SIEGEL: The death penalty does not bring closure

Foregoing the death penalty for Jesse Matthew is the best way to ensure justice and peace

In the fall of 2014, the University and surrounding community mourned the loss of then-second-year student Hannah Graham. When investigators connected cab driver Jesse Matthew to the abduction and murder of Hannah Graham, he was charged with first-degree murder. Originally, Matthew was set for trial on July 5, but on March 2, 2016, Matthew had a hearing in which he pleaded guilty to the killings of Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington. While this plea deal resulted in the withdrawal of a murder charge against Matthew, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences, for which there is absolutely no prospect of parole. Matthew is off the grid, for good. It is reasonable to believe Matthew only pleaded guilty in an effort to escape the fate of the death penalty. It is reasonable to believe it is unfair for a man who cut short the life of a young woman to avoid the highest capital punishment for his crimes. Yet, plea bargains provide healing for the family and friends left in the wake of adverse events and cease a cycle of violence that would have otherwise continued with the criminal’s execution.

Parents of both Graham and Harrington have expressed their gratitude for this plea bargain, as they will not have to endure the torment and pain of a month’s long trial in the midst of their continued healing. John Graham, father of Hannah Graham, spoke out on the decision in an article on the matter: “Our overriding priority was that Matthew will never be able again to inflict his depravity on young women. Matthew’s deeds show that he is far too dangerous ever to be allowed to be free.” This plea will spare continued anguish for the families and friends who have had to endure immeasurable amounts of pain over the past year and a half. I believe if Matthew had been sentenced with the death penalty, we would be continuing this cycle of violence (in essence, capitulating to criminal negligence and irrationality.) It does not seem logical that families and friends can receive total closure by witnessing the execution of another human being, as that is what happened to their very own loved one. There is no doubt a criminal of this capacity should be punishable to the utmost degree, but I do not think we have the right to kill.

In 2005, Matthew was also accused of attacking and attempting to murder a Fairfax woman identified as “RG.” He pleaded guilty, yes, but before doing so, he made the victim testify, made her relive the horror she had been trying to escape from since its occurrence. He made her fly around the world to tell a courtroom what happened to her on that fateful day. She had to look at his face again. Then, and only then, did he admit to the evidence. In order to get Matthew to this point of submission, this woman had to relive her worst nightmare that had become a reality all those years ago. Since Matthew pleaded guilty at his hearing, the Graham and Harrington families do not have to suffer again like the first victim did. Without this woman having the courage to testify, he may not have pleaded and gotten to this point of closure.

Thus, plea bargains play a major role in the avoidance of the death penalty, which validates their usefulness in the justice system. Yet, Susan Funaro challenges this notion when she asks, “If the deal removes the murderer from society for life, isn’t it the best form of justice served?” I do not see how justice is adequately served here, for a sentence to execution is in essence modeling the behavior it ultimately seeks to prevent: killing.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant believes “whoever has committed murder, must die,” for there is no other substitute for the “satisfaction of justice.” But, if the alternative can allow further healing and comfort to those who suffer the most pain, we must not kill solely in the name of justice, for the family and friends left behind are not receiving proper closure by witnessing the killing of another human being, which is what brought them to this point in the first place. In cases comparable to those of Graham and Harrington, the decision seems to fulfill the expressed satisfaction of justice. Barry Scheck participated in a debate on the role of the death penalty in our society, rightfully asserting that “This system is incapable not just of determining who’s guilty or innocent in the final analysis… but reliably figuring out who should die or who shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be tinkering with the machinery of death.” Ending the cycle of violence brings justice and peace to those who are left to bear the pain of the loss of a loved one.

Lucy Siegel is a Viewpoint writer.

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