The biggest news story in Ohio in this past September was about Romell Broom–a death row inmate who was supposed to be executed a few weeks ago but due to the inability of the executioners to locate a viable vein in which to administer the lethal injection, his execution was temporarily suspended. (I tried to see if he finally did get executed, as this happened earlier in the month of September, but there are no recent news articles.)
This story, of course, got me to thinking about the death penalty. I used to be for it. Growing up, I believed in what I later learned was spelled out in the ancient code of Hammerabi: “eye for an eye.” A lot of my fellow citizens also seem to ascribe to this code, believing that one should pay equally for the crime which they committed against someone else. We are human, we seek retribution in our anger over injustice.
But life isn’t as simple as the “eye for an eye” philosophy suggests. Our legal system–any legal system–is not perfect enough for unfailing accuracy in convictions. Sometimes (not in the case of Mr. Broom) the wrong man is convicted because the evidence makes him look awfully guilty. Our legal system is not based on the guilt or innocence but whether or not it can be proven that a person is guilty. There’s just not enough certainty all the time to hang a man.
I hate to say it, but one of the major turning points in my thoughts on the death penalty happened when I watched the fictional film The Life of David Gale. In this movie, David Gale (played by Kevin Spacey) is a part of this radical group of individuals so opposed to the death penalty that they stage what looks like a murder (actually killing someone–the victim participates in her own death as an act of martyrism) with Gale as the guilty party. Of course, you learn by the end of the movie that the death was willful suicide and that Gale was not guilty, but it’s too late and Gale is executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The movie was, of course, blatant propaganda by an agency against the death penalty. Still, it caused me to rethink my own feelings on the death penalty, not only for the innocent man wrongly accused but for the guilty man rightly convicted.
You see, it’s my belief that a civilized society only needs to resort to violence when absolutely necessary. I realize that wars are sometimes warranted. There’s always a faction of “civilized” people with a thirst for power and the madness and drive to attain it. There are dire situations when dire action is needed. However, I believe this force should be used sparingly lest we become the big bullies in the school yard, the ones who would eventually need someone more civilized to come around and tame.
My idea of a civilized society is based on the notion that the human race has a chance to advance itself to a point where we can become, in a sense, higher beings. We have so much potential for good. I think we, as a race, should strive every day to better ourselves, try desperately to beat out of our DNA these barbaric tendencies that lead us down the path to self-destruction. Just as I try, hard, every day to better my own self–to rid myself of those qualities that make me an undesirable person such as jealousy, anger, and prejudice. We can evolve ourselves. And part of that evolution, to me, is desisting in activities that make us savages.
The death penalty is a savage way of dealing with our criminals. Fighting fire with fire does not make a wrong become right. We have the ability in these situations to take the upper hand and not return brutality with more brutality. At the end of the day, no matter how just we think we’re being in executing a convicted murderer, we’re only committing murder ourselves. Murder is always wrong.
I can never understand why some of the people who support the death penalty scream loudest against abortion rights. If you truly believe in the sanctity of human life, then you should also believe that the murder of one of your own adult citizens is also wrong. If you believe in a divine power who is just and fair, then you should assume that a guilty person will someday pay for their sins if they do not repent. And, I will point out in my limited Biblical knowledge and failed Christian education, that Jesus asked people to give everyone a chance, no matter what their past history was, because everyone had an opportunity to be forgiven. A person of faith should be opposed to the death penalty by nature because he/she should realize it’s not our position to chose life and death for someone else.
As a somewhat secular person myself (with spiritual tendencies and a generic belief in karma), I don’t think it’s our place to sentence someone–no matter how guilty we know them to be–to death. I believe that the willful murder of any life–animal or person–is not only wrong but against our better natures. I don’t believe that ultimately people pay the price for their “sins”; I think that sometimes life just sucks and you’re subject to circumstances beyond your control. I want to hope that in some way a murder is punished ultimately for what he/she has done. But that may be just the savage human inside of me who seeks “eye for an eye” justice because it seems the fairest. Though, a part of me always feels that a person is somehow accountable on some level for his/her own actions and that, in ways we can’t even imagine, he/she might pay for his/her grievous mistakes. I just don’t think it’s our place to step in as the final arbitrator between life and death–to play God–for someone else.
Unfortunately, I don’t offer any solutions on just what we should do with someone who has committed murder other than a life sentence without a chance of parole, depending on the circumstances. I realize that that’s more tax payer dollars going to keep undesirable people alive. But money shouldn’t determine whether a person lives or dies. A lot of these people are probably broken and can never be rehabilitated. And I think a person should always have the chance to fight for the case of his innocence through appeals. Perhaps every once in awhile an innocent man wrongly convicted is set free.
People always tell me I’d feel different if someone I knew was murdered. However, I don’t think so. When someone we love dies–no matter how they die–a part of us wants retribution on some banal level. My husband died of natural causes and I still found myself wanting to bring someone to fault for what happened–myself for not knowing CPR or what to do as my husband lay dying before my eyes, the doctor who turned him away as having an anxiety attack when he had his first cardiac incident, even Mike since he never pursued the matter further. I could attack whomever I wanted. I could have sued that emergency room doctor, perhaps the whole hospital, and won myself some money. And then what? Once revenge is taken, the person is still dead. You are still left with that hollow, empty feeling of someone who has lost a loved one. Nothing you can do will make that pain go away except time. Having someone else’s blood on your hands will eventually only make you feel worse. Just like when you inflicted revenge on that one nasty person who treated you badly in middle school. For a few days, you felt good for tarnishing their reputation or beating the crap out of them, but after that immediate thirst was quenched, you still couldn’t take away all the mean things they said about you, the things that sometimes still haunt your mind when you’re feel less self-assured.
And there’s still the question of whether or not the convicted person is actually guilty of the crime. I think we have possibly executed people in the past who were truly innocent of the crime of which they were convicted. I hope that in our modern society this becomes less of a possibility in the advent of technology that allows us to find DNA evidence. However, even DNA evidence isn’t necessarily fool-proof (actual criminals may be more careful of leaving evidence behind while someone who is innocent may inadvertently contaminate a crime scene).
To advance ourselves as a race, we need to step away from our savage instincts. We need to behave like civilized people and treat our even our citizens–even those convicted of a crime–with more compassion. We will never reach our fullest potential as a race if we can’t act better than our animal instincts.