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Thursday, October 31, 2002

Yesterday, while eating lunch at Mr. Chen’s Organic Chinese Cuisine on Connecticut Avenue (I highly recommend it, BTW) I was reading USA Today. Contained within those pages was an analysis of the competing claims of the different states the snipers allegedly struck on having the first crack at a trial. There was a little chart on the subject (sadly not available at on the “pros” and “cons” column of the different claims. In the “con” column for Maryland was “Maryland has a death penalty, but [has not] fully embraced it” and “forbids execution of juveniles.” In the “pro” column for Virginia was its execution of 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1977 and procedural rules that allow for quicker executions.

It made it sound almost as if the point of a state’s justice system is to kill, kill, kill, and in the most efficient manner possible.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m of the opinion that capital punishment would be categorically wrong in all circumstances. I have no qualms about the execution of serial murderers or terrorists generally. I shed no tears for Timothy McVeigh. Certainly I have no compunction about seeing the “sniper” die, and as of now I have every reason to believe that John Muhammad is the man. I’m not even saying I necessarily have any sympathy for Lee Malvo.

My problem with capital punishment is not that I don’t believe it deters. Most studies done on the subject suggest it doesn’t deter worth a damn. An increase in executions hasn’t helped the murder rates of states that have used them. Those willing to commit capital murder are often incapable of the sort of thinking that would make deterrence effective. Deterrence is an important element of punishment, but it’s not the only reason to punish.

The state ought to have a right to defend itself from certain categories of menaces, namely those who present a future danger so extreme that to allow them to live is tantamount to subjecting society at large to the danger of losing their lives.

But I don’t really trust the American public or its government as it now exists with the power of a death sentence. I do wonder if we take the idea of execution seriously enough. That newspaper article provided me with much to worry about. Politicians seem approve of executing people because it makes them more popular, which makes one wonder if we won’t be seeing gladiator games soon.

Three random thoughts on why I don’t trust America on capital punishment:

1. The first time I ever paid much attention to then-Governor George W. Bush was when future Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson was asking him during an interview about the impending execution of Karla Faye Tucker. It was newsworthy at the time since Tucker was going to be the first woman executed in the U.S. in many moons, and because Pat Robertson and some prominent religious right figures were pleading with Bush to spare Tucker since she had become a born-again Christian while on Death Row. Bush could have responded with something that reflected the gravity of the situation. But instead we got a smarmy and indignant response, complete with an imitation of Tucker saying “Please don’t kill me.” That mocking tone suggested to me someone with a very cavalier attitude towards sentencing someone to die. What makes me angrier about that is that politicians who display this sort of callous indifference are generally rewarded for it.

2. Illinois found it had more innocent people on Death Row than it had executed since capital punishment was reinstated after Gregg v. Georgia (1976). I can only speculate what the results would be if this project were duplicated in one of those states that’s especially fond of executions – say, Texas or Virginia or Louisiana. We may not have such a study, but we do have this Amnesty International report about capital punishment in Georgia, which suggests that Georgia is at best playing fast and loose with executions. Given all the anecdotes about capital cases I’ve heard coming from Texas in particular, I’ve no reason to believe the results for Texas would be anything other than horrifying.

3. The more poor blacks there are in a state, the more executions per capita occur in that state, and the more the death penalty is likely to be popular. Of the 13 jurisdictions that, according to this Court TV map, lack a death penalty, only Michigan and the District of Columbia have a significant African-American population. Of the 38 jurisdictions that have capital punishment, 10 have not used it since 1977; New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, South Dakota, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oregon. (Some of those states, most notably New York, have relatively new death penalty laws.) Of the 28 states that have put someone to death, most have used it relatively sparingly – the bulk of the most glaring exceptions being in the old Confederacy with Texas notoriously leading the way but with Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama right behind, and the border states of Missouri and Delaware thrown in. (I’d have bet you money on Mississippi being near the top of the list but they’re been pretty restrained with only four executions post-Gregg, and Tennessee has been execution-free since Gregg.) That’s an eerie correlation between states that have executions since 1976 and states that were fond of lynching in the early part of the century. Even accounting for the fact that poor blacks are convicted of murder at higher rates than the general population, Death Row is still disproportionately black. The race of the victim has been shown to matter a good deal as well – one is less likely to get a death sentence for killing a black person than for a white person. Even if one doesn’t buy the idea that inherent racism is behind all of this, it should give one pause.

A nation of laws ought not be so quick to give men (and women) its blessings to commit homicide in its name.

The last time capital punishment was seriously debated on the national stage was during the 1988 Presidential Debates, in which Michael Dukakis, a longtime death penalty opponent, was asked whether he would have favored the death penalty for someone who (hypothetically) raped and murdered his wife. His response, which you can find here, in which he spent most of his time discussing drug policy instead, was widely mocked.

What if he said this instead?
“I resent the implications of that question. Either I am a hypocrite if I say “Yes” or incapable of human emotion if I say “no.” Well, yes I am human. Of course I would love to see him killed. I would in fact, like anyone whose loved one is killed, very much enjoy squeezing out the killer’s last breath with my bare hands. I also understand that what I am feeling is an emotional impulse. We all have emotional impulses, but in a civilized society we do not govern based on emotional impulses. Criminals are criminals, in large part, because they are ruled by their impulses. There is also no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent, or that it reduces crime. There are many better ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in Massachusetts, where we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state and the largest decrease in crime of any industrial state in America.”

He might still have lost, and support for capital punishment might have remained high, but perhaps it wouldn’t have reached the point where opposition to the death penalty placed one on the fringes of the political landscape the way it did in most of the country in the 1990s.

I remember the first time someone was ever executed, in part, in my name. (Massachusetts has not had a death penalty in my lifetime. D.C. doesn’t have one, and New Hampshire didn’t execute anyone while I was living there.) It was by the federal government, and fortunately, it was McVeigh.

Something to think about, hopefully.


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