When debating a policy that elicits any sort of emotion, it is a common practice to invoke sympathetic members of the population for an argument. At anti-gun rallies, you will always find children within the camera angle’s reach. Any time education is discussed at state capitols, school buses will pull up on cue. And when it comes to criminal justice reform, prosecutors will often parade around the families of victims.
There are many, including some in the media, who would have you believe that all crime victims and their families are in lockstep with the policies of our broken justice system. In all my years of working around the system, though, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that is true. And it is patronizing to suggest as much.
The death penalty is one debate in which victims are commonly brought up as a reason for the policy. But my organization works with hundreds of these families who recognize how the death penalty actually harms them and families like them.
In fact, over 175 victims’ family members signed a letter calling on President Trump this week to halt the federal government’s plan to resume executions in December. In that letter they state:
“The death penalty does not prevent violence. It does not solve crime. It does not provide services for families like ours. It does not help solve the over 250,000 homicide cold cases in the United States. It exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one and creates yet another grieving family. It also wastes many millions of dollars that could be better invested in programs that actually reduce crime and violence and that address the needs of families like ours.”
Though she did not sign the letter, Earlene Branch Peterson is among those who oppose the federal executions. Earlene is a Trump supporter whose daughter and granddaughter were murdered by a man who is currently on the federal death row. Danny Lee is one of the five men the Trump administration has announced it will execute in the near future.
Ms. Peterson has called on the administration to grant clemency based on the arbitrariness in sentencing. She’s also stated that carrying out the death penalty in this instance would sully her daughter’s name. She’s one of many victims’ family members who is currently fighting to make the government respect her wishes in this matter. So when prosecutors parade families through state houses, why doesn’t that include people like Earlene Branch Peterson?
Earlier this year in New Hampshire, a lawmaker named Renny Cushing led the charge to repeal the death penalty (he was ultimately successful in this). Both Renny’s father and his brother-in-law were murdered in two instances, separated by decades. Renny powerfully championed efforts to end the death penalty for many years and was joined in committee hearings by over three dozen other families this year, all of whom testified to the failures of capital punishment and of their desire to see the system ended.
In spite of that, the media covering the New Hampshire repeal process almost exclusively covered the one victim’s family member who testified against repeal. Some lawmakers even lectured Renny and the families that stood with him on why the death penalty was needed for victims.
I witnessed this behavior at multiple points throughout the session, and I have to say it felt icky. Why were the voices of victims only considered when they were asking for more government power? Who would have the audacity to tell victims’ families they needed the death penalty right after they testified to the ways it had harmed them?
The truth of the matter is the death penalty is not in place to help victims or their families. These are people grappling with one of the worst events in life a person can experience, and too often they are being used as political pawns when they fit the agenda of those in power. In actuality, there are much better services we could be offering these families with the money currently wasted on the death penalty.
Some services that crime survivors and victims’ families report would actually assist them in the wake of violence include therapy, relocation assistance, temporary childcare support, funeral expenses, and restorative justice programs that create personal maps to make restitution catered to the victims’ needs. Instead, we force victims into a lengthy process that drags them in and out of court for decades, divides families, and forces them to constantly relive the worst day of their lives. These families are often promised “closure” at the end of the process by lawmakers and prosecutors, but this result is something few report ever finding.
The feelings of victims’ families are nuanced and complicated; we should never be so presumptuous as to speak on behalf of all of them. And we should all be very careful of listening only to people whose wishes fit our agenda. These are real people, with real trauma, and the way they are currently treated is shameful.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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