Dan McKinney, whose wife was killed in the Oklahoma bombing, made no secret of his joy when he heard that the victims' families would be allowed to see the execution of Timothy McVeigh on closed-circuit television.
"It just pleases me no end," he said. "I don't know what we would have done if we didn't get to see it." Diane Marino, the mother of a murdered son, proclaimed: "It will be the most enjoyable day of my life when I am looking into the murderer's eyes knowing he is about to die."
But will the killer's death bring them the closure they long for? A few years ago I interviewed people in America who had petitioned to be allowed to watch the killers of their loved ones die - the law was changed in Texas and then in more than a dozen other states to permit this. Several of those I talked to experienced a sense of euphoria immediately after seeing the execution.
When I spoke to them months, and in some cases years, later what I heard resoundingly was that the execution had resolved nothing once the initial high was over. Several said they felt more bereft than before. There was a sense of having been cheated because, like Celeste Dixon whose mother's murderer is on death row, they had bought into "an implied promise" - in her case from the prosecutor - that having the murderer die would be fair compensation for the loss of the loved one.
One man, in a choked voice, said simply that it didn't make sense. Perhaps it does when you realise how thoroughly the bereaved may be encouraged, often by people outside the immediate family who have a vested interest in the death penalty, to focus on what happens to the architect of their misery rather than on grieving for their loved ones.
Years may be devoted to campaigning, petitioning and waiting for the day when they will be satisfied by the degree of retribution. During all this time, rage and hate directed towards the offender may be all- consuming. There may be a curious kind of comfort, an adrenaline flow that holds at bay the full acceptance that the dead person is really gone. This displacement of emotional energy comes to an abrupt end when the person that has been the focus of attention for so long is executed. Then the bereaved may be hit by the full impact of loss and grief. And it is much harder to endure then, than straight after the death when people naturally rally around and offer support.
All this applies to us in Britain too. We may not have the death penalty but a similar halting of the bereavement process takes place for people like the Bulger family. They have been encouraged to hang on to their pain and their sense that they must fight for retribution, often by a media that has a vested interest in having them express anguish and outrage every time there is a chance the killers of their son will be treated with compassion.
This family, which so badly needed a quiet space in which to grieve, has been kept in a kind of suspended animation. Who can forget the frozen grief on the face of Ann West, mother of Lesley Ann Downey who was a victim of the Moors murderers, as she was repeatedly inspired into renewed rage over the possibility of Myra Hindley's parole?
It would be much better if collectively, as well as individually, we concentrated on helping violently bereaved people find a way of healing themselves. They should be encouraged to put as much mental distance as possible between themselves and the killer and to give their emotional energy to the process of grieving and acceptance. This, overwhelmingly, is a prerequisite of moving on. From this perspective it may be possible to find other ways to minimise the corrosive feelings of hate and rage.
Lesley Moreland, whose daughter Ruth was stabbed to death, describes in her inspiring book, An Ordinary Murder, how she wrote to a killer on death row and saw through this correspondence that a murderer is more than his evil deed. She also visited Ruth's killer in jail and witnessed remorse, which she found helpful. But I do not believe there is any requirement for people to forgive someone who has hurt them so badly.
Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma bombing, recognised that he had to find a way to heal himself rather than giving his emotions to the killer. Nine months after his daughter's death he changed his mind about wanting McVeigh executed. He was, he explains, tired of the pain that hoping and praying for "an act of revenge and rage" was inflicting on him. Relinquishing the quest for revenge has given him release.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001