by Sina A. Vogt
The goal behind punishment is to allow the defendant to be rehabilitated, discourage other perpetrators, and make society safer. Punishments should provide justice for the victims and make the defendant atone for his crimes in order to offer his/her (surviving) victims closure and allow them to heal.
The focus of this article is on examining how the understanding of punishment has changed over the last few decades and what changed roles the relatives of murder victims play in capital murder trials. This article’s central object of investigation is the victim impact statement, which provides the relatives of a murder victim with an opportunity to address the court prior to sentencing after a guilty verdict has been reached in the United States. The legal history of victim impact statements will be examined and embedded in the context of how punishments are viewed by society. During this process, I will also refer to how punishments are viewed in Germany. The article will look at the various attitudes of the relatives of murder victims about the death penalty and its impact on trials and understanding of punishment and briefly describe the role of the jury and the effects of the victim impact statements on their decision.
In the United States, the district attorney almost always calls the members of victim’s family to the stand as witnesses in capital cases – even if they have nothing to say about the facts of the case. For example, many family members of the victims were called as witnesses in the case against Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for blowing up a government building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 – an attack in which 168 people were killed. Glenn A. Seidl testified about the death of his wife, who had worked in the building, and how difficult it was for him to deal with the grief of his nine-year-old son, who constantly asks about his mother and misses her terribly. Seidl also read a letter from his son in court that stated "I miss my Mom, we used to go for walks. She would read to me. We would go to Wal-Mart… Sometimes at school around the holidays I will still make my Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day cards like the other kids.“ (Sarat, p. 9). Glenn A. Seidl was only the last of the 26 family members of those who were killed to be called as witnesses by the prosecution, in addition to three injured survivors and eight rescue or medical workers. The prosecution’s goal was to urge the jurors to not think of what happened as just mass murder: "There are 168 people, all unique, all individual…. All had families, all had friends, and they’re different.“ (Sarat, p. 8).
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