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Life imprisonment vs the death penalty and the victim

Life imprisonment vs the death penalty and the victim

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.


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Donald Schell

Here’s a piece of theological interest from p. 90 of the study, a reporting of other research that pointed them in the direction of interviewing survivors (and the findings that confirmed this important observation:

“Survivors seeking vengeance for the grievous wrong of murder lies at the conceptual base of justice. Vengeance is commonly accepted as a morally worthy attempt to undo evil. Although the social expectation is that avenging a wrongdoer will relieve anger and that higher punishment will lead to a better mood, experimental studies show the opposite. A study on punishment found that the dorsal striatum, the brain region that is closely related to pleasure, was activated when participants decided to punish a violator of a social norm, but a subsequent study showed that the predicted and experienced emotion were substantially different. Specifically, after the punishment was administered, these participants were substantially less happy than those who did not punish. This is because these participants who punished continued to ruminate about the violator.

“…as we forgive those who sin against us” is as much about our own life and health as it is about the one we’re freeing from our desire to strike back.

Donald Schell

This research and the question behind it are a huge gift to us this Lent.

How do we extricate and ourselves and others from the dark, primordial hunch that we’d better accuse ourselves fiercely and repent pretty thoroughly or we’ll never get right with God? What helps us see and feel and know that God is always mercifully at work making us (each and all of us) whole. That God never longs for the death of a sinner?

The study addresses one of those ultimate “them” patterns, bad people (unlike us) who have committed capital crimes. Perhaps in Lent we can see how questions of the possibility of healing and asking whether there’s godliness in vengefulness is actually and genuinely about all of us.

I’m proud of our church for the General Convention mandate that launched this study (and grateful to Joe Doss and his bishop colleagues for raising the funds that made it happen).

The data-driven research addresses a specific legal issue, but it also contradicts a troublingly large segment of popular media like movies and video games) where the premise that the law (or vigilante justice) must kill a killer for the survivor-victim to find needed comfort and closure.

The question and research findings layer resonate strongly with questions I’ve been finding very alive this Lent, questions of what we’re guiding people to in a genuinely holy penance or penitence –

– Can we preach Gospel to free people from our fears of (and sometimes vindictive desire for) a vindictive, destroying God (or “Justice”).

– How do we find new creation in forgiveness, in healing of the worst of us.

– Is God at war with evil or encountering it as transforming creator and always (and against the odds) bringing good out of even malice and destruction.

Woven through our secular culture, I kept hearing and seeing our quasi-doctrinal belief in striking back. Over the many years that my wife and I were raising teenagers (our kids age rage is now from 42 down to 26), we talked a lot about images that media and popular culture were offering them with an emphatic, moralizing voice. I’d go so far as to say that our popular culture/secular religion believes vengeance is an ultimate good. Certainly a very large number of movies ranging from very bad to (cinematically) excellent and compelling tell stories of vengeance and ask us to root for the hero who gets it for himself or herself or even on behalf of another.

But even though there’s a good dose of believing in vengeance in our storytelling, video gaming, and focus-group driven, entertainment industry produced news, something holds us back from admitting raw vengeance as a motive in our criminal justice system. But the media and prosecutorial arm of justice system habitually use survivors to rally popular affirmation of an execution like Timothy McVeigh’s.

This church-mandated and funded study is an important contribution to morals-making in the public square. It strips death penalty advocates of the last argument they had except for that one, retribution, vengeance, appeasing a blood-thirsty idol we blasphemously call “justice.” I’m proud of our church and Joe for this hugely important contribution to the nation’s public discourse and effort to think morals and justice among diverse citizens in the public square.

Donald Schell

Bill, it appears that North Dakota is the only U.S. jurisdiction (including military courts) that does not offer a possible sentence of life without parole.

Here’s the chart that has that information:

Further elaboration from that website –

sixteen states non-death penalty states have the legal possibility of sentence of life in prison without parole. District of Columbia (also non-death penalty) also has it in law.

The remaining thirty-three death penalty states do have a sentencing alternative of life without parole.

Bill Dilworth

The problem, it would seem, is in that “without parole” detail. How many US jurisdictions have that as a possibility? Probably more than European ones, where mass murder seems to get the perpetrator something like 30 years, but I wonder if it’s very common?

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