A new study suggests that the primary reason people say they support the death penalty is based on an incorrect assumption — that the death of the murderer would bring satisfaction and closure to the victim’s family.
The study itself does not advocate for the death penalty or for life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). It is the first study, however, dealing directly with whether capital punishment affects the healing of murder victims’ loved ones.
The study was conducted by two researchers who come from states on opposite ends of the spectrum: Mark Umbreit, Ph.D., from the University of Minnesota (Minnesota has no death penalty) and Marilyn Peterson Armour, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin (Texas leads the nation in executions).
Through personal interviews, the researchers compared family survivors’ experiences in Texas with those in Minnesota. The findings showed that, in Minnesota, victims’ family members show higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health, as well as more satisfaction with the criminal justice system.
Most studies have focused on societal concerns regarding the death penalty, said Umbreit, such as cost effectiveness and mistakes in death penalty cases.
“We’re still kind of teasing out all the implications of this study, but it certainly raises significant policy issues,” said Umbreit. “It challenges this notion, this assumption that, ‘well, at least the death penalty really brings closure to survivors.’”
“If a growing [number] of people—and this is clear through surveys in this country—are really questioning the death penalty, realizing that it’s more costly than life without parole (it is), or that there have been people on death row who have been innocent (there have) and the one real pillar is that at least it brings closure to victims … If that’s being challenged, then at a public policy level it really brings up the question, ‘Should we still be doing this?’” said Umbreit.
Umbreit believes that closure can never occur through the law alone. In fact, Umbreit’s research has pioneered an end to conflict, healing, and a sense of closure, using a therapy called restorative justice — conversations between murderers and victims’ families and loved ones.
“Restorative justice doesn’t view crime as just a violation of law. Yes, it is, but it’s fundamentally a traumatic act; a violation of people—of families and individuals,” Umbreit said. “The human impact is extremely important.”
“It’s the extreme importance of listening to victims. In this case, to family surviving victims of homicides. To listen to their concerns and perceptions—for us, as professionals, not to make assumptions about what they need. To anchor public policy as much as possible in the people most affected by it.”
Still, he believes the study needs to be conducted on a much larger scale.
“This is still what I’d consider an exploratory study — it’s a small sample. But it provides a very rigorous methodology — incredibly deep interviews with these people, where they share their life stories, their narratives. And that qualitative data matched with the quantitative data,” Umbreit said.
Source: University of Minnesota