A Divisive Issue
J. Austin Bennett
During the 20th and now the 21st century, few issues have so consistently divided this nation’s populace as capital punishment. The United States is one of only three industrialized nations that still employs the death penalty, the others being Japan and Russia. Our law enforcement officials face a genuine dilemma when attempting to bring to trial an accused murderer who has been arrested in a foreign country. Canada and most European nations adamantly refuse to extradite even the most odious criminal to the U.S. if that person would face the possibility of execution. The electorate in America has consistently voted into office those politicians who, preying on our fears of becoming the victim of violent crime, most stridently trumpet the popular refrain, “Get tough on crime” i.e. the death penalty. However, we are clearly out of step with the rest of the world.
Despite the difficulties posed to our judicial process, we may be right. I propose that you and I take a look at both sides of this question and carry the arguments out to their logical conclusion. As the Lord said in His word, “Come. Let us reason together.”
Proponents of the death penalty are quick to assert that this is the one absolutely sure way of ascertaining that the vicious sociopath who raped and murdered children will never repeat his crime. Picking the most extreme example of heinous crime imaginable, they also are quick to add that someday a softheaded parole board will turn this animal loose on your family or mine. That is not an appealing prospect.
Citing tremendous overcrowding in our prisons, death penalty proponents assert that the pressure on parole boards and prison officials render this unacceptable scenario a virtual certainty. At the same time, this same crowd is stamping for ever longer sentences for non-capital crimes. Everything from drunk driving to smoking pot or even inadvertently endangering some obscure element of the environment is fair game for a lengthy prison stretch. I’m not in favor of drunk driving and I don’t smoke pot, but I had never heard of the snail darter of the kangaroo rat until some hard working, tax paying and otherwise law abiding citizens were threatened with life imprisonment for accidentally dispatching some these valuable creatures.
Prison overcrowding is a fact. Perhaps a better solution might be fewer laws. President Clinton stood in front of a warehouse-sized room filled to the ceiling with regulations and laws each of which confers on government bureaucrats the power to imprison or impoverish you. We have in the good ole’ USA a body of law that is completely incomprehensible to the average man. Nobody understands our Income Tax Code including the people who wrote it.
But even the most ardent opponents of the death penalty have to concede that its proponents are right on this point. That murdering child molester will never repeat his crime if he’s executed.
That is, if we got the right guy? . . . .Ooops! . . . The State of Illinois executed twelve men since the reinstatement of capital punishment. During the same period, fourteen others on death row at Stateville Prison were released after being exonerated. The standard of proof to save these men was not the same as to convict them. It did not require the raising of a reasonable doubt or even proof of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to save these people, it required proof of their innocence beyond any shadow of doubt. Advances in DNA testing provided most of it. These people didn’t do it!
Governor Ryan courageously incurred the wrath of his party and sacrificed his political career when he commuted every remaining death sentence in Illinois. As he pointed out, “This system is broke beyond repair.” Batting just under fifty percent may win the American League batting title, but it’s not an acceptable standard for a society to kill people.
“All right. Mistakes will occur but they’re very rare.”. . . Really??? . . . As of two years ago, the number of people convicted at trial and sentenced to death that were conclusively proven innocent was 78. These people are free today. We don’t know how many others were electrocuted, gassed, hanged, shot or injected full of poison because once they are dead, any investigation stops. The state doesn’t want to discover they killed an innocent person and even the courts view such an inquiry as a moot point because the person is still dead.
The State of Michigan has consistently resisted the temptation to reinstate capital punishment, even in the face of the most horrific crimes. It’s because in 1896, Michigan hanged a man they were sure was guilty only to find out two days later, they were wrong.
Contrast that with the great State of Texas, which has, in the last two years, executed more people than the rest of the country, combined. We have the assurance of no less a personage than the President of the United States, formerly Governor of Texas, that “Texas has never executed an innocent person.” I sure hope he’s right.
Despite the risk of killing innocent people, advocates of the death penalty base their position on two suppositions. The first is that it is Biblically mandated. The second is the necessity to deter the most heinous crimes. Let’s try to take a fair look at both propositions.
Death penalty advocates are quick to cite the Old Testament admonition of, “An eye for an eye, etc.” Opponents reply with the words of the New Testament, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, thus saith the Lord.” Since anyone who truly believes the Bible cannot dismiss either statement, the question is, are they conflicting?
In order to forestall rampant chaos fostered by family feuds in ancient Israel, the Lord limited the reprisal against the offending party. In other words, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” In a murder case, death was the price.
The judicial system in Israel was much different than ours. Judgments were not rendered by a jury working with the evidence they were allowed to see by a defense attorney interested in collecting his fee, a prosecutor whose agenda was another conviction paving the way to reelection and a trial Judge whose political future depends all too frequently on the good will and support of that same prosecutor. Judgments came directly from the Lord. I think Mr. Bush could fairly state, “Israel never executed an innocent person.”
Since the Lord God Almighty is not running the court system of the United States and because we do have to contend with a very real crime problem, the concept of deterrence is a desirable goal. After all, we all want to feel safer, don’t we?
Prior to 1967, only nine states did not execute. Eight of them were in the ten with the lowest murder rate in the country. These figures reflect over one hundred years of records, a pretty fair sampling statistically speaking. Before dismissing these numbers as the product of states that were not industrialized and thus congested with a high population density, remember they include Michigan. You know, that place that makes our cars.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, the numbers haven’t changed. Houston is still the murder capitol of the United States and Texas is quick with the needle. The true correlation is not the actual crime rate but the public perception of fear fueled by political rhetoric.
But enough with the numbers. Statistics are boring. This claim of deterrence as the justification for the death penalty raises questions in my mind that I would like answered. If the object of killing people is to deter crime, why is this act accomplished in a closed room deep in the bowels of a secluded prison.
One death row inmate in Texas sued the state to compel the prison officials to allow a San Antonio television station to telecast his execution on the grounds that an execution is a judicial act and our courts cannot constitutionally operate in secrecy. The Federal Appellate Court rejected his claim.
I have to ask why the State of Texas opposed this idea? It seems to be right in step with the claim that death is the ultimate deterrent to crime.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, Vladimer Posner the American reporter for the Soviet news agency TASS, and Phil Donahue co-hosted a call-in talk show on CNBC that tackled this very question. Posner made the astute observation that if we were to televise executions, the first one would garner the highest ratings in television history. Six months down the road, the 232nd execution would be virtually unwatched with a Nielsen rating that would prompt cancellation of the series. The American people would be so inured to this spectacle that they would rather watch reruns of Bonanza.
Perhaps the method of inflicting death is at fault. The Attorney General of Arizona commented on camera after witnessing an execution by lethal injection that the condemned prisoner “appeared to just lie there asleep” and was then pronounced dead.
The A.G. felt cheated and added that the gas chamber was a much stronger deterrent to
vicious criminals. He missed out on one of the executions in Texas in which the victim was not rendered unconscious by the anesthetic that precedes the pavulon and potassium chloride. He writhed and screamed his way to death as the chemicals suffocated him and then literally cooked his internal organs. Oh, you didn’t know what those chemicals do?
Executed persons organs cannot be donated after lethal injections because they are burned to a crisp.
Speaking of which, in a botched execution in Virginia’s electric chair, the victim, Roger C., was literally set on fire and, over a period of approximately twenty-five minutes, roasted in an agonizing sheet of flames. In that case, Roger was probably innocent as even the Prosecutor on his case joined the defense motion to set aside the verdict due to newly discovered evidence. Because a paralegal missed the filing deadline by one day, the Virginia Supreme Court held that innocence is no defense and Roger was effectively burned at the stake. The State of Virginia still refuses to allow testing of the DNA evidence in its custody. I guess in Virginia at least, the process is more important than the end it is supposed to produce; justice!
The Arizona Attorney General was right though about the horrific death suffered by the condemned in the gas chamber. The Ninth Circuit has ruled it unnecessarily cruel and stated in its opinion that death by hanging is far more preferable. You see, cyanide gas causes death by cellular suffocation. That is excruciatingly painful and takes about nine minutes. I can see why the A.G. would get a bigger kick out of watching that than a lethal injection.
Why all of this concern to find a presumably painless method of killing? Is it to sell the idea to an already bloodthirsty public but still be able to rationalize it? The proponents of death seem to think that the method excuses the act. Some poor soul (and by the way, they are all poor) gets to wait for the clock to tick down their last days, then hours and finally minutes of life before being killed. Then, it is done in secret and, of course, as painlessly as possible.
C’mon! Let’s get real. I’ll give you the painless part if it eases your conscience. If deterrence is truthfully the goal, I have a solution that will satisfy everything you advocates of death desire.
We’ll construct a cylinder approximately eight feet in diameter made of reinforced Plexiglas at least eight inches thick and open at the top with a steel chair bolted to the steel floor. That open at the top part is important. You’ll see why in a moment.
The condemned man, or woman, would be led (dragged) to the chair and strapped to it.
Explosive charges (C4 is good) would be attached to the victim and the door sealed. At the press of a button, BOOM!
Shards of bone, brain matter and other assorted goo along with an incredible quantity of blood would splatter the entire cylinder’s glass wall for the viewing audience. The blast would escape via the open top. The only thing left of the evildoer would be bits and pieces the size of a quarter and perhaps a smoking arm or leg left strapped to the chair.
Of course, this entire spectacle should be televised complete with close-ups and the instant replay using high-speed film to capture every gory millisecond. I recommend scheduling the broadcast at seven or eight p.m. to reach that target audience most susceptible to our desired goal of deterrence, the children.
If this sounds insane, I want you, the proponents of death to refute the logic of it. No one can dispute that this would be a quick and probably painless death for the condemned. He wouldn’t know what hit him! If your goal is truly the deterrence of crime, you should target the youth of our nation.
On the other hand, if watching this after the dinner hour would cause you to lose your lunch, . . . . . . Well, I hate hypocrisy.
By way of a postscript, in 1987 the first person to be exonerated in the United States by DNA evidence was a man who was convicted, not once but twice, of the heinous crime we first discussed; the rape and murder of two small children. He was to be suffocated to death in North Carolina’s gas chamber.