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KY Study: Executions Fail to Deliver Closure for Victims' Families

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April 15, 2011

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two University of Louisville sociologists say justifications for the death penalty are relying less on traditional arguments of crime deterrence, perceived cost-savings and public safety – and more on the notions of serving justice and offering closure to the victim's surviving family members.

However, their study shows a backlash against that rationale in a growing victims' clemency movement, as well as recent data that indicates a death sentence rarely eases the emotional pain for families. Coauthor Ryan Schroeder, assistant professor of sociology, says states justify executions by shifting the onus onto victims.

"And, instead of abandoning their support for the death penalty, they've now turned to the justification of closure - that we need the death penalty to help the families. That the families need the death penalty in order to obtain to this emotional catharsis, that we call 'closure.'"

Schroeder says studies reveal most victims' families don't earn that peace of mind during the death penalty process, or even after an execution. The researchers analyzed newspaper accounts of capital offense trials from 1992-2009 to track the trends. The study is found in a recent edition of Western Criminology Review, and online at http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v12n1/Mowen.pdf.

The study's lead researcher, Thomas Mowen, is a graduate student and University of Louisville instructor. He says a murderer's execution is not a soothing salve for many surviving family members, as they still feel victimized, and cites a 2007 study that makes that point.

"Only 2.5 percent of co-victims actually reported that the death penalty brought them closure. And, that includes people that were advocates for the death penalty from the very beginning. At the conclusion, it turns out that almost no one experienced closure at the end of the death penalty process."

In fact, adds Mowen, the expectation of closure from a death sentence is shown to cause even more suffering by surviving family members, and they often turn in opposition to the measure.

"And, so there's been this rise of co-victim opposition, but it's gone relatively unnoticed by the justice system and the American public."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Kentucky is among 34 states with the death penalty. Illinois recently repealed its death penalty, and several other states have considered similar legislation this year.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY