Saturday, January 28, 2012

A thinking exercise on "capital punishment".

"Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life."
Senator Orrin Hatch, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, 2000

"Capital punishment" is how we refer to government-funded executions. We don't call them "executions" anymore because the term, tainted by images of guillotines and firing squads, evokes histories unassociated with justice. Why not call a spade a spade so that we don't lose sight of what occurs when an prisoner is killed? Capital punishment is killing that we fund. 

Let's think about this in terms of economic trade-offs. Government funding is a scarce good- choosing to fund one activity often occurs at the expense of another. What does killing prisoners cost us? The average death penalty application costs our government $2.1 million dollars- and that is for one prisoner. How else might this money be spent? What is the opportunity cost?  Build a school or kill a prisoner?

Now let's consider this in terms of cultural norms. Of the 38 death penalty states, thirteen, including Texas and Virginia, allow executions of mentally retarded (or mentally challenged) people. Since our society believes that the mentally challenged do not learn as easily as the rest of us, we have special classes and programs for them in our schools. Our cultural norms maintain that the mentally challenged need special assistance to get through life, yet no special consideration when it comes to death. How do we justify this? How do we explain to our children that a person who is mentally challenged can be killed for it?

Now let's consider the facts more broadly- in the context of our communities and daily lives. How does killing prisoners complement our faith, ethics, or personal beliefs?
  • The five methods of killing used in one state or another currently include gassing, hanging, drugging, shooting, and electrocuting.
  • The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act makes it more difficult for prisoners to obtain federal review of claims that their constitutional rights have been violated. 
  • In 1994, Congress expanded the number of crimes eligible for killing prisoners to more than forty. 
Since 1976, the South has had 80% of the nation's executions and the highest murder rate of any US region. What is the relationship between these figures? Is killing convicted prisoners really deterring crime? If not, then what is the true reason for public support?

Who are these people that we try to kill? Meet Shabaka WaQlimi, a survivor of death row. Shabaka WaQlimi (Joseph Green Brown) came within thirteen hours of being killed in an electric chair in Florida when a new trial was ordered in his case in October 1983. You can read the rest of his story here. And you can learn more about others like him at the Witness to Innocence website

Take a few moments to think about killing- what it accomplishes, what it means, and what it demeans. Does killing prisoners reflect the sanctity of human life, to borrow Senator Hatch's phrase? Or does it reflect something else entirely? 

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