Sunday, July 18, 2010

'Closure' by Hans-Georg Moeller

Typically, the following explanations are offered to explain why so many wrongful convictions come about in death penalty cases in the United States: racial prejudice, illegal acts by overzealous prosecutors, police or judges who misrepresent the facts in order to get a guilty verdict; inadequate counsel because of incompetent court-appointed attorneys or the defendant's inability to pay for an effective defense team. I have no doubt that all these factors have contributed to a good number of wrongful convictions ( 102 between 1973-2004 and who knows how many wrongful convictions remained undetected?). But I think the strong emphasis on morality that is typically part of U.S. Trials involving the death penalty, along with the resurgence of retributive ethics, probably plays an even more important role.

[ see also ]

In recent years A new pseudopsychological term was coined: “closure”. While the moral shift to victims' interests was obviously a shift towards a morality of retribution, vengeance, or both, these terms do not sound very nice. “Vengeance is an anachronism with a bad press. Something new, something personal, and something that sounded both civilized and refined would be the best candidate for an appealing label for personal involvement in executions. From this perspective, the evocative term 'closure' was a public relations godsend.” ( “The Symbolic Transformation of American Capital Punishment” by Franklin E. Zimring).

The term was not used at all in the context of the death penalty before 1989, but since then it has had a fantastic career. It is now quite rare to hear about a death penalty case in the mass media without it being mentioned. The term has no official function in legislation or legal proceedings – it is still not a legal concept. But it of great value for both prosecutors and the mass media in exploiting the moral potential of a murder trial. A poll from 2001 showed that 60 percent of Americans think that the death penalty is fair because it provides “closure”. What a remarkable rating for an argument that didn't even exist twelve years earlier!

The term “closure” is used in the American mass media as a good reason to kill evil people – and how could a relative of the victim interviewed on TV not use it? Relatives have learned from the media and prosecutors that they are not only entitled but also expected to yearn for closure if they are to be good victims. Closure has become a symbolic moral necessity. If the media did not speak of closure, the story would lose some of its moral drama.

There is no psychological evidence that closure happens through the execution of an offender, but this is, of course, irrelevant since the term is not used psychologically either in the mass media or by the prosecutors. Its function is to express the moral necessity for retribution. “It is not known whether there are psychological advantages in mourning the loss of a loved one when that loss leads to an execution, nor is there any indication that the adjustment to the loss of a loved one in a homicide is any different in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states.” ( Zimring) Some states even go so far as to let a victim's relatives witness the execution of an offender for the sake of closure.. I can hardly imagine how this could be psychologically beneficial. Closure is a psychological phantom, but an extremely efficient moral and rhetorical device in U.S. Death penalty practice and media coverage.

A last important observation about “the transformation of execution into a victim service gesture” made by Zimring is that “it links the symbolism of execution to a long American history of community control of punishment.” Zimring documents in great detail how the current U.S. practice of the death penalty is related to earlier forms of community control of punishment, namely lynching and vigilantism. The moral cult of the innocent victim and the evil offender historically connects current legal practice not with the legal system but with extra-legal (and now illegal) acts of public violence that were once seen as morally right. The moralization of trials that involve the death penalty makes them less a purely legal procedure than a new form of public – constituted by the mass media – lynching.

The death penalty advocate Walter Berns says “There is something in the souls of men that requires crimes to be revenged. “ I do not know if there is something like this in the souls of men, but there is certainly something in communication in the courtroom and the mass media that makes judges and jurors decide that revenge is a moral necessity – that the evil one must be killed – and that this communication often overrides facts 'beyond a reasonable doubt' and the misericordia that underwrites sound judicial practice.


  1. The death penalty does not act as a deterrent and, under a legal system framed by the Bill of Rights, saves no expense.

    The Moral Fool; A Case for Amorality by Hans-Georg Moeller; Columbia University Press, N.Y. , 2009

  2. Prior to 1900, lynching was more common than official execution as the predominant mode of the death penalty in the United States, claiming more lives over the course of American history than legal capital punishment. Of 3,224 Americans lynched between 1889 and 1918, 702 were white and 2,522 were black. During the same period, 1,080 convicted defendants were officially put to death under state authority, of which slightly fewer than half were white. Of course it is impossible to say how many of the legal convictions and executions were not, in fact, simply legal lynchings.