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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Death Penalty May Not Bring Peace to Victims' Families

Screenshot from 'Dead Man Walking', by Tim Robbins (1995)
Does the death penalty provide true justice and closure to victims?

On May 15th 2015, a federal jury condemned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in killing four people and injuring hundreds in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. 

Before the verdict, Bill and Denise Richards—the parents of a nine-year-old boy who was killed in the attack—asked that the government not seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev. In an open letter published in the Boston Globe, they explained:

“The continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong the most painful day of our lives.”

The death penalty is often touted as the only punishment that provides true justice and closure for a victim’s family and friends, also known as co-victims. But this is rarely based on co-victims’ actual sentiments.

Research by University of Minnesota sociology-anthropology professor Scott Vollum and colleagues found ambivalence in co-victims’ reactions to capital punishment. Their study showed that only 2.5 percent achieved true closure, and 20.1 percent said that the execution did not help them heal. Co-victims in the study also expressed feelings of emptiness when the death penalty did not “bring back the victim.”

The long judicial process between conviction and execution, which can span many years in some cases, also prolongs grief and pain for co-victims. Uncertainty prevails in the face of appeals, hearings, and trials, while increased publicity inherent in death-penalty cases exacerbates co-victims’ suffering. Through media exposure, they repeatedly relive traumatic events.

Pain and anger, especially, are common in the wake of tragic loss and can be accompanied by an overwhelming desire for revenge. Some co-victims in the Vollum study voiced that the death penalty was not harsh enough, while others communicated a wish to personally inflict harm on the condemned. In the majority of cases though, executions were not sufficient to satisfy these desires.

“More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution,” states Lula Redmond, a Florida therapist who works with surviving family members. “Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

In a number of cases, co-victims actually expressed sympathy for family members of the condemned, often empathizing with the experience of loss. “My heart really goes out to his family. I lost my daughter, and I know today is a terrible day for them as well,” stated one co-victim.

A death sentence can polarize the two families, obstructing healing for both. Prison chaplain Caroll Pickett has witnessed how capital punishment inflicts trauma on loved ones of both the condemned and the victim, as well as prison employees and others in the judicial process, stating in his autobiography, “All the death penalty does is create another set of victims.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: Psychology Today, Robert T Muller Ph.D., October 19, 2016

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