Thursday, September 05, 2013

Is there such a thing as "closure" after violent crime?

Two friends spent years making this HBO film about a grisly rape and murder in an upper middle class, white, Connecticut town. Cheshire is the sort of place where residents think horrible home invasions don't happen. But two career criminals went on a mindless rampage in 2007 and left three women violated and dead.

It's a terrible story. My movie making friends somehow won exceptional access to both the victims' family and to the lawyers who tried to avert a death penalty verdict against the palpably guilty defendants. The defense failed at that goal. During the long legal process, Connecticut repealed its death penalty, though this case is not covered by the new law. Nonetheless, it is very unlikely the two perpetrators will be executed.

Because the movie makers didn't get cooperation from town authorities or the police, the film points out but doesn't follow a lot of loose ends, especially why police seem to have stalled attempting to rescue victims who might have been saved by quick action.

Lacking this material, the movie focuses on the victim family's search for "closure." How do people come to terms with the knowledge that terrible things were done to people they love? Do survivors ever find peace?

Probably the answers are as various as humans. In this case, the family does not seem to have gotten much closure from the death verdicts.

This film lurked in the back of my mind when I read a commentary on the issues that may be present when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is tried for the Boston Marathon bombing. If he faces the federal death penalty, will all the hundreds of injured people and families be given a chance to weigh in? Certainly they have something to say here as violated involuntary bit-players in Tsarnaev's violent fantasy.

But how much influence should victims have and on what parts of the legal process? Legal scholar James Alan Fox presents social science research that proves the obvious: victim statements before sentencing can evoke a more severe penalty, including the death penalty. Fox argues that victims should have a chance to speak, but their emotional views should enter the proceedings only after sentencing.

The views and opinions of victims and their families, as well as their ability to influence the jury, should not be relevant in determining the appropriate penalty for a crime. ... At the end of the day, or more accurately, the end of the trial, victims and their families should indeed have the opportunity to address the court. This should occur, however, only after the sentence has been determined.

This is a perspective that I am sure would be deeply unsatisfying the Cheshire family members -- and, if followed, would be resented by some Boston victims as well.

I don't think we ever increase the quality of justice in our society by executing criminals -- but I am pretty sure we also don't do very well by victim families either. The Cheshire Murders is a powerful exploration of these issues, putting a human face on the intolerable.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Having read all about it when it happened and the aftermath, I'd not touch a film like that with a 10 foot pole because it's depressing enough just remembering it. The father though has remarried but he won't ever get past it. I think the only possible closure from what I've read is forgiving but to forgive those monsters would be beyond me. I don't even as someone unconnected to it but with the pain it dredges up anytime I think of what one human can do to another, and it doesn't stop happening. I'd settle (and do settle) for just not hating them. Hate is what really destroys us. But forgiving, that takes a bigger person than me. There are so many of these stories out there. :(

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