Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Watching Execution Brings No Closure

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Watching Execution Brings No Closure

Article excerpt

The notion that witnessing executions brings "closure" to victims' families is false, experts say. The evidence, in fact, shows that doing so can cause witnesses additional stress.

When 232 family members assembled on June 11 to watch the closed circuit televised execution of Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City claimed 168 lives, most of them undoubtedly hoped that witnessing, the event would end their grief. Not so, said Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford (Calif.) University. "Nothing we know clinically shows that witnessing executions ends grieving."

The theory that execution provides "closure" is a "naive, unfounded, pop psychology idea" perpetuated by politicians and the media, he said.

True closure after the death of a loved one is achieved only through extensive "grief work" with family members. This lengthy process requires families to acknowledge, bear, and put their loss into perspective.

Eventually family members will be able to take pleasure in the time they had with their loved ones. "[But] it's not easy," Dr. Spiegel said.

Witnessing executions not only fails to provide closure, it also may cause symptoms of acute stress--even in observers who are not related to the victims.

A 1994 study coauthored by Dr. Spiegel polled 18 media eyewitnesses to the California execution of convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris, who died in the San Quentin gas chamber. The journalists, who stood within 15-20 feet of the chamber, had an unobstructed view of the execution.

When they began the study, researchers knew that being a target of violence was psychologically traumatic, but few, if any, studies had been done on the effects of witnessing violence. They postulated that the journalists who witnessed the execution would experience dissociative and anxiety symptoms.

Roughly 1 month after the Harris execution, researchers sent questionnaires to the 18 media eyewitnesses. Fifteen, of whom nine were men, responded. The questionnaire asked them to rate their experiences during and shortly after the execution on 17 items, including psychic numbing, stupor, and depersonalization as a means to assess for dissociative symptoms. Anxiety also was assessed--based on signs of intrusion, avoidance, and increased arousal--using the respondents rating of 13 additional items on the questionnaire.

All of the media eyewitnesses who completed the questionnaire were further invited to participate in a follow-up telephone interview with one of the psychiatrists on the research team. …

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