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Murder Victims' Families and the Death Penalty

Justice neither swift nor sure

To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. Capital punishment prolongs pain for victims’ families, dragging them through an agonizing and lengthy process that holds out the promise of an execution at the beginning but often results in a different sentence in the end. A life without parole sentence, on the other hand, begins as soon as victims’ families leave the courtroom and is served anonymously, outside the spotlight of the news cameras.

"A serial killer ripped Deirdre away from us in 1982. My family had no idea, then, that our ordeal was just beginning. All we knew was that the worst of the worst had happened, and the person who did it should pay the ultimate price – the death penalty. From 1982 until 1990 I lived day to day, appeal to appeal, decision to decision. We woke up every day wondering what might happen that day. Will there be another appeal? Another motion? What new decision might come down? The toll it took on me and my family was horrendous… Eight years of trials and retrials changed my mind about the death penalty. I learned the hard way that the death penalty is an albatross over the heads of victims' families."

– Jim O’Brien, whose daughter, Deirdre, was murdered

The death penalty ignores the real needs of surviving families

  • The death penalty’s cumbersome and expensive process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that homicide survivors need to help them heal, including specialized grief counseling, financial assistance, and ongoing support. In most states, these services are sorely lacking.
  • The few services that are available are often provided through the prosecutor’s office, so when the criminal case is over the services for the victim’s family end along with it.
  • For families in unsolved murders, there is the added pain of never learning what happened to their loved ones. Meanwhile, the perpetrators remain on the streets, free to kill again, while countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing a handful of executions instead of solving more cases.

The death penalty divides families when they need each other most

    The death penalty has split families apart, forcing relatives with different views on the issue to engage in a polarizing debate at the time when they need each other most. Families are asked to weigh in on the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty at a time when they are still processing the shock of the news of the murder. They are in no position to evaluate how the long process will effect them years down the road.

Can we make the system faster?

    The death penalty is the nation’s only irreversible punishment. The process is longer because a life is on the line. Many of the extra procedures are legally required to reduce the risk of mistakes. And even these safeguards are not enough – at least 135 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of an innocent person.

Click here to download a fact sheet from Equal Justice USA about the death penalty and murder victims’ families.

We’d like to hear from you

We greatly value the opinion and insights of those who have suffered the murder of a loved one. We would like to speak with you. Please email or call Colleen at colleenc@ejusa.org or (312) 265-0203. If you provide your contact information below, she will be in touch with you.