An interesting article found its way onto my reading list this week. It was titled, “Kill the Death Penalty” by Sunhil Dutta, [The Nation, Feb. 9, 2007] who just happens to be a Los Angeles policeman. Dutta wastes no time in identifying his stance on capital punishment – he’s dead set against it, calling it “a vestige of medievalism.” Yet it comes as no surprise that most of his fellow law enforcement officers nationwide take a countervailing position, since they too see death by violence close up and personal on a daily basis.

Dutta goes through a litany of unspeakable homicides that he has dealt with: gang violence, murders committed by the worst of psychopaths, murders of children and the old and infirm. He also has beheld the aftermath of murder that quickly descends on the victim’s family. For some families, it generates feelings of revenge and vindication; for others it begets feelings of hopelessness and psychic wounds that never heal.

Having said all this, including the fact that members of his own family have been homicide victims, Dutta announces that he still “firmly opposes the death penalty.” Google the terms “death penalty” and “capital punishment,” and you will happen upon thousands of hits on the Internet. You will also learn that two-thirds of Americans (68%) support the death penalty for people convicted of murder (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press).

The pros and cons of capital punishment have been enumerated so many times, that to recite them here would pose a very real risk of the reader’s eyes glazing over. The strongest arguments against the death penalty (with the exception of religious beliefs, for which there is no rebuttal) are the whimsy of the criminal justice system, and the prospect that rehabilitation is somehow possible for inmates of death row.

Those who favor the death penalty have two preferred points of view: the straightforward position that one who takes a life must lose his; and the avowal that some murders are so horrific, so bestial, so unspeakable, that upon conviction, the death of the perpetrator is the only reasonable outcome.

As mentioned earlier, murder has an enduring and chilling effect on the victim’s family. Some behavioral scientists have said that a murderer establishes a kind of supremacy over the family – a dominance brought about by the unwanted violence visited upon the victim’s next of kin. If the murderer is eventually allowed to go free – or if that possibility exists even remotely – the derivative harm and suffering will continue.

Yes, down through the centuries innocent people have been executed. But many more have received the death penalty after a fair trial by their peers for a litany of crimes that make the skin crawl. And for those who argue that no one has the right to take a person’s life under any circumstance, where would we be today had we not lifted a finger to challenge Nazi totalitarianism or Japanese imperialism? Using deadly force against a member of a foreign country’s army or a neighborhood street thug is fully comparable. Only the locale is different.

Dutta could have asserted his point had he stopped short of the following slur: “Our criminal justice system has corrupt prosecutors, lying crime-lab analysts, and crooked cops and judges who have railroaded innocent people onto death row.” Here, we are confronted with the old, rickety argument that if mistakes are made, and a single innocent defendant stands to be executed as a result, it would be far better to fling open the prison doors to all accused of homicide rather than carry out one dubious conviction.

The widespread and increasing use of DNA – using genetic information to resolve issues ranging from paternity tests to identifying a victim’s slayer - is making errors in criminal convictions more and more improbable. In one of the most unlikely instances of mistaken identification, the remains of The Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, were identified through the use of DNA. The remains of Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Blassie were then removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns and reburied in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.

In many instances of improperly carried out executions, the argument has not been that the accused was innocent, but that some quiddity of the law occurred during the trial process. The issue of race is also being defused. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, more than half of those under sentence of death have been white.

So no matter what the challenges to the death penalty – an imperfect criminal justice system, the possibility of rehabilitation, corrupt judges and policemen, or racism – these are not in themselves compelling enough to invalidate capital punishment altogether. Capital punishment is the redemption of a contract society owes to all human beings: to protect them and to guard posthumously their dignity, by taking the life of those who took their lives.

– Chase.Hamil



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