For survivors, execution isn't the end

As she watched Ricky McGinn lying in front of her in the death chamber, Mozelle Hamm could not find it in herself to forgive him. He had murdered her granddaughter, Christi Jo, and now the state of Texas was going to give him his own back.

Finally, after the waiting, the trial, the appeals, she would at least know - for certain this time - that McGinn would never hurt anyone again.

But then, as the execution spooled out in front of her last Sept. 27, something happened. Or rather, it didn't happen. Ms. Hamm felt ... less than one might suppose. There was no flood of relief. There was no lifting of weight, no sense of turning a personal page.

And today, months later, that is the message Mozelle Hamm has for the Oklahoma City bombing survivors and victim relatives who were to watch Timothy McVeigh's execution: Remember, closure is for doors.

"The people who are going to witness McVeigh's death need to know, it's not going to be a clean ending," she says. "They're going to go out to the site of that building, and they are going to leave flowers and they are going to cry, and they always will."

Mr. McVeigh's scheduled June 11 execution by lethal injection is notable for many things, but perhaps none more so than this: It will be one of the most widely viewed such events since the United States ended public executions almost 70 years ago.

Besides 25 on-scene witnesses, more than 300 survivors and next-of-kin are expected to watch a special closed-circuit broadcast of McVeigh's final moments. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the broadcast on April 12 after meeting with survivor representatives. "I hope that we can help them meet their need to close this chapter in their life," said Mr. Ashcroft.

Undoubtedly, some of the witnesses to McVeigh's execution will feel a sense of relief. If nothing else, the long legal process that began with McVeigh's arrest and ended with a confounding delay from missing documents will finally be over.

But if the experience of victims' relatives in other cases is any guide, the response of many will be mixed. "There will no doubt be a range of responses, from a delight in retribution to a feeling of emptiness," says Peter Brooks, director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University and author of "Troubling Confessions."

The right of survivors and victims' relatives to watch executions, if they wish, is a relatively modern development in the long history of capital punishment in America.

Many death-penalty states now have laws guaranteeing such access. The point, according to supporters, is to allow those who have been hurt the most by a crime to bear witness to society's justice, giving them some measure of peace of mind.

Some say it does just that. As a teenager, Brooks Douglass witnessed two men kill his parents. As an adult, Oklahoma State Sen. Douglass authored a right-to-witness law, and was then present when one of his parents' killers, Steven Hatch, was executed.

The 1996 event meant his long, draining involvement in Hatch's legal process was over. Never again would he have to testify at an endless string of court hearings. No more would he worry that Hatch would be paroled and be free to harm again. "My life [was] my own again," says Douglass.

The length of the US death-penalty process sometimes only intensifies the resolve of victims' relatives to be there at its end.

One's mother's long wait

Pat Teer's son, Texas state trooper Mark Frederick, was shot to death in 1976 by Billy George Hughes as he approached Hughes's car after a traffic stop. Over the following quarter-century, Hughes was convicted of the crime at two separate trials. In prison, he had time to earn two college degrees, run a greeting-card business, and translate books into Braille - all the while proclaiming his innocence.

Ms. Teer says that in the end she felt she needed to attend Hughes's January 2000 execution in part just to let herself know that the whole process was finally over. She wanted to maintain a commitment to her son's memory, as well. And she wanted to hear what Hughes had to say in his final moments.

"I wanted to hear him admit to something," she says. "He didn't, and it made me very angry."

Teer says she has no regrets about attending the execution.

But other relatives often say that the experience is a negative one, says Dudley Sharp, director of death-penalty resources at Justice For All, a victim-rights group.

That doesn't mean they wouldn't do it all over again. Many feel a necessity to sit in, in spirit, for their murdered loved one. They want to ensure that the execution really occurs.

"It's not logical. They just need to see it," says Mr. Sharp. Still, most know their presence is not about making everything all better again.

The presence of the murderer, even on the other side of a pane of smoked glass, can cause an intense swirl of emotion. Anger, disgust, surprise, disdain - it all flashes by in an instant.

One feeling that may seldom surface is forgiveness. No matter what spiritual advisers have told them, victim relatives often struggle to forgive the condemned for what they have done.

"They know they should," says Sharp. "But they can't."

Which is not to say that forgiveness is not possible, even for solid death-penalty supporters.

A face-to-face meeting

Douglass saw one of his parents' killers executed. The other, Glen Ake, had the death-penalty portion of his conviction overturned. In 1986, Mr. Ake was sentenced to two life-in-prison terms.

On impulse, during a legislative tour of the prison where Ake was being held, Douglass asked to meet him. It was roughly a year before Hatch's execution.

For 90 minutes they talked face to face, separated by the visiting-room panel of glass. Both cried most of the time. Ake said he was very sorry for what he had done.

Douglass said that for 16 years he had wanted nothing more than to see Ake dead.

Then Douglass said he was tired of being bitter and angry. He got up and started to walk out and then turned around and went back to the glass and said to Ake that he forgave him.

"I could almost see this poison flowing out of me all over the floor. It was like I hadn't taken a breath in 16 years, and suddenly I could breathe again," says Douglass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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