I’m against the death penalty.
Until I’m not.
Mention a criminal who has sexually abused or murdered a child and I waver. Show me a terrorist who wants to kill Americans because we don’t share his religion and I vacillate. Catch a stone cold cop killer and I think if we don’t punish the murderer to the fullest we allow the very fabric of our nation’s security to unravel.
Yet, with all that said, there seems to be a built in contradiction to killing a killer, don’t you think?
The Governor of Illinois took a bold step this week when he signed a bill that abolishes the death penalty in his state. Governor Pat Quinn said he took the step because in the past the system in Illinois found at least 20 men guilty of capital offenses and condemned them to death only to have evidence crop up later that exonerated them.
“If the system cannot be guaranteed 100 percent error free, then we cannot have the system,” Said Quinn. “It just is not right.”
Illinois is a perfect microcosm of our decade’s long national debate and flip-flop on the issue. We had capital punishment, then we banned it and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme court reinstated a state’s right to apply the death penalty.
In the 1990’s, after Illinois figured out it had at least 13 innocent people on death row (the figure rose to 20 later) former Governor George Ryan made news worldwide when he issued a suspension of all executions. Right before he left office in 2003 Ryan, literally, cleared out death row and commuted the sentences of 167 convicts leaving them to serve life in prison with no parole.
In making his pronouncement Governor Quinn commuted the sentences of 15 more condemned convicts and now they will serve life with no hope of ever being paroled.
I know many of the loved ones seeking to avenge the innocent dead will not be pleased but, you know, in the scheme of things a life sentence is pretty horrible to contemplate. Instead of being released from this earth via a lethal injection these prisoners will be forced to think about the terrible acts that put them there every single day. They will grow old and infirm behind bars within a foul society. Instead of dreaming about someday being free they know they will have to spend every single minute of every single day locked up like an animal. There is no escape. That daily suffering seems like vengeance enough.
Interestingly, many victim’s families are against the death penalty believing it serves no purpose in bringing back their loved one.
Illinois now joins 15 other states and the District of Columbia in doing away with the death penalty. Although, as if to underscore how frequently the winds change on the issue, New Mexico’s newly elected Governor, Susana Martinez, wants to bring it back to the Land of Enchantment.
It is question from biblical times – what to do with those who take the lives of others? The book of Deuteronomy waves off pity and speaks of an “eye for an eye.” But as spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
So, after Governor Quinn’s recent stand on the issue maybe this is a good time for all of us to re-think what we believe about capital punishment. Should the United States be in the business of killing killers? Is it the best way to keep the rest of us safe? And for those who focus on the cost of prisons a question: is it fair to focus on money when we’re talking about life and death?
Ask yourself honestly, could you perform an execution?
Maybe we could mitigate the number of executions by limiting them to those who have committed the worst crimes. But who decides that the killer of a child or police officer deserves death while the murderer of an elderly person gets life in prison?
As you ponder the issue realize: Since 1976 states have executed about 1,240 convicts. There are currently at least 3,254 more waiting for their lethal injection or whatever other mode of death they chose as some states allow the inmate to pick his destiny – electrocution, lethal gas, shooting or hanging. Seems odd to think in America we still carry out firing squads but Utah staged one as recently as June 2010. Delaware had a hanging in 1996.
I’ve stood inside the death chamber of a prison and had the door close behind me. Everything in the room was white except for the 2 thick brown leather straps at the foot of the death bed which buckle in the feet of the condemned and those in the middle that hold down the hands and chest. White, the color of innocence and purity.
There seems to be nothing innocent or pure about taking the life of another human being. Not even an evil one.
But, I’ve interviewed enough victims’ family members to know their need for retribution is sincere, comes from deep within and oftentimes can’t be quenched until the killer is killed. I understand.