Capital Punishment’s Moral Support: Why California Voters Couldn’t Kill Death

Whether or not you voted to abolish California’s death penalty on Tuesday, you’re probably aware of the financial argument against it. It’s unquestionable that the death penalty, in its current form, is poorly administered and in need of reform.

When you compare the number of inmates sitting on death row to the number that have actually been executed in the last 30 years, you get a staggeringly lopsided ratio. Inmates sit on death row long past their scheduled execution dates, marching around the Penrose steps of an appallingly bureaucratic appeals process while siphoning millions out of the state budget. It’s a more or less inarguable point that the system of capital punishment is broken. As Bill Clinton might say, it’s simple “arithmetic.”

Despite this, there remains a significant majority of voters who struck down Proposition 34 this Tuesday, and will likely strike down any similar measures in the near and distant future. That’s because the financial argument, while 100 percent valid in and of itself, represents only half of a larger debate. It does not account for the moral implications of capital punishment, and for many voters, these implications take precedence.

The last time the state of California carried out an execution was 2006. I remember hearing the report on the radio while my dad drove me home from school. Clarence Ray Allen had been convicted of murder and then contracted the murders of three more people from the confines of his prison cell; he would be executed at midnight.

I remember looking out the car window and trying to imagine that I was Allen, my dad was a prison guard and instead of driving home for dinner, we were driving to the site of my execution. How would the world look to a person who wouldn’t be in it tomorrow? I clenched my fists and ground my teeth, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t put myself in Allen’s shoes. I just couldn’t empathize.

It’s not that I lacked imagination, or an adequate comprehension of death. I realized the gravity of Allen’s situation as well as I do six years later, in retrospect. What made it so hard for me to empathize with this man was the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of four people. He was a murderer, and I was not. It was a fundamental, irreconcilable difference in our natures, and it was for this difference that he would soon be put to death while I would be asleep in the comfort of my home.

This was not particularly disturbing to me. What disturbed me was the fact that Allen had committed the murders in the first place and that there were people on death row who had committed crimes even more heinous and gruesome than his.

I believed, as I still do, that capital offenses are appropriately named, that to rape and sodomize a victim before, during or after killing them constitutes an innate lack of humanity and warrants the offender’s permanent removal from society.

There are those who would argue this is merely fighting “fire with fire,” taking an “eye for an eye,” or otherwise committing an egregious act of hypocrisy. I would contest that the process of lethal injection is a far more humane, delicate and respectful method of execution than the rape, dismemberment or calculated torture these murderers dealt their victims. Capital punishment is administered for the nature of a crime, and by comparison, is very tame.

Others would argue that the reality of capital punishment does not deter capital offense; that a life sentence in prison without parole is a formidable substitute to discourage potential offenders. This is an extremely hypothetical point, but one with which Niccolò Machiavelli would probably disagree.

Life in prison threatens the quality of a person’s life, but it does not pose a direct threat to life itself. This is an important distinction to make, especially in light of humanity’s most basic instinct for survival. Our core psychological makeup suggests that a society without ultimatums is prone to serious transgression.

This isn’t to say we should celebrate our executions. We shouldn’t stand up and applaud death, as dozens of audience members did when Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prolific record of capital punishment was announced during a Republican primary debate. This is a misguided approach that trades the cause of justice for bloodlust.

What we need to do is stop confusing the punishment for the crime. Society is not at fault for putting murderers to death; it’s at fault for producing murderers in the first place. Our concerted efforts should go towards eliminating the problem, not the solution.

It’s true that the system of capital punishment is broken. But until we reform it — until we rein back the bureaucracy, tidy up the appeals process and administrate justice swiftly and efficiently — it will continue to burden taxpayers. Capital punishment is founded on morality, not economics, and it is in accordance with morality that so many of us support it.

Mark Strong swears that he is actually a great empathizer.




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