Thoughts On The Death Penalty
Today I am struggling. After a lifetime of being staunchly opposed to the death penalty I find myself re-examining decades-old beliefs and trying to stave off deep feelings of anger and bloodlust revenge. A question I keep mulling over is this: Are there some human beings who are better off being dead? By that I mean, is it better for the rest of society?
Let us start with some background history. Why am I against the death penalty? For so long that has been an easy question for me to address and my reasoning is not so much rooted in the humaneness of the practice as it is in the social justice issues that come into play.
My insight comes from a week in the summer of 1985 where I and several classmates spent time with a community of Catholic nuns in the Saint Thomas Projects just outside New Orlean’s French Quarter. In a program led by Sister Helen Prejean, the now-famous author of Dead Man Walking, we learned about the various aspects of poverty that work against those individuals and families that struggle to survive in lower-class America. This was not routine class work instructional material. It was going out into the community and meeting with those very people. It was getting to know them, having dinner with them in their own homes, and hearing their life experiences. It meant spending a full day in city and county welfare offices to see some of the civil roadblocks people have to face. It meant sitting for hours in a county hospital emergency room one day to see how long people with no other access to health care have to wait just to be seen. And it meant sitting in a courthouse for a full afternoon to see how people without means to adequate and fair legal counseling get pushed through a system that treats rich people much better than poor folks. The latter led to the topic of the makeup of the US prison population and more specifically, to the fact that the great majority of those sitting on death row are those who did not receive adequate legal representation, were too poor to mount a proper defense, and who happened to have the wrong skin color. That is not to say that everyone on death row was (or is now) innocent of the crimes for which they were charged. It only makes the point that those who are given this worst form of punishment are predominantly minorities and predominantly poor. This was true in 1985 and it is still true today. The numbers are a staggering reminder of the social inequality and racial bias that continues to thrive in America.
That has been my main argument all these years, that our system for punishing violent offenders has been applied in an unjust and biased system.
A second reason, of course, is that the system has many, many times gotten the verdict wrong. Even accounting for the social bias in the system there are mistakes made and outright egregious flaws in investigations and prosecution that happen that have put many innocent people on death row. Since 1973, 156 innocent individuals have been freed due to the tireless work of independent organizations such as The Innocence Project and other advocates .
Then there is the economic cost of death penalty cases. Because of the severity of such cases they tend to produce enormous legal bills. Automatic and subsequent appeals in these cases adds to the overall cost. The length of time a prisoner spends on death row has increased and this type of isolated guarding represents a burden on prison costs. It has been argued that the cost to execute someone is greater than the cost of lifetime incarceration. Reference  has links to many such studies from states across the country as well as from federal death penalty cases. Here is one conclusion from a study on Texas death penalty costs,
“Each death penalty case in Texas costs taxpayers about $2.3 million. That is about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.”
As I started to write these thoughts down, the New York Times published a stunning editorial on 15 September  that provided yet another effect capital punishment has upon society, directly affecting those charged with carrying out the executions. The piece was written by Semon Frank Thompson, the former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who had to take part in two executions during his tenure. He tells his story succinctly and with sufficient detail. It ends with this powerful observation.
“The state-ordered killing of a person is premeditated and calculated, and inevitably some of those involved incur collateral damage. I have seen it. It’s hard to avoid giving up some of your empathy and humanity to aid in the killing of another human being. The effects can lead to all the places you’d expect: drug use, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.”
All these reasons, in a nutshell, are why I have been an opponent of the death penalty for so long. There was a time when my thoughts also included a semi-religious component. As far back as 1985 I had given up most religious beliefs. I do not believe in God and do not feel that our behavior and judgement of others (including executions) will be judged by some higher power after our lives ended, but I did hold on to the notion, Buddhist in nature, that somehow all human life has inherent worth. That feeling has grown less and less over the years. It is the source of my struggles today and I’m not sure I will ever again recognize it as a truth.
A recent crime occurred in Albuquerque has brought all this into the foreground. It was a brutal crime against a nearly 10-year old girl, a crime perpetrated by her very mother and a group of strangers. New Mexico abolished the death penalty several years ago but this crime may be the very case that brings it back – if the governor and the people have their way. And if the vote were held today, they would. I am at a loss as to how to persuade any of them otherwise. I personally want the people involved to be dead already. Admissions of guilt have a already been made. Prior sessions of torture of the poor girl have even been admitted to. There is nothing left to say. These people should be dead and we should be relieved of the burden of their existence. That is what my anger is saying. This is the truth that I know, however: Anger has never been a driver of good in my life so I must stop myself and examine this feeling.
What does one say in opposition to the death penalty in this case or other such cases? I had no words until I started to read about the accounts of the survivors, those who lost loved ones by vicious, brutal crimes and who went on to see those responsible be put to death. The psychological toll placed upon those people was enough to convince me yet again that the death penalty does more harm than good in this country. I shall explain.
In a death penalty case the victim’s family and friends suffer not one but multiple trials, often stretching out more than a decade. This represents multiple encounters of wounding over and over again. It represents stalled grief and healing. Actively wanting a person or persons to be put to death requires one to remain in a state of angered grieving. This has psychological as well as physiological effects on a person.
Healing is also denied to the surviving victims in other ways as well. Tanya Cooke, a woman whose sister was brutally murdered several years ago, put it most succinctly,
“[T]he death penalty typically brings the opposite of what survivors of crime most need: accountability, healing and closure. To me, accountability means an acceptance of responsibility for the crime and its impact on others. Healing requires some answers to why our loved ones were hurt, and letting go of some of the rage we’ve felt in losing them. Closure requires an end to a justice process that brings some reasonable assurance that no one else will be harmed at the same hands.”
Certainly one gets closure upon the death of the criminal but this type of closure comes at the expense of proper accountability and true healing. A person imprisoned for life has at least an opportunity to come to terms with his or her actions. Through letters shared with me and my fellow students, and for years of correspondence afterwards with other death row inmates, I saw first hand how that one act came to dominate those who sat in prison. The prison of guilt is interminable. The willingness to discuss it provided answers to survivors, to loved ones still struggling to make sense of it all. It does not always (and not often) lead to forgiveness – I think there are some actions that are unforgivable – but it leads to understanding. It allows a release of anger trapped within the survivors. It leads to healing on behalf of the survivors. A contrite and proper, “I’m sorry”, will unburden a survivor’s psyche in a way nothing else ever will.
We, the rest of society, also lose out on death penalty cases. Giving in to our anger and feelings of revenge by way of a quick death deprives us of a chance to learn why some people behave the way they do. We fail to learn about the circumstances that led to the events, circumstances that shaped the lives of the people committing these atrocities, and to see what can be done about them. Society, itself, remains stuck in angry grief in this manner.