The Death Penalty Cost Argument: A Murder Victim Family Perspective

Originally posted on the California Progress Report.

My brother, Robert James Kerr, was murdered in 2003. Today, I am one of thousands of murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.  I actively work for alternatives to execution to honor my brother’s memory.

Last month, Governor Quinn of Illinois signed legislation ending the death penalty.  The Illinois legislature follows New Jersey and New Mexico in replacing the death penalty with alternatives.  Sixteen states across the country now embrace an alternative criminal justice policy that recognizes the needs of murder victim family members while leaving funds on the table for effective public safety programs.  
They have acknowledged the reality of an inherently human and imperfect criminal justice system.  At least six other states may follow the lead of Illinois and repeal their death penalty statues, including Connecticut.

There are and always will be murder victim family members who support the death penalty. Today in Connecticut, the horrific murder of the family of Dr. Petit has captured the headlines and fears of the general public.  Dr. Petit and I have much in common. We understand the horror of violent loss, we know that there will be no closure to our experience, and we desperately want justice and punishment for the criminals that have taken our loved ones and scarred us forever.  But unlike Dr. Petit, I believe the death penalty is a failed policy which strips away funding from solving cold cases, victims’ services and crime prevention.

Murder victim family members who support the death penalty and the many of thousands of murder victim family members who support alternatives to the death penalty differ in the understanding that the death penalty is a failed policy.  No matter how right it might feel, the death penalty offers nothing to heal the complex grief of survivors, while it takes real money away from solving cold cases and getting killers off our streets.

Most murder victim family members who support the death penalty believe, inaccurately, that the death penalty would be cheaper if we would just execute death row inmates more quickly.  That might be true if we could be certain that everyone on death row was guilty.  Tragically, we will never have that certainty.  The possibility of executing an innocent person is real and it is the reason for the lengthy appeals in death penalty cases.  Taking care not to execute the innocent inevitably requires a system that costs much more money than life without parole.  Whether we like it or not, cost is a factor that will never go away.

For the past four years, I have honored the memory of my brother’s life by working against the death penalty. While my family waits for some clue or some new information in his cold case to lead to the arrest, prosecution and punishment of my brother’s killer, billions of criminal justice dollars in the U.S. are wasted on people already behind bars.

I accept with compassion and without judgment that some murder victim family members will always support the execution of guilty murderers.  I understand and have shared their rage in hearing that a much-loved family member has been violently assaulted and left dead. 

I also know that with the entirety of my being and in honor of my brother’s life, I will never support a system that has the potential to execute someone who was no guiltier than my brother when he was murdered eight years ago. We cannot afford to perfect the death penalty in California or Connecticut.  We cannot afford a perfect death penalty in the U.S.  I cannot support an imperfect death penalty.

We have an alternative: life without possibility of parole provides swift and certain justice, without the risk of executing an innocent person and at a fraction of the costs of the death penalty system.  It’s time to end the charade and bring justice to more families like mine.

Related Stories:

BREAKING: Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty

What Do the US & China Have in Common? The Death Penalty (Video)

“Vigilante” Shawna Forde Gets Death Penalty


Photo credit: California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Judy Kerr is the Northern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.


faith v.
faith v6 years ago

Two problems stand out for me with the death sentence:

One is obvious; in the name of preventing murder, the state has committed the same crime.

Worse, if the state got the wrong man, they not only irreversibly murdered him,

Once a state has executed a condemned person the case is closed.

In many cases, some still current, innocent lives have been ended by the state. But once the execution has been committed, the case is closed and states are doubly reluctant to admit they have made a mistake they may have to compensate. The real killer is safe, and on the loose.

Because he is on the loose, my family and yours are not safe.

Family members' devastation cannot be lessened by another death. We need to be sure that the killer can never harm anybody else, and that is not achieved by the death penalty on the wrong person.

Hunter W.
Hunter W.6 years ago

The death penalty seems to be one of those necessary evils. You can either pay the money to kill a criminal (who will likely repeat their crime if released) or pay millions to keep them alive, fed, and live for free in a prison all with taxpayers money. What are you going to do when prisons fill up?? Build more? overcrowd them? it will just end up costing more. No matter what you do, the victims family will be scarred from this tragedy whether the criminal is killed or kept in jail. If I had a family member murdered, I would want the killer to be killed and feel the pain that they inflicted in my family member. There are certain people who just don't deserve to live.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

I've worked for the prison system, and the majority of those who get out after serving their time will return. These are people who used drugs, stole and lots of lesser crimes than murder. Those who kill will do it again also. Where do you propose we put them? Prisons are already full. Do you want to spend taxpayers money building more prisons? Support these killers for the rest of their lives? Continue to give them free medical care, free dental care, exercise gyms, tv's, free food, free clothing, air conditioned housing, etc? They don't deserve to be pampered. We have homeless and poor people that the Gov. or tax payers don't help. What about them????

Annmari Lundin
Annmari L6 years ago

There are more black people on death row than white people. There are more serial criminals (murder, rape) doing life then on death row.
Could that have anything to do with the fact that most serial killers are white?
Rich offenders usually get a life sentence after committing murder.
Poor people usually get a death sentence for the same crime.
Do we really want poor people being executed and rich ones doing life for the same type of crime?
I suggest all of you read The Innocent Man by John Grisham. The true story about Ronald Keith Williamson. Then think about the phrase "Beyond all reasonable doubt" one more time.

Gina H.
Gina H6 years ago

What is the percentage of "wrong convictions" for murder? What about serial killers, mass murderers, pedophiles and repeat offenders? What should be done with these people? It appears we are overpopulated with humans of this nature and they continue to grow their culture of violence? How do you stop the cycle when perpetrators continue destroying other lives regardless of how "civilized" we are towards them? Killing often becomes linked with pleasure for violent-prone individuals and is not unlike an addictive drug. Then add in the satisfaction they get from notoriety in the news. Maybe if the ego can be surgically removed from these monsters, we'll have a viable alternative to the death penalty. Are you suggesting that Ted Bundy and others like him should have been offered counseling and rehab to be put back out in society instead of euthanizing him? I assure you his death was a lot kinder than what he dished out to his victims. I don't see any overwhelming evidence showing violent criminals are successfully "cured" or "healed" by therapy or religion. These individuals have no intent of changing and they're smart enough to feed the egos of the therapists & counselors so they can gain freedom again. I just keep observing that they're back in the news for being arrested for another attack or murder not long after release.

Elisabeth M.
lis Gunn6 years ago

Judy Kerr is an extraordinary person.
Victims of crime families are obviously extremely traumatised by crimes beyond their control or experience but to be hell-bent on revenge is not the answer.
"An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; vengeance is mine " sayeth the Lord.

We can forgive without forgetting. Another death does not resolve anything and is basically state condoned murder. Despite the risks of putting an innocent person to death, there are abhorrent examples in the US of executing people who were minors at the time of the crime, of the developmentally delayed and the illiterate and the criminally insane being put to death. Are these indicative of a civilised society?

It is heartening that Illinois has repealed the death penalty. Perhaps Texas might join those states who are giving up on "cruel and unusual punishment".

Neville Grundy
Neville Grundy6 years ago

For those of you who want the death penalty when guilt has been proved beyond all doubt, I'd point out this simple fact: here in Britain we have had people convicted of murder beyond all doubt. Later (sometimes years later) evidence has arisen that absolves the accused of the crime. If we'd had the death penalty, their families would have had only "the cold comfort of a posthumous pardon", as one of our politicians described it.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Lynnette Bower
Lynnette Bower6 years ago

I am against the death penalty. This form of punishment is in reality a form of release.

Brenda P.
Brenda P6 years ago

I don't believe in the death penalty. Interesting article.