Balancing the Scales of Justice

Article excerpt

We must balance the rights of the accused and convicted with those of victims who have suffered one of the most horrific experiences one could ever encounter.

"Justice will only be achieved when those who are not injured by crime feel as indignant as those who are."


Devastation. Anger. Pain. Hatred. These words do not adequately describe the depth of emotions felt by the families of murder victims.

As a victim advocate who has experienced the murder of a loved one, and as someone who also works with survivors of homicide victims, I have a unique perspective on how the death penalty impacts the criminal justice system.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, November 3, 1996, my life as I knew it changed forever. Like so many victims of violent crime who receive a telephone call or a knock on the door with news that fundamentally alters their existence, my sister-in-law called to tell me that my brother Howard had been shot.

Howard was a well-educated husband and father of a nine-year-old daughter and a sixteen-year-old son, as well as a son, brother, and friend to many. While waiting for his buddies to arrive for their weekly Sunday morning basketball game, Howard was shot at point blank range by two gang members, thrown out of his car, and left to die. I learned firsthand the harsh reality of what it is like to have a loved one murdered. That said, I will attempt to assess the effectiveness of capital punishment on the criminal justice system from a crime victim's perspective rather than that of an expert. Surviving family members of homicide victims are rarely part of such debates so I appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion on the topic.

It should be noted that although I am a victims rights advocate, I also understand the legal rights of a defendant and in no way want to take away from those important protections. Few victims advocates, if any, want to deny defendants their rights. We simply want the scales of justice to be more balanced for victims.

The United States is a violent society. For those who have lost loved ones to homicide, it doesn't matter what current crime statistics say. For us, the statistics did not decline. Many of the families I work with want to be involved, informed, and included in the system of justice. They want to know that the system will ultimately impose the punishment that a jury has recommended.

It is important to note that death penalty cases are, for the most part, fairly rare compared to the total number of cases in the criminal justice system. Death, as the United States Supreme Court has noted, is different. The Court referred to "super due process" considerations that the death penalty demands, but the difference extends far beyond law. By definition, a capital case is especially heinous, which creates greater pain and disruption for a victim's family and their community. The stakes are not only higher for the defendant, but for the prosecution and defense lawyers as well.

The death penalty excludes victims from parts of the criminal justice process, such as the right to give a recommendation during a victim impact statement at sentencing and to explain to the court and jury why the defendant should or should not receive the death penalty. This despite the fact that defendants, defense attorneys, family members of the defendant, and prosecutors can all make a sentencing recommendation. Courts have held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a victim from making a sentencing recommendation to the jury in a capital case, thus silencing the victim.


One of the biggest impacts the death penalty has on the administration of justice is the long delays that survivors face in both the trial and postconviction stages. Unless we fix these long delays, a life sentence may prove to be more appropriate as survivors will no longer linger in the system for decades while the defendant exhausts their appeals. …