Justice versus vengeance

If angels were to govern men, capital punishment would not be flawed. But would it be administered?

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently signed legislation abolishing the use of the death penalty, making New Mexico the 15th state to prohibit capital punishment since the Supreme Court reinstated the penalty. Recognizing that more than 130 death row inmates were exonerated in the past decade, Richardson said, âÄúI do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime. If the state is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.âÄù Capital punishment is not only a judicial decree, but a political manifestation of power. Besides the primary victim (the executed prisoner), capital punishment aims to ensure obedience within a secondary victim (the general populace). The Supreme CourtâÄôs ruling in Furman v. Georgia 1972 found the death penalty to be unconstitutional because of the arbitrary and often unfair implementation of the penalty âÄî not because the punishment was cruel or unusual. State legislatures quickly redrafted statutes that provided specific sentencing guidelines, leading to the courtâÄôs reinstatement of the penalty in Gregg v. Georgia 1976. The outcome of the Gregg case re-established an unjust penalty and heightened the potential for coercive power in American jurisprudence. By imitating the same barbaric acts of violence that it hopes to curtail, states are ignoring that the death penalty has no place in a penal system where less severe sentences could achieve a just end. A handful of other states, including Montana, Maryland and Colorado, are also deliberating changes to their capital punishment statutes, indicating a tidal shift against the death penalty. Each measure is facing stiff resistance from victim advocacy groups who believe capital punishment saves the state money and acts as a deterrent to future crimes. The first assertion is not only incorrect, its application in capital punishment is erroneous. According to a 2008 study in Maryland, condemning a man to death costs the state $1.9 million more than sentencing him to life imprisonment because the costs of the lengthy appeals process far exceed the price of housing and feeding the prisoner. Moreover, assigning a value to an individual is essentially an attempt to demoralize the subject. In the eyes of death penalty advocates, the condemned is no longer a man but a thing awaiting execution. There is no reason for Americans to be ensnared by a punishment that is ripped from the Code of Hammurabi. If an eye for an eye is the most reasonable outcome the government can offer the victims of violent crime, then the state has failed. Mahatma Gandhi said, âÄúAn eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.âÄù He may not have been speaking about capital punishment, but his words are welcomed in a debate that has grown stale with baseless claims advocating revenge. Another death penalty fallacy states the punishment serves as a deterrent. If capital punishment was a deterrent, then Texas would be a magical utopia. State governments serve several primary functions: the provision of public health, the regulation of intrastate commerce and the issuance of licenses. Murder is not one of them. Capital punishment is the ultimate premeditated murder, and taxpayers are the blind accomplices in the stateâÄôs physical confrontation with the condemned. Justice in America is not blind. Americans may abide by the rule of law, but those laws are written by flawed humans. The impending sense of mortality that grips the condemned man as he walks the green mile is the same feeling experienced by his victim. Looking beyond the prison bars and finding the human story of the condemned is the first step in overcoming mankindâÄôs primitive need for revenge. Vengeance is easy, but justice is difficult. This column, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Daily Evergreen at Washington State University. Please send comments to [email protected]