Many families of murder victims do not want the perpetrators executed – but they do want more support from the state
guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 March 2010 16.00 GMT
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.
Extraordinary funds are allocated to keep prisoners on death row at the taxpayer's expense: having someone on death row adds $90,000 per inmate per year to the normal cost of incarceration, which could be diverted to meet the murder victims' families most immediate needs. In California alone, $125m could be saved every year if death penalty sentences were switched to life without parole. And while psychological support and financial support for those suffering material loss should be key elements helping survivors to get on with their lives as efficiently and compassionately as possible, woefully inadequate funds are directly dedicated to compensation.
Similarly, law enforcement representatives John Van de Kamp, ex-district attorney of Los Angeles County and James Abbott, chief of police of West Orange, New Jersey, both agreed that death penalty costs were taking away from law enforcement resources which could be better spent on both crime prevention and forensic innovations. In the US alone, the increasing use of DNA-based evidence has been pivotal in proving the innocence of many of the 135 men and women who have been released from death row after having been wrongfully convicted since 1973.
The majority of speakers in Geneva agreed that if civil society wants to fight the feeling of abandonment faced by survivors of violence, the state should shoulder compensation when the perpetrator cannot do so. In that vein, pro-victim lawmaking is making progress: the ICC allowed the creation of a trust fund for victims and families of victims of crimes to allocate some form of reparation when the convicted person does not have sufficient assets to provide reparation. In the US, the Crime Victims Equality Act provides that crime victims shall be treated equally under the law regardless of their position on the death penalty, has been passed and legislature recently adopted an important new victim rights bills in New Hampshire, which will expand victims' compensation fund coverage.
There is little doubt that a greater emphasis on victim voices is needed, as retentionist countries have a vision of justice which does not always have the well-being of those who suffered in mind. But while the crimes penalised by capital punishment bring emotions which can't and shouldn't be erased, only adequate compensation, support and participation in legal proceedings can contribute to a true level of satisfaction and empowerment so that victims can move on as best as they can.
Speaking at the conference, the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, called for a global moratorium on executions by 2015. Many of the campaigners present felt his message was overly optimistic but in the meantime, listening to survivors would be a good place to start.