Friday, September 23, 2011
Can capital punishment be justice?
You might not expect me to be undecided, but I am.
I've jumped from side to side on this issue. My first stand was pro-death penalty. I was a teenager, and encountered -- in a brochure about fighting child abuse, not about criminal justice -- a story of a little boy's death after abuse so horrible that it seemed that such criminals have forfeited their right to live, in the sight of the community, God, in every way.
Later, I changed my mind, then still later, changed it back. Altogether, I've re-thought it probably half a dozen times and ever since the execution of the OK City bomber, I've been stuck in a muddy, uncertain middle. I thought that one was the right thing. I still do.
Here's my thing.
When I read that laws have been written to say that the burden of proof no longer falls on the prosecution at a late stage in appeals, even when the evidence and testimony that is now available would have brought acquittal if it had appeared at the original trial;
when I see that some states fight to execute people who are asking for DNA testing of their evidence, which didn't exist years ago at conviction, and the state takes the unconscionable stand that procedure has been fully carried out and that this makes execution "right";
when I encounter these things, I know that, if capital punishment can be just, it is not now.
And my own endless heart-changes indicate that, like the people who crafted the system, my stand had been based on primitive emotion. Not reason, or justice, but pre-verbal, primitive gut reaction.
I think we're hardwired to react with fear, rage and revulsion against the deeds of some, and that we write up loads of procedural legal convolution and spin reasonable arguments, to feel OK about claiming the right to kill.
I think this because, if we really wanted simple justice, deterrence, and safety for the community, we would write laws that never, ever tolerated anything less than going to the utmost length to make sure that only the undoubtedly guilty are executed.
Whenever we can do that, then I will revisit the issue of whether the death penalty can possibly be right or just. Maybe it can. I can't even imagine it now because all I see is barbarism cloaked in robes and business suits.