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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Death penalty hurts – not helps – families of murder victims

Guest Commentary

The state of New Hampshire is studying the death penalty through its study commission, so I want to share the view of the surviving families – from a state that struggled with the death penalty for a quarter century and hadn’t carried out an execution in 40 years before finally giving up on it.

Make no mistake – I am a conservative, a victims’ advocate and a death penalty supporter. But my real life experience has taught me that as long as the death penalty is on the books in any form, it will continue to harm survivors. For that reason alone, it must be ended.

I’ve spent the last two decades of my life fighting for the rights of crime victims. It’s a mission I began after a terrible murder in my own family. The death penalty is no abstract concept to me – I’ve had to confront it every day since 1984, in my work with countless families that have been impacted by the sudden trauma of homicide.

Three years ago, New Jersey conducted a study of its death penalty system like the one New Hampshire is conducting now. One of the questions put to the commission was the impact of the death penalty on homicide survivors, and I was selected to serve on the committee as a victims’ advocate.

It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve.

I don’t have any compassion for murderers and believe they deserve harsh and certain punishment. In real life, the death penalty doesn’t work that way.

The courts scrutinize death penalty cases more than any other. I understand why they do that – once an execution happens it can’t be reversed, and we already know the system has made mistakes. Truly, not just technically, innocent people have been exonerated after spending years on death row.

But the result of that extra care is a process that takes years, and in many cases, decades. The criminal justice system is hard enough on survivors. When the death penalty is added to the process, the survivor’s connection to the system becomes a long-term and often multidecade nightmare that almost never ends in the promised result.

The details of the crime are replayed over and over in the press with each appeal. The defendant is turned into a celebrity.

I have watched too many families go through this over the years to believe that there is any way to make the system work better. Even in those states that do carry out executions, most cases are reversed at some point. I’ve known people in New Jersey whose entire childhoods were lost waiting for an execution that never came.

They endured multiple trials, as well as the additional trauma each one created in their fractured lives, leaving them feeling revictimized by the very system they once trusted to give them some sense of justice. Meanwhile, families with differing opinions on the death penalty are divided at the moment they need each other most.

Added to this traumatizing process is the sad reality that the true needs of homicide survivors are often forgotten and ignored. While well-intentioned people defend capital punishment “for the victims,” surviving family members are left to grieve in silence, without access to ongoing services, peer support, or affordable, specialized counseling

Of the many hundreds of survivors I’ve worked with, I found most were not focused on the perpetrator literally losing their own life, but on the criminal justice system ensuring they would no longer have the opportunity to harm another person, their family or have the freedom to view anything but prison walls for the rest of their life.

I now believe that the death penalty must be ended and replaced with life without parole, a harsh punishment that provides victims with the swiftness and certainty they need at a fraction of the cost in terms of dollars and human suffering by homicide survivors.

New Hampshire has the opportunity to stop this before more families are subjected to this painful system. As a society, we will continue to fail victims’ families until they have the services they really need to heal as best they can.

Every dollar we spend on a punishment that harms survivors is one we are taking away from the services that can address the emergent and long-term needs of all victims.

Kathleen M. Garcia is a victims’ advocate, an expert in traumatic grief and served on the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.