In contemporary society, “closure” refers to “end to a traumatic event or an emotional process” (Berns, 2011, pp. 18–19)—and, in the more specific context of capital punishment, controversy over what, if anything, is needed for murder victims’ families to attain healing and finality or move forward with their lives, including the execution of their loved one’s killer. The term is highly politicized, and is used by both death penalty advocates and its opponents to build arguments in favor of their respective positions. Closure has been indelibly linked to both capital punishment and media institutions since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The media’s penchant for covering emotional events and its role in informing the American public and recording newsworthy events make it perfectly suited to construct, publicize, and reinforce capital punishment’s alleged therapeutic consequences. Legal and political officials also reinforce the supposed link between closure and capital punishment, asking jurors to sentence offenders to death or upholding death sentences to provide victims’ families with a chance to heal. Such assertions are also closely related to beliefs that a particular offender is defiant or lacks remorse. Surprisingly, however, the association between closure and capital punishment has only recently been subjected to empirical scrutiny. Researchers have found that victims’ families deem closure a myth and often find executions themselves unsatisfying, provided that a perpetrator does not enjoy high media visibility so that the execution has a silencing effect, as did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution by lethal injection in 2001. Recent empirical examinations of the link between capital punishment and closure prompt a redefinition of closure through which victims’ family members learn to cope with, work through, and tell the story of a murder and its impact. This redefinition is less sensational and thus perhaps less newsworthy, which may have the salubrious effect of discouraging extensive media emphasis on executions’ closure potential. Another way to decouple closure from capital punishment is for media organizations to change their practices of covering perpetrators, such as by not continually showing images of the perpetrator and by incorporating a more extensive focus on the victims and their families. While government officials have called for the media to exercise restraint in the wake of such events as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, victims’ groups are now beginning to advocate for this same goal, with much success.
Margaret Colgate Love
Executive clemency has a rich history in the United States, both as an agent of justice and as a tool of politics. A presidential power to pardon was included in Article II of the Constitution, and all but one of the state constitutions provides for a clemency mechanism. States have established a variety of ways to manage and sometimes limit a governor’s exercise of the constitutional pardoning power, but the president’s power has remained unlimited by law. Until quite recently, clemency played a fully operational part in both federal and state justice systems, and the pardoning power was used regularly and generously to temper the harsh results of a criminal prosecution. Presidents also used their power to calm and unify the country after a period of strife, and to further policy goals when legislative solutions fell short.
But in modern times unruly clemency’s justice-enhancing role has been severely diminished, initially because reforms in the legal system made it less necessary, but later because of theoretical and practical objections to its regular use. A reluctance on the part of elected officials to take political risks, as well as clemency-related controversies, have further eroded clemency’s legitimacy. As a result, in most U.S. jurisdictions clemency now plays a limited role, and the public regards its exercise with suspicion. There are only about a dozen states in which clemency operates as an integral part of the justice system, in large part because its exercise is protected from political pressures by constitutional design. At the same time, the need for an effective clemency mechanism has never been greater, particularly in the federal system, because of lengthy mandatory prison sentences and the lifelong collateral civil consequences of conviction. It appears unlikely that an unregulated and unrestrained executive power will ever be restored to its former justice-enhancing role, so that those concerned about fairness and proportionality in criminal punishments must engage in the more demanding work of democratic reform.