A practice increasingly under scrutinyBy Frank G. Kirkpatrick '64
Ellsworth Morton Tracy Lecturer and
Professor of Religion and dean of the
In America today support for capital punishment has become both a litmus test for political candidates and a practice that is increasingly under scrutiny even by persons who support it in principle.
If the issue were simply one of the effectiveness and fairness of capital punishment, the debate could be easily settled. Empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows that it does not work as a deterrent. Homicide rates in states with the death penalty are higher than in those without it. It is also manifestly unfair: African American men (over 95 percent of whom were too poor to hire their own lawyers) were almost four times as likely to receive the death penalty than nonminorities. Eighty percent of people sentenced to death were convicted of killing whites even though minorities make up more than half of all homicide victims. It is also increasingly clear that people have been sentenced to death without adequate defense or a chance to have exculpatory evidence presented during the increasingly restricted appeals process.
But statistical analyses of the effects of capital punishment do not, despite their strong condemnation of it on grounds of fairness and effectiveness, get to the heart of the matter for those who support it. At the root of our current discourse about the execution of persons are the very real emotions that capital crimes evoke in people who were the closest to the victim or who regard the victim--a police officer, for example--as symbolic of important social values such as law and order.
Until those of us who are opposed to capital punishment come to grips with the visceral emotions of rage, anger, and the passionate desire for revenge, we cannot make much headway with the supporters of capital punishment.
When a loved one is killed, or someone is murdered in a particularly brutal way, people have a natural desire rooted in the deepest of human instincts to seek revenge or retribution. In the absence of social restraints, these instincts would lead some emotionally aggrieved persons to carry out acts of vigilante retaliation and revenge on their own.
But the mark of a civilized society is that it provides a structured, just, and orderly way for violations of law to be handled and not overwhelmed by passion. It does not permit the emotionally distraught, no matter how authentic their feelings, to be judge, jury, and executioners of revenge.
Why? Because, among other things, the emotional power of the desire for revenge is so strong that in most cases it would distort the would-be avenger's ability to assess fairly the guilt or innocence of the alleged perpetrator. It would privilege raw undisciplined power over deliberative justice, and, above all, it would exacerbate the emotional, psychological trauma that survivors of a heinous crime have to face by perpetuating the cycle of violence driven by a rage comparable to that which drove the murderer to his or her destructive acts.
Killing in a rage or out of a frenzied demand for retribution rarely brings peace of mind to the vigilante. Rage and revenge do not constitute mental health for the persons who feel them. Remarkably, despite the frenzied calls to "fry the s.o.b." that one hears from people gathered outside prisons the night of an execution, there are many people who have had loved ones killed who ultimately find peace only after they have let go of their feelings of hatred toward the killer. Until they could reach reconciliation with--even forgiveness of--the perpetrator of such a terrible act, they remained victims of their own hate, imprisoned by feelings that were eating them up from the inside.
Fortunately, because they were not given the possibility of enacting immediate revenge, they had the opportunity, after owning their rage and anger, to stand back from the immediacy of those feelings and to begin to see the murderer as a fellow human being capable of change and redemption. They were forced to temper their initial feelings because the deliberative processes of justice demanded time to take into account a whole variety of factors, not just the emotional satisfaction of the would-be avenger. These factors include the fairness of the application of capital punishment and its effects on society, as well as on the persons who must carry out the fatal act of retribution. In addition, if there is due respect (religiously based or not) for the integrity even of the criminal as a human being, then the possibility of his or her redemption and change of heart must never be ruled out, as demonstrated in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed despite her 'born again' repentance and subsequent exemplary behavior in prison.
The periods of reflection the judicial system forces on all those involved in a judicially sanctioned murder can bring about a reduction in the immediacy of feeling. As such they can bring to bear forces of reason, fairness, and justice in ways that temper acts that would otherwise be ones of murderous revenge based on instinctual rage.
Therefore, when the state acts in its own right as an avenger it cannot claim the justification of emotional rage. Its acts are designed to be more measured and reflective, taking into account their effectiveness and the higher principles of justice.
When these are duly considered in and through the deliberative processes of justice, the empirical evidence as enumerated above undercuts any serious claim to the fairness and effectiveness of capital punishment. In addition, the state cannot claim that killing a criminal is the last resort available to it, since indefinite incarceration is always an option. Nor can it claim that it is simply exercising the justice of an eye-for-an-eye because as Gandhi once said, if we live by that principle soon the whole world will be blind. The justification for state execution therefore remains only that it serves as a surrogate for the rage of some of its members. That justification is not worthy of a humane society.
Frank G. Kirkpatrick '64 is the Ellsworth Morton Tracy Lecturer and Professor of Religion and dean of the First-Year Program. He joined the faculty in 1969.
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