Progressive Writers Bloc

The Death Penalty


By David Chandler

Since 1973 over 100 people have been exonerated and released from death rows around the country. The average time served by these innocent victims of the system was 9 years. The error rate is so high that in the year 2000 George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois declared a death penalty moratorium.

The number of white inmates on death row (45%) slightly exceeds the number of black inmates (42%), but these numbers are way out of proportion with the population. The issue is not who commits more crime. A study in Philadelphia showed that when black and white defendants were convicted of comparable crimes, black defendants were 38% more likely to receive the death penalty.

Even more telling than the race of the defendant is the race of the victim. A study in North Carolina showed that murders with white victims were 3.5 times more likely to result in the death penalty than murders with black victims. Black murderers of white victims are most likely, and white murderers of black victims are least likely, to receive the death penalty. 50% of murder victims are white, but 80% of those given the death penalty have white victims.

The geography of executions is telling. The densely populated Northeast (more people, more crime?) has the lowest murder rate nationally and has executed only 3 people since 1976. The Western states have executed 59, the Midwest 96, and the South 735. Texas and Virginia alone account for 406 of the South's total. The states in which a black man was most likely to be lynched in past decades are the states that execute the most black men today.

Hand in hand with racial discrimination is economic discrimination. In California in the 1980's, 42% of blue-collar workers convicted of first-degree murder received the death penalty, compared to only 5% of white-collar workers convicted of similar crimes. Most defendants in capital cases cannot afford to hire their own attorney. This is clearly tied to the high rate of error in convictions.

There are deeper reasons to reject the death penalty.

The death penalty is based on the concept of retribution: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life." Retribution is not about protecting society. That is accomplished once the criminal is imprisoned. Rather, it is a way of collectively venting our anger. When we have been wronged we have an urge to strike back and make the offender suffer. When someone is murdered we feel we owe it to the family of the victim to avenge the death of their loved one. But vengeance cannot reverse the original act or heal the pain. Instead it arouses and legitimizes our own murderous impulses. Vengeance does violence to the soul and perpetuates violence in society.

Retribution is Biblical, but so is its antithesis. When Jesus was asked whether a woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death in accordance with the Mosaic law, he responded simply, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone...." By his response he rejects the entire concept of retribution. All of us, both accusers and accused, are flawed human beings, so mercy, not retribution, is appropriate. Jesus changes the focus to restoration and healing.

Where our society parts ways with Jesus is in seeing murderers as monsters. He sees them instead, no matter how horrible their crimes, as prodigal children of a loving Father who awaits their return with open arms. The monster image alienates us from the person behind the crime. We see monsters as twisted, evil, and, most importantly, unlike ourselves. But criminals are in fact people like ourselves in whom God dwells. They may have grave weaknesses and failings, but they are the weaknesses and failings of humanity. If we deny our human bond with the criminal we implicitly deny our own capacity for evil and become guilty of hubris.

Most of the nations of the world have rejected the death penalty and see it as barbarous. They have come to realize that capital punishment does not serve the best interests of society. It is an irreversible penalty meted out by a fallible, sometimes capricious process that is not, and can never be, applied equitably and without error. It works more harshly against the poor, the dark skinned, and the damaged than against the sometimes greater evils of the rich and powerful. It denies the sacredness of human life, it precludes the opportunity for redemption, and it perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Murder is just the tip of the iceberg of a violent society. The narrow focus of capital punishment diverts our attention from the systemic evils that permeate our society at all levels. Rather than venting our anger on the few, let us work to melt the entire iceberg of violence.

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