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January 11, 2007

How to consider victims opposing killer's execution?

As stressed in posts here, I find the role of victims at sentencing quite intriguing and far more nuanced than most realize.  (The two latest issues of the Federal Sentencing Reporter focused on victims effectively spotlight many of these nuances.)  An intriguing example of these issues in a death penalty context emerges from this Ohio story about a murder victim's family's plan to seek clemency for their daughter's killer:

The Murrays love for their lost daughter is prompting them to make an extraordinary request by asking Gov. Ted Strickland to spare the life of Gregory McKnight, the man who kidnapped and killed her.  He left her body rolled up in carpet in a vacant trailer on his Vinton County property.  The family will appeal either directly to the governor or through a petition drive.  To act on the request, the governor would need an Ohio Parole Board recommendation, which he could request.

Although many parents wouldn't consider such a move, the Murrays searched their grieving hearts and found "love and loyalty" for their daughter's wishes far outweighed any thoughts of revenge.  "It's about Emily.  It's about the people of Ohio.  When we execute someone, in some subtle ways, we may harm ourselves," Mr. Murray said in a telephone interview from his home.  If McKnight was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, "We would have less reason to think about him," Mrs. Murray said.

McKnight, 30, is on Death Row at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. He was convicted and sentenced to death for abducting and killing Murray and Greg Julious, 20, in November 2000. Julious' burned body parts were found scattered around the property.... 

Vinton County Prosecutor Timothy Gleeson said the death penalty in McKnight's case is justified and fair.  He vowed, however, to do "absolutely nothing to prevent the governor from considering anything and everything that the Murrays may present." "I would actually encourage the governor to consider what they have to say. I very much appreciate and respect the Murrays' opinion on this. They have a unique perspective."

The article does not even mention the family of McKnight's other murder victim, Greg Julious.  If Julious' family also opposes McKnight's execution, does this become an easy case for clemency for Ohio's new Governor?  If Julious' family is eager for McKnight's execution, are the Murrays' opinions of far less consequence?

January 11, 2007 at 08:47 AM | Permalink


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To raise the obvious question, does the state execute people to avenge the victim, or does it execute people to (1) ensure their incapacitation to an absolute certainty, (2) deter others, and (3) punish the criminal?

A victim's forgiveness might conceivably reduce the need for (3) in some way, but I don't think it does, and I certainly don't see how it affects (1) or (2).

I find interesting the Murrays' statement that "We would have less reason to think about him" if he was serving LWOP instead of being executed. Intuitively, I'd think that the fact that the killer was dead would put them more at ease because they'd never have to worry about him escaping or finding a technicality on which to get out of jail. Worth thinking about, I suppose.

To answer the question in the post directly, I don't know what I'd do if I thought that the victim's wishes mattered substantially, and that there were competing claims of different victims. If you think that, once the sentence is imposed, the death of the killer is an entitlement that belongs collectively to the victims' survivors, I would tend to think that the entitlement shouldn't be defeasible by one victim's survivors over the wishes of the other's.

Also, I'd note that the families of the victims are not the victims themselves. If you really want to split hairs, what would you do if Emily Murray's father wanted the killer spared, but her mother was upset that a humane execution was the worst thing that the state could do?

I don't think that the victims' families wishes should be given much, if any weight.

Posted by: anonymous | Jan 11, 2007 9:46:53 AM

Unless, of course, the victims' families were pro-execution. They you'd be fighting for their "vindication." Funny how things change sometimes.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 11, 2007 11:55:55 AM

Whatever you think about the Death Penalty's merits, I don't think the victims' families should have a say in the commutation debate, one way or the other. It personalizes the retributive dimension of the death penalty, instead of viewing it (as we should) as society's collective judgment.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 11, 2007 12:08:42 PM

Marc, the death penalty is NOT "society's collective judgment". I do not personally recall being asked about this. And, do you really think that a bunch of dopey, crooked politicians sitting in the Ohio legialture reflect "society's collective judgment"?

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Jan 12, 2007 5:32:25 PM

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