Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Troy Davis and the Debate over Capital Punishment

by John Shelby Spong

“The debate on the death penalty in America is an ongoing one. The Supreme Court temporarily suspended it in 1972 as “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore for a time unconstitutional. They then reinstated it in 1976. Since that time 1269 people have been put to death. A particularly horrendous public crime always brings loud calls for capital punishment. Some of the people who support the death penalty surely want revenge. That is as basic and as ancient in human nature as ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Vengeful, hard justice seems to satisfy this emotion in some people. Others who support the death penalty believe that this punishment is a deterrent to further crime. Deterrence is also the major argument used by politicians who favor it, but all of the studies I have read fail to demonstrate that deterrence works. Nations that have the death penalty have no less murder and in most cases actually have a higher murder rate than those who do not. Psychologically the death penalty has always seemed strange to me. The argument that “because killing is so terrible a thing to do, we will punish those who kill by killing them,” does not make logical sense to me.

“I do understand the need for finality, for closing the door on a devastating episode that has been like a draining sore. I do understand the need for a government to protect its citizens from those who have demonstrated that they are not capable of living in society without doing violence to another. Both of these needs, however, I believe can be met with sentences of life imprisonment without parole. People argue the economics of this, suggesting that lifetime care for convicted murderers is an expense taxpayers ought not to be asked to bear. The facts, however, do not bear even this out. The endless appeals process in capital cases is far more expensive to the taxpayer than life-time incarceration for the convicted one. Others argue that our parole system ultimately sets free those with lifetime sentences. That does happen in some cases, but that can be fixed by a legislative body passing a law to make parole in these cases impossible. This argument is thus an excuse, not a reason.

“Deep down I know that I do not favor capital punishment under any circumstances. My reasons are convincing, at least to me. First, the wrong person can be and has been executed on more than one occasion. Second, there does appear to be economic and racial disparity in those who are sentenced to die. Very few wealthy people, who can afford top criminal lawyers, need fear this outcome. Poor people with court-appointed attorneys do. Far more blacks than whites face the threat of execution. That gives me pause since racism runs so deep in this nation that it inevitably distorts objectivity. Third, both the fields of sociology and psychology have taught us that life is not only deeply connected, but radically interdependent. None of us is an island complete in himself or herself. All of us have been shaped and formed by our human experiences. Is stealing wrong? Yes, of course, stealing is wrong, but so is an economic system that grinds some people so deeply into poverty that they steal in order to survive or to provide bread so that their children do not starve, as was the case with Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Is murder wrong? Of course murder is wrong, but who created the murderer? No one is self-made. Abused children do become abusive adults. I do not intend to say that the individual can be relieved of any ultimate responsibility for his or her behavior, but I do want to say that individualism is not as individualistic as once we imagined. We are a deeply interrelated species and any of us can be warped, twisted and even destroyed by another. Given these facts I do not believe that the judgment of society can ever fall with appropriateness solely on the shoulders of the one who commits the crime or pulls the trigger.

“Finally, I am not able to square capital punishment with my faith as a Christian. I do not believe that capital punishment is or can ultimately ever be a moral option, nor do I think war today is or can ever be a moral option. I am also prepared to argue that if we had a vigorous and competent system of sex education in our public schools and if we made birth control universally available, I would regard abortion, save in the rarest of circumstances in which the mother’s life or health was at risk, as no longer a moral option.

“We live, however, in a compromised society. Executions strike me as the result of failed domestic policy. Wars strike me as the result of failed foreign policy. Most abortions strike me as the dreadful result of a compromise between rampant sexual ignorance and the inappropriate repression that rises from contrived and unhealthy sexual fears. I, furthermore, do not think that revenge and violence are the qualities of a civilized people. I do not think that state killing demonstrates an advanced civilization. I still hear the words of Jesus commanding us to love our enemies.

1 comment:

  1. I greatly appreciated this article and wanted to share some similar thoughts--a brief piece I wrote entitled, "The Miracle of Troy: A Reflection on Unanswered Prayer."

    Richest blessings,

    Roxanne Ivey
    Poets for Positive Change