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.