Capital Case

Deconstructing the reasoning behind public executions

Discomfort Zone

by Steve Dupree

Phillip Workman is dead. I don't feel any safer. I had no blood lust to sate. I really don't feel avenged. Mostly, I feel that it is time to revisit a mental argument I have had with myself over the years. Just how do I feel about capital punishment? I'm glad I asked, thank me.

It is my considered opinion that capital punishment is horribly misnamed. As usual, if any significant understanding of a thing is to be, then a good start is to call that thing what it really is and, of course, clearly identify what it isn't. One may only then form a coherent opinion of the thing. What killing a proven, admitted or, alleged criminal does, is reduce the chance of, and opportunity for, recidivism to zero. Essentially it insures that no other citizen will ever suffer from fresh crimes committed by that specific individual. The death of a criminal is a societal insurance policy against further acts of mayhem committed by the deceased. No bureaucratic screw-up will release the recipient of state-sponsored death on an unsuspecting public. No 200-mph tornado or 8.6 earthquake can destroy the walls that contain the dead. It is an unbreakable insurance policy indemnifying the public against actions by that one person.

And just what is capital punishment not? Well, for starters, it is not justice. We as a society refuse to subject the convicted violent criminal to the type of pain and terror that they likely induced in their victims. A person being put to death by the state has a much better chance of a quiet, relatively painless demise than those souls who meet their maker as a result of someone else's criminal behavior.

Indeed, if we were to try to make it just, Ted Bundy and his ilk would still be in the hands of state-supported torture agents, being tortured to near death and then brought back enough to feel and survive the next round of torture. The families he destroyed will never recover, so any real justice would have him suffering as long as anyone still suffers as a result of his actions. But we haven't the stomach for that sort of thing so, we eschew justice for the quick death.

Capital punishment is not a deterrent to future criminal behavior for anyone but the recipient. In times and places that employed publicly administered torturous death, such as the old Roman standby of crucifixion, wherein death was dragged out over the course of several incredibly agonizing days, criminals still committed crimes. I'm no psychologist, but it appears to me that those who are predisposed to criminal behavior are also incapable of mentally connecting their own, or other criminals', actions to the final result. Perhaps they really believe that they are smarter than all previous criminals, or maybe death is what they seek. It matters not for this discussion. What matters is the actuality that imposing a sentence of death, and carrying it out, stops one criminal and one criminal only.

Capital punishment is not an equal opportunity sentence. Minorities appear much more likely to receive such treatment (which seems to mirror the administration of incarceration). Those of lower apparent intellect, persons from impoverished backgrounds, and victims of childhood abuse all seem to over-represented on Death Row.

So, I've established what it is and what it is not to my satisfaction. What is, then, my opinion of it? The easy way out is to say that we are simply allowing that final arbiter of justice the chance to administer it a bit more quickly. But that really doesn't work for me for reasons I will not explore in this space. As a matter of fact, I think I will skip giving you my opinion in favor of requesting that you think about something.

What if we had state and national executioner lotteries? Whenever someone was to be put to death, all voting-age citizens would be eligible to be chosen at random to be the executioner. We could apply the old three-strikes rule and say that if three consecutive citizens were unable or unwilling to execute the individual, then the sentence was automatically converted to life imprisonment. Whether you reviewed the case and decided there was reasonable doubt, or you decided to be the oddball who actually follows the dictates of our primary religious icon and refuses to kill, or if you were simply unable to look a person in the eyes as you terminated his or her existence would not matter, and indeed you would not even be required to tell anyone why you declined your role as executioner. All that would matter would be whether or not one of the three could/would do it.

In the abstract, it is pretty easy to laugh and say, â“That uncivil bastard is history if I'm the one at the switch.â” It also doesn't mean anything. Unless and until that situation comes up, your answer is meaningless, so just think about it. Look at 10 different capital cases and picture yourself as the potential executioner. Would capital punishment die a quiet death at your hands? If you couldn't or wouldn't do it, it is the height of immorality to ask someone to do it in your stead. If the blood was to be clearly and directly on your hands, would you? Could you?

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