Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Reality of Capital Punishment

Today's local newspaper featured a front page expose on capital punishment. Many people are aware that the state of Texas executes more convicted murderers than any other state. What they may not be aware is that my home state of Alabama is almost always in the top ten of executions performed per year. This is particularly notable considering that Alabama is a largely small state, population-wise, which only comprises four and a half million residents. 2007 saw a nearly uniform halt to the procedure in September of this recently passed year, when the legality of lethal injection was called into question on a national scale, but Alabama still managed to make it to number two in the nation in executions performed. It needs to be qualified, however, that we killed three people this year while Texas, that chronic overachiever, killed twenty-six.

Public support for the practice is on the increase. A Gallup poll conducted last year reported that 69 percent of Americans surveyed were solidly in favor of death penalty. This doesn't particularly surprise me. With the current hyperbolic, sensationalist nature of the media's reporting of violent crime and the inevitable perception, if not the reality that it fosters, I'm sure it's a ever-tempting view to hold. Yet, in saying this, it should also be noted that the state of New Jersey recently abolished the practice altogether. A few other states officially sanction the practice but use it infrequently. Several others have no current death penalty statue at all.

I find it interesting to contemplate that many Christian denominations have since come out against the practice, since Biblical teachings are often used cited as justification for its adoption. Episcopalians came out against the death penalty years ago, as did the the Methodists, as did the Catholics, as did the Lutherans. Even the conservative-leaning local paper here came out officially against the death penalty a couple years back. In contrast, Mormons have an official neutral position (how does THAT work?), but Calvinistic churches like Baptists and the compendium of Fundamentalist denominations still support the practice.

I admit to you that my feelings on the matter have changed drastically over the course of my life. Though I was raised in a Libertarian-leaning family, with a Father who favored small government and idolized Ronald Reagan and a moderate Democrat for a Mother, my opinion of the matter was shaped largely by my father. Dad worked for several years as a warden in a state prison, so he was understandably staunchly in support of the practice. Among a wealth of strong opinions he was known to make while we growing up, the most fervent one was the principle held by many people that capital punishment was a true deterrent to crime and thus it must always be kept legal. Old habits die hard and we learned that there was a reason why Dad made a point to sit facing the front of the establishment when the family went out to eat at restaurants, else he and the rest of us be caught unaware by the arrival of masked gunmen. I can only imagine how years of seeing the absolute worst in human nature and humanity changes a person.

Those who support capital punishment often cite a belief that many murders are products of either crimes of passion or major lapses in judgment. This was certainly the viewpoint I was exposed to growing up. They state that many humans possess within themselves an innate ability to murder someone else, a primeval response held over from prehistoric days, motivated by self-preservation, but that they learn to restrain this impulse. If this is the case, I could conceivably buy that argument but these days, death row inmates are uniformly painted with a broad-brush, described though they are all amoral, evil, brutal butchers who hold within themselves not even a speck of humanity.

Still, a little while ago, I came to the conclusion that capital punishment ought to be done away with and set aside onto the proverbial scrap heap of bad ideas that humanity has come up with throughout time. In defense of my own position, I cite the legal precept that argues "it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." No doubt more than one single innocent person has been executed over the years. Anyone willing to murder another human being probably will not be dissuaded from doing so at risk of losing his/her own life. Such offenders probably have no regard for their own individual earthly existence and so they care not a whit whether they personally live or die. One of the reasons why they are so willing to take the life of another human being is that they place such a low value upon their own life and death.

A lifetime spent in the hell known as prison seems to be a far worse fate. Though I'm not sure I ascribe to this point of view, it could also be argued that dying prematurely lets the offender off the hook by having his or her life ended prematurely and that he or she ought to have a whole lifetime of remorse, contrition, guilt, and regret as punishment. The whole nature of the system is broken and if executions were swift matters, then some of the arguments cited by those who support capital punishment might be more understandable. As it stands now, convicted murderers linger on death row for years and years, launch a series of appeals and stays of execution, work through a largely backlogged legal system which functions at a snail's pace, until inevitably exhausting every other option. Then and only then do they pay the ultimate price for their crimes, but forgive me if it seems to me that death delayed to such a degree serves as, at best, hollow comfort to the victim's families by that point. In a society that still by in large preaches swift, unforgiving, punitive retribution for any and every slight and even pushes borderline vigilante style justice, I can't see how this satisfies anyone.


Anonymous said...

Very well said. I'll never understand how one can believe absolutely in something (life) and still answer "yes, but..." when questioned about inconsistencies.

Absolutes are absolutes last time I checked.

Lock up criminals, treat them humanely, rehabilitate the ones you can....that's what a civilized society does.

Great post, C.K.!

kimono hime said...

Well, ya know, them abortion doctors deserve ta die because they kill babies and all.

Um, yeah.

pssst--my new address is:

no politics, but I try to keep it mederately interesting.

Fran said...

Excellent post CK. Capital punishment is an evil anomaly in our time.

And completely in contradistinction to the so-called pro-life movement.

People are very screwed up indeed.

I wish I had more time to add a more thoughtful comment, but I really do laud this great post.