Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Personal Thoughts on the Ultimate Punishment

This photo has nothing to do with this post. It's just an old photo of me cross-country skiing in the Sierras (and eating snow). The photo was taken in Jaunary 1989 on Kodachrome and is a digital copy of the slide.
I saw them just a few times that summer. They’d be walking to the mailbox or in their car turning into our shared driveway. I’d smile and wave and generally they’d wave back; I don’t think we ever spoke. They seemed sad, just a remnant of a family who lived in an old farmhouse behind me. They all seemed older than their years and probably were. I remember an older girl or more correctly, a young woman. She might have been attractive, had it not been for the gloom on her face, slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. I wondered if she was the one.

In the summer of 1984, I was director at Camp Bud Schiele, a Boy Scout camp located in the foothills of the Appalachians. The land that made up the reservation had originally been several dairy farms. They hadn’t yet built the director’s cabin, so I lived in a small house that had originally housed one of the dairy families. Behind me, in what had once been a farmhand’s house lived this family in a house they rented from the scout council. The summer camp area was about a mile and a half away, across a broad valley dissected by the tracks of the Clinchfield Railroad.

Right before I moved to camp for the summer, I had a conversation about the family with Tony, the camp ranger. We were in the former milk bar which had been converted to the camp’s shop and tool storage shed. A ranger from another camp that was a few miles from us was also present. He was either borrowing or returning some equipment.

“They need their privacy,” Tony said. “But keep your eye out for them and call me and the sheriff if anyone bothers them.” He then told me the story. The father of the family had recently been executed at Central Prison in Raleigh. If I remember correctly, his was the first execution in North Carolina following the reinstatement of the death penalty. A few years earlier, his daughter had come home late from a date. He’s taken shots at her boyfriend and when the law showed up to find out what was going on, he shot and killed two officers.

I made some quip about how his death wasn't going to solve anything. This was interpreted as a liberal cliché by the other ranger, who immediately challenged my statement. We entered into a rather heated argument over the necessity of capital punishment. As in most such arguments, neither one of us changed our minds. If I remember correctly, Tony didn't say much, just listened and shook his head.

I became an opponent of capital punishment fairly early in my life. At some point, I remember watching a movie about an innocent man being executed and it seemed that the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to end such punishments. Although I was only 11, I was relieved in the late 60s when the Supreme Court instituted a moratorium on the practice. My first political arguments with my dad were on this topic; he felt the Supreme Court’s decision to be foolish. But what sealed my position on capital punishment came when I was in the eighth grade. I was a student at Roland Grice Junior High School and my girlfriend attended Sunset Park Junior High. We knew each other through church. During the week, we’d talk by phone. We both had spies at the other school, snitches more than willing to tell tales. One day I confronted her about a guy she’d been seen frequently hanging around with and she snapped back, “What are you going to do, put me in the electric chair?” Ever a smart-ass, I responded, “Lucky for you, I don’t believe in capital punishment.” Then we forgot all about the allegations of her unfaithfulness and began to argue about the merits of the death penalty. She was in favor of it and I was against it.

In time, the reasons for my position against capital punishment changed. I began to base my arguments on moral and theological grounds, centering mostly on the need for society to set the example about the value of life. For the same reason, I have also been against abortion even though I’m horrified at the possibility of being identified with the pro-life camp, most of whom aren’t really pro-life, just anti-abortion. But that’s another topic.

Throughout my life I have had many encounters with those dealing with capital cases. When working with the Scouts, one of my district chairmen was an attorney. The country didn’t have a public defender, so the task was rotated among those who practiced criminal law. By the luck of the draw he was assigned to defend a young man who’d been charged with a double murder, the deaths of his girlfriend’s two children. There was little doubt of the defendant’s guilt as the bodies were discovered in his trunk. It was anguish to have to defend such a man and a year or two later, he quit practicing law.

Years later, when living in Utah, there was a horrible murder. A young man brutally attacked his ex-mother-in-law in front of his children. The victim was a respectful member of the community, a Paiute social worker who was seen by many within the tribe as a leader and nurturer. Again, I was friends with the attorney who had the public defendant contract for the county. It was his first capital case and we talked several times about it (enough so that when the case did come to trial and I was one of the 120 people in the jury pool, I was quickly dismissed!). Again, there was little doubt of his guilt and the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to death. When his attorney accepted the case, he confided to me that he had no problems with capital punishment. He admitted he’d never really given it much thought, but during the trial, as he got to know the defendant, he struggled with his beliefs. Although the defendant was guilty, he was still a human being.

I attended the final arguments for the sentencing phase. Outside the courthouse, a circus was on-going. The victim had been a member of the local band of Paiutes and many members of the tribe were out with signs asking that the defendant “fry.” The defendant was also a Native American, but a Hopi. Far from his native land, he had no supporters. I was sickened as I cleared security at the courthouse, wondering if those picketing would feel better once they obtained the revenge they sought. “Vengeance is mine,” say the Lord, but many people things the Lord can use a helping hand. The defendant, in what was an agonizing decision for the judge, was sentenced to death.

I saw that ranger from the neighboring camp, the one I’d argued with over capital punishment, once or twice more that summer, but the topic never came up again. A year or so later, two young men turned up missing and the fingers all pointed to him. Their bodies were found buried near his home. He was tried and found guilty and sentenced to death. I have no idea what ever came of the case, as I left the area shortly afterwards. But I’ve wondered about him as well as I’ve wondered whatever became of that family that lived in the house behind me. And yes, I’ve also wonder what happened to the mother of the two children, the wives and children of the law officers, the parents of the two young men and the daughter and grandchildren of the Paiute social worker. Did these additional deaths bring any peace?


  1. I tend to think the death penalty is more trouble than it's worth, although, if States wish to impose it, I suppose that's their business.

    Nonetheless, from a theological perspective, I'm one who believes there is always a possibility for repentance and redemption. It is not for me to judge whether displayed remorse and repentance is genuine; only God judges. I hold the at view of the sanctity and spiritual potential of all human life from beginning to end, so I hope I'm philosophically consistent.


  2. Up until maybe a half dozen years ago, I was okay with the death penalty. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But then I started thinking on the subject and why we do it. It certainly isn't a deterrent as capital crime has been climbing. Any relief by the victims and relatives is probably fleeting. If I were them, I think I would rather the guy be locked up in a labor camp the rest of his life than taking the easy way out in an electric chair. So in the end, I flip flopped and have been against the death penalty and for reform in our prison system to make them 'pay' for their crimes by helping others with hard labor.

  3. We hear it from the news all the time, that the victim's family want "closure", and usually that means "death sentence". Undoubtedly, many people want capital punishment when they believe they are the "victims".

    In Singapore, having 30g of cocaine (which is like 1.058 ounce) will result in capital punishment. Therefore no drugs in schools. In fact school is a safe environment for every child to excel. If you are a parent, and since all parents want to protect the children, you probably will favor that law in Singapore.

  4. Btw, I believe that capital punishment exists to "regulate" people so they don't do stupid things. That itself is alright. We humans, fortunately or unfortunately, need regulations - simply because we can get very stupid. Heck if I'm the ruler of the universe, I'll sentence all litter bugs to capital punishment! :)

  5. There are many times I want to believe in the death penalty as I think people sometimes do deserve it, and the financial cost to society might be lower in the end--or not because of the appeals process and even the actual cost of the execution

    But I can never believe in it for many reasons including--even DNA can be tampered with, there are too many wrongful executions and an eye for an eye might have worked once...

    I think life imprisonment, no chance for parole, and no privileges such as classes, gyms etc is in the end a much harsher and better punishment

    Obviously capital punishment is no determent.

    Great post Sage.

    You didn't know that shag means something else? Here it's a big joke--first night of SOS the guys run to the clubs to shag and to shag--I was given the whole order of clubs and how "shagable" the girls are in each club. These are men in their 30's-50's--divorced and uh looking for a good time

  6. Thoughtful post. It costs more to execute a man, than to keep him imprisoned for life. The penalty is imposed inequitably based on race, wealth, etc. And DNA testing keeps showing again, and again, that people have been wrongly convicted. The fact that some states also impose the penalty on children and the mentally limited should also give us pause to think about what that says about us as a society.

  7. I have no problem with the death penalty for certain crimes when the guilt is unequivocal. Most of those crimes involve the rape and/or murder of children. For me, it has nothing to do with vengeance. Once someone has committed such a crime they should never be given the chance to do it again. Sure, if we could guarantee them being locked up for life, I could go for that. But no such guarantees can be given. And yes, perhaps there could be the possibility of repentence, but if we are talking about a supernatural element such as the soul, why cannot the repentence occur after death. Our first order of business as a society is to protect the innocent.

  8. This is a great post, Sage. And a very controversial subject too. I'm impressed at how many times you had encounters with people dealing with capital punishment.

    There is not capital punishment in Europe. It's a concept that horrifies most of the population.

    Most people tend to think that there should be life imprisonment for those who have committed horrible crimes like terrorism, rape, children murder. Some criminals have proved to be unable to rehabilitate into society, and therefore they wouldn't deserve the efforts of the Legal System in that direction. On the other hand, human justice is so imperfect...

    Life has to be protected, indeed. But I'm sure there are better and more effective ways to do that.

  9. Sage
    With you on this one brother, I've always opposed the death penalty for much the same reasons as those voiced by others ....
    thanks for interesting article.

  10. I would tend to agree with you. Though in the most shockingly evil crimes, such as those against children, it's tough.

    I have a much bigger problem with criminals being released after serving a light sentence only to go out and kill again. It seems like that should never happen.

  11. Randall, I was interested in what an attorney would say... As for always the possibility of repentance, it seems to me that shouldn't play a role in deciding to carry out such a punishment.

    Ed, what kind of labor would you have them do? Most people who deserve to be "locked up and the key thrown away" would be people you wouldn't want to risk transporting to and from a work site all the time...

    Mother Hen, I knew you'd bring up Singapore! I know it's suppose to be a deterent, but is it? Studies suggest not.

    Pia, the idea of one innocent being wrongly executed is enough reason not to have the punishment. Yes, shagging does have different meanings. Have you dancing!

    Diane, another attorney weighing in! I agree, it should cause us to think about ourselves.

    Charles, I have no problem with life without parole, which would keep us safe and also allow us to honor life

    Lenni, thanks, it's always interesting to get perspectives from other countries. I wonder if because Europe has had more problems in recent history of governments being out of control in their use of capital punishment (thinking primarily of the Nazis) that they are wanting to put safeguards to keep it from happening again?

    Anonymous, Thanks, and I know who you are...

    Bone, such crimes (as those against children) are always horrible, but does it make us better to execute the guilty? I would like to see a true life sentence for such

  12. A very thoughtful post, Sage. I tend to agree with you. I think that Capital Punishment has a place, though. It should be reserved for the worst of the worst, like serial killers.

  13. The death penalty is not a spiritual judgment but rather the judgment of society for crimes committed in that society.

    It is not divine retribution and it is not divinely inspired. The death penalty comes from a societal desire for retribution and to ensure that the person convicted never returns to commit more crimes.

    That said, time has proven there is no deterrent factor to the death penalty and as others have said it is more costly to kill them than it is to keep them.

    Any who think that life no parole is great punishment for a killer obviously does not understand that a psychopath has no ability for remorse.

    The individual states have decided what they want within their borders and within their local society. Which I think is as it should be.

  14. I think it is in Arizona where they have labor details from prisons. They are shackled at the legs with chains and do ditch work along the roads, raking gravel, mowing grass, picking up litter, etc. I wouldn't mind if if they took a page out of Cool Hand Luke and had them dig a hole in the prison yard only to fill it up again. It doesn't have to be brutal or inhuman, but I have always felt that there is nothing like a little sweat to get someone to thinking. Keeping them locked up 23 hours to day in a air-conditioned cell with television, movies, books, etc leads to to many distractions and takes them away from the task at hand, repentance and possible rehabilitation.

  15. Sage, hi again.

    Your mention to WW2 and its influence in the abolishment of
    capital punishment after its uncontrolled use by the nazi govt. is very interesting. You're right: WW2 had a deep influence in many ocuntries of Europe, in man ways.

    The figures are impressive (I'm not talking about the 60 million casualties, but about the 6 million jews who were tortured and then killed, the 30.000 deserters from the German Army or the countless people who were killed in retaliation just for fighting the nazis, like those who fought in the Resistance).

    I'm too young to remember about it, but I have been very impressed to see how vivid this fact is still in the memory of those who lived during WW2 in some countries of Europe (basically France and Holland, who suffered badly from German invasion).

    The consequence for the present generations of Germans who have nothing to do with that... some people hate them -for no good reason, in my opinion. They were not at that war and surely never shared the ideas that started it-.

    In Spain we had capital war -can you believe that?-. It was a reminiscence of the Spanish Civil War that Franco maintained.

    Fortunately, after his death in 1975, the 1978 democratic Constitution abolished it.

  16. Interesting arguments.

    I can't help but wonder how the family members of those murdered by the Manson "family" or Jeffrey Dahmer would have felt if the death penalty would have been used. I imagine there would be some peace and closure, but maybe I'm wrong.

    I just know I could never pull the level or inject the needle.

  17. It is my belief that God should decide how and when we should die. I am against the death penalty, and abortion.

  18. Thoughtful post, and engaging reflections. Morally I think capital punishment is unthinkable, and unnecessary. I agree, it devalues human life. But is a life sentence enough?

    In terms of justice and a civil society, I think we pay far too much attention to the rights of criminals, and not nearly enough to that of their victims.

  19. I believe in the death penalty in times where beyond any shadow we know they are brutal. As in Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer...and the most recent woman who took that little girl and did terrible sexual things to her and put her in the suitcase in the pond to drown. I personally believe Garrido should die but think it may be easier to let him go out in prison. He took away her life. But it would be so hard for her children to understand. So much evil in the world. But so much love too. I enjoyed reading the Shack. Though fiction it made me see how you have to forgive. Not let them go unpunished but forgive for something horrible happened to make them that sick. There is a certain sickness that can never be cured once they've tasted that thrill. And I'm not sure it would change people if they know they can get the dealth penalty but if it saves just one child from a brutal experience that no innocent creature should suffer, maybe that is enough.

  20. A thorough review that is of great value, Sage. It does each of us well to at least stop and ponder these stories, the people you have brought to life and the consequences of the decisions we make. Fascinating and engrossing. You have a way of uncovering a wealth of reading here on this wonderful site! Thanks for sharing!!!:)