By David Chorlton
I find my own position on
the death penalty unpalatable. The man who killed a worker at a fast
food restaurant for no discernible reason in Phoenix recently does not
deserve to live. Neither do the individuals who were out cruising the
city streets close to dawn some eighteen years back, and randomly picked
out a friend of mine as their victim. I have listened to the late news
when the Arizona executions took place, surrounded by darkness and felt
the nasty little glow of satisfaction on hearing that another murderer
got what was coming to him. Having moved to the landscape of cowboys
and Indians, some non-European sense of justice was clearly rubbing
off on me. But I know my instincts this time are wrong, and that I expect
the state to set an example that I can follow and make myself a better
person in the process.
Nobody should need a New
Age guru to explain that anger is a wasted emotion, or that it ultimately
leaves only the taste of futility to flavor the juices we salivate in
anticipation of another official killing. Anger may be natural, but
it should not be the foundation of public policy. The feelings of victims'
friends and relatives, likewise, should not be the sole force behind
our deciding how to deal with crime. The state can't get rid of a life
that has become a nuisance simply to slake the thirst of the bereaved
for retribution. If the punishment meted out seems pale in comparison
with the crime that provokes it, we prove ourselves to be collectively
more capable of restraint than the individual criminal was.
What makes this restraint
such a virtue, given the violent nature of so many crimes? I went to
local newspaper archives to see what executions were like when the West
was wilder than it is now. The first legal hanging in Phoenix occurred
in 1880. A certain Demetrio Dominguis, clad in checkered shirt, ate
his last meal of chicken, washed it down with wine, prayed, and shook
hands with those around him as he walked to the scaffold. He also insisted
to the last that the witness whose testimony brought him there was wrong.
Later, in 1933, Manuel and Federico Hernandez collaborated in murdering
Charles Washburn, an old prospector, near Casa Grande. The following
year, when their relatives left watermelon rinds on the ground in the
July heat after their farewell gathering. The Hernandez brothers then
climbed the iron steps to a pair of straight-backed chairs where they
sat with cotton gauze across their eyes. Fifteen pellets of poison gas
fell and the fumes did what they were designed to do. A vacuum and blowers
then cleared the air as a new technique was confirmed as being effective.
We have electrocuted, gassed, and injected the guilty and the innocent
alike since then, but no blower can make the questioning of the death
Elsewhere, in my own family,
I have found reason to study a murder conviction in detail. One of my
Austrian cousins was convicted of a rape and murder in 1965 in a trial
that was so slanted against him that he never stood a chance. So powerful
was the state's presence and ability to select which witnesses and evidence
made it into court that he was found guilty even though his blood group
did not match that of the actual murderer. Austria does not practice
executions, so he served a prison term and was subsequently released
to continue a life in ruins. What I learned from my examination of his
case is that a person innocent of a serious crime faces insurmountable
odds if he was guilty of a lesser one that tarnished his character to
such a degree that a jury identifies the accused as being evil and resolves
to punish it in the most severe manner allowed. A report in Britain
found similar incidences of those on the social fringe being sacrificed
to satisfy the public need for retribution. Pick your country. Justice
is often blind to facts that would bring the truth to light. The least
we can do in response to such cases is to accept that death is forever
and later evidence may show the mistakes behind a guilty verdict.
Even when the man or woman
eating a last meal is guilty, the apparent enjoyment displayed on execution
days by some who would turn them into parties has done as much as anything
to make me realize just how wrong my support for the death penalty has
been. The build-up to Timothy McVeigh's final day on Earth is a disturbing
performance. However evil his actions, we cannot eradicate that evil
with McVeigh's physical presence. It is enough to know that he, or any
other dangerous individual, would not return to the society he has spurned.
As punishment goes, I imagine a prolonged stay in the prison system
to be as demoralizing and harsh as putting a premature end to a life.
Each execution is a studied
and deliberate act. It depends on the dispassionate involvement of workers
simply doing their job up to the very final measuring of expiring breath.
It is a duty carried out in the name of all of us, and it depends on
finding executioners who can function with a coldness matched only by
the spontaneous heat of the crime being punished. I argue that this
peculiar ceremony does not cast a good light on the country that supports
it. If we cannot improve the criminal, we can at least improve ourselves
by stopping short of the ultimate and irrevocable sentence. For every
Timothy McVeigh who wakes up knowing he will not see the sun rise again,
there is someone like my cousin who suffered for another man's action.
With all its complex language, the law still cannot discriminate between
them once it has reached a verdict. It behooves the state to calm passions
not to enable the death chamber's employees to do their job, but to
instill into all of us the restraint that will give the innocent the
chance to retrieve some years of life should evidence justify it.
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