Is It Finally Time to Abolish the Death Penalty?

- - posted in politics

I’m sure some of y'all have been following the story of the two gut-wrenching botched executions over in Oklahoma. I have been following this story closely, as the death penalty is kind of one of those things with me: I don’t think we should have it. The events of the past few days further convinced me that I’m right about this, and I hope that others will be influenced to agree.

We like to call ourselves the most advanced, best nation in the world. We love to think that we’re exceptional, and in many key ways we are quite exceptional–they’re just not really the ways we would like to distinguish ourselves from the other nations of the world. The use of death as a punishment for high crimes is one such area where the US is indeed quite exceptional: we are one of a vanishingly small number of developed economies that still executes our prisoners. What has really disappointed me about this unpleasantness in Oklahoma is that our national conversation has been, “How can we execute people more humanely?” rather than “Should we really be executing prisoners at all?”

I am an ardent pacifist, as anyone who knows me can attest. There is no situation that I believe requires violence as a solution. None. And I do not accept that the violence of someone’s crimes needs to be met with violence upon them in the form of a gruesome death at the hands of state executioners. I find the death penalty to be unspeakably barbaric, the kind of thing that countries do when they haven’t grown up enough to no longer need it as a crutch to their justice systems. I do not want my state to be killing people in my name or using my tax money to kill people, so it’s a good thing I live in Illinois, which has been rid of the death penalty for some time now. (The last person executed by the Great State of Illinois died on 17 March, 1999.)

A recent study suggests that 1 in 25 inmates on death row is likely to be innocent. Can you imagine any other life-or-death situation on the whole fucking planet where a 4% error rate is even remotely acceptable?! I didn’t think so. So, when someone says that they are in favor of the death penalty, they are saying that a 4% chance of the state murdering an innocent person is an acceptable trade-off for some perceived benefit of killing people for their crimes. What benefits does it offer? Well, I’ve heard several, including that it’s a deterrent. Well, is it? And if it is, does the deterrent effect of the death penalty work so well that for every innocent man or woman who is executed, enough lives are saved to justify it? How do you even work that math out without sounding incredibly cruel and inhumane? If 4% is acceptable, what percentage would then be unacceptable? 1 in 20? 1 in 10? 1 in 5? To me, 1 in 25 is just as bad as 1 in 5, because in both circumstances innocent people who didn’t deserve to die are being killed mercilessly by the state; is 1 or 2 innocent people unnecessarily killed really that much better than 10 or 20?

The problem with the death penalty, aside from its inherent brutality and anachronism in our modern world, is its permanence. You can free a wrongly-imprisoned person, expunge their record, compensate them for time lost and a life ruined, but you can’t turn back an execution. You can’t go back after the fact and decide that you really didn’t mean to kill that person; once they’re dead they’re dead, and there’s nothing the state could possibly do to make it up to their family, their friends, their community. People talk about the death penalty in terms of criminals, and yes the majority put to death appear to actually be criminals, but being a criminal does not negate that you are also a living human being. Some would say that the murderers and rapists and folks who are on death row right now are less than human, that they are monsters, and maybe they are monsters but should we really stoop to the level of murderers by murdering them for their murders? Can we really expect that this does not set up the expectation that some lives are cheaper than others, and is that really a message we want to broadcast among ourselves and to the rest of the world?

I think there is this mentality–prevalent especially during the Bush years–that American exceptionalism means we should not only not care about what other nations think of us, but we should actively flaunt the societal norms and conventions other countries accept. This is one of those times where peer pressure enforcing a social norm is kind of a good thing; we really shouldn’t be continuing this barbaric holdover from the dark ages. While we’ve been having this national discussion about how our states can kill people more effectively and humanely, we really should be having the discussion of why we feel like it’s necessary to kill people as some macabre way of rehabilitating them or discouraging their peers from seeking out the same fate. Regardless of the pros, there is that con of accidentally killing the wrong person 4% of the time. That’s a pretty fucking huge con.

The events in Oklahoma recently are tragic. The state Supreme Court had wanted the executions pushed back so that the new drug cocktail for the lethal injection could be evaluated, but Oklahoma’s governor insisted on killing these two men, then succeeded in torturing them to death. The blame for that lies on her shoulders, and I do not for the life of me know how she can sleep okay at night, knowing the needless suffering she caused as those two men struggled for death. Regardless of their crimes–I actually haven’t even bothered looking into them–no human being deserves to be tortured to death, and being tortured to death should be a fate that you can rest easily assured will never happen to you in this supposedly exceptional country. We should endeavor to be exceptional for good things, not terrible things like torturing people to death.

Really think about it, space cadets, and if you find your state to be among the majority of US states that still prescribes death as a punishment for some crimes, write your congresspeople to see if there’s a way that can be changed.