My View: Not All Victims Favor the Death Penalty


In the past few days, we have seen much in the way of angry responses from families of victims, where those convicted are on death row. However, despite this, it is a tricky subject. I recall a few years ago reading the book, Killing McVeigh, which did a great job of tracking the families of the victims of that bombing. The truth is there were some who wanted him to be executed – but there were many who were opposed to it.

About five or six years ago, I interviewed Linda White, a woman in Texas whose daughter had been raped and killed by two teens. She told me that at first she had joined victims groups, but found them full of angry people trying to devise harsher and more draconian punishments for the offenders.

“There were people who were angry about that on my behalf, friends and supporters, but I didn’t feel that way in the beginning,” Ms. White said.  “I did go to a victims’ group, a victim support group, for awhile and I found them to be enormously helpful in the beginning because they kind of helped me. They know what to expect in the criminal justice system and it was good talking to people and listening to people that had been in similar circumstances.”

That was not for her and eventually she learned of a restorative process in Texas whereby she was ultimately able to go through a Victim-Offender Reconciliation Process and ultimately meet and forgive one of her daughter’s killers.

In response to the governor’s decision to put a moratorium on the death penalty, many victims have spoken out against his actions in anger.  It has spawned numerous newspaper articles.

Columnist Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee would write a scathing critique.

He argues that “death row is filled with killers, not martyrs.”  But it’s also filled with victims, broken people, and yes, innocent people.  How many is open to debate.  But enough that we should be cognizant of it.

However, Mr. Breton makes the point: “Maybe history will prove that state-sanctioned killing was wrong on principle.”

His concern, though, is victims – and he is right about that.  He points out that “progressives too easily forget the people whose loved ones suffered and died…”

I agree with his concern about victims, but where I might disagree is that the death penalty is the way to honor the victims.  What has become clear to me in the days following the announcement, Gavin Newsom did his homework.  He met with the families of victims – some agreed, some disagreed.

Clearly there are victims and victims’ families very angry about this – but a surprising number are supportive of it.

In my view, the research on the death penalty, which drags out for decades, extends the agony far past when people could move on – and even when and if an execution does occur, it often does little to create closure, which turns out to be a nebulous concept at best.

I was reminded this week of the words of the late Edward Kennedy – a staunch death penalty opponent, even though he probably more than most knew the pain of losing loved ones to the hands of murders.

On May 18, 1969, he would write to the LA DA Evelle Younger: “My brother was a man of love and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause of the taking of another life.”

He added: “You may recall his pleas when he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He said that ‘what we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United State is not hatred; what we need in the United State is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.”

The LA Times had a good article on the divide yesterday. Some responded with anger but many support the governor’s decision. The Times pointed out on Wednesday, “Newsom said he talked with victims at different ends of the spectrum and did not make his decision lightly.”

The Times interviewed Amanda Wilcox, whose daughter Laura was killed by a gunman in 2001 while she was working a temporary job in a mental health clinic in Northern California.

“I am very pleased that Gov. Newsom is following his conscience on this issue and I agree with what his beliefs are,” she said. “I felt a violent act is what created this problem in the first place and to respond with more violence doesn’t help.”

There are also family members who lost their friends and loved ones in the 2011 mass shooting at a Seal Beach hair salon and have watched as the prosecutor, in his zeal to execute the killer, turned that into a fiasco.

Beth Webb talked to Governor Newsom and explained, “He looked touched, he looked emotional and vulnerable.” She “became a vocal critic of the criminal justice system and supporter of efforts to end executions after the case against her sister’s shooter dissolved in a scandal over the use of jailhouse informants.”

The Times talked to Aba Gayle, who made her way to Sacramento from Northern Oregon.

“What I say is, ‘Don’t murder someone in my name,’ it does nothing to benefit my daughter, it won’t bring anybody back,” said Ms. Gayle. She told the Times that a ” prosecutor promised her the conviction and death sentence of Douglas Mickey would bring her closure. But after the trial was over, she struggled to find peace for eight years until the right people came into her life, the right books fell in her hands.”

Ending execution has become her focus.

You can see her video statement to the governor:

From the stories that are emerging, it is vitally important to understand a key thing – that you can agree or disagree with Governor Newsom on this. But he definitely did not go about this in a capricious manner – he took the time to talk to victims on both sides of the divide and did what his conscience dictated.

In my view, I think he has a clear ability to take this action, but I see it as a temporary solution. The legislature needs to put another measure to the voters for their approval.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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12 thoughts on “My View: Not All Victims Favor the Death Penalty”

  1. Bill Marshall

    The main point you make is true… some folk are so spiritual in their belief system they can either forgive, or at least not seek “an eye for an eye”, even if the crime was against a family member, or themselves…

    In almost all cases that end up being death penalty cases, the victims have no say (they’re dead)… so one of your premises is wrong, at least ‘technically’… family and friends are basically “collateral damages”, but they most often feel like, and experience the effects of ‘victims’, and that is understandable, and appropriate…

    This is not a simple issue.  People keep trying to make it so, either on the pro or anti side.

    1. Dave Hart

      I agree with you Bill.  The fundamental problem is the personal loss and anger felt by the family of victims.  For some people, closure is limited to some form of vengeance or retribution.  Those words may sound harsh, but that is the truth of the matter.

      I can try to imagine that putting a murderer to death would make me, personally, feel better about losing someone close to me.  I think I would continue to mourn my own loss forever whether the murderer is executed or is confined for life or is even freed after many years.  When you lose someone, you lose someone.   I might be comforted by knowing that because of a loved one’s murder that another murder has likely been averted through the intervention of mental health services, stricter gun laws, etc.  That is a tangible comfort.  The death penalty only guarantees business as usual and lets the next murder unfold.

      1. Bill Marshall

        The death penalty only guarantees business as usual and lets the next murder unfold.

        And elimination of the death penalty (since it has been rarely used/carried out in CA in the last 25 years) will ‘change the business model’, and will reduce the likelihood or prevent other murders from ‘unfolding’?   Yeah, right.  You’ve convinced me…

        LWPP is more effective, and cheaper, right?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          LWOP is cheaper. There is no evidence that the death penalty is more effective.

          If you are looking at effectiveness, you might consider the unsolved murder rate somewhere between 40-50 percent depending on the jurisdiction as a proximate factor.

        2. Bill Marshall

          David… is LWPP more effective that DP in reducing/eliminating other murders?  Including those that occur in prison… yes or no?

          And note I responded to Mr Hart, not you…

          The uncleared/uncharged murder #s appears appears to be a non-sequitur. Drifting off-topic as to DP…

          Is LWPP humane?

        3. David Greenwald

          I believe the question reverses burden – the burden should be to show that the death penalty is more effective given that it is the greater punishment.  There is no evidence that the DP is more effective.

        4. Bill Marshall

          I repeat…

          The uncleared/uncharged murder #s appears appears to be a non-sequitur. Drifting off-topic as to DP…
          Is LWPP humane?

          I’ll concede your ‘burden of proof’ deflection, but usually the ‘burden of proof’ applies to a change of circumstances (freedom, vs conviction/imprisonment,  for ex.)… DP is the existing circumstance… using you argument, let’s go whole hog… what is the proof that LWPP affects crime rates?  Perhaps that should be abolished as well?  Or any prison time, for that matter?  If we cannot prove that affects incidents of serious crimes, perhaps that should be abolished?

    2. Dave Hart

      So, Bill, if it is not a simple issue, why do you imply that the DP is a simple solution more so than LWOP?  In both cases, the murderer is taken off the streets.  In both cases the victim is still dead.  What is the goal of the DP?  Data suggests it doesn’t reduce murders.

  2. Bill Marshall

    Crime and punishment is not just a great book by Dostoevsky, but a basic issue for society…

    What crimes deserve what punishment? Or, should we abandon the ‘punishment model’? And, for what purpose?

    Hitler? Eichmann? The guy in New Zealand? Trick question… one committed suicide, one was hanged in a country that now rejects the death penalty, and one… remains to be seen but no DP in NZ…

    1. Bill Marshall

      And, same general thought, should the punishment for someone who callously murders 40+ to 1 million plus be the same as for someone who only callously (hate crimes, all) murders 3?  Proportionality, or same-same?

      Should “hate crimes” affect “punishment”?

      Just asking, to see what the criteria is for folk… this is important as we look at crimes, punishment, isolation from society, rehab, restorative justice, etc. IMHO…

  3. John Hobbs

    When researching for a book, I interviewed 32 family members of murder victims, 20 relatives of murderers and 7 who were both related to the victim and the murderer. The things that stick with me are: Those who witnessed the event were more likely to want “vengeance” though not necessarily through the DP.

    Some thirty-five years after the event, a victim’s daughter who witnessed her uncle commit the act told me she had never felt any emotional attachment to anyone since.

    I think the DP is bad policy for myriad reasons, not the least of which is juries and judges get the verdict wrong with unacceptable frequency. The alarming disparities in sentencing between whites and non-whites is another good reason to stop the death penalty.

    The only case I can make for it is motivated by my own desire for vengeance and with any luck poor diet and disdain for exercise will take that one away.


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