"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is "Closure" Vital for Capital Punishment?

Mark Bennett over at Defending People has praise for Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who writes that the concept of "closure" for murder victims' families is nonexistent, in that the execution of an offender does not heal the pain of the families' loss.

Bennett believes that this admission negates what he calls the second most common justification for the death penalty. Of course, it's the second most common in some particular polls of the public, hardly the place to look for theoretical justification for capital punishment.

While Ms. Siegler believes that execution provides no closure in her experience, it may be the case that the death of the offender helps begin the process of healing for some people; there is simply not enough non-anecdotal information to make a judgment. So not even Bennett's premise is beyond question.

In point of fact, however, "closure," which I take to be the notion that the execution of a murderer will help heal the psychological wound inflicted on the victim's loved ones, has nothing to do whatever with why the death penalty is an appropriate and moral penalty for certain offenses.

There are, in a nutshell, two main justifications for capital punishment, as I've argued before:
1) "Just Deserts": for some crimes, only the DP adequately addresses the moral equilibrium upset by the offender; that is, the only congruent satisfaction for the death of (especially) innocent victims is the death of the offender.
2) Deterrence: other families might also suffer such crimes if this offender is not executed (i.e., he might be paroled, pardoned, escape, or kill in prison), and some, if admittedly not all, other offenders will be deterred from such crimes.

The first is what appeals to most people when they hear about particularly heinous crimes: the belief that some crimes are so vicious that mere incarceration will not adequately address the offense to society. This central justification for capital punishment will never lose its force, so long as murderers continue to violate the arguably most important value of civil society, the sacredness of human life.

The second justification, deterrence, is a corrolary to the observation that society has a primal right to defend itself from those who would attack it, and a murderer who is executed will certainly be deterred from killing again (specific deterrence); and generally, murder is deterred at the margins by the existence of capital punishment (general deterrence), as the preponderance of studies now show.

Mark Bennett is celebrating over something of little importance, since whether the death penalty coincidentally gives "closure" to this or that victim has no bearing on the justification for capital punishment.


Mark Bennett said...

Tom, thanks for the link. I'm happy to get rid of all of the red herrings (like "closure") in the capital punishment discussion, so we can talk about retribution and deterrence, as well as incapacitation.

I had somehow let "Seeking Justice" slip from my blog reader. I've put it back where it belongs, in the "read first" list. But it's "just deserts", not "just desserts".

Tom McKenna said...

Thanks, Mark. Ooops, must have had the other dessert on my mind.

Speaking of food, I'm still not convinced that "closure" is a red herring; it's more a fringe benefit of capital punishment-- if someone gains some level of closure, great. If not, it doesn't affect the justice of the sentence one whit.

dudleysharp said...

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
I have thought, for some time, that the concept of "closure" via execution is , primarily, a fantasy made up by those in the anti death penalty movement, just so they can denounce it, as in: "Those supporting capital punishment claim that closure is a major reason to support the death penalty - but there is no closure."
I considered this one of the many obvious deceptions of the anti death penalty movement.

Closure to what?
I know of no victim survivor who believes that the execution of the guilty murderer(s) brings closure to the emotional and/or psychological suffering  of that victim survivor for the loss of their innocent, murdered loved one(s). How could it?
I have never encountered such a person, in the many years I have been involved with murder victim survivors. Has anyone?
There are many victims survivors who claim they did find closure with the execution, although without important clarification.
Further inquiry would reveal the obvious: it is closure the the legal process, whereby execution is the most just sanction available for the crime and they are relieved that the murderer is dead  and can no longer harm another innocent - a very big deal.
Those are the real meanings of any closure expression.

Murder victim "Mary Bounds' daughter, Jena Watson, who watched the execution, said Berry's action deprived the family of a mother, a grandmother and a friend, and that pain will never go away."

"We feel that we have received justice," she said Wednesday after the execution. "There's never an end to the hurt from a violent crime. There can never fully be closure. You have to learn to do the best you can. Tonight brings finality to a lot of emotional issues." "

Ina Prechtl, who lost her daughter  Felecia Prechtl. to a rape /murder said,  after watching Karl Chamberlain executed: "One question I ask myself every day, why does it take so long for justice to be served?"  It took 17 years for the execution. ("Texas executes 1st inmate since injection lull", Jun 11, 2008, MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press Writer, HUNTSVILLE, Texas)
copyright 2008 Dudley Sharp
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites 


yesdeathpenalty.googlepages.com/home2   (Sweden)

Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part,  is approved with proper attribution.

Mark Bennett said...

The talk of closure I've heard has come from Harris County prosecutors. They sell it to the victims, they sell it to the juries, and they sell it to the press. But what do they know about killing wrongdoers, right?

Since we're posting URLs, here's one:
Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

dudleysharp said...

As you may know, I came over to this site after a referance from Kelly Siegler's article whic stated that there was no such thing as closure for vicitm survivvors in death penalty cases.

Now, I know that Kelly was only one of many prosecutors in the Harris County DA's office, but she was most likely the highest profile one.

I have dealt with quite a few vicitm survivors in death penalty cases, as well as prosecutors. None have yet to use the closure arguement with me, which doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

I just have not experienced it within the HCDA's office.

I believe all sanctions are imposed by juries or judges based upon retribution.

Deterrence is an outcome of the death penalty, not a reason for it.

Enhanced incapacitation is, again, an outcome of the death penalty, not a reason for it. I think future dangerousness should be removed from the Texas statute.