Not in My Name: An Investigation of Victims' Family Clemency Movements and Court Appointed Closure

Article excerpt

Abstract: Purpose: The goals of this project are 1) to document the patterns of opposition to the death penalty promoted by victims' families following the ascendency of the retribution and closure arguments in support of capital punishment, and 2) to assess the scope and primacy of newspaper coverage of death penalty cases with anti-capital punishment covictims.

Methods: Content analysis of nationwide newspaper reports on capital offense trials from 1992-2009 is used to assess patterns of victim resistance to the death penalty over time, the reasons given for support or resistance to the death penalty, and the scope and primacy of the newspaper coverage of the capital case.

Results: The analysis reveals a significant increase in covictim clemency movements across the study time period. Further, articles representing pro-death penalty covictims received both significantly higher primacy of media coverage in section and page number and word count than did their anti-death penalty counterparts. Lastly, a qualitative assessment of covictims' statements reveals several reasons for co-victim support or resistance to the death penalty.

Conclusions: Covictim opposition to the death penalty in reaction to the ascendancy of retribution and closure justifications for capital punishment must be integrated into ongoing debates about the death penalty.

Keywords: covictims, death penalty, clemency, closure


Criminologists have documented that the traditional justifications for capital punishment are not verified by research (Bailey and Peterson 1997; Christie 1977; Ehrlich 1975; Radelet and Akers 1996; Radelet and Borg 2000), and the public is becoming increasingly aware that there is little deterrent, incapacitative, or cost savings impact with the death penalty (Gallup 2009; Gross 1998; Jones 2006; Sandys and McGarrell, 1994). Rather than abandoning support for capital punishment, however, the public has shifted the reasons for support away from the traditional justifications to retribution and victim closure. As Bandes (2008) points out, with this shift in justification in support of capital punishment, emotional catharsis for the covictims has become the goal of the criminal justice system (Bandes 2008). The onus of capital punishment, therefore, is increasingly placed on the victims' family. The primary aim of the current study is to document the reactions of covictims in response to the shifting public sentiments shown through newspaper coverage of death penalty cases. The second goal of the current study is to investigate the scope and primacy of media coverage of death penalty cases in which the covictims express opposition to capital punishment. Lastly, the third goal is to examine the contextual factors governing covictim attitudes and opinions.

Public Perception and Media

Public opinion is defined as "a collection of views regarding an issue that affect many" (Hoffman et al. 2007:292), and the process by which the media and public opinion interact is multifaceted and reciprocal (Kudlac 2007). Research has found that the way in which the media influences individual opinion is a multi-level and universally constant process (Crespi 1997; Hoffman et al. 2007; Price and Roberts 1987). Succinctly put, information disseminated through media outlets (i.e. newspapers) becomes integrated with old information as public sentiment evolves. At the individual level, new information which coincides with the individuals' established opinion becomes incorporated with older cognitions (Price and Roberts 1987). This process illustrates that the individual controls which new information to incorporate into their views and which information to reject.

To examine this process further, Crespi (1997, as cited by Hoffman et al. 2007) found public opinion occurs through "interactions among predispositions and perceptions on the external world at the intrapersonal level... …