Protester in wheelchair carries anti-death penalty sign

The following first appeared in America, November 20, 1982. It was thoroughly revised and updated in 2001; additional revisions were made in 2004. Copyright © 1982, 2001 & 2004 by Mary Meehan.

A Dozen Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty

Mary Meehan

Many people think of opposition to the death penalty as a strictly liberal cause. Yet some of the best arguments against it are conservative, and many transcend ideology. People can oppose the death penalty without being "soft on crime" or naive about criminals. They can support an alternative punishment that answers the cry for justice, which is not necessarily the same as a cry for vengeance.

Much support for the death penalty is based on genuine fear. Alarmed by light sentences for murder, many people believe that capital punishment is the only way to ensure that murderers will not be out on the streets again to claim more victims. Yet the death penalty gives people a false sense of security. Thirty-eight of the 50 states now have it. But of those convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter in state courts in 2002, only two percent were sentenced to death, and only 24 percent were sentenced to life in prison. Five percent received probation. Those who received prison sentences (other than life) were expected to serve an average of roughly 12 years in prison.(1) If citizens realized this, they might conclude that the death-penalty debate is almost irrelevant. They might send a strong message to politicians and judges that they want murderers kept in prison for life. This message is long overdue.

The punishment for premeditated (first-degree) murder should be life in prison without possibility of parole. Murderers should do productive work in prison in order to pay for their room and board and to make financial restitution to the families of their victims. We should return to the notion of "life at hard labor." It should not involve the cruelty of meaningless work--breaking big rocks into little rocks--but productive labor and an effort to make amends. Such an effort can restore to a family at least some of the financial support it lost when a parent was murdered. In the case of a murdered child, it might enable the family to establish a scholarship fund or other memorial so the child will not be forgotten.

Executive clemency would still be available for exceptional cases, including very elderly convicts who are no longer a danger to society. But the governor would have to take political responsibility for each clemency decision. This would be different from the situation today, when unknown and unelected judges and parole boards sometimes give light sentences for murder.

We should also have longer prison sentences for second-degree murder and manslaughter, including "crimes of passion." A light sentence almost suggests contempt for the victim. It is as though the murderer forgot to pay his hunting license fee and is allowed to pay it after the fact. Some say that people involved in crimes of passion are unlikely to kill again. Yet if they become jealous in another romance or marriage, what will discourage them from killing again? A minor penalty is an invitation to repeat the crime.

A Dozen Reasons

No one need agree with all of these reasons in order to oppose the death penalty. One good reason is enough.

Bumper sticker for fast and vigil against the death penalty

1. The death penalty expresses the absolute power of the state; abolition of this penalty is a much-needed limit on governmental power. "Forbidding a man's execution," Albert Camus wrote, "would amount to proclaiming publicly that society and the state are not absolute values..."(2) This statement is much needed today. Governments have far too much power over the citizens they are supposed to serve, and this has been true through much of history. When we look at their records and see them so often marked by deception, cruelty and greed, we must ask: Why should they be able to take human life? What gives them the right?

Both conservatives and liberals have good reasons to be skeptical about the power of government. It is not just the general history of governments that should worry us, but also their particular history in the judicial area. There have been many, many cases of police brutality with suspects, perjury, and conviction of the innocent. There are questions of basic competence, too. Some officials seem incapable of securing evidence or arranging a court schedule. Do we really want them to decide matters of life and death?

People are so used to hearing "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" that they seldom ask themselves why we don't apply this legal theory across the board. We could provide that someone convicted of assault be beaten up, that a rapist be raped, and that a torturer be tortured. Yet we could not inflict such punishments on them without committing the same crimes ourselves. If such acts are evil in themselves, they do not become good because they are done by authority of government.

Although committed to other limits on governmental power, the framers of our Constitution did not forbid use of the death penalty. Both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments assume its existence, saying that it may be imposed only with "due process of law." Yet the Constitution does not mandate its imposition. Congress is free to abolish it at the federal level, and the states at their level. By doing so, they can, as Camus said, proclaim "that society and the state are not absolute values."

2. An execution sometimes amounts to state-assisted suicide. The incidence of depression and other mental illness is probably higher among criminals than many people realize. Some people commit serious crimes with the hope, conscious or subconscious, that they will be shot by the police or executed. In 1992 a Maryland man who was robbing a video store even told his victim to dial 911 and report the crime. A police officer responded to the call and wounded the man, who had a shotgun. As he was arrested and wheeled away by paramedics, the robber expressed disappointment that he had not been killed.(3)

Russel W. Burket, executed by Virginia in 2000, had made several suicide attempts before committing two murders in 1993. After his conviction, the Washington Times reported, Burket "seemed almost anxious to be executed, even demanding his appeals to be dropped and telling a newspaper reporter two years ago he wished they would hurry up the process and have the execution." Being executed, Burket's lawyer said, was his client's "way of ending a life he hasn't wanted." He said that Burket was "having the state do what he's always tried to do."(4)

"I choose death," Thomas Baal said at a 1990 court hearing, explaining his decision to waive appeal rights shortly before his execution in Nevada. "I've had extreme problems in the joint. I've tried suicide..." Baal had a history of severe mental disturbance. His parents and a public defender tried to save him, but their effort failed.(5)

Those who oppose suicide, but support the death penalty, should ask themselves whether a wrong becomes right simply because the state is an accomplice. Since execution by lethal injection is now common, states are even using the same method of killing that is used in euthanasia--which most of them ban. States are saying, "Do as I say, not as I do."(6) They are legitimizing a form of killing that is already a serious danger to elderly and disabled people (especially those who are clinically depressed) and that may threaten all of us as medical cost-containment marches on.

3. There is no way to remedy the occasional mistake that results in execution of the innocent. When the mistake is discovered after a man has been executed, what can we say to his widow and children? Should we erect an apologetic tombstone over his grave?

These are not idle questions. There is grave doubt about the guilt of some people who have been executed. And a remarkable number of prisoners on death row have been released after new evidence cleared them. Sometimes they have been saved when they were only days--or even hours--away from execution.(7)

Defenders of the death penalty say that releases from death row show that our system does work, after all. But some never completely recover from their close call, and a stigma often remains. Shabaka Sundiata Waqlimi lost 13 years of his life when he was arrested and convicted for a murder he apparently did not commit. At one point on Florida's death row, he said, he was so close to execution that he was given "what on death row is called the 'presidential treatment.' The presidential treatment means that you are subjected to the [electric] chair being tested. And knowing that the chair is being tested in your honor. You hear it. You are right next to it." Waqlimi "responded physically" when staff came to measure him for his burial suit, "and they kicked me until I shut up." He received a stay of execution 15 hours before his scheduled time of death. An appeals court ordered a new trial after the key witness against him recanted; but the state decided against retrial and released him in 1987.

While on death row, Waqlimi wanted to give a kidney to his oldest brother, who needed a transplant. Officials denied permission, citing security reasons. "Nine days later my brother died because he couldn't get a transplant," Waqlimi reported. He said that society "teaches that when something violent happens to us we should seek revenge, but I always ask...who is out there who will volunteer themselves to be a sacrificial lamb for me, so I can release fourteen years of anger and frustration? I get no volunteers."(8)

Georgia released Earl Charles in 1978, after he spent three years on death row for murders he did not commit. A reporter once asked him if he thought some still doubted his innocence. Charles said that they did. "It's a scar that's been placed on me that I had nothing to do with, but still it's on me and I have to wear it. It's something that just constantly follows me." This was so even though he had won a modest financial settlement ($75,000) from the city whose detective apparently had committed perjury against Charles and suborned perjury from another witness. (Charles had sued because he wanted some compensation for himself and for his parents, who had exhausted their savings and mortgaged their house for his legal bills.) In 1991 Charles died when he walked in front of a moving car, apparently deliberately. His mother said that he "just never was quite right" after his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Earlier Charles himself had told an interviewer, "This has cost me time and time again. It just kind of consumes me." And he had asked, "What can I tell a child of mine about this system of justice after what they've done to me?"(9)

Anti-death penalty fast and vigil at U.S. Supreme Court

4. Some people are executed despite strong mitigating circumstances. By no means is every case of hard luck an excuse for violent crime. Most people who grow up in poverty or broken homes do not become robbers and murderers, and it would be wrong to excuse crimes because of such circumstances. Yet there are factors so overwhelmingly against a decent outcome in life that they should reduce the punishment for crime.

Severe mental disability is one. In 1986-87, researchers studied all prisoners in four states who had been sentenced to death for crimes committed before they were 18 years old. They found that most of the 14 inmates had head injuries as children and that nine had "serious neurological abnormalities." Seven were psychotic as children or when examined in prison. Most had been physically abused in childhood, and five had been sexually abused. One boy had been hammered on the head by his stepfather and sodomized "by stepfather and grandfather throughout childhood." There had been violence between his parents as well, and his mother had a psychiatric hospitalization.(10)

An earlier study of 15 death-row inmates found that all had head injuries, in some cases quite serious ones. Nine of the 15 were evaluated as psychotic, either chronically or episodically. As children, two had been beaten on the head with two-by-fours; one had been beaten on the face with a whip handle; and one had been nearly killed when beaten by his father. Former police chief Patrick Murphy once said, "You try to find out how such a psycho could have put a bullet into that old woman's head, and you find it's because that kid doesn't respect life. He never got much respect for his own life from others."(11)

Sometimes officials medicate insane prisoners--forcibly, when the prisoners resist--so they will become sane enough to stand trial and/or be executed. They have done this with Russell Weston, Jr., a paranoid schizophrenic accused of killing two police officers in the U.S. Capitol building in 1998. According to the Washington Post, defense attorneys had "said in court that Weston could be medicated immediately if the U.S. attorney's office would back off from seeking the death penalty. But with two federal officers dead, the U.S. attorney's office will not." Courts upheld medication, but after six months of it, a prison psychiatrist "noted that Weston still has severe delusions, including the thought that most people in the case--including the judge--are escaped federal inmates." That particular delusion was good for a chuckle. Far more serious, though, were the evidence of Weston's paranoia in the past and his reason for going to the U.S. Capitol in 1998: "...he was trying to retrieve a ruby red satellite system that could turn back time and fight diseases." (12)

Why do prosecutors even think about demanding the death penalty for someone who is insane? What does this say about us as a society?

5. There is economic and racial discrimination in application of the death penalty. The best lawyers money can buy ensure that there are very few wealthy people on death row. It is true, of course, that some death-row prisoners are poor precisely because they are criminals (and unsuccessful ones). Not all were reared in poverty. But many were, and they tend to be poorly educated and to be represented by public defenders or court-appointed lawyers, some of whom are plainly incompetent. "When they call it capital punishment," said Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "that's true. If you don't have the capital, you'll get the punishment."(13)

African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population--but 42 percent of death-row inmates. Some say this is because their murder rate is far higher than that of whites. Studies have shown, though, that murderers of any race who kill white people are more likely to receive the death sentence than those who kill African Americans.(14)

At Virginia's 1984 execution of Linwood Briley, an African American, there was a Confederate flag in the ranks of pro-death penalty demonstrators--right by a sign that said "Fry 'Em." Demonstrators chanted "Burn, baby, burn," and two women held signs with "racial epithets" that the local newspaper did not specify. When Florida executed James Adams, also in 1984, a man "drove by in a pickup truck, and with a thumbs-up gesture shouted, 'Fry the nigger!'" When Texas executed African American Gary Graham in 2000, a contingent of Ku Klux Klansmen, some wearing white robes and hoods, were outside with their Confederate flags. Members of the New Black Panthers were also there, with "pistol-grip shotguns." The leader of another black group told a white reporter: "If I looked like you, I wouldn't be around when he dies."(15) We don't have enough tinderboxes in race relations in our country already? We need the death penalty, too?

Efforts to prevent discrimination look like macabre affirmative action plans, as in this 1997 headline: "Reno Seeking More Executions Among White U.S. Defendants." Or the 1994 cartoon that showed an official who said: "We're executing far too many blacks and this crime bill addresses that. But we still need to figure out a way to execute more women." (Of the 3,374 prisoners on U.S. death rows at the end of 2003, only 1.4 percent were women.)(16) A much simpler and surer way to prevent lethal discrimination is to abolish the death penalty altogether.

6. The death penalty gives criminals publicity they do not deserve, gives them psychological power over victims' families, and prevents reparation. Murderers are not the kind of people most parents want their children to see on television. Yet Gary Gilmore, Ted Bundy, Linwood and James Briley, Timothy McVeigh, and Juan Raul Garza received reams of publicity as their executions drew near. It is hard to imagine men less deserving of an audience. It is nearly impossible to imagine worse role models for teenagers.

Many years ago, a Jewish chaplain at New York's Sing Sing Prison complained that "the youngsters of the East Side" went to the prison for an execution so they could later say "that they stood beyond the walls when their heroes were put to death." Noting that the condemned always met their deaths with courage, the rabbi added:

This makes heroes of them. It makes the men who die in expiation of their crimes against humanity, akin to the heroes and martyrs who die for humanity. Death is too great a thing to be vulgarized through capital punishment. We should not demean the dignity of death by using it as a penalty for a heinous crime.(17)

As Gary Gilmore prepared to die in a great blaze of publicity, as a tough guy bravely facing a firing squad, the widow of one of his victims said: "I get upset when they glorify the man who killed my husband. It hurts very much and I have to wonder if justice is being done."(18)

While the death penalty deters some people, it may actually encourage the unstable, the suicidal, and the deeply egotistical. They are attracted to media immortality like moths to a flame. If they faced a lifetime of obscurity in prison, the path of violence might seem less glamorous to them.

There is also the great irony, maddening to murder victims' families, that condemned killers themselves achieve victim status. This distracts attention from the original victims and adds to the suffering of their families. "Our irreplaceable Ronnie had been killed," said the friend of a man executed for a brutal murder, possibly forgetting that the murder victim (who had been stabbed 66 times) was also irreplaceable.(19)

The torrent of publicity at the end gives murderers great psychological power over the families of their victims. What they say, and especially whether they apologize for their crimes, affects the families for a lifetime. Despite having set off a bomb that killed 168 people, Timothy McVeigh refused to apologize to family members before his execution. This refusal, magnified by the vast amount of publicity McVeigh received, deepened their anger and bitterness. When he was killed by lethal injection, many family members felt that he did not suffer enough. "It was too easy for him....He went to sleep. That was it," said one.(20)

Like other death-row prisoners, McVeigh spent his final years in harsh conditions, yet also in idleness. A man on death row does not contribute to the livelihood of the family (or families) he has so gravely wronged; instead, as taxpayers, they contribute to his. Yet McVeigh was a strong, able-bodied man; he could have done hard manual labor instead of sitting in his cell all day. Suppose that he had been sentenced to life at hard labor, with his pay taken for a scholarship fund for his victims' children. The survivors would have had the relief of knowing that he was punished and that he was forced to make reparation for his crime. He would have been consigned to obscurity, instead of dying at the center of media attention and releasing as his final statement a poem that declares, "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."(21) Over time, McVeigh might have reached the point of genuine and deep repentance. His actual work of reparation, though, would not have depended on his subjective state.

Banner at Supreme Court: 'Stop State Killing'

7. It violates the religious and ethical convictions of many citizens. This is a complex issue because of different religious traditions.

There is conflict within the Bible over the death penalty, and this poses enormous problems for anyone who insists on literal interpretation. It makes it seem as though God has changed his mind more than once.

An alternative is to think that God gave different directions according to the historical situation or the righteousness of the government in power. This is not really satisfactory, either, especially when historical regimes are viewed objectively and in all their squalor.

A third possibility is to see scriptural support for the death penalty and other violence as an expression of what humans felt and what they thought (or hoped) God wanted. Much of it may have been after-the-fact rationalization. If you have just killed someone who wronged you, or you have just massacred a tribe because you wanted their land, how comforting it must be to believe that God wanted you to do it!

The late Rev. Raymond Brown, a leading scriptural scholar, often referred to the Bible as a library of books. Some of them, he suggested, are historical, while others are poetry or parables. "On a given topic," he noted, "one can have biblical authors responding very differently to the same issue."(22) While this approach does not resolve specific conflicts, it may lead believers to be less scandalized by them.

Death-penalty opponents note that after the earliest murder in the Bible, Cain's killing of his brother Abel, the guilty man was not executed. According to Genesis 4:12-15, God made Cain "a restless wanderer on the earth," but specifically protected him from the punishment of death.

Yet there is support for the lex talionis (the law of retaliation) in the Old Testament. Some biblical scholars claim that, in ancient Israel at least, "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" was a restriction on violence rather than an endorsement of it. In this view, the ancient lawgivers were saying, "You may not take two lives for a life or two eyes for an eye." The Old Testament also placed another major limit on the death penalty. According to Numbers 35:30, it could not be imposed unless at least two witnesses testified against the defendant.

The Talmud supports the death penalty in principle. Yet commentators argued that the destruction of the Temple in the first century of the Common Era meant that Jewish courts no longer had religious authority to impose death. In any case, the rabbis placed so many restrictions on the death penalty (including the exclusion of circumstantial evidence) that some believe they were trying to abolish it. In one place, the Talmud called "destructive" a court that authorized an execution once in seven years. One rabbi, it reported, thought a court destructive if it authorized death once in 70 years. Two others said, "Were we members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death." (A fourth authority, though, exclaimed that the second and third would "multiply shedders of blood in Israel!" The deterrence argument is an ancient one.)(23)

Although Islamic law provides the death penalty for murder, it also allows the victim's family to pardon the murderer in exchange for financial compensation. A commentator said that Islam has thus made "provision for the suppression of crime and at the same time kept open the door for the display of the noble qualities of benevolence and mercy."(24) It also permits the kind of practical reparation that a victim's family so often needs.

Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of all Catholic theologians, suggested a major religious reason for opposing the death penalty when he wrote: "In everyone, even the evildoer, we ought to cherish the nature God made, which is destroyed by killing." Unfortunately, though, Aquinas justified the death penalty by reference to "the common good." But a contemporary theologian and philosopher, Germain Grisez, has written that capital punishment "is not really essential to protect the common good from injury by wicked persons. What may be necessary is their effective separation from society."(25)

The Catholic Church followed the Thomistic position for centuries. In recent years, though, it has said that the penalty should not be used in today's circumstances. In a 1995 encyclical, Pope John Paul II declared that punishment "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: In other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." He added that such cases today "are very rare if not practically nonexistent."(26)

Protestants who support the death penalty cite the Old Testament, but often skip the story of Cain and may not realize how the Jewish tradition modified the lex talionis. They also cite Paul's epistle to the Romans, 13:1-5, which says that all authority comes from God and that an earthly ruler carries the sword as "God's servant, to inflict his avenging wrath upon the wrongdoer." Other Protestants find far more persuasive the example of Christ himself when he was asked about the woman who faced execution by stoning. He said: "Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). The would-be executioners then did the only thing they could do; they drifted away from the scene. We cannot have executions if no one qualifies to be the executioner by being good through and through. Such a person, one suspects, would not want the job anyway.

The late Sen. Harold Hughes (D-Iowa) cited one of the briefest passages of the Bible against the death penalty. "'Thou shalt not kill' is the shortest of the Ten Commandments," he said, "uncomplicated by qualification or exception....It is as clear and awesomely commanding as the powerful thrust of chain lightning out of a dark summer sky."(27)

Many people, whether believers or non-believers, do not want others to be killed in their name or with their tax money. As one attorney has written, "The official, respectable nature of an execution, approved by judges and carried out by agents of the state, paid for with a bit of my money and a bit of yours, gives us all a stake in the killing."(28) The state already demands too much from citizens in the way of laws and regulation. It should not demand their consciences as well.

8. Executions are premeditated killings in which society actually imitates the killer. If the death penalty were both natural and automatic, so that anyone who committed murder immediately died, people would say that nature had solved the problem, and they might admire the apparent justice and neatness of the outcome. A natural death penalty would also be, to say the least, an extremely effective deterrent. Yet the death penalty is not automatic; there is no way to avoid the involvement of human beings in carrying it out.

The preparations for an execution are obsessively methodical. Prison staff prepare the execution chamber for the big day, carefully pre-testing the instruments of death. They protect the condemned prisoner from lethal illness and suicide, for there is great concern that he may "cheat the executioner." Eventually they move him to a holding cell near the death chamber and allow his last visitors, last telephone calls, and last meal.

Staff leave the warden's telephone line open so the governor, if so inclined, can call in a reprieve at the last minute. Staff brief reporters. They make sure that coffin and hearse are ready to go. Witnesses, carefully chosen beforehand, file into the witness room to observe the killing. Guards take the prisoner to the death chamber and strap him down on a gurney. Someone, or a team, gives him a lethal injection. By the time all of this is done, the chances are that state employees have devoted far more premeditation to killing the prisoner than he did to killing his victim(s).

Roberta Roper, a Marylander whose daughter was brutally murdered, led a struggle for longer prison sentences for violent crime in her state. Yet she expressed her opposition to the death penalty, in part because it "lowers society to the level of the murderer."(29) The punishment should not imitate the crime.

9. There is no good way to kill someone; all of the methods are appalling. The condemned probably undergo their greatest suffering in the time between the passing of the sentence and its execution. Compared with the years of apprehension and dread, and with the cat-and-mouse game of reprieves followed by new execution dates, the execution itself may be a relief to some prisoners. It is certainly no relief, though, to many who must watch it or even do the killing.

In recent centuries, there have been efforts to find methods which are less painful and more "humane" than such horrific punishments as impalement, crucifixion, and breaking on the wheel. The guillotine was supposed to be more merciful than beheading by axe, and the electric chair was supposed to be more merciful than hanging. Now death-penalty supporters have settled on lethal injection as the best way to kill people. The federal government and most death-penalty states now use lethal injection; but some states offer some prisoners a choice between injection and another method (electrocution, lethal gas, hanging or firing squad).(30)

The long search for better ways to kill other human beings suggests that some death-penalty advocates themselves are uneasy about executions. Another sign of worry is the practice of having an execution team and giving one member of it a blank bullet or dummy switch or even dummy drugs. The team members are not supposed to know who has the blank or dummy, so that each may believe that he or she did not do the actual killing. This evasion is morally meaningless, except that it suggests the deep-seated human aversion to killing other humans. If the death penalty is right, why are we so troubled by it?

When they work as they are supposed to, some methods probably involve little physical pain, or at least pain that is soon over. The problem is that none of the executed can return to tell us for certain.(31) Even when an execution is quick and relatively painless for the target, it may be hard for witnesses and prison staff to watch. In an electrocution, for example, the condemned man often strains or lunges against the restraining straps after the first charge of electricity. And electrocutions do not always go as planned. When Alabama electrocuted John Louis Evans in 1983, a strap ignited and burned a hole in the prisoner's left leg. That was after the first jolt. It took two more to kill Evans. In a 1985 Indiana execution, five jolts were required to assure the death of William Vandiver. "There was a smell of tremendous burning in the room," said a lawyer who witnessed the execution. "Eventually the fans had to be turned on."(32)

In Alabama's 1989 electrocution of Horace Dunkins, Jr., doctors found that Dunkins was unconscious but still alive after the first jolt. "I believe we've got the jacks on wrong," a prison guard said. There was a 19-minute delay while doctors checked Dunkins and someone fixed the technical problem; then a second jolt killed the prisoner.(33) When Florida electrocuted Jessie Tafero in 1990, the headset conducting electricity caught fire. Witnesses saw flame and smoke around Tafero's head. Witnesses to Florida's 1997 electrocution of Pedro Medina saw the same thing. The Associated Press reported that the "smell of burnt flesh filled the witness room and lingered as observers left two minutes after Medina's death."(34) When Virginia electrocuted Wilbert Lee Evans in 1990, witnesses saw blood stream down the man's shirt. The state corrections director said Evans had a nosebleed, due to high blood pressure. Undoubtedly the 2,400 volts of electricity applied to his head also had something to do with it.(35)

A reporter who watched Jimmy Lee Gray die in a Mississippi gas chamber in 1983 said the prisoner gasped for breath and banged his head on a pipe behind his chair. He said that the execution chamber echoed with Gray's moans, which were "blood chilling."(36)

Sometimes, especially when a prisoner's veins are badly damaged from drug abuse, it is hard to find a vein suitable for lethal injection. In a 1985 Texas case, a technician needed 40 minutes of poking and prodding to find a suitable vein in Stephen Morin's arm. There was a similar delay in the 1987 Texas execution of Elliot Rod Johnson. In the 1998 execution of Raymond Landry, also in Texas, "the catheter carrying the lethal mixture to his vein popped out of his right arm, spurting the fluid about 2 feet in the direction of reporters and prison officials." The execution had to be halted and restarted.(37)

Virginia prisoner Kenneth M. Stewart, Jr., chose electrocution instead of lethal injection for his 1998 execution. Asked about the possibility of "a more humane way," he responded: "There ain't no humane way to put a human being to death if you stop and think."(38) No matter how they are done, executions tend to dehumanize the condemned, the executioners, and the witnesses. Executions are sometimes painful, dirty, smelly and visually shocking as well. Somehow the majesty of the law gets lost in all of this.

Banner at anti-death penalty rally: 'We remember the victims...<strong>BUT NOT WITH MORE KILLING</STRONG>'

10. Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. There is something indecent in the rituals that surround executions and the excitement they provide to the public. We should worry about those who gather outside prisons to cheer the executioners on, such as the Texans who chanted "Kill him!" while James Autry lay in terror on a gurney, with needles in his arms. A Virginia youngster said he was attending an electrocution "to see the lights dim when he gets it." At the same execution, another boy asked, "Are they gonna eat him after they cook him?"(39) Floridians at Ted Bundy's electrocution wore T-shirts that said "Burn Bundy" and "Toast Ted" and "The Bundy-BBQ"--and partied through the night as they awaited his execution. Perhaps they were happy if they learned afterwards that the electrode attached to Bundy's head caused a burn "so severe that the flesh had been cooked away to reveal the bone of the skull."(40)

We should worry, too, about people who want to witness executions. When Kevin DeWayne Cardwell was asked if he had any last words before his 1998 Virginia execution, he responded: "Personally, yeah. Why was all them sick people looking at me through that glass?"(41)

At their best, executions encourage disrespect for human life and for the human body. At their worst, they promote sadism. The late Arthur Koestler said that there "is a spoonful of sadism at the bottom of every human heart."(42) It is difficult, to say the least, to build a climate of respect for life when people learn to take pleasure in someone's death.

There is special reason for concern about children and people with mental disabilities. Most adults can distinguish between the innocent and the guilty (an important difference, to be sure); but children and the mentally disabled do not always make such distinctions. The lesson they draw from executions, as from the violence that pervades the mass media, may be that killing is an excellent way to solve problems and that it also provides great entertainment.

One woman made the point well when she said that a condemned man "was wrong to murder, so let's punish him, not murder him. Thieves are wrong to steal, so let's punish them, not steal from them. We punish our children when they lie to us--we don't lie to them in return."(43)

11. The death penalty encourages self-righteousness and a tendency to overlook one's own complicity in violence. After the execution of a Ted Bundy or a Timothy McVeigh, people dust off their hands and say, "Well, we certainly took care of that one! Sure showed him!" Then the military planner goes back to nuclear war games. The abortionist returns to the clinic where he kills thousands of human beings each year. The euthanasia advocate resumes calculations on saving money by killing the disabled and dying. Video game producers and film makers wonder how much more violence they can pump into our minds and hearts.

Our executions are somewhat like the ancient rite in which the high priest of Israel placed his hands on the head of a goat and confessed over it all the sins of the Israelites, then sent the goat off to wander in the desert. Our society takes a small percentage of murderers--including some of the worst and some who are merely unlucky--and sends them off to die on behalf of all who have taken human life. The same society starts wars abroad and encourages other death-dealing at home. It uses euphemisms such as "collateral damage" and "freedom of choice" and "aid in dying" to camouflage the deaths. And it honors some political leaders who were deeply involved in mass killing of civilians in wartime (Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, for example).

Perhaps it is time to call all bluffs and see how many people are genuinely opposed to homicide.

12. If we abolish the death penalty in the United States, we can be more effective in defending political and religious prisoners who face it abroad. The fate of an entire nation may depend on whether its citizens can engage in peaceful protest without facing a firing squad. As President John F. Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."(44) Making the point in a positive way was the peaceful 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe, made possible because its brave leaders had not been shot by their governments.

The more rare executions become, the more those nations using the death penalty for political repression will stand out. They can then receive more intense pressure from other governments, including our own, and from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

By retaining capital punishment, the United States gives a certain amount of political cover to repressive nations. Instead of executing people for political reasons, U.S. jurisdictions kill them for criminal acts. Crime, though, is a matter of legal definition. Some Baha'i women executed by Iran, for example, were convicted of prostitution because the nation's Islamic clergy did not recognize Baha'i marriages. The United States may protest death sentences passed on political or religious prisoners abroad, only to be told that those prisoners are criminals. Indeed, in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan appealed for the lives of Baha'is under sentence of death in Iran, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini interpreted Reagan's appeal as proof that the condemned were spies.(45)

There was a far better outcome in 1981 when Reagan, in cooperation with the outgoing Jimmy Carter administration, pressured South Korea against its planned execution of human-rights activist Kim Dae Jung. Kim's life was spared, and he went on to become president of his country. A major force for reconciliation between South Korea and North Korea, President Kim received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.(46)

Close political and military ties between the United States and South Korea had much to do with the saving of Kim's life. Yet the U.S. might achieve similar outcomes elsewhere by providing good example, as well as clemency pleas, to other nations. If we abolish the death penalty at home, we can become more effective in defending human rights and human life abroad.

Banner with anti-death penalty slogans in Italian, Spanish, French, and German


1. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2002, Dec. 2004, 4, 2 & 5. (In this study, the term "murder" includes "nonnegligent manslaughter.")

2. Albert Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine," in his Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. by Justin O'Brien (New York, 1960), 228.

3. Washington Post, 10 Jan. 1992, B-6.

4. Washington Times, 17 June, 2000, A-9, & 31 Aug. 2000, C-3.

5. Nevada Appeal (Carson City), 1 June 1990, A-1 & A-8, & 4 June, 1990, A-1 & A-8.

6. John Selden, quoted in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (1980), 264.

7. Michael L. Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau and Constance E. Putman, In Spite of Innocence (Boston, 1992); Richard C. Dieter, "Innocence and the Death Penalty: The Increasing Danger of Executing the Innocent," July, 1997,; Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer, Actual Innocence (New York, 2000).

8. Shabaka Sundiata Waqlimi, interview in Ian Gray and Moira Stanley, A Punishment In Search of a Crime (New York, 1989), 209-215. Waqlimi was formerly known as Joseph Green Brown; his case is also described in Radelet and others (n.7), 290-291.

9. Ibid., 235-247. See, also, Don Terry, "Survivors Make the Case Against Death Row," New York Times, 16 Nov. 1998, A-14.

10. Dorothy Otnow Lewis and others, "Neuropsychiatric, Psychoeducational, and Family Characteristics of 14 Juveniles Condemned to Death in the United States, American Journal of Psychiatry 145, no. 5 (May 1988), 584-589.

11. Dorothy Otnow Lewis and others, "Psychiatric, Neurological, and Psychoeducational Characteristics of 15 Death Row Inmates in the United States," ibid. 143, no. 7 (July 1986), 838-845; and Patrick V. Murphy, interview in U.S. News & World Report, 20 April 1981, 49.

12. Anne Hull, "A Living Hell or a Life Saved?" Washington Post, 23 Jan. 2001, A-1 & A-10; and Neely Tucker, "Capitol Suspect Still Delusional, Doctor Says," ibid., 2 Aug. 2002, A-5.

13. Quoted in ibid., 15 Aug. 1987, C-13. A rare case of a wealthy person sentenced to death is that of Thomas Capano, sentenced in 1999 for murdering his girlfriend. Ibid., 17 March 1999, A-3.

14. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, (Washington, D.C., 2000), 16; U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment, 2003, Nov. 2004, 6; U.S. General Accounting Office, "Death Penalty Sentencing--Research Indicates Pattern of Racial Disparities," a report to Senate and House Committees on the Judiciary, Feb. 1990, reprinted in Congressional Record, vol. 136, part 9 (24 May 1990), 12267-12269; and Fox Butterfield, "New Study Adds to Evidence of Bias in Death Sentences," New York Times, 7 June 1998, I, 22. Of persons convicted of murder or "nonnegligent manslaughter" in state courts in 2002, 51 percent were black; 45 percent were white; and four percent were "other." U.S. Department of Justice (n. 1), 6. The conviction rate, however, is not necessarily the same as the actual murder rate.

15. Richmond Times-Dispatch, 13 Oct. 1984, A-8; Radelet & others (n. 7), 5; Houston Chronicle, 23 June 2000, 1-A & 16-A.

16. Washington Times, 16 June, 1997, A-4, & 3 May 1994, A-2; U.S. Department of Justice, Capital Punishment, 2003 (n. 14), 6.

17. Quoted in Thomas Mott Osborne, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," The Forum, Feb., 1925, 160. Osborne identified the chaplain only as "Rabbi Goldstein."

18. Colleen Jensen, quoted in the Washington Post, 18 Jan. 1977, A-5.

19. Dale Aukerman, "The Execution of Ronnie Dunkins," ibid., 22 July 1989, A-23. Dunkins had a mental disability, one that probably reduced but did not remove his moral responsibility; see n. 33 below.

20. Shari Sawyer, quoted in the Washington Post, 12 June 2001, A-1.

21. Ibid., C-1 (from William Ernest Henley, "Invictus").

22. Raymond E. Brown, Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (New York, 1990), 30.

23. Israel J. Kazis, "Judaism and the Death Penalty," reprinted in Hugo Adam Bedau, ed., The Death Penalty in America (New York, 1964), 171-175; Haim H. Cohn, Jewish Law in Ancient and Modern Israel ([New York], 1971), 61-82; J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (New York, 1983), vol. 2, 341-367; Barry D. Cytron and Earl Schwartz, When Life Is In the Balance: Life and Death Decisions in Light of the Jewish Tradition (New York, 1986), 157-192; Babylonian Talmud, Makkoth, 7a.

24. Muhammad Iqbal Siddiqi, The Penal Law of Islam (Lahore, Pakistan, 1979), 151-152.

25. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2-2, question 64, article 6, response; and Germain G. Grisez, "Toward a Consistent Natural-Law Ethics of Killing," American Journal of Jurisprudence 15 (1970), 67.

26. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in Origins 24, no. 42 (6 April 1995), 709.

27. Congressional Record, vol. 120, part 5 (12 March 1974), 6432. Death-penalty supporters say that a more accurate translation of the commandment is "Thou shalt not commit murder." Opponents argue that an execution is murder.

28. Grover Rees III, "The True Confession of One One-Issue Voter," National Review, 25 May 1979, 669.

29. Quoted in Catholic Standard (Washington, D.C.), 8 March 1984, 1.

30. U.S. Department of Justice, Capital Punishment, 2003 (n. 14), 4. Sometimes state law offers a choice only to prisoners who were sentenced before the state turned to lethal injection as its regular method of execution.

31. See Jacob Weisberg, "This Is Your Death," New Republic, 1 July 1991, 23-27, for indications that some methods of execution may cause severe pain.

32. Birmingham News, 23 April 1983, 1-A & 2-A; Indianapolis Star, 17 Oct. 1985, 1 & 13.

33. Birmingham News, 14 July 1989, 1-A & 8-A. According to the News, experts had "testified that Dunkins was borderline mentally retarded and had the mental capacity of a person aged 10-12."

34. Miami Herald, 5 May 1990, 1-A & 10-A; Washington Times, 26 March 1997, A-3.

35. Washington Post, 21 Oct. 1990, B-1 & B-8. There was a similar case in Florida in 1999. Ibid., 9 July, 1999, A-16, & 26 Aug. 1999, A-3 & A-8.

36. Sunday Clarion Ledger & Jackson Daily News, 4 Sept. 1983, 1-A & 20-A.

37. Houston Chronicle, 13 March 1985, 1 & 8; 25 June 1987, I, 15; & 14 Dec. 1988, 25-A & 27-A.

38. Quoted in Washington Post, 24 Sept. 1998, D-3.

39. Newsweek, 17 Oct. 1983, 73; Washington Post, 12 Aug. 1982, A-19.

40. Ibid., 25 Jan. 1989, A-1 & A-6; Stephen Trombley, The Execution Protocol (New York, 1992), 56-57 (describing a Bundy autopsy photograph).

41. Quoted in Washington Post 4 Dec. 1998, B-8. Often a condemned prisoner asks family members or clergy to be present to help him through the ordeal; many other witnesses, however, are volunteers.

42. Arthur Koestler, Reflections on Hanging (London, 1956), 167.

43. Ellen B. Dennard, letter to the editor, Washington Post, 29 Oct. 1984, A-16.

44. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, 1963), 223.

45. U.S. News & World Report, 29 Aug. 1983, 40; Washington Post, 6 July 1983, A-1 & A-20.

46. Ibid., 27 Jan. 1981, A-3, & 14 Oct. 2000, A-1 & A-20.