Left Side Deadly Decisions
Capital Punishment Reflects An Obsession With Violence, Not An Intolerance For It
Whenever I think about the death penalty I think of Michael Dukakis.
Remember him? In the 1988 presidential debates, he was asked how he would feel about the death penalty if his wife were brutally raped and murdered. Dukakis responded calmly that he always had been and always would be opposed to the death penalty. His lack of emotion in that moment hurt his campaign.
Over the years I’ve wondered how he might have answered that question in a way that would have had more resonance with voters and the media. With a flash of rage? That, after all, is what most of us would feel at the thought of such a scenario. Dukakis might have served his campaign more effectively had he acknowledged this. But at its essence, his answer was the right one. Laws, after all, should be based on reason, not primal instincts.
And therein lies the problem with the death penalty: It is a charade. Personified, it is a barbarian clothed in the robes of justice. Most countries in the Western world recognized this long ago. Great Britain, for example, hasn’t executed anyone since 1964 and shortly thereafter took steps to abolish capital punishment by law.
This, of course, means nothing to many Americans who are so blinded by nationalism that they believe we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world. But that degree of hubris, whether in an individual or a nation, invariably leads to degradation.
There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. Some are purely practical. Take the cost, for example. Common sense would suggest that it is more expensive to keep someone in prison for life than it is to execute him or her. But the fact is, keeping people on death row is more costly, after duration and the process of appeals are taken into account.
Yes, you might argue, but the cost is worth it if it prevents murder. The thing is, I’ve yet to see any studies supporting the notion that capital punishment serves as a deterrent in any way, shape or form. And do we really need studies to confirm this, anyway? Think about it. What leads people to commit murder? With the possible exception of professional hit men, killers are either chronically or momentarily insane. Does anyone really imagine that a murderer stops to think about the possible consequences in a rational way? It’s a crime unique unto itself. It’s not like shoplifting, for example, which a lot of people might commit were there no laws against it. A willingness to commit murder reflects an utter lack of empathy. A truly empathetic person could never commit murder, regardless of laws or a lack thereof; conversely, no law can instill empathy in a person who’s incapable of feeling it.
An additional problem with the death penalty is that it is grossly unjust in its application. Numerous studies have suggested that the specific jurisdiction, the variables in the quality of defense and prosecution, and—worst of all—racism, play greater roles in capital punishment decisions than any absolute legal standards do.
But all of this, to me, is secondary. Very often, when people ask me why I oppose the death penalty, I give only one answer: The risk of executing an innocent person is unacceptable. To paraphrase the 18th-century legal scholar William Blackstone, it is better that a thousand guilty men should go free than one innocent person be put to death.
To feel any other way is hypocritical. The death penalty itself rests on the principle that killing an innocent person is beyond the pale and must be met with the ultimate punishment. And yet, if the state executes an innocent person, who pays for the crime? No one, of course.
So why do some states in this nation, including our own, still embrace the death penalty so fervently? To my mind, the survival of this draconian practice is but one manifestation of America’s long-standing obsession with violence. It’s all part and parcel of a lingering frontier mentality—a dark romantic fantasy that there are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys need to die.
But I don’t believe that most people who commit murder are evil. I believe that they’re mentally ill. That is where our focus should lie as a nation—not on vengeance, but on helping people with mental illnesses before it’s too late. If we fail to do this—if we continue to embrace murder as justice—the vicious cycle of violence begetting violence will continue. And we will continue to lose a part of our humanity in the process.
Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 22 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.