possibility-of-parole-state. The study highlighted differences, largely during the time after conviction, specifically with respect to the appeals process and the well-being of survivors. In Minnesota, for example, survivors of adjudicated cases show higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health.
Unbreit and Armor believe that their findings have implications for trial strategy and policy development.
The study for this essay is here: Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two State Comparison.
In response to the study, opposers of the death penalty will present a conference, open to all, on Feb. 21 and 22 at the Marquette Law School’s Restorative Justice Center in Milwaukee, Wis. They will celebrate the study’s findings and plan a strategy for publicizing them.
“We will focus on concern for victims,” said Bp. Doss.
Restorative Justice: The Death Penalty versus Life without Parole: Comparing the Healing Impact on Victim Families and the Community
Place: Marquette Law School, Eckstein Hall
Date and Time: Thursday, February 21, 4:30 pm – 5:30 pm
Friday, February 22, 8:00 am – 3:30 pm
Martha K. Baker, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Louis MO, is a free-lance writer and critic; she served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music during the last triennium.