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.
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.