STUDIES: Victims' Families React Negatively to Serving as Basis for Death Penalty

A recent study by Professors Thomas Mowen and Ryan Schroeder of the University of Louisville found that public support for the death penalty has shifted away from traditional justifications (such as its purported deterrent effect, its imagined cost-saving value, and its safeguard of innocent lives), and has been replaced by rationales of retribution and closure on behalf of victims’ families.  According to the study, which was published in Western Criminology Review, “with this change in justification, emotional catharsis for the victims' family members has become the goal of the capital punishment system. This has resulted in the onus of capital punishment being placed on the victim’s family.” The study found that this change of justifications for the death penalty has produced a backlash against it.  In the two decades following the rise of retribution and closure for victims as primary justification for the death penalty, there has been a significant increase in opposition to executions from families of victims. 
The report stated, “The growing covictim opposition to the execution of the offenders in their individual cases highlights the resistance of victims’ families to accepting the responsibility for the state-sanctioned death of the offenders, specifically, and to the notion that the court can provide closure, more generally.”

Finally, the report found that newspaper coverage of capital cases in which the victims’ family supported execution of the offender received more words per article and greater exposure than in cases in which the victims opposed the execution. The report concluded, “the findings [ ] signal that covictims are increasingly opposed to capital punishment and do not believe the imposition of death brings closure.”

(T. Mowen and R. Schroeder. "Not In My Name: An Investigation of Victims’ Family Clemency Movements and Court Appointed Closure," Western Criminology Review, 2011).  See Victims and Studies.