The following editorial originally published in the Journal Inquirer January 10, 2013
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
The author of a Dec. 19 letter to the editor wrote, “If the murderer committing the massacre in Newtown had not killed himself, I believe the vast majority of Connecticut residents would prefer that he be executed. … Perhaps (by eliminating the death penalty) our legislators and governor are not representing the people that elected them.”
State-sanctioned revenge killings would probably be satisfying, on some level. In fact, there are a number of reasons I could support them, myself:
—Justice. You hurt me, I hurt you. Even when pain isn’t inflicted intentionally, many of us still find ourselves instinctively reacting to it by hitting, shouting, hurting back. My husband once accidentally hurt me with his elbow, and by reflex, I said “Ow!” and slapped his arm. As humans, maybe this is just what we do.
When I think of a society, particularly when it comes to punishment, I often find myself wondering about the cave people of yore and their handling of the most offensive of rule breakers. I imagine their justice system was very simple: Break the rules of society, and you are eliminated from that society. Shunning was one of the key scenes in Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, anyway.
It makes good sense. If we want the masses to behave in a civilized manner, and if we want to protect the innocents from the criminal element, it’s only logical to remove that criminal element. If you take the life of a member in a particularly horrifying way (because, as our own justice system has made clear, all murders aren’t equal), you waive your own right to life and we kill you.
—Mean people deserve what comes to them. It pleases the most primitive, and admittedly least attractive, part of me when I can imagine that someone guilty of a brutal crime (for example, Steven J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, found guilty of the Petit murders in Cheshire) might spend every day on Death Row dreading their final day.
I’m aware of how cruel that sounds. I understand that no person is one-dimensional. Even murderers have redeeming qualities. Many of the worst people in our society are the way they are through no fault of their own. As children, maybe they were beaten, molested, neglected, emotionally traumatized, or otherwise mistreated. They could have been born with, or developed, a psychological disorder that was difficult or impossible for them to manage.
I want to tell them I’m so sorry that the one shot they got at life turned out to be such a mess, that they can’t start over.
But then I imagine that the person they killed was someone I love, and I want to say, “Oh, well. You’re a grown-up now, and you had the opportunity to seek help. Hope the injection makes your veins burn like they’re on fire.” What else does one do with such hurt, such anger, such loss?
—Setting aside the torch-carrying mass hysteria we tend to engage in at any given opportunity, punishing bad behavior can be a beautiful and unifying activity.
It could be, and has been, argued that the death penalty has nothing to do with vengeance, that it’s a crime deterrent. This is debatable, and by that I mean experts on both sides continue to debate it. I imagine they have to use the “deterrent” approach, just as death penalty opponents argue the financial impact of having prisoners on Death Row, because it sounds better in the grown-up world of policy than arguments whose words reflect what’s at the core.
I don’t buy for a second that there’s a logical component to our blood lust. If there were, executions would be uniform. Even so, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, generally, with wanting the state to kill murderers for us.
According to figures compiled by the Innocence Project, “there have been 301 post-conviction exonerations in the U.S.” Eighteen of them served on Death Row.
And this summarily demolishes every single argument in favor of the death penalty.
Between 1989 and 2011, at least 10 executed prisoners were posthumously found by the Death Penalty Information Center to have “strong evidence of innocence.” That even one more innocent person could be “accidentally” killed by our imperfect system is the single irrefutable reason the death penalty as it currently exists in 33 states is a barbaric measure that has no place in “civilized” society.
For the death penalty to be just, to be right, to be even marginally acceptable—and this doesn’t even factor in the “fairness” of who we execute, what color they are, how mentally fit they are—it would, at the barest minimum, have to kill the right person every single time.
And with our system of attorneys and juries, most of whom aren’t there to see every single murder take place and then immediately follow every single murderer to the courthouse (thereby eliminating any question of doubt), there’s just no way to guarantee that kind of accuracy.