The Death Penalty
By David Chandler
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
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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