Our Passion for Killing

The United States is the only country in North and South America conducting executions this year. Ten people have been executed in the US so far in 2019. And now Attorney General William Barr has directed that the federal death penalty be resumed for five inmates.

Humanity has a long history of violent, painful and grotesque methods of executing someone. People have been stoned, crucified, drowned, eaten by wild animals, burned, crushed, buried, hanged, guillotined, shot, electrocuted, gassed, and injected with lethal drugs. Many earlier methods are now considered barbaric as we search for more and more “civil” ways to kill convicts that are less disturbing to the general public, and we no longer take open and obvious pleasure in executions by making them public spectacles.

The number of executions in the US has dropped dramatically since 1996. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded prisoners (less than 70 IQ) is unconstitutional; In 2005, it ruled that the execution of children and minors under the age of 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment; and in 2008, it ruled that execution is excessive for the crime of child rape. Various states have alternately abolished and reinstated capital punishment since 1846, resulting in 21 states having abolished the death penalty as of 2019. Reinstituting federal executions is moving us in the wrong direction.

Between 1890 and 2010, 276 executions were botched because of unanticipated problems or prolonged deaths that caused unnecessary agony for the prisoner, with lethal injections having the highest rate.  Since 1973, more than 165 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated. Our judicial system has many flaws (see American Injustice Parts 1 through 10 on this blog), and execution makes such mistakes irreversible.

Some would argue that heinous crimes require the ultimate penalty. The crime most often considered a capital offense is murder, especially when the murder was carefully planned, deliberately and unemotionally carried out or involved multiple victims. I’ve never understood the logic that deliberately killing someone is so heinous a crime that society must deliberately kill the killer after long, dispassionate consideration. Some who think justice means punishment consider life in prison a more severe punishment than death.

Execution of a prisoner does not bring back the victim, or balance malevolence with good, or even act as an effective deterrent. There is no evidence that it reduces crime. Murderers and other violent criminals are not likely to consider the probability of being caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to death rather than a long prison sentence before committing a crime. In fact, the probability of being sentenced to death in the U.S. is greatly influenced by the geographical location of the crime; the race, ethnicity and especially the wealth of the defendant; and the race, ethnicity and gender of the victim. How many violent offenders weigh all those factors while planning a crime?

A death sentence does not protect society better than life imprisonment. Both effectively prohibit the person from endangering society.

An execution does not allow for restitution. The offender has no chance to do anything good to balance out the bad. Obviously, nothing will be enough to repay the taking of a life, but neither is taking of another life. Rehabilitation of a violent offender should be considered a better outcome for the death of a loved one than the death of that offender. And healing and reconciliation for survivors of murder victims is possible as long as the offender is still alive. We need to do more to encourage that process where possible.

Executions cost far more than life imprisonment without parole. It has been estimated that in Colorado it costs twenty times as much to prosecute a capital murder case than a non-capital murder case. Capital cases involve much longer jury selection, longer and more complex trials (more lawyers, witnesses and experts), a lengthy appeals process, and more expensive incarceration. Executions can take decades to complete resulting in immense cost of money, time, and emotional upheaval for everyone involved.

And finally, eliminating the death penalty from our criminal justice system would be a step toward reducing our passion for violence. America has more guns per person than any other nation – nearly twice as many as the next two countries of Serbia and Yemen – and more gun violence than any other industrialized nation. We can reduce our glorification of guns. We can stop raising males who think they have a right to whatever they want and the right to use coercion, power, force, and violence to solve any problem they face. We can stop honoring leaders who brag about their own use of power, authority and aggression, who respond to even the slightest perceived affront with immediate vicious counterattacks, and who provoke and incite the most hateful beliefs and actions in others. We can stop idolizing violent male gods who require sacrificial killing to be “appeased.” We can replace revenge, retribution and punishment with rehabilitation and restorative justice. Now that would be a safer and more just world.

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