Does the death penalty bring closure to a victim’s family?
The last time anyone saw Julie Heath alive was Oct. 3, 1993, when the 18-year-old set out to visit her boyfriend in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
A week later, a hunter discovered Heath’s body, less than eight miles from where her broken-down car was found. She wore a black shirt, socks and underwear, but they were inside-out. Her black jeans were partially unzipped. Her throat was slashed.
Police later arrested Eric Randall Nance for Heath’s murder. Investigators said he picked her up near her vehicle, before DNA evidence proved he raped and killed her. In 1994, he was handed the death penalty. At the time, 80 percent of Americans nationwide favored of the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll. But the only reason Belinda Crites needs to support the death penalty is “what Eric Nance did to my cousin.”
“She wasn’t just my cousin, she was my best friend,” Crites told the NewsHour. “He tore my whole family apart.”
Nance’s execution in 2005 marked the last time Arkansas put a prisoner to death. This week, Arkansas executed Ledell Lee, the first of eight men the state had originally planned to put death in the 11 days after Easter Sunday. No state has executed so many people so quickly since 1976 when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, said Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center.
The conflict in Arkansas is the latest to politicize the death penalty — but for families of the victims and the prisoners, it also resurfaces the complicated issues of closure and the long-reaching effect of these executions on their communities.
Arkansas justified its unusually swift schedule by saying the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs were about to expire, and pharmaceutical companies have refused to replenish stocks. A series of judicial rulings blocked the scheduled executions of the first four men: Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Don Davis and Stacey Johnson. The three men who remain are, at the moment, still scheduled to die before the month is out.
The idea of closure is powerful. It’s something Arkansas invoked in an April 15 motion that tried to fight a temporary restraining order that McKesson Medical Surgical, Inc., has used to block the use of its drug vecuronium bromide in state executions. (The drug is typically used as general anesthesia to relax muscles before surgery).
“The friends and family of those killed or injured by Jason McGehee, Stacey Johnson, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams, Bruce Ward, Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Don Davis, and Terrick Nooner have waited decades to receive some closure for their pain,” it read.
But even when executions take place, a surviving family’s pain doesn’t disappear with the perpetrator’s pulse.
It’s been more than two decades since Heath’s death. But Belinda Crites, a 41-year-old caregiver who still lives in her hometown of Malvern, Arkansas, finds laughter in her sweet memories of her cousin. A high school cheerleader, Heath wanted to be a police officer one day. She worked two jobs — at Taco Bell and a blue jean factory — and before she died, she earned enough money to buy a beat-up 1957 black Mustang. With each paycheck, Julie bought a new part, and she and her father, William Heath, restored the car together.
Whenever Crites visited her cousin’s house, they’d pile into bed together and watch episodes of their favorite television sitcom, “Family Matters.” For Christmas, Crites, Heath and both of their mothers dressed in matching outfits — nice jeans, ties or whatever was the latest fad — and baked cookies. The two mothers were inseparable, working and raising their families together. Crites and her cousin “always said we’d be just like them,” Crites said.
But after Heath’s murder, Crites said her family fell apart. Her mother, aunt and grandmother were all diagnosed with depression and needed medication. When Nancy Heath — her aunt and Julie’s mother — hugged Crites, she ran her fingers through Crites’ hair, long like her dead cousin’s; she held her tight, Crites said, as if she were “just trying to get a piece of Julie back.”
The family watched as Nancy Heath wasted away. They cried and hugged each other on March 31, 1994, when a jury sentenced Nance to death. But after the family left the courtroom and got into their cars to drive home, Heath became incoherent. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where doctors observed her overnight, Crites said.
Nancy Heath’s psychologist later begged her to at least eat bananas and watermelon, but she refused food. If she left Crites’ house to go to the store, her family knew to follow her — often, she drove instead in the direction of the cemetery where Julie was buried. Crites’ mother once found Nancy Heath there overdosed on pills. Crites said her aunt attempted suicide at least four times before she killed herself on Christmas morning in 1994, 15 months after her daughter’s murder.
“Some people wanted to judge [Nancy for her] suicide,” Crites said. “But my aunt — she couldn’t cope. She couldn’t go on. She wanted to go on so bad. She tried so hard.”
In 2015, the FBI reported nearly 15,700 homicides nationwide. And a 2007 study suggested that for every homicide victim, six to 10 family members are “indirectly victimized.” That figure excludes the many friends, colleagues, neighbors or other people who also suffer when a person they know is murdered. When they grieve, survivors must not only figure out how life goes on without their loved one in it, but also process the violence behind that person’s death.
Death penalty advocates and politicians, including Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, argue that when the state executes a person who has committed a terrible crime, the act brings closure to victim’s family. But it’s not that simple.
If you ask murder victims’ families, “closure is the F-word,” said Marilyn Armour, who directs the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s researched homicide survivors for two decades. “They’ll tell you over and over and over again that there’s no such thing as closure.”
In 2012, Armour and University of Minnesota researcher Mark Umbreit interviewed 20 families of crime victims in Texas — a state which regularly uses the death penalty — and 20 more families in Minnesota, which instead offers life without parole. They were curious about how families in both states coped with the sentences.
The 2012 study concluded families in Minnesota were able to move on sooner; because their loved ones’ killers were sentenced to life without parole, rather than the death penalty, they weren’t retraumatized in the multiple appeals that often precede an execution. Armour cautions their sample was small. But over the last two decades, murder victims’ families have received better treatment and far more rights, Armour said. Rather than listen to the families homicide victims leave behind, society often uses these people and their pain to score political points in the death penalty debate, Armour said.
“Murder victims families are cast aside,” Armour said. “Nobody is giving survivors voice value.”
What Armour sees unfolding in Arkansas is political, she told the NewsHour. She doesn’t think it should be.
Arkansas State Representative Rebecca Petty, on the other hand, has made her mission to bring the issue to politics. In 1999, Petty’s 12-year-old daughter, Andria Brewer, was kidnapped from her younger sister’s birthday party by her uncle, Karl Roberts. He raped and strangled her, covering her body with leaves on an old logging road near Mena, Arkansas.
Before that happened, Petty said her family had never experienced crime, so she never gave the death penalty much thought. “When it happens to your own child you gave birth to, you taught to walk and talk and [lived with] 12 years, that’s the point — it makes up your mind for you.”
In June 2000, Roberts waived his right to appeal the case in court. He confessed and was convicted for murdering his niece; he was sentenced to die on Jan. 6, 2004. Petty said she and her family prayed and decided to go watch Roberts’ execution. But shortly before he was supposed to be lethally injected, Roberts said he changed his mind and wanted to appeal after all. Petty left the prison that bitterly cold night in disbelief. Roberts still sits on death row, but his execution remains unscheduled.
Since then, Petty entered politics and has advocated for victims’ rights. She secured funding to expand the witness area attached to the execution chamber on Arkansas’ death row. When she considered what would result from Arkansas’ original plan to execute eight men in 11 days, Petty said it won’t offer closure, but “will close chapters for these families.”
“In your life, you have chapters,” Petty said. “This is going to be a chapter for these families they can close. It’s not going to be an easy chapter. For some of them it could be one of the last chapters of their life.”
But Judith Elane, a lifelong death penalty abolitionist and former attorney who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, doesn’t see it that way. The 72-year-old said because the death penalty is not applied to all homicides, it leaves surviving family members with the impression that the justice system values some victims more than others.
Her principles were put to the test after her brother, Gene Schlatter was shot and killed in November 1968 in a Denver bar with four witnesses. He was 36. Elane drove from western Canada, where she lived at the time, to his funeral, where she mourned with his three children and widow. Four decades later, in 2009, detectives traced evidence to a woman they believed was guilty of the crime. But witnesses disappeared, changed their story or suffered dementia and couldn’t testify in court. Despite other evidence, the woman walked away, and no one was prosecuted for the murder.
To manage her grief, Elane joined support groups and now leads Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation in Arkansas. She scoffed at politicians who offer closure through capital punishment. “The governor likes to say he does this because victims’ families deserve closure,” she said. “Every time I hear that, I think, ‘you’re not doing it for me. It didn’t help me.’”
Six out of 10 Arkansans favor use of the death penalty, according to a recent poll of 550 Arkansas voters from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, bolstering Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s call for expedited execution. But nationwide, support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in four decades, with half of U.S. adults saying states should not execute their worst criminals, according to Pew Research Center.
When states use capital punishment, the decision has consequences not only for the murder victims’ families, jurors and the person sentenced to die, but also for the prison personnel responsible for carrying out death sentences and the families of people who sit on death row.
Unlike politicians, correctional officers who work on death row are also “going to go home and live with the psychological consequences for the rest of their lives and so will their families,” said Patrick Crane, who worked on Arkansas’ death row from 2007 to 2008. Turnover is high, he said. And the state’s series of executions has taken advantage of prison staff who live in rural farm communities with few jobs, where households “still have an old way of thinking and doing and being.”
“Metaphysically, I think it’s going to be a cloud over the state, especially over the area in which it happens,” Crane said. “Clouds last a long time down there.”
In Arkansas’ expedited schedule to execute people on death row, the voices of victims families and the victims themselves are lost in sensationalism, Elane said. If politicians and policymakers care about homicide victims and their families, she said those voices need to be heard. The money saved by issuing life without parole sentences — which tends to have fewer appeals — could improve law enforcement and investigations, she said.
For now, she campaigns on behalf of murder victims families, bringing attention to their needs immediately following the death of a loved one.
“Regardless of how we feel about the death penalty, we all experienced the same suffering and the same dilemmas,” Elane said.
For 12 years, Nance sat on “The Row” in the Varner Supermax penitentiary near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while his attorneys tried to appeal his execution. For years, they argued he had the mental capacity of a third grader, and that the state would be cruel to kill him because he did not fully understand rape and murder were wrong. His case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the justices decided not to spare Nance’s life.
Members of the Nance family who testified on his behalf did not return NewsHour’s request for comment.
For his final meal before his Nov. 28, 2005, execution, Nance asked for two bacon cheeseburgers, French fries, two pints of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and two cans of Coca-Cola. More than a decade later, Crites still resents that Nance had a chance to choose that meal.
“My cousin died with tater tots and a Coke on her stomach,” she said.
Crites and her family drove a van to the prison and were escorted to the warden’s office, where they watched the execution chamber on a tiny closed-circuit television set. On the screen, Crites saw Nance strapped flat on his back to a gurney with a white sheet pulled up to his neck. He said nothing.
Prison staff injected Nance with a lethal cocktail. He closed his eyes, remained silent, and then died, Crites said.
But the memory of what he did to her cousin — and how life then changed — still haunts Crites. She knows Nance’s execution didn’t change how things had turned out.
“When he was gone, it gave us a relief,” she said. “Did it make things better? I don’t know. We think of him everyday.”
Crites, the mother of three sons and one daughter, said she only recently allowed her 16-year-old daughter to spend the night at a friend’s house and never permitted her daughter to sit on the porch of their home without someone sitting with her.
“You have to teach your family how evil people are,” she said.