Linda Lewis Griffith

Does the death penalty give victims closure? Science says no

The death penalty debate is back in the news following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent moratorium on capital punishment.

As expected, many Californians are up in arms about the sudden reversal of this raw, hotly contested issue.

Proponents claim capital punishment gives victims and their families closure.

Is this true? Or does the death penalty create more problems than it solves?

Consider revenge. The theme of retribution is timeless, arising from such diverse sources as the Bible, Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino.

It so permeates our thought processes that we barely hear ourselves say, “Turnaround is fair play,” or “Revenge is sweet.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on March 13, 2019 in Sacramento. Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on Wednesday, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates. At far left is former state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, of San Francisco. Burton’s efforts to end the death penalty while he was in the legislature were cited by Newsom as being instrumental in his decision to place a moratorium on state executions. Renee C. Byer

Yet a 2008 study conducted by Kevin Carlsmith and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who punish others in the hopes of making themselves feel better actually feel worse. They end up ruminating about the event far longer than non-avengers.

According to Carlsmith, “Those who don’t have a chance to take revenge are forced, in a sense, to move on and focus on something different. And they feel happier.”

Executions do not offer emotional catharsis as many would suggest.

Brad Bushman of Ohio State University reported in a 2002 study that subjects who were given the opportunity to vent their hostilities had higher levels of aggression and anger than those participants who did nothing at all.

The death penalty keeps victims involved in the tragedy for years, even decades, as multiple hearings, appeals and trials drag on.

Victims and their families feel stuck in a time warp, being repeatedly re-traumatized by the legal system and accompanying media coverage.

Capital punishment does not change the facts of the precipitating event. Research conducted by Scott Vollum at the University of Minnesota showed that executing perpetrators actually increased family members’ feelings of emptiness because it didn’t bring back their loved ones.

A mere 2.5 percent of victims’ family members and friends reported closure following an execution. And one in five said the execution failed to help them heal at all.

A more emotionally satisfying solution seems to be life without possibility of parole.

A paper published in 2012 in the Marquette Law Review compared the emotional well-being of survivors in Texas, a death penalty state, and Minnesota, a life without possibility of parole state.

Researchers found that victims in Minnesota experienced greater control over the sentencing process, which was “successful, predictable and completed within two years after conviction.”

In contrast, the appeals process in Texas was “drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable,” and created “layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair” for those involved.

The authors were quick to point out that Minnesotans experienced acute grief and sorrow due to their traumas. But “the criminal justice system allowed survivors’ control and energy to be put into the present and to be used for personal healing,” they found.

The debate about capital punishment will no doubt rage on.

Instead of proceeding with archaic and inaccurate information, let’s consider the data and do what really works best.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a retired marriage, family and child therapist who lives in San Luis Obispo. Reach her at
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