The Cost Argument: A Murder Victim Family Perspective

san-quentinBy Judy Kerr –

My brother, Robert James Kerr, was murdered in 2003. Today, I am one of thousands of murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.  I actively work for alternatives to execution to honor my brother’s memory.

This month Governor Quinn of Illinois signed legislation ending the death penalty.  The Illinois legislature follows New Jersey and New Mexico in replacing the death penalty with alternatives.  Sixteen states across the country now embrace an alternative criminal justice policy that recognizes the needs of murder victim family members while leaving funds on the table for effective public safety programs.  They have acknowledged the reality of an inherently human and imperfect criminal justice system.  At least six other states may follow the lead of Illinois and repeal their death penalty statues, including Connecticut.

There are and will always be murder victim family members who support the death penalty. Today in Connecticut the horrific murder of the family of Dr. Petit has captured the headlines and fears of the general public.  Dr. Petit and I have much in common. We understand the horror of violent loss, we know that there will be no closure to our experience, and we desperately want justice and punishment for the criminals that have taken our loved ones and scarred us forever.  But unlike Dr. Petit, I believe the death penalty is a failed policy which strips away funding from solving cold cases, victims services and crime prevention.

Murder victim family members who support the death penalty and the many of thousands of murder victim family members who support alternatives to the death penalty differ in the understanding that the death penalty is a failed policy.  No matter how right it might feel the death penalty offers nothing to heal the complex grief of survivors while it takes real money away from solving cold cases and getting killers off our streets.

Most murder victim family members who support the death penalty believe, inaccurately, that the death penalty would be cheaper if we would just execute death row inmates more quickly.  That might be true if we could be certain that everyone on death row was guilty.  Tragically, we will never have that certainty.  The possibility of executing an innocent person is real and it is the reason for the lengthy appeals in death penalty cases.  Taking care not to execute the innocent inevitably requires a system that costs much more money than life without parole.  Whether we like it or not, cost is a factor that will never go away.

For the past four years I have honored the memory of my brother’s life by working against the death penalty. While my family waits for some clue or some new information in his cold case to lead to the arrest, prosecution, and punishment of my brother’s killer, billions of criminal justice dollars in the US are wasted on people already behind bars.

I accept with compassion and without judgment that some murder victim family members will always support the execution of guilty murderers.  I understand and have shared their rage in hearing that a much loved family member has been violently assaulted and left dead. 

I also know that with the entirety of my being and in honor of my brother’s life I will never support a system that has the potential to execute someone who was no guiltier than my brother when he was murdered eight years ago. We cannot afford to perfect the death penalty in California or Connecticut.  We cannot afford a perfect death penalty in the US.  I cannot support an imperfect death penalty.

We have an alternative: life without possibility of parole provides swift and certain justice, without the risk of executing an innocent person and at a fraction of the costs of the death penalty system.  It’s time to end the charade and bring justice to more families like mine.

Judy Kerr is the Northern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The report, The Silent Crisis in California: Unsolved Murders, is available at  The article originally appeared on the California Progress Report site; used by permission.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    Nice article. You left out one important point. Doing away w the death penalty will help bring “closure” to victims far sooner, in regard to being caught up in the legal system. When a murderer sits on death row, the victims family has to wait years and years in CA before they can see “justice done” in the form of an execution. Had the murderer been sentenced to life w/o parole, the legal aspect of the case is over and done with, allowing victims families the freedom to move on w their lives w/o having to think about the legal case anymore.

  2. medwoman


    This of course assumes that all victims families seek” closure ” through the death penalty or believe that” justice ” iis served through the death penalty. Not so.

  3. JustSaying

    Reposting to proper article….

    04/06/11 – 05:08 PM

    I think this is an excellent article. It makes important points about the problematic nature of the death penalty, problems that never can fixed (killing people who might be innocent, for example). The fact that victims can carry this cause gives the ideas extra weight.

  4. Mr Obvious

    I absolutely respect the opinion of the writer of this piece. I hope one day they find the killer.

    While I respect the opinion I do not believe it is the sole answer. The writer has a clear agenda with an even clearer motive behind the agenda.

    I also think the death penalty needs to be revamped. I will remain a proponent of the death penalty but I would strongly urge the courts to limiting the cases to where there is DNA evidence, multiple credible eye witnesses or a video recording, ect. I think raising the standard would ease the backlog and free up some funding for valid causes like cold cases.

  5. Roger Rabbit

    Our justice system is designed and promoted to look out for Victims and to protect and give justice to the victims. So it is only reasonable the Victims should have say in how the case is handled. This is not the case, especially in Yolo. Another simple law to fix this would be passing a law that mandates, in order for the death penalty to be pursued, the victim’s immediate family must sign off, concur and request the DA to pursue it. This would stop the foolishness of ego and headline driven DA’s from wasting tax payer money and putting victims in the vicious legal system that protects DA’s better than it protects anyone else.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    To RR: You need to have a dispassionate justice system making the decision that is uniform throughout the state, not a death penalty invoked depending on the mindset of the particular victim. The law represents THE PEOPLE, not just the victim. When a crime has been committed, all people are victimized and redress must be sought in a dispassionate, fair manner. I would much rather make law enforcement more equitable in its ministrations, than hand over the decision-making to the specific victims of crime…

  7. medwoman


    Completely agree that what we need is a dispassionate system with uniformity of application of the law.
    Unfortunately, I do not see that as even close to what we have.
    As per our exchange on another thread, the passage and implementation of “three strikes” was anything but dispassionate and has led to some highly undesirable and costly unintended consequences.
    Also, I believe ( although cannot provide evidence to support) that our system does not work equitably based on financial circumstances.
    It seems to me that a dispassionate and just system would work the same for the indigent individual as it would for the individual capable of hiring a high powered lawyer. I doubt that it does. Am I wrong ?

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