To argue against the death penalty is to argue for what is right and just. This is the mark of a civilized and informed people. To argue against the death penalty, one must argue against people with absurdly unreasonable, underlying assumptions, with emotionally-based arguments, made nearly invisible by cultural programming. Our cultural mythology leads us to expect that evil must be destroyed and that happily ever after will win out in the end. We have to look carefully beyond our underlying mythology to understand the science of evil, to understand value relativity and the consequences of abuse and damaged lives. If we are critical thinkers who want to do the right thing, we have no choice but to be firmly against the death penalty, under all circumstances, because life is precious.
To sentence someone to life in prison is a far more effective deterrent to crime than to execute (Meserli). The threat of execution can be seen as a thrilling gamble by some, like a game of Russian roulette. In risking life, it becomes an extreme sport, to a career criminal, to do violent crime. Death is an honorable drama, especially if faced without remorse. But there is no honor, not even criminal honor, in living a life of no freedom, wasting life behind bars. Life in prison offers a long time for self reflection and places a criminal, who preys upon others, into the role of prey for even worse others. This might eventually lead to an understanding of life’s worth.
When the State kills someone for having killed someone else, this teaches only the uncivilized doctrine of revenge. This is obvious to Australia and Canada and European countries who understand the hypocrisy of killing for killing, and therefore do not support the death penalty. America has not reached this level of maturity, on this matter, unfortunately.
I have noticed that when yet another execution is scheduled to take place in Texas, for example, the public turns its sympathetic energy away from the crime victim, toward rescuing the convicted felon with a last minute reprieve or yet another appeal. Even when this support proves to be inadequate, and the execution proceeds, nothing is restored to the victim, or to the victim’s loved ones. The victim is still wronged and still dead. The family still grieves.
The attention around an execution surely cannot help the family. Families sometimes say they do not want the death of the perpetrator. They understand it serves no purpose and they choose to forgive (O’Shea). Those who strongly want an execution are thinking emotionally, and not rationally. They have been reduced to immoral thinking when they, like the criminal, lust after death. The State should be sensitive to how they feel, but should not commit murder to make them feel better.
It severely victimizes the prisoner’s family to see a relative put to death by the State. This is inhumane, and it violates our constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. This is especially critical in the case of mistakes, in which innocent people are convicted and executed, or cases in which mentally ill people or mentally retarded people are executed. Even with all our fancy technology, mistakes in judgment and evidence are made.
To put a face on one of those mistakes, we can consider the case of Leo Jones. Florida police arrested Mr. Jones as a suspect in the killing of a policeman. For the next 12 hours, Florida police beat him, threatened him, tortured him, and forced him to play Russian roulette (Griffin). Leo Jones was understandably afraid that the police would kill him. In fact, the police repeatedly told him they were going to kill him. Responsive to this, he signed a confession, even though he was innocent. The circumstances of the coerced confession were presented to the court, and still this innocent man was declared guilty and sentenced to die by the electric chair. Mr. Jones appealed, but his appeals were denied.
When personal justice was not achievable, he turned his attention to an issue of social justice. He tried to get the State of Florida to reconsider “Old Sparky”, their execution implement, which was an antique, and dubiously functional. When he lost that petition, he asked to be put to death by an alternate means. This too was denied. Leo Jones, still protesting his innocence, was unjustly put to death, by electric chair, 17 years after being wrongfully accused. When it was too late for Leo Jones, the State of Florida recognized that he was innocent, and they also decided to retire their electric chair.
The State’s excuse for murder was that they thought he had committed murder. To me, and to any clear-thinking person, killing someone for killing is senseless. Do we bite our children for biting? Do we force a marriage partner to eat burnt toast, because they burned the toast? Do we eat a cannibal or rape a rapist? Should we sprinkle germs on those who inadvertently spread them? Should we deprive a newborn of sleep because we were kept awake? Yet we kill someone for killing.
In Leo’s case, 12 people said he was not involved in the killing of the police officer, and these 12 people told authorities who they knew to be involved (Griffin). In Leo’s case, the facts were ignored. A post-death exoneration by the State cannot undo what happened to Leo Jones. His life was given no value by those who are charged to protect citizens, in a country with guaranteed rights to life and the pursuit of happiness.
Not only is Leo Jones irreversibly dead, but he was tortured, physically and mentally abused in the name of the State. He had 17 years of his life stolen from him, and then, in a final betrayal, this innocent man lost his rightful future. If Leo Jones were an anomaly, we could reason that sometimes bad things happen unfairly to innocent people. But Leo Jones is not alone. His abuse, stolen freedom, and execution is one of many mistakes made by an imperfect system. His is one story among a collection of stories. His blood is on our hands.
Execution is expensive financially and emotionally. The execution of a prisoner is two to five times more expensive than life imprisonment, and the appeals process clogs the court system (Meserli). Probably most of these crimes would have been inexpensively preventable with early intervention. Most people on death row are the victims of child abuse and poverty (O’Shea). If society would invest in alleviating poverty, supporting education and parenting skills, and funding child protective services adequately to enable them to follow through on abuse reports, immediately, then we would not be faced with the financial challenge and ethical debate about execution.
I believe that each person has worth. The problems of abuse extend beyond the circumstances of any one family, and must be seen in the context of poverty, materialism, fractured spirituality, nature disconnection, broken families, substance abuse, educational inequality, unequal access to medical care, and social class and racial inequality that determines who is arrested for crime and who is not, who gets off and who does not. These are complex social issues and no easy answers are engaged by killing our social failures. They are not the failures of a single monster, but are the failures of us, the society they depended on to back them up when they were too young and vulnerable to save themselves.
To kill them supports a delusion that we are innocent. It is a lie, and the death penalty is unreasonable in all circumstances. If life is precious, then everyone’s life is precious.
Griffin, Michael. “Cop Killer is Innocent, Attorney Tells Court.” 1998. Sun Sentinel. Web. 19 February 2012 .
Meserli, Joe. “Should the Death Penalty be Banned as a Form of Punishment?” nd. Balanced Politics. Web. 12 February 2012 .
O’Shea, Elizabeth. “Unspeakable Wrongness of Death Penalty.” The Sydney Morning Herald 19 July 2011: Opinion Page. Print.