Execution: What Happens After?

The families of Danny Rolling's murder victims filed into the execution viewing room in Starke, Fla., last week. The curtains were pulled back, and there he lay on a gurney, a leather strap across his forehead and tubes protruding from his body. "I squeezed my dad and my brother's hands," Laurie Lahey, the sister of victim Tracy Paules, said afterward. "I just kept repeating over and over, 'Die, die, die'." Instead of a last statement, Rolling, who killed five college students in 1990 (and confessed to three 1989 murders in a final meeting with a minister), sang some lyrics he wrote. After his executioners administered a lethal injection, he gazed at the ceiling and faded away. "I couldn't stop staring at him," said Lahey. "It seemed like it took forever." As she headed back out into the crisp evening air, Lahey felt something that had eluded her for 16 years: relief.

That is a common reaction immediately after witnessing the execution of a loved one's murderer. But what happens months and years later? Few systematic studies exist on the long-term effects of watching an execution. "There is enormous individual variation," says James Acker, a criminal-justice professor at SUNY Albany, who coedited a book on the issue. While some witnesses say they're freed to move on, others remain consumed by grief or hatred, and still others come to oppose the death penalty, concluding that it did nothing to assuage their pain. But most agree that there is no such thing as closure. "It's a concept that simply doesn't describe the loss that they've suffered," says Acker.

For some family members, the killer's death may sate a desire for vengeance. Or it may bring welcome finality to a torturous judicial process. Kathleen Treanor, whose daughter and in-laws died in the Oklahoma City bombings, watched Timothy McVeigh's execution. While alive, "he had forum after forum ... to spew out anger, pain and suffering," she says. "I just was glad to shut him up." Dianna Hoyt, whose daughter was killed by Rolling, felt heartened that she wouldn't have to fight any more of his appeals or hear about his artwork's selling for hundreds of dollars online.

But witnessing an execution can be a letdown--or worse. For one thing, it often seems more peaceful than people expect. "The severity of the punishment did not fit the crime," says Ricky Paules, Tracy's mother. Over time, those yearning for some peace of mind are often unfulfilled. The death of Sharon Medearis's husband in Oklahoma City remains incomprehensible to her. "We were all kind of hoping" for "some explanation of why," she says. But "we will never know." In other cases, family members may find that the execution forces them "to plumb the depths of emotions that were previously directed at the offender," says Acker. " 'Now that it's over, what am I left with?' There's a real coming to grips with the loss, the irreversibility of it." Even in death, the killer can continue to wreak havoc.