The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Impact of the Murderer's Punishment On the Victim's Family: A Mixed Methods Multi-Site Study of the Ultimate Penal Sanction

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 4:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Marilyn Armour, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Purpose: Without evidence, the claim that the death penalty (DP) benefits victim families achieves the status of truth, in part, because of the absence of survivors’ voices.  A systematic examination of the impact of the ultimate penal sanction (UPS) on survivors is critical to reducing politically motivated conjecture, turning attention to crime victims’ direct experience, and using that experience to inform social work practice and service delivery.  This two-state concurrent mixed-methods study asked what are survivors' conviction and post-conviction experiences and what is the differential effect on survivor well-being of the DP (Texas) or life-without-the-possibility-of-parole (LWOP) (Minnesota) in capital murder cases.  It used perceived control theory to examine the relationship between the UPS and survivor well-being.

Method: A cross-sectional research design over four time periods encompassed the entirety of the criminal justice experience, which in Texas averages 10.6 years from conviction to execution.  A randomly selected sample of survivors (n =39) from each state covered sentencing to three years post sentence (Time 1); five to eight years post sentence (Time 2); ten to twelve years post sentence (Time 3); and fourteen to sixteen years post sentence (Time 4).   Participant characteristics were comparable across states.  Survivors completed a demographic questionnaire, the Inventory of Complicated Bereavement-Revised (ICG-R), and a two-hour audio-taped semi-structured interview about their post-homicide experience.  Qualitative data were first analyzed using a narrative approach for finding event themes. Framework analysis (Miles and Huberman) was employed for making event theme comparisons across cases, time periods and states.  NVivo 9 was used for event theme coding and retrieval of text to support the event themes and case-specific ratings.  Multivariate analysis was conducted for the ICG-R scores by time and state and for select event themes as predictors of ICG-R scores. A two-way factorial ANOVA assessed the interaction and main effects in predicting grief scores.

Results: Event themes clustered into three groups: (1) conviction experience including relationships with the prosecution, the defense team, and the murderer’s family; (2) post conviction experience including movement through appeals, mental relationships with the murderer and the execution process; and (3) personal consequences including physical, psychological and behavioral changes.   State differences were most notable during Time 3 post-conviction with Minnesotans having higher levels of physical, psychological and behavioral health as well as completion of appeals. In support of this trend, the ANOVA yielded a statistically significant interaction effect for state by time period (F (3, 31) = 4.268, p = .012) as well as a statistically significant effect for time (F (3, 31) = 3.859, p = .019.  Statistically significant results were due to differences between Time 1 and Time 3.

Implications: Additional research is needed on offender sentencing, perceived control and crime victim well-being.  Methodologically this study demonstrates the use of text for thematic analysis coupled with transforming text into numbers for comparative purposes. It provides a social work practice guide geared toward survivors’ growth and perceived control. It challenges customary litigation and policy on the UPS by moving survivors’ experiences from the margins into the mainstream.