by Kristin Froehlich, published in The Middletown Press
A recent Associated Press article that was published in this paper and others across the state focused on the role the death penalty will play in the upcoming elections. Elections are the last place where an honest discussion of the death penalty can occur. As someone who has personal experience with the death penalty, I know that capital punishment in Connecticut — especially in terms of how it affects murder victims’ families — is complicated and nuanced.
My younger brother, David, was 22 when he was murdered in Connecticut. David and four of his friends were brutally murdered by his landlord before he burnt down the house to hide the evidence. David was identified by dental records.
This quintuple homicide shocked and hurt not just my family, but our entire community. The prosecutors sought the death penalty. Because it was a death-penalty case, it took much more time and money than a non-death penalty case. It also exacted a huge emotional cost on family members. We had no say about whether or not to impose the death penalty. We waited three years for the trial to begin. The killer was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.
Had David’s killer been sentenced to death, even now, 15 years later, I would likely still be caught up in the legal process, waiting and waiting for an execution that, let’s face it, might never happen in Connecticut. The media would cover every appeal, giving undeserved attention to the killer. The life without parole sentence David’s killer received allowed me to begin my journey toward healing unencumbered by worries about the killer’s fate.
For the vast majority of murder victims’ families in Connecticut, the death penalty is not a factor in the legal process. In 1995, the year David was murdered, there were 150 murders in Connecticut, and no offender was sentenced to death. That’s pretty typical. In the last 30 years, Connecticut has placed 11 men on death row, has executed only one person, and did that only after he forfeited appeals and begged to have his life taken by the state.
The fact that the death penalty touches so few lives is the first way in which it does a disservice to victims. The death penalty necessarily divides victims between those who are worthy of a death-penalty case and those who are not. These distinctions are incredibly disrespectful to victims’ families and a source of great pain. And since the vast majority of murderers will not face the death penalty, it is inaccurate and hurtful to act as if the death penalty is a real solution for murder victims’ families.
By focusing on the death penalty as a solution for victims, the state fails to address the real needs of victims’ families. What victims’ families like mine need in the wake of a terrible tragedy is respect, support and honesty. We need time and energy to grieve and heal. Some of us need professional counseling help. Some need financial assistance. We all want to feel safe in our communities.
We do not need controversial sentencing that tells us some murders are more heinous than others. We do not need unnecessarily-long and publicized trials. We do not need the false promise that an external act, such as an execution, could ever bring real justice or the ridiculous term, “closure”
What makes our over-simplified reliance on the death penalty harmful, instead of simply misguided, is the fact that the death penalty in Connecticut is so expensive. The state spends millions of dollars above and beyond what it would cost to enact life without the possibility of release. These funds would be much better invested in services for victims’ families and programs to make society safer.
We must not gloss over the unintended consequences the death penalty can have on the very families we want to help. I hope that, as we head into election season, candidates will put aside the rhetoric on this important issue. Our elected officials and those aspiring to higher office must honestly evaluate the death penalty and its host of effects. And if they do this, what they will find is that the death penalty in Connecticut is a disservice to victims’ families.