Some of my earliest memories are of my dad taking me to hearings at the Kansas State Legislature, where lawmakers and lobbyists spoke about the need to end the death penalty. Losing his father inspired him to advocate against capital punishment in Kansas; he was one of the earliest murder victims’ family members to speak out against the death penalty and remains a longtime member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. My grandfather was shot and killed by his wife, who suffered from a severe mental illness. As a therapist, my father worked with many mentally ill clients. One of the many reasons he could not support the death penalty was that his life’s work was dedicated to helping people struggling with those issues. As I got older and started formulating opinions of my own, I found my own reasons for supporting abolition.
To this day, one of my biggest issues with the death penalty is that it isn’t applied fairly: A disparate number of people who receive the death penalty are low-income people of color. The numbers don’t simply bear that statement out; they do so in stunning, even overwhelming fashion. The death penalty is used against the poor, the marginalized and people of color in wild, almost reckless disproportion.
Another issue that hits close to home for me is the additional harm the death penalty inflicts on murder victims’ family members. One argument I frequently hear from death penalty proponents is, “Think of the victims. Think of their families and their need for justice, their need for closure.” Every person who has lost a loved one to violence knows that nothing will bring closure, no matter where they stand on the death penalty. Every family is different, and every person within those families will feel differently about the legal process and outcome. Everyone experiences loss differently and grieves in their own way. Personally, I would rather see the person responsible locked up for the rest of their life than executed by the state. I believe that for every voice you can find supporting the death penalty, you can find an equal number of family members victimized by life-ending violence who oppose the death penalty, who view capital punishment neither as a means to closure, nor as a justifiable end.
Instead of continuing to use the death penalty, I think the best thing we can do is to focus on what families actually need in the aftermath of a murder. We need to make sure families are given every opportunity to be heard, counseled and empowered to ask for what they need. Once the legal process is over, we still miss the person we lost, we still love that person, and we still will wish that we had just one more day with them. Having a death penalty isn’t going to change any part of that emotional process.
For those reasons among many others, I strongly support ending capital punishment.