How many times a day do you hear about a heinous crime that was committed? The amount of news we see throughout our days is significant and the majority of what we see from what is being reported on television, social media and news platforms is crime. Within these crimes there is more than likely men and women who become victims. As a result, there are people who become physically impacted by injury and could fall to death due to these criminals and their actions.
According Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, death defined is “the act of dying; the end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism.”. Just let that sink in for a moment, someone is now no longer a living and breathing human being. With seeing this news throughout the days, people can so easily become emotionally disconnected from seeing coverage of these crimes because it is an everyday event, to many it is the same story but with different people.
When a crime such as murder is committed to someone’s loved one or someone’s loved has committed the murder they have to face the dark reality that there is someone who died and that the person who killed them could possibly be alive. When someone is incarcerated for murder there is the high chance possibility that they could be facing the death penalty. The death penalty is the highest form of punishment for a crime. The legal definition of the death penalty is the sentence of execution for murder and some other capital crimes serious crimes, especially murder, which are punishable by death (US legal).
Before someone is sentenced to death there are court cases that could be months long before a jury comes to the final sentencing. The consequences of this does not just affect one person. We are so easily focused on the criminal and his or her sentencing that we forget about the others who are impacted. Are the victim’s families the only ones who are impacted? The answer is no, there is a harsh emotional and more so psychologically negative sentencing with all parties who are involved in the case which will be the victim’s families, the murderer’s families and those employed on death row. Through this process these groups of people can deal with the experiences of negative biological and psychological strain due to the trial, the murderer’s attempts of an appeal and the final execution. There is no way out of this negative psychological sentencing.
There is no way to stop the pain of loss but there is a better way to understand it. With thanks to the scientific community there is now scientific evidence that what we think and feel has a direct effect on our biological systems. This is an especially important issue in connection with the death penalty because it can help better people understand the biological process of what happens to someone’s body when they experience loss. Losing someone is the ultimate stress someone’s body can experience. This stress can extend for a long period of time especially with the long process of the sentencing, appeal and the time which can be years leading up to the final execution. When someone experiences loss through death the brain “translates” the stress of grief into a chemical reaction in the body. The pituitary gland located at the base of the brain is stimulated to produce a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin hormone. This reaction is a “protective” one and makes the body ready to do battle. This hormone from the pituitary gland then travels to the adrenal gland, a gland at the top of the kidneys, which causes a chemical reaction which ultimately produces cortisone. As the cortisone level increases it causes the production of ACTH to level off. (Gray) If stress continues for a long period of time, the production of ACTH is continuing thus causing the adrenal gland to produce more and more cortisone. High levels of cortisone effects the thalmus which affects the way someone’s body fights off germs. So, in the end someone who experiences high levels of stress is more susceptible to illness.
One of the groups of people mentioned before who are psychologically impacted by the crime and a death penalty sentencing is the victim’s families and friends. According to research done at the University of Minnesota, their study found that just 2.5% of co-victims reported achieving closure resulting of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. (Vollum). Some murder trial cases could take years with the appeals included and not to mention the time the inmates spend on death row. An example of this long process is a well-known case here in California where the death penalty was the sentence for Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife Lacey Peterson and their unborn son in 2002. The initial trial was about six months of trial and testimony with 184 witnesses. On November 12th 2004, Peterson was sentenced to death and has been on death row for 14 years next week. Lacey’s family has experienced the negative psychological impact of murder and the extension of the death penalty for 16 years. There are many families like Lacey’s that experience this day after day and it seems never ending to them. The negative psychological impact from the process of capital punishment does not always turn to a positive once the final execution has taken place. In most cases, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this. (Redmond)
The second group of people that is affected by someone getting the final sentence of the death penalty is the criminals family. The family and friends of death row inmates experience a unique suffering that includes disenfranchised grief and intense psychological trauma (Long). One would think that the inmate’s family and friends would not want to have any emotional connection to the inmate anymore because they are in relation to a now convicted murderer, but this is usually not the case. Family members stand by their loved one until the very end. In some instances, the media also adds to the negative psychological trauma that these families face. Sometimes they could be harassed by multiple news companies at their places of work or homes. These families face seeing their family member be painted as someone who is a monster on the radio, television etc., not as the person they love and know on a deep and a personal level. In the state Texas, executions occur at a rate of 1 every 2 weeks, this class of trauma victims presumably is large, a fact that should generate public mental health concern. For many families, the day they fear eventually arrives some faster than others. Their relative receives an execution date. All appeals are exhausted. Clemency, if sought, has been denied. Hope is gradually extinguished, and the family must prepare to deal with the death. Many family members choose to be present during the execution so that their loved one will see the faces of people who do not hate him or her, not rejoicing in death. (Sharp) One could only imagine being a friend or family member of a man or woman who is sentenced to death, but this is the life of many people. They wake up every morning with this dark feeling inside them.
The last group of people that are psychologically impacted by the death penalty are the men and women behind the curtain. These people are the correctional officers. They are typically forgotten since most of the attention goes towards the inmate and their family and the victim’s family. Men and women who work for death row could undergo a negative psychological impact in their lives as well. They are not crossed off the list of those who are impacted just because they are the ones who administer the lethal injection that kills a criminal. In an interview from National Geographic’s documentary inside death row with a correctional he recalled his experience with one inmate and it was chilling, informational and haunting at the same time. He shares that in one instance he had an inmate say no final words, but he sang the Christmas song “Silent Night”. The inmate didn’t get to finish the song due to him passing away due to lethal injection. The officer stated that now every time during the holiday season and he hears the song he thinks of the man who died that day (Nat Geo). This just shows that these men and women never forget they are impacted in some way. Nearly 13 years ago, in 2005 a study done by three psychologists was on correctional officers who participate in lethal injection was published in Law and Human Behavior(Moseley). They did a clinician-administered PTSD scale (CAPS-1) Life Events Checklist and the Beck Depression Inventory, two tools psychologists use to measure trauma and depression. In their findings it showed that they rated high on the scale which showed that they experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. There were also other findings in this study that brought some questions to light as well.
In the study mentioned earlier they had found that the correctional officers psyche experienced trauma but how impacted were they by the death penalty? The psychologists found that here were almost no incidences of depression and signs of PTSD with those who were working on death row. This is due to moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is the process of convincing one’s self that ethical standards do not apply in a certain situation. It is further categorized into four groups which are: reconstructing immoral conduct, diffusing responsibility, dehumanizing the victim, and misrepresenting injurious consequences. (Bandura) Can moral disengagement help the families of the victim’s? The victims of the families dehumanize the criminal to help better their grieving. Doesn’t also this concept also apply to the families of the criminal as well? In some instances, they too are guilty of disengagement by diffusing the responsibility of the crime their loved one committed. This is done just the same it helps the grieving process of the death penalty. But this moral disengagement is a temporary bandage to their psychological healing process for all parties involved. One correctional officer shared his experience on death row, “There is some emotion that runs through all of that, through the whole experience,’ say Willett. ‘You’d have to be crazy for it not to be. I don’t know how anybody could totally disassociate.’
We can never understand what it is like to be in any of these groups until we are in it. The death penalty not only sentencing the criminal, but now there are multiple parties involved. The psychological impact of this capital punishment is more negative than it is positive. Members of family and friends of the victim relive the event of losing their loved one over the course of the trial and the multiple and appeals. Then when the criminal is put to death the feeling of pain, anger and resentment doesn’t disappear when he or she takes their final breathe. The friends and family member of the murderer are also faced with a psychological effect of being tormented by the media and having to face the victim’s family and some of them take on the burden of guilt. Lastly the correctional officers face some sort of psychological impact as well even though a lot of officers say that they have no emotions when it comes to the lethal injection. Murder has a dark domino path once pushed and you can’t go back on the initial push. Lives are forever altered in all sorts of ways.