What They Say at the End: Capital Victims' Families and the Press

32 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2003

See all articles by Samuel R. Gross

Samuel R. Gross

University of Michigan Law School

Daniel J. Matheson

University of Michigan Law School


News stories of executions now routinely include reports of statements by members of the victims' families. For this study we examined such reported statements for 138 executions in the United States, from 1999 through 2002. We also looked at a smaller set of reports of statements by family members of the victims after death-row defendants are exonerated and released; we found such reports in 34 of the 85 death-row exonerations from 1988 through mid-2002. Neither set of stories is anything like a representative sample of the reactions of the families of capital murder victims, and their content is distorted by the habits and biases of the media. Nonetheless, they provide an intriguing glimpse into the effects of capital punishment on some of those who are most directly affected by the underlying crimes.

When a capital defendant is put to death, the most common reaction from the victim's family is relief that it happened, at last. Victims' relatives also frequently express satisfaction with the execution, sometimes in the impersonal terms of justice, sometimes as unabashed pleasure in revenge. They often complain about the long and tortuous route from sentence to execution, and many are particularly unhappy about the attention that is repeatedly focused on the defendants rather than the victims; some see the execution as an opportunity to redress that imbalance. Finally, many victims' relatives hope that at the point of death the killer will accept responsibility and apologize for his crimes, and that they will be able to forgive him. This does occasionally happen, but judging from these data it's uncommon; more often the relatives who hope for this conclusion are disappointed and hurt.

In a disturbing number of cases - over 100 since 1973 - American defendants under sentence of death are exonerated and released. Judging from the stories we have found, most relatives of the victims refuse to accept this result and continue to believe that the exonerated defendants are guilty, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence. The relatives of the victims unambiguously accepted the innocence of the exonerated defendants in only 7 of the 34 capital exonerations in our study. These seven cases fall into two overlapping groups: cases in which the actual killer is identified (5 of 7), and cases in which the local police officers and prosecutors who investigated the crime now say that the defendant is innocent (5 of 7).

Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, crime victims, executions, innocent defendants, exonerations, crime, punishment, criminal justice

Suggested Citation

Gross, Samuel R. and Matheson, Daniel J., What They Say at the End: Capital Victims' Families and the Press. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 88, p. 486, 2003. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=415081 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.415081

Samuel R. Gross (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States
734-764-1519 (Phone)
734-764-8309 (Fax)

Daniel J. Matheson

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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