Does Seeing Execution Help or Hurt?

Death Watch

5 min read

April 2, 2001 -- Pamela Belford waited more than five years to see Dan Patrick Hauser die.

Belford's daughter, Melanie Rodrigues, had just turned 21 when Hauser strangled her to death with his bare hands in a motel room in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., on New Year's Day, 1995. After that day, Belford -- now 46 and unemployed -- devoted much of her life to making sure the man received the death penalty.

She was successful in those efforts, and when Hauser refused to appeal his death sentence and was slated to undergo lethal injection last August, Belford and her fiancé rented a car, drove seven hours to Florida, and waited in a motel room through three days of appeals by death penalty foes.

Yet after Belford finally got to witness Hauser's execution -- during which the killer, strapped to a gurney, barely twitched and died just a couple of minutes after he was administered lethal drugs -- she voiced a vague sense of dissatisfaction, both to reporters at the time and in an interview six months later.

"It was just like putting down a dog," Belford says, describing a low-key death that didn't feel to her like justice for the violent way her daughter was murdered. "It was just too humane."

The pace of executions in America has increased dramatically over the past decade -- some 85 took place last year. And as a result, so has the number of relatives of murder victims who have watched the death penalty being administered to the convicted killer of a loved one.

On May 16, the scheduled execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh -- the first federal execution in more than a generation -- looms as a landmark event in a running controversy: Does witnessing a killer's death help victims' relatives recover emotionally?

It's a big question in the McVeigh case, as the sheer number of potential witnesses is staggering. The 1995 bomb blast that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. In January, the government sent letters to 1,100 people who were wounded or who lost relatives, seeking to gauge how many were interested in watching McVeigh -- who has waived all appeals -- take his last breath.

The issue is partly one of space. Federal regulations provide for only eight slots for relatives of victims, which is clearly not enough to handle the demand in the Oklahoma City case. Already, a group of eight bombing survivors is working with the U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma to arrange an unprecedented closed circuit telecast of the execution.

But the question remains: Will watching McVeigh die do the victims any good?

Even though 697 people have been executed in America since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, there have been no major studies on the emotional impact of witnessing an execution on relatives or loved ones.

As a number of states reinstated and expanded their use of the death penalty, some elected officials were clearly motivated by the notion that witnessing the execution would, in fact, provide survivors and relatives with a sense of closure.

That was the chief argument that Oklahoman Brooks Douglass made in support of such legislation back in the early 1980s. Douglass, now a state senator, had a poignant motivation when he wrote the state law that gives victims' family members the right to witness the execution: Both of his parents had been murdered.

"It is not retaliation or retribution that I seek in witnessing the execution of the man who killed my parents," he wrote at the time. "It is closure. Closure on an era of my life that I never chose to enter. Closure of years of anger and hate."

Supporters of so-called "right to view" laws -- which have been enacted in most states that have the death penalty -- say that giving victims' relatives a role in the death penalty process helps provide them with a sense of purpose, and a feeling that they are representing the victim in the process.

But some experts doubt that watching an execution is truly helpful to the relatives.

Sidney Weissman, MD, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Health Administration outside of Chicago, says that while witnessing an execution clearly provides relatives with a sense of retribution against the killer, it can't help much, if at all, in dealing with the loss of a loved one.

"It doesn't really bring solace, and it doesn't solve the issue of the void in your life," Weissman says. "The more critical issue is what that person meant to me, and how I organize my life in their absence."

Michael Lawrence Goodwin, a Louisville, Ky.-based defense attorney who opposes the death penalty, has authored one of the few articles to examine the issue. Writing in the Journal of Family Law in 1997, he argued forcefully that most relatives don't achieve the sense of closure they are seeking and that witnessing the execution may create more problems for the loved ones than it solves.

He notes that one problem with right-to-view laws is that the majority of capital murder cases drag on for years or even decades, often not resulting executions. Relatives are thus blocked from moving on with their lives.

And even when a convicted killer is executed, Goodwin says, there still can be problems for those who watch.

"I never spoke to anyone or heard any comments from anyone who gained some type of peace or a feeling of satisfaction after viewing the execution," Goodwin tells WebMD.

His experience is that the viewers "never felt anything except some type of vengeance -- the feeling of, 'I wish he could have suffered longer.'"

Indeed, as a growing number of executions are carried out through lethal injection, viewed by many as more humane than the electric chair or gas chamber, some relatives are having a hard time reconciling killers' relatively peaceful-looking deaths with the violent way in which their loved ones died.

Belford, for her part, says she knew that executing Hauser wouldn't bring her daughter back. But she supported it to ensure he would never hurt anyone else's child.

In Florida, however, condemned killers get their choice of dying by lethal injection or electric chair, a choice Belford says rightfully belongs to the victim's family.

"My daughter didn't have a choice in the way that she died," Belford says. "She was my only child. He took my baby away from me."

Kathy Bunch is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.