Death row lets victims' families down
Mar 12, 2010
Most debates about the criminal justice system and restorative justice are criticised for not focusing enough on the impact that violence has on victims and their families. Those objections multiply tenfold when the issue at hand is capital punishment: bring up the subject and many death penalty supporters will say that executions are the only way to meet survivors' needs for justice and closure, and that to oppose capital punishment is to be anti-victim. "What if it was your own son or mother?" they ask. "Wouldn't you want the perpetrator die at the hands of our justice system?"
As it turns out, the truth is rather different. During last week's fourth world congress against death penalty in Geneva, the voices of murder victims' families painted a picture seldom seen in the media. For a variety of reasons, a growing number of families do not support capital punishment. However, all families face decades of legal appeals over the execution of the perpetrator – a truly agonising wait for anyone seeking closure.
For some, such as the members of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, opposition to capital punishment is first and foremost ideological: in their mind, the response to one human rights violation should not be another one. Others, such as Vicki Schieber, resent the attention that inmates on death row receive. Schieber's daughter, Shannon, was murdered in Pennsylvania in 1998, and she fought the district attorney and prosecutors to keep the death penalty from being applied to her daughter's killer, poignantly writing that "one tragedy of the death penalty is that it turns society's perspective away from the victim and creates an outpouring of support for those who have perpetuated a crime. This is not the way to honour our daughter's life".
But beyond ideologies, participants in Geneva were particularly keen to accentuate how little support families receive after tragedies. Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1988, spoke at length about the lack of resources available to victims. He told the harrowing story of a woman whose husband was killed. A few weeks later, she received a hefty bill for the cost of the ambulance which transported the body. She had, in effect, to pay for her family member's death.