In September 2008, I wrote Part -1 on my series on the Death Penalty. Events transpired – death of someone I cared about, Srilankan war, our trip to Singapore & Raju Garu (Sigh!). For an extremely focused person, I get extremely distracted. Since the series on Srilanka is more or less at its mid-point, I thought now is as good a time as any, to write my next post on the Death Penalty. A humble request – Please read the 1st part of the series before reading this post, to maintain continuity.
Let’s start off with why penal systems were adopted in the 1st place: Because it makes it easier to seek restitution. A Restorative System of justice can be used, when the crime is not a perfidy. Either through mediators or with their attorney’s assistance, the victim & the offender can debate what kind of compensation would set things right between them. In its simplest form, if an item has been wrongfully taken by the accused, s/he can restore it to the rightful owner. But this system of justice is unusable to resolve violent crimes.
Let me make a proposition to the opponents of Capital Punishment. What if we impose the death penalty only in the most extreme cases? Such as repeat offenders? Like serial killers?
Ted Bundy had the distinction of being one of the most notorious serial killers of all times. Handsome, suave & intelligent, Bundy had no problem in attracting the attention of women. Once they were alone with him though, he bludgeoned them with a crowbar & strangled them. When they were unconscious, he brutally raped them. He left their naked dead bodies in wooded areas. Sometimes he lay down next to their decomposing bodies for a day or 2. His last victim was a 12 year old girl. Her dead body was found, throat sliced. He confessed to killing 28 women, but it could be as many as 100.
Bundy’s attorneys tried in vain to stay his execution or to even commute it to a life sentence. They begged the families of his victims to write a letter to the Governor of Florida, seeking clemency for Bundy. Every single one of them refused. The law isn’t blind. Ted Bundy was executed on Jan 24th, 1989.
Which brings us to my #1 reason for supporting the Death Penalty – What about the victims? Or their families? In our zeal to protect the rights of convicted criminals & to uphold the cause of humanity, aren’t we forgetting the justifiable emotions of the near & dear of the slain?
When someone you love has been murdered brutally, it is completely normal to seek revenge. Civilized countries adopt criminal laws & vest the power of sentencing with a handful of authorities – judges or regents. This prevents the society from devolving into an anarchy – otherwise people will attempt to settle scores through vendetta killings. Death penalty gives closure to the families & friends of the victims, thereby preempting vigilantism.
People that oppose the death penalty think imprisonment is punishment enough. “Let’s lock them up for the rest of their natural lives. We’ll deprive them of their freedom, plus they can’t kill anyone else, can they?” I think that’s rich – offering the perpetrators a chance to live to a ripe old age, with board & lodge provided by the state, learning useful crafts in jail, even attending community college, penning their memoirs. Chances that their victims will never get.
Some gentler souls may even opine that a life term could be commuted, to say 10 or 15 years behind bars. That should be enough punishment for a criminal to atone for his/her sins, right? They can return to the general population to lead a normal life, right? Wrong, Dead Wrong. When someone takes a human life in the absence of mitigating circumstances, they forfeit their rights to lead a normal life. The proverbial milk of human kindness is wasted on them.
It was the year 1985. Joe Atkins was on parole from the penitentiary, after serving 10 years for killing his half-brother Charles. Armed with a machete, a pistol & a gun, he broke into his neighbor’s residence. He cut the phone lines, then proceeded to kill 13 year old Karen Patterson, who was fast asleep in her bed. He chased Karen’s parents, who escaped fortuitously. When Karen’s mother took refuge in the Atkins home, Joe killed his own father Benjamin Atkins. It was his father that had pleaded with the parole board to release Joe ahead of schedule.
This time, Joe Atkins was not only convicted, but also executed.
But more importantly, this concept of “Imprisonment as a Punishment” is fairly new. Historically speaking, prisons & jails were holding areas for the prisoners. They were housed in dungeons or incarcerated otherwise, till the state’s penal system decided their fate. For the most part, jailing wasn’t considered a punishment in itself.
So if we kill repeat offenders, murderers for hire & cold-blooded murderers who kill for gain, how many of you would stand up to be counted in support of the death penalty? What if I say, we’ll pay heed to mitigating circumstances?
Let’s not kill 1st time offenders: If the crime is very brutal and/or involves multiple murders, let’s give them life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. We won’t kill the mentally ill, they need medical attention. So if a deranged woman heard St Stephen’s voice urging her to kill her neighbor – because he’s actually Beelzebub – we’ll institutionalize her, not fry her.
Now, let’s skate on thin ice. What about the mentally retarded, in other words, people of diminished culpability? The UN Commission for Human Rights adopted resolutions in 1999 & 2000, urging countries not to impose the Death Penalty on people suffering mental impairment – which includes retardation & illness. In recent years,only 3 countries executed the mentally retarded – Japan, United States & Kyrgyztan.
In 2002, US banned the execution of criminals with an IQ < 70. Border-line retardation isn’t considered a serious enough mitigating factor, an interpretation that I agree with. As long as the defendant understands cause & effect, as long as they knew they were taking a life, they are responsible for their actions.
Here is another case for your purview:
15 year old Valessa Robinson was a wild girl. She wanted to marry her 19 year old boyfriend Adam Davis. Adam had a mile-long rap sheet & he was fresh out of jail. Valessa was besotted with him & wanted to have his baby. She came from a respectable family & her mother Vicki Adams was deeply concerned. Valessa had repeatedly run away before & counseling had failed. Vicki planned to enroll her in Steppin’ Stone Farm, a boarding school for troubled girls.
So one day, Valessa killed her mother with Adam’s help. She held her mother down, while Adam injected laundry bleach into her veins. That did not kill Vicki. So, Adam stabbed her to death. They disposed of the body, stole Vicki’s credit cards & mini-van. They drove around aimlessly, using Vicki’s ATM card freely, getting tattoos, jewelery & drugs. 6 days after the murder, the police arrested them.
The law isn’t as trigger happy as people like to think. As heinous as her crime may be, as monstrous her behavior may seem to us – the law in most countries frowns on executing minors. Valessa was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Adam Davis was sentenced to death.
Unfortunately, cases like Valessa’s use escape routes provided by the law. Given a choice, I’d like to strap her to a gurney & administer a lethal injection. But, my moral indignation has to take a hike, since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits Capital Punishment for juveniles. Almost all countries – except Somalia & the United States – have ratified that article. But in reality, 5 countries executed juveniles in the past 4 years – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen & Sudan. The dubious distinction of being the biggest executioner of children belongs to Iran.
As I said, the death penalty isn’t given to everyone.
Why should we deny our negative feelings? Are anger, bitterness & fury always bad? They seem real enough to me. And it behooves on us to act on them in a just manner. Yes, Retributive justice promotes revenge. But, punishment is meted out by an unbiased group of judges & jury, after sifting through the evidence. The victim’s dear & near can’t circumvent due process. Isn’t that good enough?
Is the death penalty harsh? Should it be abolished under the 8th amendment of the US constitution – is it really a cruel & unusual punishment? What are the harsh realities of implementing capital punishment? And more to the point, what do the experts in criminal justice have to say? For lack of space, I’ll cover all that & then some in a subsequent post.