Texas leads the nation in executions. Minnesota has no death penalty. Professor Marilyn Armour, from UT Austin School of Social Work, and professor Mark Umbreit, from the University of Minnesota, teamed up to find out something no one had ever looked at before: what the death penalty does for the murder victims’ families.
The two-state comparison followed families of homicide victims in Texas, where the death penalty is the ultimate penal sanction, and Minnesota, which offers life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) instead. The study lets us hear the voices of victim survivors – those most affected when a homicide occurs and a sentence is rendered. In this interview with Armour, we learn about their experience and what helped them heal.
You’ve done research on homicide survivors for a long time. What led you to do this particular study?
Homicide survivors tend to be marginalized. They play on the sidelines. Often, they are not allowed in the court room because they may be called as witnesses. Somebody once said to me, “We’re bit players on a stage in a play that is about our lives. “
That kind of scenario can be very hurtful to survivors. But also hurtful is the linkage we make between the offenders’ sentence and what we think helps survivors. The death penalty in particular but also LWOP gets argued today as necessary because they provide a therapeutic benefit to survivors. We say we need to do this for them or in their name or the victim’s name. So we cloak society’s call for retribution contending that the punishment will be beneficial to the survivors. ‘It’s the least that they deserve given what they have been through.’ We put it on their backs with the justification that it will bring them closure.
Most homicide survivors will tell you almost to a person there is no such thing as closure. They are being assigned a role if you will which fundamentally is not reflective of where they actually are. So it seemed time to add the survivors’ voice and to ask them directly how the offenders’ punishment affects their lives. What type of impact: positive, negative, neutral does it really have? So actually the impetus for the study was, let’s go to the survivors themselves, and let’s stop making conjecture.
How did you structure the project so you could gather that information?
In order to compare the impact of the ultimate penal sanction in two states, I had to look at impact very broadly, covering the length of time survivors were involved in the criminal justice process. In Texas that’s 10 years 8 months on average and includes the trial, appeals process, and execution. And then we needed to add some time to pick up the post execution experience. See, it wasn’t enough to just look at the execution and ask “How was it for you?” Because how people experience that execution to some extent is conditioned by what the period of time has been like for them between conviction and getting to that point. And it would also be important to ask “What happened after the execution?” That’s all impact.
But in Minnesota the time trajectory is very different. They have the trial and the appeals and that’s it. Once the appeals occurs, and the original finding is upheld, that ends it. The offender is in prison for the rest of their life. For most of the Minnesota participants in the study, they were done at about two years. So to compare impact we had to look at the same time points in both states even though Minnesotans had completed the process sooner.
The study was done with interviews all over both states that ran about two hours. We also gave people a measure of complicated grief and asked what their reactions had been in the last month to their loved one’s death. Then we compared the time points between Texas and Minnesota victim survivors.
You said that it is important for us to hear the voices of victim survivors. What did they say?
People in both states talked about relationships with the prosecution, how they felt very well tended to in the time before the trial and particularly so in Texas. They also talked about cordial relationships with the defense team primarily in Texas. Where survivors felt ok about how the defense attorney responded to them in court or handled the trial, meaning they didn’t feel like the victim was put down or used as an excuse for why the offender did what they did, those experiences were positive. Those survivors had better scores on complicated grief. The same was true for positive interaction with the murderer’s family. That was a surprise. It says something about key players and the potential difference the relationships can make to survivors healing. I think there’s wisdom in that for prosecutors and defense attorneys.
It’s not that there was lots of positive contact with the murderer’s family, but where it did happen you also saw that shift. Most of that positive contact was based on outreach from the victim survivors toward the murderer’s family. For example, the daughter of the homicide victim happened to know the sister of the murderer from high school. After the trial there were tears, hugs, obviously the victim survivor feeling justice had been done. At the same time, the victim survivor felt tremendous empathy for the offender’s sister and what their family had gone through and were going to go through in the future.
The offender’s sister wanted desperately to be able to say to the victim survivor how sorry she was about what her brother had done. When there was opportunity for that kind of engagement, what I would say is based on the scores it clearly had a healing impact.
We live in an adversarial system with an adversarial model, which ideally is built around representing your client or representing the state as zealously as one can possibly do it. That arrangement is supposed to help lift out the truth and some sort of justice is supposed to happen. But when we take that principle to such extremes in terms of one side stands for good, one side stands for bad … the players in the system including survivors never cross over without being a traitor to the other side.
That process creates walls so that some of what may need to happen in the middle can’t happen. And what this research began to show with the defense attorneys and with the murderer’s family is that when that overlap can happen constructively, it has real healing potential. However, that is very hard to get to when the adversarial system is as thick and as embedded as it is.
What were some of the similarities you found in victim survivors in both states?
One of the things that was very striking was the amount of engagement in victim survivors minds with the murderer. That whole piece came out very strongly.
What that means during the trial is that one eye is kept on the murderer all the way through. How they look, how they dress. Where they’re looking in the courtroom, what kind of response they have to every single thing that’s said. The survivors have no opportunity for any engagement or interaction with the murderer nor do they want it except when they are giving the victim impact statements. But they sit there glued because this may be the only time that they can observe who this person is who took the life of their loved one. Once the trial is over they may never see them again. So this is the one time that they have the chance to put pieces in place, to answer questions about who this is, what kind of person this is, what their family looks like, do they even have family present?
The trial is one of the few places where they glean information from every little hint and nuance possible. After the trial there’s no more contact other than the conversations they’re having in their minds with the murderer. And they’re having countless conversations, wondering what their life is like in prison… do they feel remorse. The conversations go on and on and on.
That mental engagement is pretty active. And that was true in both states. Obviously more so in Texas simply because the legal system is still keeping it alive for a longer period of time.
It’s not happening every minute but it stayed alive for both groups. That is an important piece in terms of implications because we don’t give much credibility to that relationship.
The victim survivor is supposed to be glad that it’s over and get on with their lives. In fact they are, but they are still engaged in conversation because that person has become a part of probably the most horrible and significant thing that’s ever happened in their lives. It doesn’t go away.
When survivors had opportunity to find out there was some sort of remorse or if the offender was suffering in prison, it seemed to be helpful or satisfying for them. That’s impressionistic, but what it says is that there is this huge vacuum with no knowledge or information, no answer to questions and the tons of things that are never going to add up. They’re still hunting for the pieces that will put it together and that’s what the conversation is all about that is going on in their minds. To me that was very powerful because again “thou shalt not ever meet” and yet here are people pretty hungry for information that only the offender has that might begin to put puzzle pieces together.
What implications are there for this study for criminal justice policy and victim services?
Most of the implications relate to what we make available to survivors so that the journey is easier for them. For example, in Texas the cases awaiting execution that were 8 to 17-18 years old were all stuck in the appeals process. Survivors were in limbo waiting on findings from the Supreme Court or waiting for test results on possible mental retardation.
Things weren’t moving in either direction, and so the survivors were absolutely suspended. That ‘stuckness’ creates an extremely detrimental scenario for survivors and puts them in a position of what I call ‘ambiguous loss.’
Ambiguous loss refers to situations where what you think you have in front of you is not quite what you have in front of you. Somebody with Alzheimer’s is still the same person visually that you’ve always known. But as the disease progresses you’re not sure how much of that person is present or not present. That’s ambiguous loss. It doesn’t resolve itself because you can’t know definitively one way or the other. What we know about ambiguous loss is that it creates a nightmare for people because they can’t accurately ascertain outcomes.
People who are in the middle of the appeals process where something is stuck to that extent are dealing with ambiguous loss. For them it’s ‘They got the death penalty, we’re just waiting for the execution.’ But now they’re in a state where they don’t know if that’s going to happen at all. And they don’t know how long they have to wait to find out.
One family I interviewed were within an hour of the execution when the appeals court ruled in favor of the offender. So they’re back to a whole other appeals process. This couple is in their 70’s – early 80’s, and in very poor health. They live with the likelihood that they will die never having seen this resolved. Their daughter who lived through this whole thing growing up will now inherit the unresolved saga in terms of what she lives with for who knows how many years of her life.
That’s the type of impact we need to pay more attention to – how the sentence imposes this ambiguous loss on victim survivors and what survivors aren’t getting to help them move forward.
You delivered the keynote address at a the Restorative Justice Conference at Marquette University, School of Law, which was one of the sponsors of the research. Tell us about that.
The study was seen as groundbreaking because of the attention given to victim survivors and victim survivors took center stage at the conference. People who had experienced either the death penalty or life without parole spoke about that experience. For once the prosecutors, defense attorneys, wardens, judges, and clergy who were there listened to that experience in ways that normally they don’t have to listen to or don’t even get the chance to listen to. It was very powerful for victim survivors, and it put a whole new piece in there for the other professionals that otherwise wouldn’t be something that they would have to consider.
The conference also provided a forum to hear from all the other people who are playing in these waters related to the ultimate penal sanction. We heard from prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, about what the impact has been for them personally and professionally.
But the victim survivors and their experiences were at the center of the dialogue and kept the focus on what the implications are for both punishments on survivor healing.
What does the study tell us about what helps victims in their journey to healing?
The study provides a platform for victim survivors to share their experience and answer that question. The key piece here is really listening to what they have to say and learning from it, and not set it up as a victim rights vs. the offender’s rights, but just look at it for itself.
When we do that, there is the potential for much stronger services that support the victim survivors better in their journey. Not something based on conjecture but based on what they have to live with and the impact on their lives. And there is also some room for movement in how we look at the ultimate penal sanction, and that’s good as well.
By Karen Kalergis.