I don’t know if it’s true what they say about Catherine the Great and her stallion, but I like to think that here I’ve brought the same combination of unbridled passion and imagery to the topic of capital punishment. Granted, my horseplay is a little more figurative and literary, but trust me, this is solid entertainment. Hey, have I let you down so far? Neigh!
I don’t mean to spoil the ending for anybody, but odds are pretty good that we’re all doomed. Specifically, unless I was busy with the salad bar when they handed out the immortality pills, we’re all gonna end up in the same place eventually, which is to say “dead.”
So the big question here is not “Will I die?” (because certainly that answer is a resounding “Yes, you sure will!”), but rather “Does anybody elseâ€”including the Stateâ€”have a right to kill you, and if so, who gets your CD collection?” This might surprise anyone who didn’t read the headline to this editorial, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say, “No one has a right to kill youâ€”including the State except perhaps in a time of warâ€”but if someone does kill youâ€”and that includes the State whether or not we are in a time of warâ€”I sure do fancy those Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young compact discs you’ve got.” I hope everybody followed that, because that’s about as plain as I can make it without using construction paper and crayons.
Now death penalty proponents, misguided people that they are, sometimes talk about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Well, I’ll go over that in a moment. First, I’d like to discuss the one compelling pro-death penalty argument that occasionally gets left out of the debate. It’s a dish best served cold, and it’s called “revenge.”
Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning, but a little revenge really sets some people up for living. H.L. Mencken, the famous pundit and now infamous anti-Semite, wrote that the death penalty provides “a salubrious discharge of emotions” because of the theoretical cathartic emotional release it grants those watching the event who have been strongly affected by whatever crime the death penalty recipient (aka “the criminal”) had committed in the first place.
I believe that revenge is the main reason the death penalty exists in the United States. You know, “an eye for eye” and all that. (Christians, please consult your own feelings in this matter then read the Gospel of Matthew 5:38-48 to make sure you haven’t inadvertently joined the wrong religion.) I don’t deny that revenge, in the short-term, feels good (assuming of course that you’re not the one whom the revenge is falling upon). I’ll even buy into Mencken’s notion of catharsis, though I doubt it’s really as necessary as he seems to think it is. But I would argue that revenge ultimately leads us to become who we least want to be which is not, as some of suspected, Barney the Dinosaur, but rather a people bereft of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. When we become ruled by revenge we lose our humanity, and while that might not carry much weight with the Adolf Hitlers of the world, it should make the rest of us think twice about who we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in.
As I mentioned before, another argument which is sometimes made by those who don’t know any better is that the death penalty is a deterrent against crime. While I must certainly concede that anyone put to death is about as incapable of committing future crimes as one is likely to get, numerous studies show that capital punishment has no deterrent effect for other criminals. In fact, a 1991 FBI report found that murder rates were actually lower in states that did not have the death penalty.
Now I am not prepared to argue that having the death penalty makes violent crime more likely, but it would not surprise me if it did. In fact, viewing society on macro-level it seems clear that the more violence we pump into our culture, the more violence we get out. (Not unlike The Jerry Springer Show.) The death penalty is just one of the more extreme examples of this phenomena, and that’s why on execution days it attracts like flies looneys who enjoy carrying signs that read “Burn, Baby, Burn.” Don’t tell me those people are a sign of a well-adjusted society.
But let’s disregard for a moment what I consider to be the central tenet of a well-adjusted society, namely the lack of a rock group called Menudo. Or, instead, let’s pretend that you think everything I’ve said up this point about the death penalty and its effects on society is just plain horse-puckey. (Well, you might agree with me on that Barney the Dinosaur bit.) Even if we throw out everything I’ve said up until now, there are still many reasons why the death penalty is a bad idea except in cases of British royalty tabloid reporters or door-to-door salesmen who disregard “No Soliciting” signs.
First, the death penalty is a racist judicial instrument. It’s a poorly kept secret that minorities are much more likely to be issued the death sentence than whites. Just as bad, according to the Oct. 1993 issue of the Wisconsin Lawyer: “Since 1972, 85 percent of those executed were convicted of killing white persons. In the same period, almost half of all homicide victims were black.” When it comes to the death penalty, I don’t think I’m all that far off the mark when I say that we might as well give our court judges and juries white robes to wear and, hey, while we’re at it, how about some white hoods to complete the effect?
Second, the death penalty is imposed almost randomly. It’s like some kind of ultimate, bad dice throw in the craps game of life. According to The New York Times, only .001 percent of all murders and .0000004 percent of violent criminals get the death penalty. What determines who gets it and who doesn’t? Primarily factors like income, race, I.Q., and geography. But, as O.J. proved, having a good team of lawyers doesn’t hurt any.
Third, innocent people are wrongly convicted and executed. A 1987 Stanford Law Review article said that 23 innocent people have been executed in the United States since 1900. That might not seem like a lot of people, but if you were one of them I’m sure it would be a much bigger deal. Take a moment and imagine yourself wrongly convicted of a crime and sitting in a jail cell waiting for your execution. (Try to focus on the fact that you’ll be dead soon, not that for a last meal you can order anything you want.) Even if you don’t believe in the sanctity of human life, surely we can agree that innocent people have just as much a right to life and liberty as, say, Madonnaâ€”maybe even more so after her performance in Dick Tracey.
Fourth, the death penalty is way too expensive for government to afford. It costs about $500,000 to lock someone away in prison for life. It costs an average of $2.3 million per case to execute someone by the time all the judicial and corrections costs are added up. (And these are typically not costs which can be whittled down without trampling back and forth on the Constitution of the United States.) Florida’s average cost between 1973 and 1988 was $3.2 million per execution. Call me wacky, but I think there’s a lot better uses for this money than trying to kill somebody with it, especially when society would be just as safe if we locked the criminal up and threw away the key.
Fifth, the death penalty is barbaric. I mean, if we’re going to kill somebody, why can’t we just overdose them on sleeping pills? Why do we have to use the horrid and not-always-effective methods of gas, lethal injection, and electric chair? Personally, if we’re going to use the death penalty, I favor repeated viewings of Melrose Place. At least then the condemned man could die looking at Heather Locklear, which is to say with a smile on his face. The present methods may not be unusual in the constitutional sense, but they are most certainly cruel.
There’s been a lot made of studies which show overwhelming support among the public for the death penalty. But this, like so many other things in life, just doesn’t hold up when you take a close look at it. A joint Democrat and Republican study of the issue conducted in 1993 found that while support in the abstract is 77 percent, it drops to only 41 percent “when life without parole and mandatory restitution to the family of the victim is a sentencing option” (Adelman 25).
That’s not a lot for anti-death penalty person like myself to hang his hat on, but I prefer to think that it’s a sign that there’s hope for us yet, even if we are doomed.
Adelman, Lynn. “Con: Wisconsin should not reverse 140 years of history by reinstating the death penalty.” Wisconsin Lawyer. Oct. 1993: 25, 62.