Heightening the tension: murder victims’ families disagree about the death penalty

Story centers on conflict. On reversal. Literary agent and teacher Don Maass says that when we write about emotion in a familiar way, we fail to evoke it in the reader–but if we write about the unexpected, the reader will respond emotionally.

In Books, Crooks & Counselors, I answered questions about the death penalty, and suggested that it might be interesting to write about the family of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty. What better example than a character who wants what the reader may not think he should want?

Here’s a real life example, from the Billings Gazette, of the son of a murder victim who actively works against the death penalty.

For more about family members’ opposition to the death penalty, visit Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation or the Death Penalty Information Center.

My purpose here is to highlight the usefulness to writers of presenting an unexpected perspective–in this instance, opposition to the death penalty–but it’s also useful to look at the views of family members who support it. Though I found no organizations of such relatives, several articles and interviews present those views. I admire the determination of the son of a victim in a notoriously brutal Montana case to not be defined by his father’s murder, when he was just two months old, telling the killer at a recent clemency hearing: “I am Thomas Running Rabbit and I do not fear you.” (Reported in the Daily Interlake.) Clemency was denied. 

This 2009 Anchorage Daily News editorial by the brothers of a 1972 murder victim–one now a retired police officer–demonstrates how the horrific facts of a crime shape relatives’ opinions–and never fade.  

How can you use these tensions to fire up your story? What if a mother and a father–or those two brothers–disagreed? What if a victim’s relative believed that the defendant was innocent–or that the tables could could have been turned? How will your fictional relative respond to new evidence? To another person’s confession? To suggestions that prosecutors withheld critical evidence, that police officers falsified evidence, or that lab tests were faked? Or to evidence suggesting that the murdered relative was not the first victim?

Conflict. Life presents us with countless opportunities. Use them to heighten the tension in your fiction.

8 thoughts on “Heightening the tension: murder victims’ families disagree about the death penalty

  1. People can oppose the death penalty for reasons other than reconciliation. I know a woman who is adamantly opposed to the death penalty because she wants to see a killer trapped in a cage for the rest of his life. She freely admits that it’s vindictive and punitive and feels it’s entirely appropriate.

    • Ashley, good point. I personally have always felt that life in prison without possibility of parole is a greater punishment than death — at least, on this earthly plane, which is the only one our system can address. What character complications you could create, esp for one who opposes the d.p. for the reasons you describe but still feels an internal conflict.

  2. An interesting twist on conflict in a book, Leslie. Yesterday this was brought up by my daughter-in-law, a very religious person, who strongly believes in the death penalty. I, on the other hand, don’t. Not so much that I feel any empathy for the murderer, although as I pointed out, many are eventually found to be innocent by DNA or other evidence after years in prison. Also, I wonder how or if it desensitises the person who administers the actual killing of the murderer. If they have no qualms about it, what does that say for them? If they do, how do they live with it?

  3. James Inman and Lesley Mund at the University of Tennessee College of Law edited a special issue of the Tennessee Law Review that provides useful background on the death penalty. That’s my go-to for getting some context around the death penalty debate.

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