Why Do I Oppose the Death Penalty?

First, it takes life.

Second, it encourages the taking of life and other forms of revenge. Not only is there no evidence that it reduces crime, but it is defended in the same terms that many criminals use to defend their actions.

Third, it is dishonest. If we are going to kill people, we should do so publicly and graphically. Outside of Florida, where the victim’s head sometimes catches on fire in the electric chair, we have made murder look like a tetanus shot. When we hide from ourselves what we are doing, it ought to make us wonder why we don’t want to know, what vestige of decency is making us avert our gaze.

Fourth, the death penalty is crueler than almost anything found in the private sector. It is not just murder. It involves informing someone of the date and time of his or her murder and then keeping them in prison until that time. And let’s not kid ourselves about prison or be distracted by the overly-hyped death penalty. Why do you think suicides and insanity are so common in prison? Do these facts suggest that the death penalty is necessarily crueler than life imprisonment?

Fifth, there is a legitimate reason why the death penalty gets so much attention. Although we have created a booming prison industry and locked up a quarter of the world’s prisoners in a country with 5 percent of the world’s population, and although very few people are executed compared to those who are tortured, gang-raped and deprived of hope and sanity in prisons, the fact remains that only death is final. A recent book called “Actual Innocence” and the imposition of a moratorium by a Republican governor in Illinois have even George Will worrying about the number of innocents on death row. Once they’re killed, they can’t be brought back and offered some pocket change as an apology. They’re gone, innocent and guilty alike.

Sixth, in Virginia as much as anywhere else, the death penalty is biased. It is, like other sentences, given disproportionately to blacks – disproportionately not just to the number of blacks in the general population, but to the number convicted of murder. And, of course, it is given more often to the poor. Virginia ranks 50th in the pay it gives court-appointed lawyers. These problems are well illustrated in the case of Earl Washington, a mentally retarded black man from Fauquier who “confessed” to many crimes against white women in 1983. Most of the confessions couldn’t be made to fit with the facts and were dismissed. Two stuck: an assault of which he was actually guilty, and the rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper in 1982 for which he was sentenced to death after a ludicrous trial in which his lawyer could have done as well in his sleep. DNA has proved Washington’s innocence, and Gov. Wilder commuted his sentence to life-imprisonment. Why not free him? Well, he “confessed” after all, and the Attorney General’s office reportedly believes that the DNA evidence can be made to fit Washington as long as he didn’t – as the victim and prosecutor claimed – act alone. Other experts disagree, and the AG has been asked to do further tests to settle the matter. What’s to be lost? “Closure.” Whatever that may be, it’s apparently worth more than human life. Never forget that pursuing “closure” with the wrong person lets a real criminal go unpunished.

Seventh, the death penalty is even more expensive than imprisonment – which itself is something we can hardly afford financially as well as socially. The expense is in legal fees, which of course contribute to a rather undesirable type of person – the lawyer. And given the numbers of innocents being released from death row now, if the slaughter is to continue, it will have to get even more expensive.

Eighth, the death penalty is part and parcel of a horrible system. We elect people to get convictions and pit them against people with lesser resources to accomplish that goal. No one’s goal is finding the truth, except the jury – which has no training or control over the investigation. The death penalty is an expression of anger, not a productive contribution to reducing crime. Crime is much less expensively reduced with good schools and social services (including police). Our justice system should aim for restitution (which cannot be made by the dead), rehabilitation (which cannot be accomplished by the dead), deterrence (which is not accomplished by killing), and reconciliation (which cannot be done with a ghost). We should want to reduce crime and be willing to look at ways that might actually succeed in doing that. Raising the minimum wage would have a much more powerful effect than murdering more convicts. And prison should be a last, not a first, resort.

Ninth, the death penalty is an international embarrassment. It makes me ashamed to have to tell people I am an American.