Victims of death penalty crimes and scholars discuss death penalty

Photo by Xidan Zhang/ xidan.zhang@mu.edu
Photo by Xidan Zhang/ xidan.zhang@mu.edu

Bringing a human face to an often emotional and ethical debate, the Marquette Law School hosted a Restorative Justice Conference Friday comparing the ultimate punishments in the U.S. — capital punishment and life without parole.

Testimony from victims and individuals involved in the criminal justice system complemented a lively discussion about the modern court system.

This was the seventh annual Restorative Justice Conference at Marquette. Janine P. Geske, a Marquette professor of law and director of the MULS Restorative Justice Initiative, said restorative justice takes a victim-centered approach to the criminal justice system, holding the guilty responsible for what they have done but also letting the victims have a voice in the process. It is being applied in neighborhoods and schools across the country. 

The conference, held in Eckstein Hall, focused on bringing awareness to the victims of crimes leading to the death penalty, who are often forgotten in the philosophical and moral arguments surrounding the legitimacy of capital punishment. Survivors at the conference said the stress of participating in the criminal justice process, from trials and appeals up to the actual execution when applicable, caused them further trauma.

Thirty-three states allow the death penalty, but several states’ capital punishment policies are either under review by the courts or under a moratorium by decision of the state government.

“The (criminal justice system) is not designed to deal with the therapeutic needs of victims,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, who spoke on the panel regarding victim support. 

While supporters and opponents of the death penalty voiced their opinions, the main focus of the panel was how to improve the system for the victims and survivors. Those represented told stories and expressed gratitude for the research that had been done.

“This has really (been) … a wonderful, wonderful experience, because for the first time victims have a voice, and they have credible people behind them,” said Paula Kurland, a survivor from Texas who was on one of the victim panels.

The idea for the conference topic came from research published in the Marquette Law Review last fall by Marilyn Armour, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Mark Umbreit, a professor at the University of Minnesota. The pair investigated the impact of the death penalty on two different states: Texas, which has the death penalty, and Minnesota, which enforces life without parole instead.

“The true highlight of the conference was the courage, strength and grace of our survivor speakers,” Geske said. “They are the ones who taught all of us the most. No one who heard them speak will forget them.”

Hearing the stories and the testimony of the survivors was powerful for many attending the discussion. Many of the victims who spoke had been interviewed as part of Armour and Umbreit’s study. They told their stories, their personal struggles with the court system and their attempts to regain control of their lives in the aftermath of tragedy. For some of the survivors, it was the first time they had told their stories in public.

“Death penalty proponents frequently advance the interests of victims to support the imposition of the death penalty,” Geske said. “This research took a very scholarly look at how family members of homicide victims have benefited either from sentences of life without parole versus the death penalty.”

Geske said the conference was about starting a conversation about the effects of the death penalty.

“The goal of the conference was really to have all of us to look at the impact of these sentences on victims and others in the criminal justice system,” he said. “Regardless of what one’s view is on the death penalty, hopefully we all learned something about the complexity of these issues and the reasons why someone might feel differently than we do about the topic.”