Friday, April 08, 2011

Capital punishment: an offence against victims' relatives

For grieving families hoping for closure as well as justice, the death penalty with its endless delays and appeals can be cruel

By Maura Kelly, posted in The Guardian

On Tuesday, death row inmate Cleve Foster was granted his second stay of execution this year. His first came on 11 January, just moments after Foster – who maintains he is innocent and would have been the first Texan executed with a cocktail containing a chemical used to euthanise animals – had eaten what he believed was his last meal; that's when the call came, informing him that the US supreme court would consider an appeal.

The parents of Rachel Urnosky, a 22-year-old woman whose murder Foster was charged with (though never tried for, being found guilty instead of a related homicide), found out about the decision after making a long trip across the "lone star state", when they arrived at the prison where Foster's execution was supposed to take place. Terry Urnosky, Rachel's father, a therapist, told The Texas Star-Telegram how shocked he felt:

"It's like – if you've ever played football – getting hit in the stomach with a helmet in the gut. […] We were expecting closure. But unfortunately, we're reliving all the thoughts, the trials, the evidence. […] The nightmare continues."

Death penalty proponents argue that executions help victims' family members feel that justice has been done, and indeed, Terry Urnosky said back in 2003 that he thought the death sentence was part of God's plan for Foster. But others who've endured similar tragedies oppose the capital punishment, arguing that the agonising appeals process that so often accompanies a death penalty case exacerbates their pain and, far from helping them overcome their loss, keeps it in the forefront of their minds.

No judge wants to be responsible for allowing the execution of an innocent person, which helps explain why there tend to be an unusually high number of appeals in a capital case. But appeals are costly – and not just figuratively, for victims' families, but literally, for taxpayers. North Carolinians, for instance, pay $2.16m more for every death row inmate than for those sentenced to life, and Florida spends $51m more annually than it would if life-without-parole were the most severe sentence allowed there.

More to the point, the long, slow appeals process exacts a toll from victims' families. Sure, some survivors do say things like, "I was really looking forward to sitting in the front row while they executed this guy," (as Karen Bond told the Chicago Tribune after Illinois Governor Pat Quinn commuted her son's murderer's sentence). But others want the criminals who ruined their lives to get nothing less than … life. For instance, last month 82 relatives of murder victims signed an open letter to Connecticut lawmakers, saying:

"The death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims' families frustrated and angry [and] wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims' services."

Similarly, Laura Porter from Equal Justice USA, a grassroots organisation working to improve the justice system, increase services for families of homicide victims and repeal the death penalty, says:

"I work with many murder victim's family members […] and I'm hearing more and more voices calling for repeal of the death penalty, citing the fact that the endless appeals process harms victims."

Or take it from Walter Everett, a 76-year-old retired minister whose son was killed when a crack addict shot him point blank. He recently told the Connecticut Post:

"There is an incredible cost of the death penalty […] emotionally for families of victims because they tend to wait seemingly forever, for the execution."

That doesn't sound just. Emotional closure is going to be difficult, under any circumstances, for people who have suffered as he and the Urnoskys have. But the legal case, at least, is more likely to be closed quickly if it's a question of a life prison sentence rather than a penalty of death.

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