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Showing posts with label death penalty. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death penalty. Show all posts

Friday, September 23, 2011

What we could have done

That the band R.E.M.'s break-up and Troy Davis' highly controversial state mandated execution would have taken place on the same day is probably an interesting coincidence to no one but me. You see, it was at an R.E.M. concert during their "Monster" tour back in 1994 that I, as a high school student, first lifted a finger to take part in a political cause-- opposing the death penalty. Someone had a booth and a petition to sign, a mailing list to be on. While my parents appreciated my interest, I doubt they were too enthused about receiving periodic notices in the mail about the death penalty addressed to me for the following decade or so.

According to Gallup, in the year I attended that concert more Americans supported the death penalty than they had before (at least, back to when Gallup started polling on the question in 1936) or since. 80% answered "yes" to the question "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" whereas by last year the number had fallen to 64%. And Troy Davis was executed, presumably because the state of Georgia is where a good number of those who answer "yes" to the death penalty reside.


My opposition to the death penalty, and my reasoning for opposing it, hasn't changed since the day I signed that petition-- I still believe that we as a society gain nothing from it, and we risk losing something which should always be significant: the life of an innocent. The Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 to examine the cases of imprisoned convicts using DNA testing, has exonerated seventeen convicts from death row in eleven states. Collectively, they served over two hundred years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.  But because they had not been executed (yet), it was possible to release them and allow them to have something of their previous lives back.  Nevertheless, this doesn't appear to be a compelling thought at all for many Americans. From another Gallup poll:
However, for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.
This result is shocking to me. I had no idea that there were so many people who grant that innocent people get placed on death row and are eventually executed, but consider that acceptable collateral damage in order to put the guilty to death. Was Troy Davis one of those innocents who was sacrificed? Perhaps-- he professed his own innocence right up until the point of execution, and there's a range of concerns with the entire course of his case. Davis' race and the circumstances of his crime raise persistent questions about whether his case could have been decided fairly:

The finality of Mr. Davis’s sentence, and the outpouring of protest worldwide, leaves in its wake more than its share of questions — many that go beyond the facts of the case to encompass fundamental issues of capital punishment. Because Mark MacPhail, the Savannah, Ga., police officer he was convicted of killing in 1989, was white and Mr. Davis, above, was black, the progress of Mr. Davis’s case over two decades widened fault lines on the death penalty and, in particular, over the question of whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white one. 
A New York Times editorial refers to a series of "grievous errors" and notes that over 630,000 letters pleading for clemency were delivered to the Georgia pardon and parole board to no avail, resulting in a "tragic miscarriage of justice."  Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project Danny LeBoeuf condemned the outcome in no uncertain terms: “The execution of an innocent man crystallizes in the most sickening way the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system."

So here's my question: what was the rush? The alternative to putting Troy Davis to death wasn't to let him go free, to send him on his way with his old clothes back and money for cab fare. If he had not been executed we would have had the rest of his life, with him sitting patiently in prison, to decide to put him to a more obviously justified death. To analyze the circumstances of his accusation in a way that doesn't provoke every human rights organization in the country, as well as death penalty supporters like former F.B.I. director William Sessions, to proclaim the injustice of it. Someone like me who opposes the death penalty outright would still not be satisfied, but we could do more to make sure that the people we put to death are obviously deserving of it. Could we not? Is that not in the death penalty supporter's best interests, the single best defense of hanging onto such a practice?

Because after all, America is rather a stand-out in the fact that we do hang onto it. Not only does the U.S. have more of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world, we're also willing to kill them whereas no other Western democracy will do so. Just speaking for myself, I would rather die than spend the rest of my life in prison. If the options are a life sentence or the death penalty, I would opt for the death penalty without hesitation. But Troy Davis is not me, and he was not given an option. Maybe he would have preferred to spend the duration of a life sentence (or as long as it would have taken) working to demonstrate his own innocence...and maybe he would have succeeded.  I don't see what we would have had to lose by giving him the chance, and we would've had a greater system of justice and national dignity to gain.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A contentious proposition

So Warren Jeffs is apparently in a coma. After receiving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage FLDS followers, he has refused to eat or drink in prison and now, three weeks into that sentence, is in "critical but stable" condition.

I reiterate my belief that criminals sentenced to life in prison should be able to opt for death instead. The article says that it is unknown why Jeffs stopped eating, but that he has fasted to the point of needing medical intervention in prison before.

Let the man die, if he wants to. Do whatever is necessary to bring him out of the coma, and ask him if he's trying to kill himself and would prefer death to spending the rest of his life in prison. If he says yes, then put him out of his misery.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Some random musings on "forever"

When I lived in Denmark, a friend told me that no one there receives a prison sentence longer than fourteen years, regardless of their crime.  I've since learned that that's not true, but the idea still baffles and appeals to me, and that has nothing to do with the specific number.  It's because it suggests that a body of people have cumulatively decided that "forever" isn't a punishment, that a life sentence is inherently no longer about the perpetrator but instead about desires for revenge on the part of the victim, the victim's friends and family, and the greater society.  The thought of locking someone up and throwing away the key is immensely satisfying when they have done something to hurt you horribly.  I don't mean to be at all flippant about this, but it just seems to me that people have a cognitive disconnect when it comes to thinking about "forever" or even "for the rest of your life," and it gets in the way of our concepts of morality.  I don't think that anyone should commit or be committed to something forever, or for the rest of their lives, because there is no way for them or us to properly conceive of what that really means.  Our understanding of time just doesn't allow us to do so.

I'm relatively young, but not very young.  I realize that as you age, the years tend to run together and zip by in a way that would be literally incomprehensible to someone a decade or even a few years younger.  It doesn't seem like you have changed much between five years ago and today, even though the individual years between when you were fifteen and sixteen or even twenty-five and twenty-six seemed instead like eras.  Still, a person can change dramatically in the span of a single year-- any year.  Anyone who has watched their parents virtually turn into different people immediately after retirement, for example, is aware of this.  And yet from the inside, it seems like we've been basically the same person all along.  Naturally.  It would be very disconcerting if we didn't, because the sense of "me being me" would be lost.  It's common to hear someone say that she is no longer the person she used to be, but when saying that the person is almost always referring to a certain aspect of her character that has changed-- not that she went through a complete change in terms of who she is. And yet that's precisely what often happens.

I can't help but think of the reactions I've heard to Jesse Bering's theory about a cognitive constraint that prevents us from conceiving of the cessation of existence.  Basically, he argues, we believe in life after death because we are unable to conceive of being dead.  It's impossible to do so, because there is no way to be conscious of the fact of being unconscious.  The immediate response is "Of course we can!  Do we not dream when we sleep?"  Sure we do, but that's not real unconsciousness-- real unconsciousness would be awareness of nothing, not even dreams.  Real unconsciousness isn't sleep; it's a black-out. You feel nothing during it, but you can sure feel terrible afterward.  Even if you've done it, you haven't experienced it because experience during it is impossible.  In the same way, we think we can conceive of forever, or "for the rest of my life" or "for the rest of his/her life," but we really can't.  We can conceive of a really long time, because everyone has experienced a really long time, but that's as close to "forever" as dreaming is to death.

It's impossible to tell whether this conclusion is the product or the cause of many of my thoughts about justice and morality, but it is certainly connected either way.  It's why I consider the death penalty to be more compassionate than a sentence to life in prison, for example.  Make no mistake; I oppose the death penalty-- but I oppose life imprisonment more.  Given the chance to be Queen of the World for a day, I would abolish both but allow prisoners to opt for death at any point in their sentencing if they decided that was preferable.  But that would be a penalty they would have to carry out transparently and by themselves.  As horrible as the reasons for and means of committing suicide can be, I consider it a fundamental right, and perhaps if more people agreed with me on that, the means would become more humane for everyone involved.

I cringe when I hear people speak blithely-but-seriously about someone going to Hell, or even saying, as atheists often do, "I wish I believed in Hell so that he/she could burn in it."   Do you really?  Do you honestly wish that you believed there is a place where people will be tortured forever?   You aspire, in other words, to be the worst sadist imaginable and regret that you're not?  Because that's what wishing eternal torture on someone entails.  If you were a sadist-in-practice in this life and tortured someone on your basement in the most merciless way for thirty years, behaving like...I don't know, a Reaver from Firefly, it would be but a paper cut in comparison to an actual Hell.  Not even that, actually, because of course nothing can be compared to infinity.  How long would it take for your torture to become meaningless?  To become as much torture for the inflicter as for the inflictee?   A shorter time than I'd guess for people who like to invoke this lunatic notion, if they've even considered the idea in the first place.  And yet I'm not willing to convict them of sadism precisely because of that-- I don't think they have actually thought much about it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (one would hope)-- "I'll love you forever."  Really?  Are you sure about that?  Unconditional love is a nice-sounding idea, but loving someone who has decided after twenty years to become an ax murderering child rapist isn't exactly a positive character attribute even if you manage to achieve it...and there's no particular reason why you should, regardless of what Charles Manson's many female admirers would say.  I would posit, actually, that most if not all of them admire him precisely because of the acts that caused him to be imprisoned in the first place.  If he were to be released and decided to take up a career as a janitor in Montana, much if not all of the attraction would probably be lost.  Again, a personality change over time.  There's a good reason, I think, why such sentiments as "IIIIIIIII will always love yoooooooouuuuuu" are referred to as "sweet nothings."  They sound sweet but literally mean nothing, if you're doing it right.  There are a lot of stupid reasons to stop loving someone, certainly, but a heck of a lot of good reasons as well, and there's no way to know which ones of either variety are going to crop up until they do.  Surely if you love someone for who they are, you should continue to love them for who they are.  Right?

What prompted these thoughts?  Something very mundane, actually, but still important-- a discussion on whether people who have committed to a monogamous relationship are allowed to cheat, if something catastrophic happens which effectively kills any chance at romance.   Dan Savage's answer is "yes," if the cheating functions as a kind of pressure release valve which enables the sex-desiring partner to stick around.  But what got me thinking about "forever" was mainly the comment thread in which people discuss  what pledging your life to someone can and should mean.  As a Buddhist might point out, the only permanence is impermanence.  We're all changing all of the time, and that's a good thing.

There's a thought I try to keep in mind.  I debated getting it tattooed, but it's not exactly elegant wording-- clumsy as hell, actually-- so have decided against that.  Nevertheless, I try to live by it:
Life is short, so take it seriously.  But life is short, so don't take it too seriously.