Killing Me Softly
Let's get this straight right up front: I believe in the death penalty.
Much of the time. Mostly. But lately, circumstances have conspired to make me modify my views.
I don't like the death penalty because it's a deterrent, or because I think "society" (whatever that may be) has any need or right to exact revenge on people who transgress its "laws" (whatever those may be). I like the death penalty because I value my own life, and those of my family and friends. Killing people who have displayed a tendency — particularly a repeated tendency — to exorbitant violence makes an exquisitely permanent way of making sure they never, ever do it again.
I say that even in cases where the violence is from basic stupidity. Okay, a guy gets loaded out of his mind on PCP or cocaine or who-knows-what else, grabs a baseball bat, and proceeds to go out and club to death some person who pissed him off. (I was once called for jury duty in a case with circumstances something like those.) I don't call his inebriation an excuse or an extenuating circumstance. Rather, I think it's a good reason to take him off the streets permanently: he showed me he can't handle his stimulants. What happens the next time someone pisses him off? I'd rather not find out. Dying has a remarkably calming effect on one's violent tendencies, and I'd prefer to calm that guy down before he meets my sister.
No, mister, I don't value your life any more than you valued someone else's. Not even when I'm sober and you weren't. And no, I don't particularly fancy paying nearly sixty thousand bucks a year to keep you as slave labor in the state's tender loving care. Just so we're clear on that, I think the money would be better spent finding a cure for breast cancer.
I might even make a lovely little spectacle out of it, selling tickets to the arena in which he was chained up while the victim's family proceeded to do to him as they saw fit. Heck, the TV broadcast rights alone should more than pay for the trial.
But we don't have that kind of a system. Rather, we stick the perpetrator in prison and hold him there for donkey's years while automatic appeals wend their way up the hierarchy, and last-minute appeals for clemency are made. Prisoners will sometimes stay on death row for more than twenty years. The average stay is something like twelve years.
That long stay causes me to wonder, who exactly are we killing? Is this person with the needle in his arm, these twelve years later, the same guy as the one who wielded the bat?
People change. Some guys who were locked up for gang killings have gone on to found prison ministries. And even if they haven't found Jesus, simply taking them off the street for that long a time will bore them so badly that they may well educate themselves just to have something to do. And even failing that, they're likely to have become so worn down by time that the unmanageable anger has gone to live somewhere else.
Is that person, today's person, still someone who deserves to die? I'm not so sure. Some of them are, unequivocally. The true nut cases, the serial murderers or the rapists who cut their victims' hands off or keep children locked in their vans as sex toys for nearly a year, need to go discuss their issues with a higher Authority. But what about this person, the one who used to drink himself stupid but is now a librarian?
So, the point I'm coming around to in my thinking is this: when you have a man down on the ground and there's absolutely no question of his guilt, one or two suitably placed bullets makes a fine behavioral modification method. Twelve or twenty years after the fact, the situation is not nearly so clear.