“The death penalty was not on my mind after the murder. More important to me was bringing the murderer to justice. Still, my son’s case remains unsolved…. I don’t want more money going toward a death penalty we don’t use. We already spend $4 million a year on it…. Why? I want those resources to go toward investigating my son’s murder.”
– Pamela Joiner, whose son Jumar was murdered in Hartford in 2008
Like the general public, victims’ families have different opinions on the death penalty and no one can speak for all of them. It is important, then, to look at the death penalty system and evaluate its overall effects. Given the prolonged trials, lengthy appeals, and reversals common in capital cases, many victims’ families, victims’ advocates, and trauma experts are concluding that the death penalty harms surviving family members.
Over 180 relatives of murder victims have signed a letter to the state legislature, calling on our lawmakers to repeal the death penalty. One of the signatorees, Elizabeth Brancato, started a blog to give a voice to the many family members of murder victims who believe that the death penalty fails victims. Check out www.ctvictimvoices.org to read the blog, which includes guest posts by other families.
Death Penalty’s Negative Effects on Victims’ Families
- No Finality: Death penalty cases are marathons, ones where no one wins. Cindy Siclari, who endured a capital trial after her sister-in-law was murdered, says the endless process in capital cases does nothing to help surviving family members: “The death penalty in our state offers a false promise to victims’ family members and delivers decades of additional pain. In nearly the last half-century, Connecticut has executed only one person and he voluntarily gave up his appeals. It still took 18 years after his conviction to execute him. Others have been on death row for over two decades.”1
- No Certainty: When prosecutors seek the death penalty, odds are the sentence never will be carried out. Between 1973 and 1995, only 5% of death sentences were carried out, and 68% were overturned.2 It also is no guarantee that a jury will return a death sentence in a capital case. This reality leaves victims’ families frustrated, as prosecutors’ promise of a death sentence so often goes unfulfilled. Nancy Filiault, whose sister, niece, and nephew were murdered in Guilford, expresses her frustration after a capital trial: “Everyone involved with my sister’s case thought the jury would choose death. I prayed for a sentence of life in prison, yet it makes me physically ill to think that this jury spared his life; he did not spare my sister’s life.”3
- Inflicts Trauma: The legal process in murder cases, with its focus on the offender, is especially trying on surviving family members. But the media attention and endless legal process in capital cases exacerbates the trauma families suffer. Dr. Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist whose brother-in-law was murdered, speaks to this problem: “I have many years of experience treating individuals suffering from the effects of trauma. From a professional standpoint, there is simply no doubt that the death penalty is injurious to the family members of murder victims. It forces people to continually re-live the murder of their loved one for years. In keeping the traumatic event ‘front and center’ the judicial system re-traumatizes and re-victimizes the very people it seeks to assist.”4
- Diverts Resources: Capital punishment is incredibly expensive. By ending the death penalty, Connecticut could save millions of dollars a year and redirect those resources to much needed victims’ services, such as improved counseling programs or funeral expenses for victims from low-income families. After Gov. Rell cut funding for victims’ advocates in 2009, Dorry Clay, a survivor of sexual assault, wrote: “Gov. Rell defended her veto of a bill to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty as a way to support victims’ families. I have a hard time believing the governor, given her recent veto that slashed funding for victims’ advocates…. She cuts funding in the name of fiscal responsibility, while at the same time supporting a death penalty that wastes up to $4 million a year.”5
- Divides Families: A common argument for capital punishment is that victims’ families, in consultation with prosecutors, should have the option of the death penalty available to them in certain cases. But what if surviving family members do not agree on the death penalty? Kathy Garcia – an expert on traumatic grief whose nephew was murdered and who founded the Center for Traumatic Grief – addresses this problem: “When family members have differing views on capital punishment, the introduction of the possibility of a capital charge can split family members at the very time they need each other most. I know families who still do not speak to each other because of the wedge driven between them by fighting over that choice.”6
- Creates a Hierarchy of Victims: The death penalty is supposedly reserved for “the most heinous murders.” This approach fails to recognize that every murder is heinous and a tragedy to the surviving family. As Kristin Froehlich, whose brother David was murdered in Redding, Connecticut in 1995, writes, “The death penalty necessarily 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.”7
Commission Findings on Death Penalty’s Impact on Victims
NEW JERSEY: The alternative of life imprisonment in a maximum security institution without the possibility of parole would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims.
- “The non-finality of death penalty appeals hurts victims, drains resources and creates a false sense of justice. Replacing the death penalty with life without parole would be a certain punishment, not subject to the lengthy delays of capital cases; it would incapacitate offenders; and it would provide finality for victims’ families.”8
MARYLAND: While both life without possibility of parole and death penalty cases are extremely hard on families of victims, the Commission finds that the effects of capital cases are more detrimental to families than are life without the possibility of parole cases.
- “One fact that became abundantly clear to the Commission is that the criminal justice process is exceedingly difficult for family members who have just lost a loved one…. The death penalty exacerbates these problems. First the process is very painful for families. It is on average significantly longer than non-capital cases…. Moreover, death penalty cases frequently result in reversals and retrials. In Maryland, there have been 62 reversals of death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Each one of those reversals represents a family that had expected an execution, lived through years of agonizing appeals, and ultimately, many of them, ended up with a life sentence in the end.”9
Current System Hurts Victims’ Families – Can We Fix It?
The current system of capital punishment has a tremendous negative impact on victims’ families. Some call for cutting short the trial and appeals process as a way to fix the system and lessen their pain. But we cannot forget the many wrongful convictions in recent decades, and the years of appeals it often takes to uncover these mistakes. Because of the high error rate in our system of capital punishment, limiting appeals is not a feasible solution, as it would further increase the risk of executing the innocent. Victims’ families are therefore stuck with a seemingly endless legal process that leaves them frustrated and often adds to their suffering. The death penalty already has caused too much harm to victims’ families – it is time we recognize this reality and repeal it.
- Cindy Siclari, “Consider Families in Death Debate,” Connecticut Post, September 23, 2010.
- James S. Liebman and Jeffrey Fagan, “A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995,” Columbia Law School, 2000.
- Nancy Filiault, “Testimony before New Hampshire Study Commission,” March 16, 2010.
- Gail Canzano, Voices: Connecticut Murder Victims’ Families Speak Out Against the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, February 2011, p. 6.
- Dorry Clay, “Where’s Governor’s Concern for Victims?” Hartford Courant, November 6, 2010.
- Kathy Garcia, “Testimony before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment,” August 19, 2008.
- Kristin Froehlich, “Honest debate needed on death penalty,” Middletown Press, April 30, 2010.
- New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission Report, January 2007, p. 61.
- Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, December 12, 2008, pp. 56-57.