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Do executions bring closure?

John Allen Muhammad, center, in court in 2004. He is scheduled to be executed in Virginia on Tuesday.
John Allen Muhammad, center, in court in 2004. He is scheduled to be executed in Virginia on Tuesday. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
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By Naseem Rakha
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of all the arguments in support of capital punishment, perhaps the most emotionally compelling is that it provides "closure" for the loved ones of murder victims. Prosecuting attorneys, politicians and journalists commonly refer to how executions allow family members to "move on" from their pain, providing a sense of relief at knowing that "justice" was finally served.

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With the Supreme Court's denial Monday of his request for a stay, "Beltway sniper" John Allen Muhammad is scheduled to be executed at 9 p.m. Tuesday. Muhammad was the leader of the October 2002 sniper shootings in which 16 Washington-area residents were shot, and 10 killed. Among those likely to attend his execution is Marion Lewis, an Idaho resident whose 25-year-old daughter, Lori Lewis Rivera, was fatally shot while vacuuming her minivan at a Kensington gas station. Lewis recently contacted producers of the television news magazine "Inside Edition" to ask if they would fly him to Virginia to witness Muhammad's execution; in exchange, he is to do two interviews, one before Muhammad's death and one after.

"There has never been any question about watching that animal die," Lewis told reporters after it was announced that "Inside Edition" would indeed foot the bill for his trip. But the real question seems to be: Will watching his daughter's killer die help Lewis, or any of the other victims' relatives who plan to attend the execution, move on with their lives?

Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel believes that the theory that executions provide closure is "naive, unfounded, pop-psychology." Contrary to expectations, Spiegel says, witnessing executions not only fails to provide closure but also often causes symptoms of acute stress. "Witnessing trauma," he says, "is not far removed from experiencing it."

Spiegel has concluded that "true closure is achieved only through extensive grief work." This process requires families to acknowledge and bear their loss as well as to put it into perspective. It necessitates a network of support systems: counselors who will sit with, listen to and work with survivors; work environments flexible enough to accommodate counseling sessions and the down time that is a natural result of grief and stress; and victim assistance programs that make sure those things happen.

In researching a novel on capital punishment, forgiveness and closure, I found that the promise of closure made by district attorneys and others often perpetuated the already long-lived pain that is endemic to violent loss. Typically, a death sentence results in years of legal wrangling as the defendant attempts to overturn the jury's verdict or the sentence. The process is costly and emotionally draining and usually waylays any true healing that might have taken place had there not been a constant reminder that justice had yet to be served. This is why many families of murder victims prefer that offenders receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Rather than focus on what could be a decades-long march to a death chamber, once a verdict is in, survivors can go about trying to put their lives back together.

Do these families find closure?

It's impossible to know with certainty for all, but I doubt that anyone who has lost a loved one to a violent crime can ever fully close the door on that episode of his or her life. It is certain, however, that we can give victims more than a handful of false promises.

In the past decade, 24 U.S. prisons have begun victim-offender dialogue programs. These programs give victims' survivors opportunities to meet with, talk to and ask questions of the offenders, often questions only the offender can answer. According to John Wilson, director of Just Alternatives, a group that trains prison personnel in the dialogue program, this victim-led initiative has brought a sense of power and renewal to the lives of survivors. "Survivors can go through years of therapy, but until they have the opportunity to talk with their offenders, their healing often feels unfinished," he said.

If this is true, one wonders what else could have been done for Marion Lewis and all the others harmed by John Muhammad.

There's no telling yet what Lewis will say in his upcoming interview or whether he will feel that justice was "served." The only thing we know for sure is that once Muhammad is dead, and all cameras have been turned off, those survivors will return home and will have to find a way to move on with their lives on their own.

Naseem Rakha, a journalist, is the author of "The Crying Tree." She is researching victim-offender programs in Oregon.


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