Reliving the Death
Death Penalty’s Unintended Consequence
New America Media, Commentary, Michael A. Kroll, Posted: Sep 07, 2007Editor’s Note: The rare commutation of a death sentence in Texas at the end of August received widespread media attention. Less noticed was the profound anti-death penalty significance of the statement of the mother of the victim. Michael Kroll is the editor of Beat Within and founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
“I will mourn my son till I die, but I’m not forced any more to relive his death.” These are the words of a mother grieving for her son, Michael LaHood Jr., murdered in a Texas robbery in 1996 after one of the co-defendants had his death sentence commuted to life in prison.
Her son’s killer, Mauriceo Brown, was executed for the crime in 2006, but co-defendant, Kenneth Foster, Jr., who did not directly participate in the robbery/murder was also sentenced to death for the same crime under a controversial Texas statute called the “law of parties” under which anyone involved in any way in a capital crime is subject to the penalty of death. Foster, who was 19 years old at the time of the crime, was scheduled to be lethally injected on August 30, but received that rarest of interventions at the eleventh hour – a commutation to life in prison by Governor Rick Perry following international protests and a near-unanimous recommendation for clemency by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
While world-wide attention has understandably been focused on what would have been the 403rd execution in Texas in the modern era — by far the country’s most prolific killer of killers (and non-killers like Mr. Foster) — few will recognize the profoundly anti-death penalty significance of Mrs. LaHood’s lament, “I will mourn my son till I die, but I’m not forced any more to relive his death.”
Reliving that death is one of the unintended consequences of the death penalty. At each stage, the wound is reopened and probed by the media (“How do you feel?”) and the prosecutor, who has an interest in keeping the brutal facts before the voters who put him/her in office. (And, can any murder be described as anything other than brutal?) While prosecutors never tire of promoting the death penalty as a means to bring about “closure,” that is a concept that no mother, destroyed by the murder of a child, can truly embrace. In truth, there is no real closure for the kind of wound that murder creates.
But, though the hole left behind will never be fully closed, the death penalty makes any healing that much more difficult by forcing families of the dead to focus on the brutality of their loss at every legal turning point. And, because the U.S. Supreme Court has rightly declared that, as punishment, “Death is different,” it requires far more legal turning points than any other criminal penalty, including years of state appeals followed by years of federal appeals. “Death is different” because any errors in the process cannot be undone once the sentence is carried out.
And errors do occur, even in a system with so many built-in safeguards. According to a report by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil & Constitutional Rights, more than 120 people have been released from death row since 1973, most with evidence of their innocence.
Some family survivors, recognizing how the death penalty only serves to increase their pain and postpone the process of healing, have formed an organization, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, which seeks alternatives to the punishment of death, not because they have sympathy for those who took the lives of their children or other family members, but because they have a need to heal and rebuild their shattered lives. In states which provide alternative penalties, such as Life in Prison Without Parole (LWOP), support for capital punishment plummets, one reason being that the legal process comes to end dramatically sooner. The sentence does not require multiple reviews by countless judges.
The mother of Michael LaHood Jr. understood this instinctively. Because the media attention will now move from her son’s murder to other endless and senseless acts of violence, she will be able to move on. Because the prosecutor no longer has an interest in keeping her pain front and center, she will be able to start the difficult process of calming the emotional turmoil she has suffered for 11 years. Or, in her own eloquent but simple words, she will not be “forced any more to relive his death.”