In general, I’m opposed to the death penalty, at least for murder. It seems so pettily tit-for-tat. “You took a life, so now, through the power vested in me by the state of Utopia, I declare that you shall be taken from this place…,” etc. Once these words have been spoken, the average candidate for execution will wait another fifteen years before the massively expensive circus of appeals, referrals, deferrals and verdicts finally delivers the long-awaited catharsis and winds up his miserable mortal coil. Yes, revenge is best eaten cold, but deep-frozen?
Of course we’ll try to pretty it up by making it as humane as possible, whatever that means, but execution still looks and feels like institutionalized revenge. Fair enough, you might think, why not? Surely society has the right to defend itself against the wolves within its flock. But execution is not defence: it is retribution. A preventative to murder (such as banning guns and weapon-style knives) would be cheaper and more effective than this ‘deterrent’ that has manifestly failed, according to most informed sources, to deter anybody. No, capital punishment is neither society’s defence, nor its best deterrent. It is an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ policy, carried out by the least interested party (the state) on behalf of the most interested parties (the victim and family).
Yet the state’s impartiality is undermined severely by its level of involvement in the final moments of the culprit’s life. This is because the state, at least in those places that still have capital punishment not only on the statute books, but regularly handed down by judges, appears to be either grandstanding or prevaricating and sometimes both. On the one hand, it clearly seeks to walk the walk that it has so often talked at the hustings and thus perpetuate itself at the ballot box by appearing tough on crime. On the other, through the intensity of its involvement in the appeals process and its concern for the humanity of the method used, it tries to appear at least an honest broker at the end of a life, even if it has signally failed in that duty up till now. Defending such paradoxical positions is hypocritical and pays only lip service to neutrality.
In addition to the question of the state’s validity as arbiter, and while the discussion of issues around crime and punishment is generally robust and virile in tone, an understandable squeamishness surrounds the debate on what might possibly constitute a humane
execution. Perhaps this is because execution, by very definition, seems to be ‘cruel and unusual’, insofar as it is not usual
to lie on a gurney while extreme toxic compounds are fed into your body. And though it may seem kind
to strap you down lest you hurt yourself during the intense muscle spasms that follow, at best it is but a cynical cousin to kindness.
A further problem is that execution is, in many ways, less ‘cruel and unusual’ than the alternative. We’d all hope that the one who had murdered someone we love would suffer excruciating pangs of guilt and remorse in prison. In reality, he or she will probably exist in relative mental comfort through years of institutional food, intellectually restrictive company, free medical care and the cheapest cable TV service on offer. While conducive to catatonic boredom and depression, none of this is likely to induce remorse or guilt in a person already hardened enough to commit murder in the first place.
Although a good case can still be made for the ‘short, sharp shock’ effect of a brief period of imprisonment on a yet pliable young spirit, long-term incarceration is about as useless a punishment as it is a deterrent. The long-haul prisoner has lost sight of the punishment argument after the first three to five years. Prison just becomes a way of life like any other, a current address, a place where he or she lives. Beyond that three to five-year horizon, the typical incarcerated person will become completely institutionalized, effectively suppressing any conscious consideration of ‘why’ he is in prison in favour of developing a survival strategy to deal with the ‘how’ aspects of daily life there. Finally, upon release – which will surely arrive some day, as prisons hate having to deal with the care-intensive illnesses of old age, not to mention funerals – the former murderer will be just another sad old person with no one to turn to and quite unfit for any real reinsertion.
It’s not that my heart goes out to the murderer: I’m not soft on crime. People who do awful things should be rendered harmless somehow. I’m simply not sure that either putting them away for a very long time or restricting their radius in a more terminal manner are credible candidates for this function. The former fails on account of its horrendous expense and the degree of social damage it causes on so many levels, the latter for its equally horrendous expense and its perpetuation of the once popular, but now discredited, myth that the state can honestly stand as a guarantor for the impartiality of justice and exact cool and lucid retribution for someone’s deeply personal and emotionally harrowing loss. It’s no good, I’ve tried, but I’m not getting it and neither are the statistics.
Some of you will not have lost sight of the rabbit. You’ll be asking yourselves why he said “at least for murder” in the first sentence. I’ve visited this territory before in another article *
, but it bears repeating. Basically, we’re wrong, not about the severity of murder as a crime, but about the degree of danger that a murderer represents for society as a whole. The vast majority of murderers only have one murder in them. They are not typically a “repeat” style of serious offender, unlike rapists who absolutely are and yet generally escape the harshest sentences available. Meanwhile, neither heated domestic arguments that turn fatal, nor armed robberies and saloon brawls that go horribly wrong are seen as murders. The death penalty is thus rarely handed down for these types of killings, even though the kind of aggressive hotheads who commit them are far more likely to reoffend
than those most likely to receive the death penalty: the first degree, premeditated murderer.
The classic, premeditated murder involves proximity to the victim, intense hatred or other strong motive (various combinations of sex and money are typical) and a clear opportunity. This is a constellation unlikely to occur more than once in a person’s lifetime. The likelihood of a murderer reoffending are equivalent to lightning striking the same place twice; not unheard of, but rare. So a murderer, once apprehended and brought to trial, is possibly the least likely person to appear again in court. In other words, this is NOT the person the state should be defending us from or avenging us for. Like many other offenders, such people would be effectively rendered harmless by wearing a bright, colour-coded collar to warn us all of what they once did and the potential threat they represent.
If we must have a death penalty, I’d rather see it applied to bankers who gamble illegally with the small fortunes of others to criminally augment their own very large ones and drive humble folk into ruin, or those food and drug company bosses who knowingly adulterate their products to save money and risk lives so doing, or the mining corporations that falsify their levels of environmental damage and toxicity to avoid litigation … the list is endless. In the current real world order, the most these candidates receive is a tap on the wrist. In my state they’d be on death row.
Of course, we could aim for the most democratically effective punishment regime and apply capital punishment only to those other, obvious and ubiquitous, scourges that blight our lives: inveterate litterers and the people who simply cannot keep their dogs from shitting on the sidewalk, or the ones who play very bad techno on their 400-Watt car stereos or those obnoxiously tasteless individuals who commission and build either seriously ugly or utterly nondescript houses on beautiful green-field sites. There, gentlemen, is where we could all use an avenging angel.
As for the method: might I suggest self-inflicted guillotine. The condemned person must kneel with their head over the basket, listening to their own favourite piece of music on repeat (nothing cruel or unusual in that) until sheer overload causes them to pull the lever and bring the merciful razor rushing to their lilywhite neck. And if the abject individual has no strong opinions with regard to music, then “Let it go” from Disney’s “Frozen” would stand in adequately. There’s nothing like a big, crowd-pleasing number to bring the curtain down.
© Edwin Drood
, June 2014
* See Honour among thieves
, Edwin Drood's Column, 1 March 2011.
Illustration: The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison.
Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2010.