Clemency and the Death Penalty
|December 31, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
Clemency and the Death Penalty
We are pleased to bring you this essay about the death penalty, made available by http://www.YellowTimes.org
by Paul Harris
Before he departed the office of Governor of Illinois on January 12, George Ryan emptied death row. He pardoned four men outright and commuted the sentences of 167 others. This was from a long-time supporter of capital punishment. While it is not unusual for governors leaving office (or presidents, for that matter) to issue all sorts of last minute decrees, this one is going to have some real ramifications. There is a big ol’ can of worms here and you don’t have to be a cat to hear the can opener grinding from across the street.
I guess what Ryan did was the judicial equivalent of throwing up his hands in dismay and saying he didn’t know what to do. The United States is one of the few civilized countries to continue the practice of state assisted killing, but the variances in the laws over the years make it clear this has not been an easy issue, even for them.
In 1972, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional and the practice came to a sudden halt. But the change was brief and they restored it shortly thereafter. Following the period of reprieve from capital punishment, the first lucky winner of a trip down that last mile had to take legal action to force the state to execute him. The courts granted the request of Gary Gilmore to put him to death (his preference to a lifetime in prison) and he faced a firing squad. And that was that; the floodgates were opened and there have been a few hundred executions since.
Then the Supreme Court complicated matters further with two additional rulings: one declared that executing the mentally retarded was unconstitutional; and one that said allowing judges to impose the death sentence without telling a jury beforehand that their guilty verdict would result in execution was also unconstitutional. These two latter rulings called into question the viability of the sentences handed to many of the people waiting on death row for their appointments with the executioner and in a last step before leaving office, Ryan apparently felt it was better that none of them die than to have any of them die who shouldn’t.
That took a lot of guts and it disappointed a lot of people. It may be that all of those 171 individuals were completely guilty, in every sense of the word, of having committed their special crime(s). But the Supreme Court’s rulings raised enough questions about some of the convictions that good conscience required at least some of the executions had to be postponed, or cancelled altogether.
This is a problem that would never arise if societies didn’t promise police officers and victim’s families that the state is willing to get blood on its hands on their behalf.
We don’t steal from thieves; we don’t beat up assailants; we don’t hire Yuppies to run over drunk drivers with their SUVs; we don’t rape rapists. And despite the Biblical support for the notion of “an eye for an eye,” almost everyone would agree it would be inappropriate to do so.
But many people have no difficulty with the idea of killing other people as an act of punishment. We generally all believe that killing is wrong and bad, but many of us think it’s okay if it is the state doing it. We generally all accept that we should not be allowed to kill other people ourselves, but many of us can accept the state doing it on our behalf.
The real problem is that it is only the base desire for bloodlust that leads a nation to support capital punishment. It is, at its fundamental level, a hideous concept.
Most of our countries were founded on the basic premise of one major religion or another and all of those religions forbid killing. None of them preach that “killing is bad, except in the following circumstances ” They all simply say that killing is just wrong. And yet nations will cheerfully twist the tenets of those religions to support a bloody-minded need for vengeance while at the same time claiming that vengeance lies with their god(s).
There are many opponents of capital punishment throughout the world and in most countries they have managed to persuade their fellow citizens to accept that the state shall not kill. The reasons they oppose it are many and varied but they all really filter down to one thing: they think it is barbaric. There are also many people in favor of capital punishment and they also have many and varied reasons for their belief. They will argue about deterrence and “an eye for an eye” and simple justice, but the reasons on their side really boil down to one thing: revenge, a desire for blood.
Most proponents of capital punishment speak of the deterrence factor but there is very little statistical support for believing that the death penalty persuades people not to kill in the first place. A simple comparison of the criminal statistics between countries with or without capital punishment shows there has been no deterrence factor. And it isn’t hard to understand why; most murders are committed in fits of passion where the thought of a deterrent isn’t going to enter the perpetrator’s head. The only thing truly assured is that the state gets vengeance and blood on its hands that makes it no better than the guilty party, just better organized.
There are a wide variety of common sense reasons to repeal capital punishment everywhere. The legal system is not perfect; juries make mistakes; police make mistakes; witnesses make mistakes; and sometimes there are deliberate miscarriages of justice. There is also, of course, the age-old problem of the irreversibility of the death sentence. When we make mistakes, and we do, “oops” is not a satisfactory response. It’s bad enough when we sometimes jail the wrong people but at least if they are subsequently able to prove their innocence, we can release them and try to help them get their lives back together. When we execute someone in error, there isn’t a whole lot we can do to undo it; it’s irrevocable.
There is no question that we are sometimes absolutely convinced of the perpetrators of crimes and those crimes are so horrendous that there seems little reason to allow the person to live. I am thinking as I type of a case that occurred here in Canada where two teenage girls were kidnapped, tortured, raped, killed, and their bodies chopped up for easy disposal. There is no doubt as to who committed at least part of the crimes; it was a husband and wife team and the sick bastards actually videotaped some of what they did. He is in jail and will never see sunlight again; she is in jail and will be released soon after serving all of a twelve-year sentence. No one believes she should be released but she managed to cut a deal in order to place all the blame on her husband. The trouble is that no one can be sure whether they both did the killing or only one of them did it, and, if only one, which one. But still, there is only minimal appetite here for executing these two. Like the people of many nations, Canadians have generally accepted that they don’t want to engage in state-sponsored killing.
So George Ryan’s decision is going to reopen this debate, and that is a good thing. The United States remains one of the few countries still willing to institutionalize vendetta. Now, killers are executed but it is a very easy shift to add in other lesser crimes as the political mood changes once you’ve accepted the idea that it is okay for the state to take people’s lives. And there are so many errors committed by the legal systems of most countries that a lot of innocent people could lose their lives for things they did not do. If that doesn’t give you cause for concern, consider the possibility that the innocent person is you.
Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing Canadian businesses with the tools and expertise to successfully reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. He has traveled extensively in what we arrogant North Americans refer to as “the Third World,” and he believes that life is very much like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. Paul lives in Canada.
Also see Fred Foldvary’s important editorial:
Abolish the Death Penalty
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