The Death Penalty–Yes and No

My view of the death penalty is somewhat unconventional. I don’t support it and I do support it…sort of. That is, I believe that almost no executions should take place…but I’m not a purist, in opposing the death penalty. There is a place for a few select executions in a moral society.

Because of the very real possibility of an innocent man or woman being put to death, the death penalty is usually contraindicated. It’s mostly a bad idea. Lifelong incarceration is a heavy punishment. It is already a living death.

There’s another consideration, that should make us skeptical of the death penalty, one we saw dramatized in the film Dead Man Walking. Many murderers are themselves victims, are damaged people, trauma victims, who don’t really understand how they came to do what they did. We add existential insult to injury by executing them.

My feeling has always been that there are a few discrete, special instances where the death penalty can and should apply. If a serial killer is caught with overwhelming evidence, evidence which cannot be disputed–and this has happened, as in the case of that egregious monster John Wayne Gacy–then there is no concern that the wrong person will be executed. The same goes for the Hillside Stranglers. A special tribunal could be organized to determine if it’s a case of “overwhelmingly obvious guilt”.

What’s the point of executing someone like that, you ask? First of all it offers closure, to a degree, to the family of the monster’s victims. Those who say that closure doesn’t amount to enough reason have not thought about what it would be like to lose a loved one to a serial killer. It does help the victim’s family, a bit, when the murderer is erased completely from the world. It provides some psychological easement–enough to make it worthwhile.

Also, if the evidence is overwhelming, there should be an exception to the possibility of seemingly endless recourse to appeals and retrials. In the case of overwhelmingly obvious guilt–where there is undoubted evidence, eg videotapes of the murders, confessions that fit the facts, and so on–the murderer should be killed summarily, quickly, within thirty days of conviction. Not only does this provide closure for the victim’s family all the sooner, it also saves society a good deal of money. It’s tragic that we have to spend millions of dollars maintaining serial killers, providing them with attorneys, and expensive court time, in those cases where guilt is undoubted.

And in those cases, I myself do not see any evidence that the process of lethal injection is more humane than a simple, efficient hanging, wherein the neck is instantly broken, or some updated use of a guillotine. Why spend millions creating elaborate death systems for some guy who raped a little girl as he strangled her to death?

Recently a white supremacist was executed for the hate-spawned dragging death of a black man, in Texas. The man’s guilt was undoubted. The victim was dragged behind a truck for three miles–an especially heinous murder. In that instance too, I say that’s a case of especially heinous murder and overwhelmingly obvious guilt, deserving of the death penalty swiftly carried out.

But such executions would be a tiny percentage of all executions in America. Most executions are carried out for crimes of passion, robberies gone bad, and so on. While the families of the victims in those instances too might feel some closure if the death penalty is carried out, social circumstances and the possibility of misidentification make those cases unsuitable for execution. Life in prison will have to do.

So my viewpoint–oddball, if you like–is that there are a very few cases where execution seems proper: cases of especially heinous crimes combined with overwhelming evidence.

But in all other cases the death penalty should not apply.

Using those standards, almost all executions in the State of Texas, for example, would not have been carried out. Nor would Troy Davis have been executed in Georgia.

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