Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The death penalty reconsidered

Do some people -- people who commit the most gruesome of crimes, the most egregious of murders -- deserve to die? Perhaps a better question is, do we deserve to kill them?

Today we're posting, in its entirety, a really interesting op-ed by an English professor out of Corpus Christi, Texas:

The death penalty reconsidered

Scripps Howard News Service 15-FEB-06
The recent execution of Crips co-founder and murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams reminded me of a drizzly Friday night last winter in Corpus Christi, Texas, when Sister Helen Prejean addressed a modest crowd at a local church about her opposition to the death penalty.

For two hours, Prejean described her path from a protected childhood to a quiet life of prayer to her role as one of the country's most active opponents of capital punishment. Eventually she wrote "Dead Man Walking," the book that inspired the movie.

We assumed that she would be preaching to the choir, and for the most part, she was. It wasn't hard to sense sympathy for her story among the sort of people who would show up at a church on an inclement winter evening to hear a lecture on capital punishment.

But as soon as she finished speaking and invited questions, a young woman sitting in the row directly behind us stood up and faced the audience. She displayed a framed photograph of another young woman, her sister, she said, who had been one of at least five victims of a serial killer in Baton Rouge.

She described the murder in extensive and gruesome detail, a slow death that included torture and inexplicable brutality. The killer is still on death row, but he continues to threaten and intimidate the victims' families, she said, and she will never feel safe until he is dead. When she finished, her hands were shaking, but her voice was steady.

Her stunning testimony was an uncomfortable jolt to the convictions against the death penalty that many in the audience had undoubtedly been developing or reinforcing over the past two hours.

Of course, Prejean's arguments are good ones: the death penalty doesn't deter crime, we've never found a way to administer it without regard to race or social class, and it's inevitable that we'll occasionally execute innocent people. But in the face of the story told by the victim's sister even the most avid opponent of capital punishment must sometimes wonder: Don't some people just deserve to die? Probably. Occasionally my students will write about the death penalty, and many of them aren't shy about invoking the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye." They argue that those who rape, torture, and murder deserve not only to die, but also to suffer the same sort of brutal tortures that they committed against their victims.

They have a point. Fortunately, one of the great triumphs of our Constitution is that it outlaws the cruel punishments that were common in the 18th century. We take the enlightened view that extreme punishments like drawing and quartering or burning at the stake, however well deserved they may be, have dehumanizing effects that violate our sense of what a civilized society should be. Therefore, we remain frustrated in our attempt to set things truly right again after brutal murders like the one we heard described. But it's the price we pay to be who we are.
So if we take the emotion and Old Testament justice out of the picture, Prejean's arguments are reasonably convincing. But if we don't execute someone like Williams, what do we do with him? To oppose the death penalty isn't necessarily to be soft on crime. Many prisoners in our penal system should never be released, either because they are still dangerous or because they haven't been punished sufficiently. Williams was a bad man, and he probably deserved never to be free again.

On the other hand, buried somewhere in our penology is the notion of rehabilitation. Ordinarily we're more successful with punishment, but rehabilitation is still a reasonable secondary goal. If we were better at rehabilitation, prisoners _ even the lifers like Williams _ would be easier to control and could serve as excellent examples for other prisoners of the idea that lives can be turned from crime to productivity, whether on the inside or outside. And successfully rehabilitated prisoners might serve as role models who help prevent youngsters from pursuing a life of crime.

Now that I think of it, Williams was probably an excellent example of a rare successful rehabilitation, someone who appears to have worked hard to dissuade teenagers from following his misguided path. In fact, we could probably point to Williams with considerable pride as a fine example of what successful penal rehabilitation could look like.

But now, of course, he's dead.

(John M. Crisp is a professor in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)


Anonymous said...

"Her stunning testimony was an uncomfortable jolt to the convictions against the death penalty that many in the audience had undoubtedly been developing or reinforcing over the past two hours."

And yet ... he never addresses the issue again. So what do we tell this poor woman? "Tough noogies"??

The good professor set us up for an insightful solution, and left us hanging. Like many opposed to the death penalty, he acknowledges victims' pain, but then leaves it hanging, exposed, unanswered.

Until that issue can be resolved, the practice of capital punishment will never be ended in this country. said...

I am not quite sure what i am here to say as I am sort of a person left in the middle not having really made up my mind pro or con; hence conflict arises and inquiries remain. I've been at odds and at times I stumble over what kind of compassion is to remain in such a troubling notion as Capital Punishment. The previous question in the post prior to mine find that I too ask "do we have the right to take life" from another who has taken or sup. taken it from another.

I'm like many who have many questions and find that judging is not the key here.

For those interested, Peace to all:


Jason said...

Succinctly put by Gandalf the Grey: "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

Dave Trowbridge said...

A good post, but marred by the all-too-usual misinterpretation of the Old Testament prescription of "an eye for an eye", which was intended as a limitation of vengeance, not a prescription of tit-for-tat.

I, too, struggle with the question of people who seem all too deserving of death, and like Jason, find Gandalf's question the best answer. That, and the witness of my wife, whose mother was brutally murdered almost 20 years ago, and yet who remains obdurately opposed to the death penalty, despite the agony of the parole hearings she attends every three years to make sure the murderer doesn't get out of prison before he dies.

As far as the victims' pain goes, what does the imposition of death have to do with that? A pain that can only be assuaged by vengeance is evidence of a damaged soul, one that seeks healing by a method that can only cause more damage. Yes, the damage is, to begin with, the responsibility of the murderer, but the refusal to move beyond vengeance is an acceptance of slavery to the deed and its perpetrator. And that slavery is not ended by execution.