The Incremental Retributive Impact of a Death Sentence Over Life Without Parole

In this paper, the author takes a closer look at retribution, which is the primary justification for the death penalty today in the United States and the main component of the additional punishment imposed by the death penalty over and above life imprisonment without parole (LWOP). While all criminal punishments, to varying degrees, punish both the inmate and his or her family, this paper argues that the death penalty’s added punishment over LWOP often punishes the family just as much as the inmate, and after the execution the full brunt of the punishment falls on the family. This added impact disproportionately punishes women and children. The data comes from work with scores of death row inmates and their families over the past thirty-five years, including sharing “last visits” with approximately fifty of the inmates. The family members have not been convicted of any capital offense, so in this sense the death penalty punishes the innocent just as much as it punishes the guilty.