An Imperfect Commentary on the Death Penalty

This is an imperfect commentary from the last time the death penalty was a hot topic. I didn’t share it because I seem to have a minority voice.

The fact that DNA evidence has exonerated so many innocent prisoners should give incredible pause to those so assured that justice is both possible and being served when we collectively execute someone. Almost 3/4 of those wrongfully convicted had eyewitness testimony used in their convictions. Imagine being accused of a crime you didn’t commit, your fellow citizens testifying that they saw you in the course of the crime and that the State decides to put you to death. “Yes, it is a small price to pay for the greater good,” you might say, but only because it is not you or someone you know being wrongly accused. It’s true that these cases are rare compared to the volume of our criminal justice system. If you can imagine yourself being accused and facing the death penalty, though, it might introduce the reality of swallowing that sentence.

This argument isn’t even about the rights of the victims or whether most of those convicted of murder have indeed ‘earned’ their sentence; it’s about the undeniable hatefulness of using a system known to have sentenced people to die for crimes they didn’t commit. It is a specious argument to tell those who are against the death penalty that they should be thinking only of the victim, as any system which kills people without being completely sure of its methodology is suspect. I find it difficult to reconcile the clamor for death absent certainty; until we as fallible and negligent humans figure this out, we must proceed with caution.

As a human, I do understand fully the urge to repay monstrous acts with repayment in kind. It’s just difficult for me to translate that to granting the State the same right. The indifference with which the State addresses its business makes it incapable of those qualities which make us all better human beings. I admit my contradictions in this regard.

I can more easily imagine looking the other way while an outraged father kills the monster who has killed his child than I can watch as the State pretends that it hasn’t repeatedly acted wrongly in the past. It’s too high of a price to pay. If, on the other hand, you are certain that all those charged are truly guilty, then proceed with a clear conscience. I won’t judge, but I do look askance at our collective disregard for how disjointed and untenable much of our justice system really can be. This is doubly true especially after personally hearing the shenanigans of a jury in an actual murder trial. I have no expectation or delusion of fairness. There is no jury of our peers, no prosecutorial objectiveness, nor unilateral access to fairness for anyone caught up in the judicial system.

Yes, I do think of the victims and I often wonder how it is that there isn’t more violence in the world. I think to my own childhood and am perplexed that someone in my immediately family wasn’t killed. (Except for my father; his offense was driving while wildly intoxicated and killing my cousin.) I don’t look to religion to guide my beliefs in this regard, because forgiveness toward anyone who has harmed a loved one is a case-by-case scenario, with only those affected capable of offering it. It’s intensely private and personal. I would never sit in judgment for how they choose to react or for their support of a specific punishment.

An eye-for-an-eye conveys a certain satisfaction, of that there is little doubt. But we must be sure that the eye we are poking is the one which first gave offense. Even so, we must be compelled toward reluctance lest we give away a small sliver of our progress as humans.

I’m conflicted about the death penalty in ways I can’t accurately express, for reasons anyone who has ever suffered loss will understand. It is precisely because of that loss I would hope that those on the other side of the coin are guided by a higher cause.

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