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The concept of closure, almost unknown two decades ago, has had a meteoric rise. It has been enthusiastically embraced by the legal system not only as a legitimate psychological state, but as one that the criminal justice system ought to help victims and murder survivors to attain. In the death penalty context, the concept of closure has changed the way we talk about the rationale for capital punishment, it has changed the shape of the legal process, and it has even changed what both survivors and jurors in capital cases expect to feel. Yet, as I will illustrate, the term closure in fact connotes several different and poorly differentiated concepts, each with separate and quite serious implications for the conduct of the capital trial. For example, depending on how closure is understood, it might require a chance to give public testimony, an opportunity to meet with the accused, a more expeditious trial, a sentence of death, or an execution. Yet there is inadequate evidence on whether any of these institutional processes or outcomes can actually contribute to a state of closure for survivors.
As current research in disciplines including cognitive neuroscience, sociology, psychology, and political science suggests, emotions are dynamic processes that evolve in a reciprocal relationship with social structures. As the legal system becomes increasingly invested in helping victims and survivors achieve closure, we need to take a hard look at the emotional content of this concept, and at how it affects, and is affected by, the institutional framework in which it operates.