Upon the birth of a new year let’s talk about death, shall we? The death penalty, to be precise.
The topic loomed over a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina last week where the self-proclaimed white supremacist, Dylann Roof, undertook a fool’s errand.
After a jury quickly found him guilty of the cold-blooded murders of 9 black parishioners with whom he had just prayed, Roof declared he would act as his own attorney during the sentencing phase of his trial. Roof faces the death penalty and Judge Richard Gergel repeatedly reminded the 22-year old defendant that it was “a bad decision” to represent himself. Roof did it anyway.
I have written in this space in the past that I am morally opposed to capital punishment – until I’m not. My flipflops come with cases that are so heinous that I’m forced to seriously consider whether death is the proper punishment.
The same with Reverend Joseph Darby, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church where the Roof crimes took place. The Rev. has never supported the death penalty but now realizes that when extreme evil appears – Roof confessed to police that he wanted to start an American “race war” – extreme measures must be taken.
Like many of us, Darby seems conflicted. He indicates he wants the ultimate punishment for the man who so callously murdered his church members but he knows jurors may also waffle on the issue. So what if jurors don’t unanimously agree on death?
“That could very well be the end of the death penalty in America,” Rev. Darby said, “because if there was ever justification for killing anybody, this is the case.”
We’ve heard that before haven’t we? “If ever there was a case for capital punishment it is the case of _____” fill in the blank. A crazed gunman or terrorist who massacres innocent people (think the Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh), a pervert who sexually abuses then murders a child, a mother who kills her own children so she can be with a new man – all cases that seem to scream out for in-kind retribution. But wait. You’re either for the death penalty or you’re not, right?
Seems the good Reverend and I aren’t the only ones struggling with this moral dilemma. Major polling organizations report that citizen approval of the death penalty has been slowly eroding since the peak of support in the mid-90’s.
So, is the death penalty on its way out in the U.S.? Depends which poll you read. The Gallup Organization says no. In October 2015, Gallup found 61% of Americans still supported capital punishment for convicted murderers. A year later Gallup reported that number had slipped to 60%.
However, the Pew Research Center also conducted a poll in the fall of 2016 and found only 49% of Americans favor a death sentence for convicted murderers.
Recent revelations about racial disparity in sentencing and wrongful death row convictions may have changed some minds. According to DeathPenaltyInfo.org over the last four decades at least 156 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. What if those wrongfully convicted had been executed? Its chilling to ponder.
All this said, executions have become rare in the U.S.. The majority of states, 31 out of 50, have either done away with the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years. Still, last year, 20 convicted murderers were put to death in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Missouri and Florida. All were men, most were white but two were black and two were latinos.
So where does this leave us? If the Pew poll is correct it is like so many other issues in America. We seem to be almost evenly split on the question of capital punishment – 49% favor it, 42% don’t.
In my heart, I think there is an inherent contradiction to capital punishment. If killing is wrong, then why do states condone it via executions? Killing a killer seems hypocritical. Doing it for vengeance sake brings to mind the old saying, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
If society’s goal is to keep us safe from murderous criminals locking them in prison for life achieves that. It is a much cheaper alternative than housing a maximum-security death row inmate and footing the bill for their protracted appeals. A death row inmate can easily cost a state $1 million more than a convict who is sentenced to life.
And try as they might experts have not been able to find evidence that capital punishment deters future crimes. So, remind me again why we do it?