The Death Penalty: Thoughts on Institutionalized Revenge

It is difficult to engage in the national debate about capital punishment with any degree of emotional detachment. The issue involves very primal human drives and anxieties, and highlights different beliefs among Americans about the purpose of our legal system.

One of the most emotionally charged issues surrounding the death penalty debate is the concept of revenge taken by the state on behalf of the victim. Another is the difficulty of establishing absolute certainty of a defendant’s guilt within the existing legal system. Considered in the light of both of these factors, the death penalty is shown to be an outmoded and morally objectionable relic of our country’s past, and ill-suited to the society we inhabit today.

Because the United States of America makes some claim to separation of church and state, such Biblical exhortations as “Thou shalt not kill” and “An eye for an eye” ought both to be disregarded as justifications for federal or state actions. What is left is a two-fold concept: revenge for the victim, from beyond the grave, and the supposed healing that this retaliation brings to the grieving survivors.

In the final lines of his essay “Death and Justice”, former New York mayor Edward Koch writes that “When âÂ?¦ neighbors shrink back from justly punishing the murderer, the victim dies twice” (243). This can be interpreted in two ways; as a literal statement of the dead victim’s desire for revenge and shame if it is not carried out, or as a metaphor for the bereaved family’s grief. The first of these is absurd- in our secular society, the dead may have a majority but they don’t have much lobbying power. Laws are, on the whole, for the living. If the latter is meant, it is still a gross oversimplification and what at least some survivors of homicide victims consider to be an insulting and demeaning assumption about their own values.

Renny Cushing, in his essay “Amazing Grace: Reflections on Justice, Survival, and Healing”, tells his story as one such survivor. Far from healing him or giving him closure, it upset Cushing deeply when, in the wake of his father’s murder, those who knew him best assumed that his stance on the death penalty had changed. Cushing speaks eloquently of healing as a process, not something facilitated by any single event, and goes on to mention a few ways in which the healing of the victim’s family is slowed by the execution and appeals process, among them the media circus which customarily surrounds executions, and the focus on the offender rather than the victim’s memory. Cushing identifies both of these elements as “demeaning to life, to our own lives and to the life of the victim” (286).

Cushing speaks of the process of forgiveness, even the attempt thereat, as infinitely more healing than a single act of revenge. “Life is not a zero-sum game” he says, “My pain does not get eased by inflicting pain on another” (287).

Cushing’s views on the death penalty are one man’s opinion, though they highlight the dangers of speaking or attempting to legislate in the name of an entire, heterogenous group of people. Something that is not so subjective, however, provides an even more serious argument against the death penalty. In his essay, Koch dismisses a major concern of death-penalty opponents rather offhandedly. In response to the objection that an innocent person might be executed by mistake, he argues that the abstract possibility is not enough reason to abolish capital punishment. “If government functioned only when the possibility of error didn’t exist, government wouldn’t function at all”, writes Koch (240). This may be true, but it is all the more reason not to give government the power of life and death. A mistaken jail sentence may be overturned, though the time lost by the wrongly imprisoned will never be recovered, but as Cushing points out, “The death penalty is final” (287).

It should also be noted that since the writing of Koch’s essay, there have been several cases of death row inmates exonerated by evidence found by people outside the legal system, and there is evidence that many other prisoners have been executed despite inadequate evidence that amounts at least to reasonable doubt (Armbrust 165).

Koch also uses several anecdotal accounts of criminals released after long imprisonment, only to kill again, to foster the impression that only the death penalty can keep dangerous criminals off the streets. The dangers of recidivism are real ones, but shouldn’t a system in which dangerous criminals occasionally go free on technicalities alert us to the possibility that the reverse is also happening? Don’t flaws in the legal system imply that time and resources need to be devoted to ensuring due process for all cases, not that we should allow this imperfect system to make irrevocable decisions?

The death penalty does not bring victims back to life. It does not heal the wounds that their loss inflicts on society, nor on their families, and in many cases it makes that burden harder to bear. That alone is reason enough to object to what amounts to state-sanctioned revenge killing. And a nod to due process from an already overloaded and often indifferent system administered by ambitious, corruptible, imperfect humans does not suffice to ensure that innocent lives will not be added to the death toll.

Works Cited:

Armbrust, Shawn. “Chance and the Exoneration of Anthony Porter”.
Dow and Dow 155-66.

Cushing, Renny. “Amazing Grace: Reflections on Justice, Survival and Healing”.
Dow and Dow 283-7.

Dow, David R., and Dow, Mark, eds. Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Koch, Edward I. “Death and Justice”. New Republic 15 April 1985: 12.
Rpt. inEssay 33. Ed. Anna Tomasino. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall, 2002. 238-43.

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