Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Criminology and Criminal Justice. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 07 March 2021

Capital Punishment, Closure, and Mediafree

  • Jody MadeiraJody MadeiraMaurer School of Law, Indiana University


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.

The identification of closure with capital punishment is a fairly recent development, given the centuries-long history of the death penalty in the United States. As Armour and Umbreit (2012) observe, “although small in number, capital murder cases consume the attention of the public through mass media” (p. 4). Here, the term “media” is used to refer to the “main means of mass communication (esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet) regarded collectively” (Media, n.d.), including both those organizations that cover news and those focused on other forms of entertainment. The controversial coupling of closure with capital punishment (Armour & Umbreit, 2006) stems from both mass media coverage and criminal justice system practice, as prosecutors argue to juries that family members can gain closure from the execution of their loved ones’ killer, or that executions heal social or communal wounds (Meade, 1996, pp. 743–744; Bandes, 2004, pp. 592–595). Media institutions in particular have assumed a bullhorn role in broadcasting the association between capital punishment and closure, publicly articulating, circulating, and ultimately reinforcing this link. Although this oversimplifies the media’s role in the popular construction of the closure phenomenon, there is little doubt that the media has been instrumental. Death penalty researcher Frank Zimring reported that, before 1989, closure was never mentioned by the media in conjunction with capital punishment; in 1989, the two were mentioned in the same context only once (Zimring, 2003, p. 60). Beginning in 1993, however, the frequency with which closure was mentioned in the context of capital punishment grew with exponential frequency to 500 mentions in 2001, when an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 60% of respondents strongly or moderately agreed with the statement that the death penalty was fair because it gave closure to murder victims’ family members (Zimring, 2003, p. 60).

The Politicization of “Closure” Rhetoric

Closure concerns can appear in diverse social and cultural contexts, from adoption, personal injury, and death care to divorce, forensics, and memorialization (Berns, 2011). Closure concerns became highly visible in popular culture during the 1990s; Berns attributes this to “victims’ social movements; a rise in therapeutic language and goals; court decisions; and our cultural expectations for happy, inspiring, and quick resolutions” (Berns, 2011, p. 8). Most scholarship addressing closure, however, has focused on its use as a justification for capital punishment (Kanwar, 2002, p. 216). Scholars have observed that closure can be achieved through other means, including forgiveness, mercy, and alternative sentences such as life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kanwar and others have linked closure to the victims’ rights movement, making it increasingly “victim-centered”: “In political discourse, ‘closure’ is somehow presented as a rational and dispassionate matter of political concern, emptied of its emotional underpinnings and distanced from the viscerality of ‘satisfaction’” (Kanwar, 2002, pp. 217, 222–237). Berns notes, “politicians and advocates use closure to talk about grief, victimization, justice, and healing” (Berns, 2011, p. 118).

Both opponents and supporters of the death penalty have taken stances on the propriety of closure in connection with execution, from abolitionist organizations such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation to advocate organizations such as the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children—but, in doing so, both stances have embraced and thus helped to legitimate the concept (Kanwar, 2002, p. 249). On the one hand, those who disagree that capital punishment effects closure observe that legal proceedings are ill equipped to resolve grief and other emotions, focused as they are adjudicating guilt and allocating punishment (Kanwar, 2002, pp. 241–242). Indeed, they argue, such contexts are more likely to exploit family members than to heal them, or at the very least produce many contradictory emotional responses (Kanwar, 2002, pp. 242, 243). They also point to the possibilities of attaining closure through mercy and even forgiveness rather than vengeance, and to the fact that some victims who witness executions still feel hurt and anger, now compounded by disappointment and disillusionment (Berns, 2011, p. 127; Goodwin, 1997, p. 585). For example, numerous victims have attempted to decouple execution from closure expectations through “Not in My Name” movements that openly expose their refusal to allow states to use their stories to justify executions (King, 2003). On the other hand, supporters who believe capital punishment facilitates closure point not only to the recently extended “rights” to give victim impact evidence in capital sentencing proceedings and at times to witness executions, but also to individual family members’ public remarks preceding or following the execution of their loved ones’ killer that often emphasize relief and satisfaction. Much of the politicization of closure rhetoric has occurred through various forms of media, from news coverage of executions to interviews with victims’ families to online blogs and social media posts. The following, however, will focus not on the broader relationship between capital punishment and closure but on the media’s role in this relationship. More specifically, how do media representations of closure, perpetrators, and punishment reinforce the link between closure and capital punishment, and how have these representations affected victims’ families’ lived experience in the aftermath of mass murder and terrorism?

The Media Spotlight on Closure and Capital Punishment

As a phenomenon that is highly media-driven, closure illustrates how journalism can respond to traumatic events that seem to evade human understanding through facilitating the use of “simple narrative formats” (Sreberny, 2002, p. 221). Thus, murders that trigger death sentences and closure claims may also in our “excessively mediated culture … encourage a kind of simulacrum of emotion and a form of affective manipulation by the culture industries”—which include the media (Sreberny, 2002, p. 221). Media researchers such as Elayne Rapping have focused on television talk shows and their adoption of “a depoliticized, over-individualized approach to social problems,” an oversaturation of feelings (Rapping, 1994; Sreberny, 2002, p. 221). Rapping explains that “television drama depends foremost on closure,” and argues this medium cultivated “an audience of viewer-citizens who were increasingly demanding a particular kind of closure: the conviction and punishment of the evil offender” (Rapping, 2003, p. 10). This of course feeds into the current “soundbite culture,” characterized by “the rise of the image and the decline of the word,” facilitating superficial coverage instead of reasoned exchange (Slayden & Whillock, 1999, pp. ix–x). It is especially ironic, then, that the US Supreme Court allowed cameras—the tools of an allegedly oversentimental medium—into criminal courtrooms to demonstrate the impartiality and efficacy of the criminal justice system, to “allay the fears … that the criminal justice system wasn’t ‘working,’ that it was too ‘soft on crime’ and that criminals were increasingly being allowed to go free” (Rapping, 2003, p. 241). According to law professor Susan Bandes, the “law and media exist in a complex feedback loop,” with television, and perhaps now the Internet, “becom[ing] our culture’s principal storyteller, educator, and shaper of the popular imagination” (Bandes, 2004, p. 585). Death-eligible crimes are highly newsworthy, in particular the “horse race” of the trial and the “minutiae of the execution” that mark those events as distinct (Bandes, 2004, p. 587).

The media can effectively and consistently reinforce the association between closure and capital punishment because it plays key roles not only in broadcasting but in preserving historical perceptions and images, constructing American consciousness and contributing indelibly to American collective memory. Media focus our attention in both contemporary and historical ways. To these ends, Sontag (2003) has observed there is a common assumption that “public attention is steered by the attentions of the media—which means, most decisively, images,” highlighting “the determining influence of photographs in shaping what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and ultimately what evaluations are attached to these conflicts” (p. 105).

But focusing Americans’ attention on some issues rather than others and prompting us to consider these issues in particular ways are processes that also carry normative and moral implications—what should citizens be looking at, and how? Thus, the intersection between capital punishment, closure, and media also entails a debate over how American citizens and institutions should regard, react to, and reproduce images of and information about criminal perpetrators. Looking at perpetrators may feel somehow inappropriate in ways that gazing at images of their victims and rescuers does not, and may even approach a breach of moral propriety. Citizens become familiar with victims’ names to protest the anonymity of their deaths and to celebrate their humanity. But there can be less salubrious motives to learn about perpetrators, ranging from morbid curiosity to worshipful fascination. As Sontag (2003) eloquently noted in Regarding the Pain of Others, “[t]here is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching” (p. 41). Mitigating this visceral experience, however, is an awareness that preventing future violent acts may entail learning more, not less, about those who instigate them.

Closure’s popular appeal centers upon the cultural figure of the crime victim that has long maintained a hold upon the American public imagination. Contemporary interest in victims, their family members, and closure pursuits is often thought to be a reaction to the focus on criminal defendants and their rights that marked the “Warren Court” era of the US Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969 (Madeira, 2012, p. 89). The ensuing crime victims’ rights movement casts crimes as transactions for which perpetrators must pay what they owe to both society and their victim(s) by serving their sentences and perhaps providing criminal restitution (Cole, 2007, p. 35; Madeira, 2012, p. 39). Prosecutors use victims and their family members largely as moral anchors that demand attention to the perpetrator’s infringement upon victims’ autonomy and dignity (Boutellier, 2000, pp. 45–46). Significantly, in popular culture, closure needs are only attributed to victims’ families and sometimes rescuers, not the perpetrators’ family members.

Victims gained enhanced visibility in legal proceedings in 1991 when the US Supreme Court ruled in Payne v. Tennessee (505 U.S. 808, 825 (1991)) that murder victims’ family members could deliver victim impact testimony at sentencing, extending new participative opportunities and symbolizing a legal focus on more therapeutic ends (Bandes, 2009). Thus, closure acquired a wide variety of dimensions; it became a procedural goal to give family members finality, an entitlement for victims’ families to a timely trial and punishment, and a therapeutic aspiration ensuring the inclusion of victims’ perspectives (Madeira, 2012, p. 40). The media was ready to help to convey these conceptions of closure to a wider audience through such events as the televised trial of O. J. Simpson that captivated audiences, sowing the seeds for cultural connections between courtrooms, therapy, and victims. Richard Sherwin (2000) has described how such affairs may provide “hyper-catharsis,” “a spectacle that masks rather than reveals unconscious impulses and the fantasies they produce” and “exploits images—of victims and aggressors alike—for the sake of their emotional payoff” (p. 166).

Crucially, the media’s relationship with capital punishment and closure has always been at most indirect, surfacing in quotes or statements from journalists, government officials, attorneys, and victims’ families (Gross & Matheson, 2003; Vollum & Longmire, 2007). Family members interviewed in the news media often claim to experience closure from trials and executions—but that is the closest the media has come to investigating closure effects (Armour & Umbreit, 2006). American courts have vigorously resisted all attempts to broadcast executions, in large part because the execution image is thought to have a disruptive and disturbing potential, implicating both the inmate’s privacy and participants’ safety. The federal government, for example, prohibits photographic, audio, and visual recording devices at federal executions in 28 C.F.R. § 26.4(f). In cases addressing the media’s right to film an execution, judges have disputed the danger of the execution image, variously finding that it possesses no special qualities (Garrett vs. Estelle, 556 F.2d 1274, 1278 (C.A. Tex 1977)) and that it is “qualitatively different from a mere verbal report about an execution” (Halquist vs. Department of Corrections, 732 P.2d 1065, 1067 (Wash. 1989)). Oft-cited reasons for a ban on execution broadcasts are that such coverage would breach participating officials’ and inmates’ privacy, jeopardize security in the execution chamber, destroy execution solemnity, and introduce novel questions such as whether camera placement would disrupt execution routines (KQED vs. Vasquez, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21163, p. 8 (June 7, 1991); Entertainment Network vs. Lappin, 134 F. Supp. 2d 1002, 1018 (S.D. Ind. 2001)). One court even proposed a “suicidal cameraman theory,” claiming a need to protect attendees from “heavy objects of any sort” such as news cameras that, if thrown in the witness room, might strike and break the window separating the witness room from the gas chamber (KQED vs. Vasquez, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21163, p. 8 (June 7, 1991)).

A Case Study: The Oklahoma City Bombing

Extended empirical assessments of the relationship between capital punishment and closure can allow researchers to examine how particular murder victims’ family members experienced the relationship between capital punishment and closure. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing offers an effective case study, since it had been the largest terrorist attack on American soil prior to 9/11; all legal proceedings are completed; and perpetrators Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier all had differing levels of involvement and received wildly disparate sentences. Timothy McVeigh constructed and ignited a Ryder truck bomb outside the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, and was executed on June 11, 2001, in front of an unprecedented 242 individuals. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, had played a formative role in financing the project and constructing the truck bomb and is serving several life sentences in a federal Supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Michael Fortier, McVeigh’s former Army roommate who had known about the plans to construct the bomb, accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to twelve years in prison, serving ten and a half years before being released early for good behavior and joining the federal Witness Protection Program.

Interviews with survivors and family members of the Oklahoma City bombing revealed that many spoke of McVeigh not as a perpetrator whom they had never met but as an involuntary presence in their lives who was forced upon them through an overbearing and seemingly ceaseless media presence. After McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, allowed him to meet several journalists in an effort to find one who could write an effectively humanizing article (Madeira, 2012, pp. 114, 204–205), McVeigh stayed in touch with several whom he had met until his execution in 2001. There is no question that McVeigh became a media personality. Among his most noteworthy media appearances was the heavy media coverage and recirculation of images from his perpwalk, including his appearance in 1995 on the front cover of Time magazine, an Emmy award winning 60 Minutes death row interview by Ed Bradley in 2000, and his collaboration on an authorized biography, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, authored by journalists Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel, that was published in April 2001, shortly before his execution. Moreover, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s unprecedented decision to allow his execution in Terre Haute, Indiana, to be broadcast back to Oklahoma City via closed-circuit television ensured that he would be a leading media topic until his death was a fait accompli. As Bruce Shapiro noted on, McVeigh’s closed-circuit execution broadcast ensured that “the press and pundits are talking about how big the crowd will be that gets to watch McVeigh … McVeigh is able to keep himself on the front page” (Shapiro, 2001).

Referencing media researchers Horton and Wohl’s concept of parasocial relationship, where media personalities such as sitcom characters or evening news anchors can come to feel like positive and familiar presences in a viewer’s social circle, it is possible that McVeigh had become a negative parasocial presence for survivors and family members, particularly those living in Oklahoma City, at the heart of the media maelstrom (Madeira, 2012, p. 14). Several survivors and family members spoke of a need to execute McVeigh to “silence” him as well as to hold him accountable for his role in the bombing (Madeira, 2012, p. 245). While many wanted Terry Nichols executed as well for his role in the bombing, their reasons for doing so did not have to do with silencing him, for he had remained quiet and out of the media limelight since his arrest. As family member Paul Howell stated,

McVeigh, even though he knew that he was getting the death sentence, he was defiant all the way up to the point where it actually happened, okay? He would speak out to the media. He would tell the families to grow up; it’s collateral damage that we killed your kids, you know. And everything that he did was doing nothing but hurting the family members here in Oklahoma. So the only way for us to have any kind of peace was to execute this man. Now on Nichols, Nichols is a little different because since he’s been tried and convicted, you don’t hear about him … I can live with him being in prison for the rest of his life, for the simple reason that he is not defiant and he’s not going out and getting on the news and so forth and trying to hurt the family members.

(Madeira, 2012, p. 246)

McVeigh was indeed aware that a handful of survivors and family members were very actively engaged in giving media interviews, and was determined to use his media access in turn to counter these voices, arguing that the bombing was justified as an act of war in retaliation for the United States government’s actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge (Madeira, 2012, pp. 201–220).

Closure is not a popular term with most survivors and family members, and those in Oklahoma City were no exception. They almost unanimously denied that closure existed, lamenting the impossibility of finality or “getting over it” and speaking instead of the possibility of adjusting or “moving on” (Madeira, 2012, pp. 41–45). Several termed closure a “media word” or “buzz term” (Madeira, 2012, p. 42), and connected it to unrealistic expectations that those exposed to such trauma could rebound to “normal” within a matter of months—or indeed, unrealistic expectations that there was even a “normal” to which they could return (Madeira, 2012, 41–45).

These findings prompt a redefinition of closure that considers the overlapping roles of both media institutions and capital legal proceedings. In contemporary media usage, closure most often refers to a state of being (“reaching closure”); in reality, however, it is “an interactive process by which individual family members and survivors construct meaningful narratives of the bombing and its impact upon their lives, and how they have moved on, dealt with, adjusted to, or healed from this culturally traumatic event” (Madeira, 2012, pp. xxii–xxiv). This definition casts closure as a process comprising both intrapersonal and interpersonal cycles. Closure requires both reflective behaviors of comprehension and self-adjustment, and more active interventions, from learning how to tell the story of a traumatic event to intervening to prevent other future events (Madeira, 2012, pp. 50–53). Interventions might include participating in media interviews, helping to build the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, attending the trial and/or execution, or working toward legal reforms (Madeira, 2012, p. 53). Instead of effecting a “closing,” then, closure is concerned with creating an opening—an expansion of awareness and engagement and a readiness to reencounter social relationships and roles.

Changes in media practices also affected survivors’ and family members’ attempts to work through their grief and cope with McVeigh’s visibility. Many journalists and reporters in Oklahoma City demonstrated a sensitivity to how their communications with McVeigh would impact survivors and family members, and sometimes modified journalistic practice so as to minimize surprise and harm. For example, Terri Watkins, a reporter for KOCO-TV in Oklahoma, would meet with interested survivors and family members after she received a letter from McVeigh, but before she broadcast its contents (Madeira, 2012, p. 206). Many were actually quite interested in what McVeigh had to say, but did not relish learning about these matters from watching television. In this fashion, McVeigh’s communications became more educational than sensationalist or profiteering, as they revealed a glimpse into the mind of this young man who had committed such a heinous act.

But the relationship between capital punishment, closure, and the media is scarcely straightforward; the Oklahoma City bombing case study illustrates two compelling paradoxes that problematize the assumption that the news media coverage always supports a link between closure and capital punishment, or that all coverage of a perpetrator is traumatic to and undesired by victims’ family members and survivors.

The same news media organizations that popularize the coupling between closure and capital punishment can undermine this connection by helping to convey how victims’ families found witnessing an execution a less than satisfactory experience. For example, one news story addressing the question of whether executions provided closure quoted a victim’s son as stating that the execution was “anticlimactic” and the perpetrator’s death was “very easy and peaceful,” perhaps making him angrier (Montgomery, 2009). Another victim’s son stated, “It didn’t bring my brother back. It didn’t do nothing” (Montgomery, 2009). Witnesses to McVeigh’s execution also found the ease of his death disappointing; as one closed-circuit witness recalled, “I just thought it’d take a long time … It took me longer to get out of the restroom [beforehand] than it took for him to die” (Madeira, 2012, p. 251). Another closed-circuit witness lamented, “I don’t think it was gruesome enough. I think it should have been more painful … He just went to sleep. That’s the easy way out” (Madeira, 2012, p. 254). Denied a satisfying visual experience, witnesses must find solace instead in the fact that the death sentence has been carried out, and the process is complete.

Moreover, if Oklahoma City family members and survivors faulted the media for its seemingly ceaseless coverage of the perpetrators that often hampered their ability to heal, they also acknowledged that the media played a formative role in providing important information such as investigational and trial updates and details about the perpetrators’ upbringings and family lives. McVeigh’s father, Bill, in particular attracted much sympathy from family members and survivors; in contrast, Nichols’s brother attracted much more negative attention as family members and survivors felt that he was using the media to popularize his anti-governmental views (Madeira, 2012, p. 111). A television interview with Bill McVeigh even led family member Bud Welch to perhaps his greatest moment of personal peace; Welch ultimately met with Bill and McVeigh’s sister Jennifer at their home in upstate New York, when Bud was able to tell them that the two men were living the same pain, that Bud cared how they felt, and did not blame them for Timothy McVeigh’s actions (Madeira, 2012, pp. 111–112).

Other Illustrative Cases

The Oklahoma City bombing stands out in American history as a rather extreme example of the traumatic potential of a criminal perpetrator’s presence. However, other criminal perpetrators have also had a comparably toxic media presence, with traumatizing effects to victims’ family members. Daniel Rolling, the so-called Gainesville Ripper, maintained a particularly infamous media presence with similar consequences for the families of his victims. Rolling, a serial killer, murdered five University of Florida Students in Gainesville in 1990, mutilating their bodies. When he was prosecuted for these crimes nearly four years later, Rolling claimed to want to be a criminal “superstar” (Associated Press, “Florida Executes Serial Killer,” 2006) like Ted Bundy and pled guilty to all charges; he was subsequently sentenced to death on each count. At trial, he sang gospel songs while he was sentenced (Fisher, 2006). He later collaborated with Sondra London on a book entitled The Making of a Serial Killer: The Real Story of the Gainesville Murders in the Killer’s Own Words (London, 1996). Rolling also gave London, who eventually became his fiancée, exclusive rights to any interviews and written material, and also asked her to market the many letters, songs and poems, and pictures he produced while on death row in Florida (Writer to marry Rolling, 1993). Like McVeigh, Rolling also wrote letters to news media organizations (Associated Press, “Serial Killer Danny Rolling Executed,” 2006). Following the execution, during which Rolling sang a gospel hymn, Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeanne Singer remarked that “it looked like a final stage performance” (Fisher, 2006).

The mass media may also exhibit what Susan Bandes terms “selective empathy”—disproportionately covering extremely sympathetic perpetrators, such as Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998 (Bandes, 2004, p. 593). The first woman Texas had executed since the Civil War, Tucker had been sentenced to death for murdering two people in 1983 with a 3-foot pickax while engaging in a weekend-long party that included drug use (Grumman, 1998; Kudlac, 2007). After she was sentenced to death, news coverage chronicled her history of prostitution and drug abuse and the fact that she had become a fervent Christian and obtained her GED, even marrying her prison minister, Dana Brown (“Karla Faye Tucker’s Last Hours,” 1998). Again, coverage of Tucker’s impending execution became headline news. Larry King conducted an Emmy award-winning interview with Tucker approximately one month before her execution (King, 2007). She was on the cover of People Magazine, was a guest on Pat Roberson’s 700 Club, and Pope John Paul II sent her a letter of support (Kudlac, 2007, p. 73). Yet, this omnipresent media coverage had not worn well with the family members of her victims; Richard Thornton, the husband of one of her victims, stated that “She finally said my wife’s name. It took her 14½ years to do it. We’ll begin tomorrow without the name Karla Faye Tucker stuck in our face every day” (Grumman, 1998).

If capital punishment is thought more likely to bring closure in cases where offenders appear disrespectful, defiant, and unrepentant, the news media is undoubtedly the chief means of publicizing these qualities, as well as others that can influence public opinion about whether executing a given offender will bring closure. Following the trial of Scott Peterson, charged and convicted of the murder of his wife, Lacie, and her unborn son, Connor, the media was saturated with references to Peterson’s conduct during trial, where he sat “defiantly still and tight-jawed” (Vries, 2004), and with jurors’ assertions that this lack of emotion was what finally pushed them toward a death sentence—particularly after he did not testify at trial (Vries, 2004). One juror interviewed on CBS News’s The Early Show stated that Peterson “is a cold blooded killer. He has no remorse” (Vries, 2004).

More recently, news coverage of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, consistently portrayed him as remorseless and openly insolent. One Boston Globe article noted, “while he sits obediently in the courtroom, without drawing much attention to himself, he wears a neutral expression, even during gut-wrenching testimony from witnesses” (Wen & Valencia, 2015). The most memorable visual example of Tsarnaev’s lack of remorse was the widely circulated image from a closed-circuit video wherein he raised his middle finger to a camera in his cell (CNN Tonight, 2015). One CNN article reported that, in this video clip, Tsarnaev “glares into the camera defiantly, his middle finger raised in a profane salute,” and repeated federal prosecutor Nadine Pellegrini’s statement describing Tsarnaev as “unconcerned, unrepentant, and unchanged … Without remorse, he remains untouched by the grief and loss that he caused” (O’Neill, 2015). A perpetrator who remains untouched is, of course, difficult or impossible to empathize with—although the defense attempted to explain that this “profane salute” was “a show of spontaneous juvenile behavior” by showing other footage from the same video clip that showed Dzhokhar fussing with his hair in the camera’s reflection and “flash[ing] a V sign” (Wen & Valencia, 2015). Tsarnaev’s apparent remorselessness can explain reactions like that which Charles C. W. Cooke, a self-described opponent of the death penalty, published in an opinion piece in the National Review: “I accept my own failings here. I accept there’s no high principle involved, and that my heart is betraying my head. But if this one fries, I’m not sure how much I care” (Cooke, 2015).

Recent research, however, reminds us that we need to exercise caution when attempting to assess perpetrators’ remorse and making related judgments about what closure requires and whether capital punishment is warranted, because these judgments are often inaccurate and have harsh consequences. Law professor Susan Bandes argues that, while there is currently no evidence that a defendant’s remorse can be accurately evaluated in a courtroom, several research studies demonstrate that race and other biases may distort these assessments of remorsefulness (Bandes, 2015). This is a particularly compelling and widespread problem because judgments about remorsefulness often influence “sentencing hearings; parole, probation, and clemency determinations; forensic evaluations; decisions on whether to try a juvenile as an adult; and even (counter-intuitively) determinations of guilt or innocence” (Bandes, 2015, p. 1).

Constraints Upon Media Coverage of Perpetrators

Media organizations’ preoccupation with grieving victims’ families and, more problematically, with the criminal perpetrators responsible, has prompted criticism. But would altering media news coverage of perpetrators decrease family members’ traumatization, or alter public closure perceptions?

Attempts by government officials to reduce perpetrators’ presence in the media are predictable responses in the wake of terrorism events or accountability proceedings. On April 12, 2001, while announcing that McVeigh’s execution would be broadcast via closed-circuit television, US Attorney General John Ashcroft asked journalists to not give McVeigh continued media access:

As an American who cares about our culture, I want to restrict a mass murderer’s access to the public podium … I do not want anyone to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims … If the news media conducts an interview with Timothy McVeigh, I would ask them for self-restraint. Please do not help him inject more poison into our culture … I would ask that the news media not become Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirators in his assault on America’s public safety and upon America itself.

(Madeira, 2012, p. 198)

Similarly, following 9/11, Victor Navasky noted that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice “famously got all the heads of all the network news divisions on the line and asked that they think twice before running any more Bin Laden tapes,” whereupon, “instead of objecting to this blatant and unprecedented government intrusion or reciting the press’s traditional mantra about fairness and the obligation to present both sides, they all caved in to her request” (Navasky, 2002, p. xvii). James Carey observes that Rice made this request to prevent networks from “inadvertently transmit[ting] propaganda or carry[ing] coded instructions from the ‘terrorist-in-chief’ to al-Qaeda operatives worldwide” (Carey, 2002, p. 74).

Recently, victims’ families and survivors have also attempted to change media practices in more dramatic ways. A group called “No Notoriety” was formed by Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex was killed in a mass shooting perpetrated by James Holmes, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing 12 and wounding 70 others at a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012. Tom Teves had challenged Anderson Cooper and CNN during an interview on July 23, 2012, to stop giving notoriety to his son’s killer; media coverage had consistently featured Holmes’ mug shot, taken at the Arapahoe County Jail immediately after his arrest, which showed a young man with wide, staring eyes and flame-orange hair. Members of No Notoriety include over 70 families and survivors from some of the worst mass shootings in American history. The group supports “responsible media coverage for the sake of public safety” and challenges media organizations to limit the name and likeness of suspects after identification except when they are still at large, to refuse to publish self-serving statements or images made by the individual in favor of focusing on victims, and to promote data and analyses that help eliminate the motivations behind mass murder (NoNotoriety, n.d. a). Many journalists, media organizations, professional associations, and government agencies have responded positively to this challenge, including People magazine, the International Police Association, and the FBI (NoNotoriety, n.d. b).

Finally, recent media coverage has demonstrated increased sensitivity to the question of whether or not to name the shooter, and how often; after a shooting in Colorado Springs on October 31, 2015, Joanna Bean at the Colorado Statesman clarified that the publication named the shooter so that those who knew him could provide information that might protect the public and to enable the community to ask questions about “access to mental health services, law enforcement response to active-shooter situations and how people acquire guns” (Bean, 2015). Some, however, have responded to the anti-perpetrator publicity movement by refusing to name the perpetrator at all. Following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Rosewood, Oregon, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin stated that he would not name the killer, stating “I will not give him the credit he probably sought. You will never hear me mention his name” (Alteir, 2015).

Review of the Literature and Further Sources

Despite the growing popularity of capital punishment’s link to closure for murder victims’ family members, there are surprisingly few empirical research studies investigating the validity of this connection. In fact, the earliest studies did not focus upon victims’ family members but other populations, such as journalists who witnessed executions and college students asked to contemplate witnessing an execution.

In a 1994 study examining the “psychological distress associated with simply being an uninvolved, threatened witness to violence,” Freinkel, Koopman, and Spiegel (1994) submitted a questionnaire to journalists one month after they witnessed the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris to assess dissociative symptoms. Based on the 15 returned questionnaires, the authors concluded that no journalist reported “severe or long-lasting psychological trauma,” but that many experienced dissociative symptoms and “short-term psychological impact” (Freinkel et al., 1994). Significantly, this study lacked a control group of journalists who did not witness the execution, and its methodology made it difficult or impossible to conclusively distinguish stress from witnessing the execution to stress from unrelated, postexecution assignments. A second study by Domino and Boccaccini (2000) questioned 219 University of Alabama students as to whether family members of victims should be allowed to watch the executions of their loved ones’ killers. The questionnaire contained a brief description of a policy initiative allowing family members to witness executions, followed by eight attitudinal questions about execution viewing. The authors reported that, while most subjects would not want to witness, they were more likely to witness the execution of an inmate who had murdered their family member than a stranger, and that most subjects felt that witnessing would not “assist the family in coping with the loss of their loved one” (Domino & Boccaccini, 2000, p. 71).

Much prior research has addressed the propriety of televising executions. In her book Pictures at an Execution, Wendy Lesser (1998) addressed the question of whether the mass media should broadcast executions, concluding that this was not advisable. Examining the “crucial connection between murder and theater,” Lesser (1998) asserted that execution broadcasts would be offensive and prurient, noting that actual murder narratives, unlike fictional ones, do not provide closure (pp. 17–18). Law and Society scholar Austin Sarat (2001), however, came to the opposite conclusion in his book When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition, contending that, because capital punishment’s survival depends on its “relative invisibility,” execution broadcasts would problematize that invisibility and therefore perhaps bring about the abolition of the death penalty (p. 191). For Sarat, “the public is always present at an execution” as “authorizing audience,” and not broadcasting executions helps the state to maintain control by determining who witnesses, since “the very uncontrollability of the gaze and the indeterminacy of its political effects are what make televising executions so threatening to the survival of capital punishment” (Sarat, 2001, pp. 25, 207). He continues, “televising executions would disrupt the attempt to dignify state killing and to reduce it from political spectacle to administrative act”; without cameras in the execution chamber, we “forget that we are killing” (Sarat, 2001, p. 280).

Finally, additional empirical research is beginning to address the psychological effects of a death sentence on victims’ families’ well-being. In a recent research study, Marilyn Armour and Mark Umbreit (2012) conducted in-person interviews with a randomly selected set of survivors from four different time periods to assess the longitudinal impact of a death sentence, comparing the experiences of family members in an abolition state, Minnesota, with those of family members from an active death penalty state, Texas. The researchers found that “in Minnesota, survivors … show higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health” (Armour & Umbreit, 2012, p. 1).

Further Reading

  • Acker, J. (2006). The Myth of Closure and Capital Punishment. In R. M. Bohm & J. T. Walker (Eds.), Demystifying Crime and Criminal Justice (pp. 167–175). Los Angeles: Roxbury.
  • Acker, J., & Karp, D. R. (2006). Wounds that do not bind: Victim-based perspectives on the death penalty. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  • Armour, M. P., & Umbreit, M. S. (2012). Assessing the impact of the ultimate penal sanction on homicide survivors: A two state comparison. Marquette Law Review, 96, 1–131.
  • Associated Press. (2004, December 14). Jurors: Peterson’s stoicism was the final straw. NBC News.
  • Beck, E., Britto, S., & Andrews, A. (2007). In the shadow of death: Restorative justice and death row families. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Berns, N. (2009). Contesting the victim card: Closure discourse and emotion in death penalty rhetoric. The Sociological Quarterly, 50, 383–406.
  • Berns, N. (2011). Closure: The rush to end grief and what it costs us. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Bessler, J. D. (1997). Death in the dark: Midnight executions in America. Boston: Northeastern Press.
  • Gerber, T. (2014, July 28). FBI to media: Don’t name mass shooters. ABC KSAT 12.
  • Kaplan, P. (2012). Murder stories: Ideological narratives in capital punishment. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
  • Sharp, S. F. (2005). Hidden victims: The effects of the death penalty on the families of the accused. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Spungen, D. (1998). Homicide: The hidden victims. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Tribune News Services. (2004, December 14). Jury says stoic Peterson deserves to be executed. Chicago Tribune.


  • Armour, M. P., & Umbreit, M. S. (2006). Exploring “closure” and the ultimate penal sanction for survivors of homicide victims. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 19, 105–112.
  • Armour, M. P., & Umbreit, M. S. (2012). Assessing the impact of the ultimate penal sanction on homicide survivors: A two state comparison. Marquette Law Review, 96, 1–131.
  • Associated Press. (2006, October 25). Florida executes serial killer Danny Harold Rolling. Fox News.
  • Associated Press. (2006, October 26). Serial killer Danny Rolling executed in Florida. NBC News.
  • Bandes, S. (2004). Fear factor: The role of the media in covering and shaping the death penalty. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 1, 585–597.
  • Bandes, S. (2009). Victims, “closure,” and the sociology of emotion. Law and Contemporary Problems, 72, 1–26.
  • Bandes, S. (2015). Remorse and criminal justice. Emotion Review, 1, 1–6.
  • Bean, J. (2015, November 3). The Gazette: Why we published the name of the gunman. The Colorado Statesman.
  • Boutellier, H. (2000). Crime and morality: The significance of criminal justice in postmodern culture. New York: Springer.
  • Carey, J. W. (2002). American journalism on, before, and after September 11. In B. Zelizer & S. Allan (Eds.), Journalism after September 11 (pp. 85–103). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • CNN Tonight. (2015, April 22). Boston marathon bomber flips camera the bird. CNN.
  • Cole, A. M. (2007). The cult of true victimhood. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Domino, M. L., & Boccaccini, M. T. (2000). Doubting Thomas: Should family members of victims watch executions? Law & Psychology Review, 24, 59–75.
  • Fisher, L. (2006, October 26). Danny Rolling executed for five student murders. The Gainesville Sun.
  • Freinkel, A., Koopman, C., & Spiegel, D. (1994). Dissociative symptoms in media eyewitnesses of an execution. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 1335–1339.
  • Goodwin, M. L. (1997). An eyeful for an eye: An argument against allowing the families of murder victims to view executions. Brandeis Journal of Family Law, 36, 585–608.
  • Gross, S. R., & Matheson, D. J. (2003). What they say at the end: Capital victims’ families and the press. Cornell Law Review, 88, 486–516.
  • Kanwar, V. (2002). Capital punishment as closure: The limits of a victim-centered jurisprudence. New York University Review of Law and Social Change, 27(2), 215–255.
  • King, L. (2007, March 26). Karla Faye Tucker: Born again on death row. CNN.
  • King, R. (2003). Don’t kill in our names: Families of murder victims speak out against the death penalty. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Kudlac, C. S. (2007). Public executions: The death penalty and the media. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Lesser, W. (1998). Pictures at an execution: An inquiry into the subject of murder. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • London, S. (1996). The making of a serial killer: The real story of the Gainesville murders in the killer’s own words. Portland, OR: Feral House.
  • Madeira, J. L. (2012). Killing McVeigh: The death penalty and the myth of closure. New York: New York University Press.
  • Meade, C. J. (1996). Reading death sentences: The narrative construction of capital punishment. New York Law Review, 71, 732–761.
  • Media. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries.
  • Montgomery, D. (2009, November 10). For murder victims’ families, witnessing execution offers hollow satisfaction. Washington Post.
  • Navasky, V. (2002). Foreword. In B. Zelizer & S. Allan (Eds.), Journalism after September 11. (pp. xix–xxv). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rapping, E. (1994). Mediations: Forays into the culture and gender wars. Boston: South End.
  • Rapping, E. (2003). Law and Justice as seen on TV. New York: New York University Press.
  • Sarat, A. (2001). When the state kills: Capital punishment and the American condition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Shapiro, B. (2001, February 24). Killing McVeigh. Salon.
  • Sherwin, R. K. (2000). When law goes pop: The vanishing line between law and popular culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Slayden, D., & Whillock, R. K. (Eds.). (1999). Soundbite culture: The death of discourse in a wired world. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Sreberny, A. (2002). Trauma talk: Reconfiguring the inside and outside. In B. Zelizer & S. Allan (Eds.), Journalism after September 11 (pp. 220–234). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Vollum, S., & Longmire, D. R. (2007). Covictims of capital murder: Statements of victims’ family members and friends made at the time of execution. Violence & Victims, 22, 601–619.
  • Vries, L. (2004, December 21). Juror: Peterson “has no remorse”. CBS News.
  • Wen, P., & Valencia, M. J. (2015, April 27). As Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense begins, image matters. Boston Globe.
  • Writer to marry Rolling. (1993, February 26). Sun-Sentinel.
  • Zimring, F. E. (2003). The contradictions of American capital punishment. New York: Oxford University Press.