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.

Books, Crooks and Counselors – update – Death Penalty

The sentencing chapter of Books, Crooks and Counselors answers writers’ questions about the death penalty. Last week, the Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report showing that 78 people had been sentenced to death in 2011 and 43 had been executed–compared to 224 sentences and 85 executions in 2000.

According to an NPR report, the DPIC executive director says that the majority of Americans are opposed to or ambivalent about the death penalty. They are concerned about wrongful executions, unfair sentencing–highlighted by debate over Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis–and the expense of the legal process surrounding the death penalty.

A Gallup poll taken in October showed that 61% of Americans favored the death penalty for murder, the lowest support since the early 1970s.

Illinois abolished the death penalty, Oregon recently imposed a moratorium, and bills to ban it have cropped up in several state legislatures, including my state, Montana.

Again according to NPR, the director of the National District Attorneys Association–the prosecutors–says a big factor in the change in support is a change in the alternatives. Years ago, a life sentence often meant 15 to 20 years. Now, all 50 states and the federal system offer life without parole, meaning death in prison. The director also points to the drop in murder rates, now back to 1960s’ levels.

I’ve long thought that life without parole is a far worse sentence than the death penalty. Once you’re dead, you’re done–at least on the earthly plane–with no more guilt, fear, or shame. And no more potential regret, rehabilitation, or forgiveness. Knowing you’ll die in prison, never to walk free, seems far worse to me.

(Photos: Old Montana Prison, Powell County Museum & Arts Foundation. Handcuffs: morguefile.com)