June 19, 2010

The Only Point of Capital Punishment Is Rage and Revenge.

A Morally and Financially Expensive Form of Revenge.

Seconds before the impact of the bullets, Gardner’s left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist. His arm pulled up slowly as if he were lifting something and then released. The motion repeated.

Although the dark blue prison jumpsuit made it difficult to see, blood seemed to be pooling around Gardner’s waist.

The silence was deafening.

Death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted in 1985 of two murders (the second murder occurred in the courtroom where he was being tried for the first one—his girlfriend had slipped him a gun and he tried to shoot his way to freedom), was executed shortly after midnight this morning in Utah. Five shooters fired four bullets at a target taped over his heart. He was strapped into the device pictured above.

Utah had outlawed the firing squad in 2004, opting for lethal injection as have most of the other 38 states who still execute people. Gardner was given the option of choosing the firing squad because he was convicted before the law was changed.

But should he have been executed? Should anyone be executed? Let’s tackle these questions in order.

In Gardner’s case, there is some question of his mental competence, which the Supreme Court has ruled must be taken into consideration. In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), “The Supreme Court prohibited the execution of the mentally insane and required an adversarial process for determining mental competency” (ACLU). According to the LA Times article on the execution:

Gardner’s current attorneys argued that his trial lawyers did not present mitigating evidence of his troubling upbringing that could have spared his life. Gardner was physically and sexually abused and learned to sniff glue and paint by age 6. At age 11, he had already spent one year in a state mental hospital, attorney Andrew Parnes said.

Any child who is sniffing glue and paint as a 6-year-old undoubtedly has brain damage. Research as shown extensive brain damage as a result of chronic inhalant use (known as “huffing”), the nature of which is explained in this passage from the Narconon web page:

Chronic inhalant abuse has long been linked to widespread brain damage and cognitive abnormalities that can range from mild impairment to severe dementia. Now a NIDA-funded study that compared brain damage and intellectual functioning among long-term inhalers of volatile solvents and cocaine abusers has found substantial brain abnormalities and cognitive impairment among both groups. However, considerably more inhalant abusers than cocaine abusers had brain abnormalities, their brain damage was more extensive, and they did significantly worse than cocaine abusers on tests of working memory and the ability to focus attention, plan, and solve problems.

This is what an inhalant user’s brain looks like:

MRI Scan of 25-year-old Chronic Solvent Abuser. The scan shows diffuse, severe changes in cerebral white matter (center), which normally appears black on MRI. The fuzzy outline of the white matter suggests abnormal water retention.

The brain damage caused by chronic use “limits their ability to control their behavior and perceive problems associated with their substance abuse,” says Dr. Neil Rosenberg of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

If is true that Gardner used inhalants at that age, there is considerable doubt that he would be considered legally sane if examined by psychologists. He might know right from wrong, but the damage to his brain severely limited or prevented his ability to control violent impulses. He must be held accountable for his crimes, and no amount of therapy was going to fix the damage to his brain, so life in prison is the only fair option.

And this brings me to the second point – Is capital punishments ever a valid option?

My guess is that most Elephant readers oppose capital punishment, so I am likely preaching to the choir. I oppose capital punishment in every situation, no exceptions. If some of you are in favor, I would love to hear your reasons in the comments section.

The only legitimate argument for capital punishment has been that it is a deterrent. Except that it’s not. Study after study has shown no deterrent impact for the death penalty. In fact, the region of the country with the most executions (the South) also has the highest murder rates. From the ACLU page on capital punishment:

Since 1977 over 80 percent of all executions have occurred in the South, the region with the highest murder rate. The Northeast, the region with the lowest murder rate, has accounted for less than 1 percent of the executions. Although the issue of deterrence has been studied extensively, there is no credible evidence that capital punishment deters murder or makes us any safer.

And this comes from the About.com page on the pros/cons of capital punishment:

Social scientists have mined empirical data searching for the definitive answer on deterrence since the early 20th century. And “most deterrence research has found that the death penalty has virtually the same effect as long imprisonment on homicide rates.” Studies suggesting otherwise (notably writings of Isaac Ehrlich from the 1970s) have been, in general, criticized for methodological errors. Ehrlich’s work was also criticized by the National Academy of Sciences – but it is still cited as a rationale for deterrence.

The New York Times (2000) offered the following statistics:

10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows, while half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average. In a state-by- state analysis, The Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty.

Not only is it not a deterrent, but it actually costs more to execute someone than to put them in prison for life. This is from the AP, via MSNBC:

[T]he death penalty may be abandoned by several states for a reason having nothing to do with right or wrong:  Money.

Turns out, it is cheaper to imprison killers for life than to execute them, according to a series of recent surveys. Tens of millions of dollars cheaper, politicians are learning, during a tumbling recession when nearly every state faces job cuts and massive deficits.

Many states that still have the death penalty are – as of 2009 – considering eliminating that option in an effort to save money (Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Washington and Kansas). Even a judge once known as “the hanging judge of Orange County” now opposes the death penalty:

“It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive,” though most Americans believe the opposite, said Donald McCartin, a former California jurist known as “The Hanging Judge of Orange County” for sending nine men to death row. Deep into retirement, he lost his faith in an eye for an eye and now speaks against it.

Let’s also keep in mind that it is racially and economically biased, and is subject to the local biases of the court, the prosecutors, and the juries – poor, black men are the most likely to be executed, and this is most true in the South.

The Death Penalty is Racially Biased and Punishes the Poor:
Most defendants are poor and are forced to depend on incompetent or token representation. Some lawyers have slept or appeared drunk during trials. Those who kill white people are far more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill black people.

The Death Penalty is Unfair:
The death penalty has never been applied fairly across race, class, and gender lines. Who is sentenced to die often depends on the attitudes of prosecutors, where one is tried, the prejudices of judges and juries, and the abilities and commitment of defense attorneys.

So why do we still execute people?

The only reasonable answer is revenge. Frank G. Kirkpatrick, who is the Ellsworth Morton Tracy Lecturer and Professor of Religion and dean of the First-Year Program at Trinity College, offered this observation:

The periods of reflection the judicial system forces on all those involved in a judicially sanctioned murder can bring about a reduction in the immediacy of feeling. As such they can bring to bear forces of reason, fairness, and justice in ways that temper acts that would otherwise be ones of murderous revenge based on instinctual rage.

Therefore, when the state acts in its own right as an avenger it cannot claim the justification of emotional rage. Its acts are designed to be more measured and reflective, taking into account their effectiveness and the higher principles of justice.

When these are duly considered in and through the deliberative processes of justice, the empirical evidence as enumerated above undercuts any serious claim to the fairness and effectiveness of capital punishment. In addition, the state cannot claim that killing a criminal is the last resort available to it, since indefinite incarceration is always an option. Nor can it claim that it is simply exercising the justice of an eye-for-an-eye because as Gandhi once said, if we live by that principle soon the whole world will be blind. The justification for state execution therefore remains only that it serves as a surrogate for the rage of some of its members. That justification is not worthy of a humane society.

I present this long quote because there is no way I could be more eloquent than professor Kirkpatrick is in this passage. When we institutionalize rage and revenge (which is essentially what we have done with capital punishment), even when those feelings might be honest and understandable, we have institutionalized what is least compassionate in us as human beings rather than what is best in us as human beings.

That is a sad statement on who we are as Americans.

When the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in the 1970s, in Gregg vs. Georgia (1976), it was upheld on the basis that 35 states already had the penalty on their books, despite an earlier case where the penalty was ruled to violate the 8th Amendment clause against “cruel and unusual punishment” (Furman vs. Georgia, 1972). The court argued at the time:

The fact that so many elected legislatures had passed capital punishment statutes, the court reasoned, demonstrated “society’s endorsement of the death penalty,” and thereby meant it fell within America’s “evolving standard of decency.” It added, however, that any execution must be carried out in a way that preserves the “dignity of man,” and accomplishes nothing more than the “mere extinguishment of life.”

Currently, about 66% of Americans (Gallup, 2004) still support the death penalty. That puts America in the same company with several other nations well-known for their compassion: North Korea, Sudan, Kuwait, China, Somalia, Pakistan, Iran, and several former Soviet Republics, among other nations.

Oh wait, those nations are known for their brutality, not their compassion.

This is one of those days when I am saddened to be an American.

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