Working with Victims: A Guide for Activists

Most anti-death penalty activism focuses on the offender, the person on death row. It is important to incorporate an awareness of victims’ family members’ experience, perspective, and testimony into anti-death penalty materials and activities because:

Every death penalty story is also the story of a crime that occurred. A death penalty story does not begin with an execution or a death sentence or even with an arrest. It begins with a murder victim’s loss of life and the devastating impact that that loss has on the surviving family members. Including victims’ stories when talking about the death penalty is the right thing to do.

The common assumption is that all victims’ family members support the death penalty. We cannot expect to abolish the death penalty without presenting an alternative view. Victims’ voices have a powerful effect – lawmakers have voted against the death penalty as a result of hearing victims’ testify for abolition. Including victims’ stories when working for abolition is strategically wise and is essential to bringing new people into the abolition movement.

Here are a few suggestions. We encourage activists to consult with MVFHR for further guidance.

In educational or political materials about the death penalty or about a particular prisoner’s case, acknowledge the original murder. Give the victim’s name. For example, instead of saying “Eric Jones, who is facing a death sentence,” say “Eric Jones, who was convicted of the murder of John Smith, is now facing a death sentence …”

Realize that victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty will have many different reasons for holding that view. Don’t assume that their reasons are all the same. In particular, don’t assume that opposing the death penalty is the same as forgiving the offender.

Let victims’ family members speak for themselves. Work with them to develop their statements for specific situations, but don’t put words in their mouths or pressure them to say something they are not comfortable saying.

Invite victims’ family members to be an integral part of your anti-death penalty efforts and activities.

Know that the best person to reach out to a victim’s family member is another victim’s family member. MVFHR can help with this.

Support legislation, programs, and services that help to meet the needs of victims’ family members in the aftermath of a murder. Build relationships with victims’ groups and demonstrate that your work against the death penalty is rooted in a desire to prevent murder in all cases.