Ultimate justice.


In a recent Republican debate, when moderator Brian Williams pointed out that Governor Rick Perry’s state of Texas has executed “more death row inmates than (under) any other governor in modern times,” the crowd of Tea Party types cheered. Whether you like Perry or not (I don’t) or agree with the death penalty or not (I don’t), there was something alarming about the fact that, upon hearing the number of people killed by the state under the Governor’s watch — 234 at the time, although the number is larger now, only a couple weeks later — people felt it in their hearts to clap. Some whistled. When Williams would later ask Perry what he made of the applause, his answer was that “Americans understand justice,” the “ultimate justice” he called it.

Do we? Just the other day I read an article that made reference to a 2009 Gallup poll which concluded that a third of all Americans — 34% — believe that we’ve put innocent people to death in this country, but they still support the policy anyway:

For many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

So, an innocent life here and there is just a small price to pay? Is that really justice? How can justice have any meaning when we know that innocent people can be and are being executed?

For the longest time, I assumed that people who support the death penalty must just be unaware of the facts, such as (1) there’s no question that we’ve put innocent people to death who are only later exonerated, or (2) a black man who kills a white man is over 16 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black man, or (3) defendants with money and access to above-average representation are convicted to death very rarely, certainly far less than those without the same financial means or access, or (4) it costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than it does to put the same prisoner to death, or (5) no reputable studies have ever concluded that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to violent crime. And yet, with the recent stories in the news regarding the death penalty, it’s clear that people are aware of these things, at least some of these things, but refuse to be swayed by them. Our lust for revenge as a society, it would seem, is just greater.

Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong, in this confusion of justice and revenge. Justice is the moral, righteous, and equitable principle determining just conduct. Revenge, however, is something else entirely. Revenge is to take vengeance for, inflict punishment for, or avenge. What are we trying to accomplish with our laws, what should we be trying to accomplish with our laws, and perhaps most importantly, which would be the response of a moral and civilized society?

Of course, it’s worth noting that I’ve never lost a loved one to violent crime. I’ve not had to sit in a court room, watching the trial of a man or woman charged with harming someone I love. For those people, I understand the impulse to exact some sort of brutality against the person or people responsible for ending the life of someone held dear. I understand how a death sentence may seem like a small price to pay, how it all could seem too regulated or even too thoughtful. Those are all normal, human responses to unspeakable pain and tragedy. I just don’t think they should be the foundation of our laws.

Some years ago, I remember seeing a family of a murder victim interviewed after their loved one’s convicted killer was put to death. They talked about a sense of relief in knowing that he was dead, how they could finally breathe again, now over a dozen years since their horrifying loss. They talked about their hope for closure. I’m not sure what closure would really mean to me, much less to those people specifically, but I wondered how much sooner they could have found some measure of peace had they not been forced to invest so much time and energy in the endless appeals, court rooms, and sterile confrontations with the man who unapologetically took a young woman’s life. How much had the system of putting someone to death taken from them, even after they’d already lost so much?

I have no sympathy for those who murder and destroy. I don’t seek to spare them from this “ultimate justice” because of a bleeding heart condition too focused on the destroyer instead of the destroyed. Instead, I simply believe that a society that respects life should not be charged with the task of killing its citizenry. When we do, it changes who we are.

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5 responses to “Ultimate justice.

  1. I have mixed emotions on this issue. I am opposed to murder, whether state sanctioned execution or elective abortion, but I have lost a loved one to a violent and brutal murder. It was a random act of violence and my cousin Peggy was the victim. She was young, but already a state librarian in Jackson, Mississippi when she was car-jacked, driven to a remote location on the Natchez trace, brutally raped, shot in the head, and left naked, like trash on a concrete bathroom floor in the state park. She wasn’t discovered until someone went to “clean” the bathroom days later. That kind of personal attack on civility demands some kind of retribution….like putting down a dog who has killed an innocent child in a vicious and unsolicited attack. Do you really think it helps to put hardened criminals in “time out”? I’m not even sure that works with children! I think we as “normal” humans need to know that the people who commit such brutal acts without conscience are not like us, that they are genetic mistakes, or freaks. And maybe executing a convicted murderer somehow gives us the consolation that at least there is one murderer who won’t kill again. I don’t really know what happened to the man that killed Peggy, because I lost track of the appeals and delays, etc. I mean, afterall it was about 16 years after he killed her before he ran out of appeals. But in the long run, it doesn’t make me sleep any sounder to think that he might be dead and eventually I was no longer afraid to get in my car alone, or walk down a street after dark without my heart beating faster. But in the end, unless it is someone you love lying dead on a concrete floor in a cinder block building, the victim of a heinous and brutal last few minutes of life, I guess you won’t know how cold your heart can be towards the person who put her there, and how little sleep you would lose over his death.

    • I appreciate the feedback, Belinda, and I’m certainly sorry for the loss of your cousin. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for your family. I have no doubt that such a loss would give me a different frame of reference when it comes to the death penalty, but I still don’t think our legal system should be one of vengeance… and that’s exactly what I know I’d be feeling/wanting in that situation. It’s a normal human response. I just don’t think it’s the correct ethical response.

      It’s difficult because I also believe that some criminals are just not able to be rehabilitated. Call it “evil” or call them sociopaths, but I firmly believe that there are some people who should never be released back out into the general population. Let them rot, I say.

  2. Jeffrey, I so appreciate you responding to my banalities. I am sure you have labored over your beliefs and I still seem to be struggling with many of mine. I agree with you that no one should take another person’s life. But is it possible that the foundation for our belief may be flawed if we are standing on the tenets of the christian faith? When Cain killed Abel, God did not strike him down, rather He banished him from the “civil” community. However, he did have David strike Goliath down and the people rejoiced in the victory. We have a definite disparity in the Bible regarding vengence/retribution, which supposedly belongs to the Lord, but which often requires human action to accomplish. I believe, as you do, that it erodes our humanity to take another person’s life, but God continually led Israel into battle to protect their people/resources …..what do you make of all that? And was it okay for the Navy Seals to kill Osama Bin Ladin? Is it different if the crime is terrorism or mass murder? And what about war. Marc registered for the Viet Nam draft as a conscientious objector, but after we married and especially after the children were born, he struggled with his instinctual drive to protect us, eventually telling me that he believed he could kill someone if his family was threatened.

    • Well, these are the big questions, aren’t they? I’ve struggled with them all, Belinda, and still do on some of them. But, like I said in another post, I also am trying to be okay with that, learning to see it less like a “struggle” and more like the whole living-my-way-into-the-truth thing. Easier said than done, of course.

      I believe that I could take a life if I thought I were protecting my own or the life of a loved one. There’s something about the idea of “imminent threat” that makes that seem more allowable, ethically. That said, I think I’d still be changed as a result. I think there would still be an internal struggle, no matter how justified I might have been at the time. The idea of war, though, takes the notion of “imminent threat” to the next extreme in many ways… and this is where things get a bit murkier for me. As a rule, I don’t support war, but I’ve also toured concentration camps in Germany and wonder what would have happened had nobody stepped in. Terrorism adds another wrinkle, too, because it takes everything we know about “war” and turns it on its side a bit. And to answer your question, I wish they would have kept Osama alive and let him rot inside of chucking him in the ocean, although I can see the argument(s) for that, too.

      Regarding the Biblical stuff… well, THAT is another issue entirely for me. When I get the guts, maybe it will even be a blog post. šŸ™‚

      Thanks for the conversation, Belinda.

  3. I am reminded of the comment from Slingblade when he tells the little boy, “I like the way you talk.” I am always enlightened by your words. Thanks.

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