A petition drive to reinstate capital punishment in Michigan, where it was abolished in 1847, has fallen short of the signatures required to put the issue on this November's ballot. The public debate during the drive held special significance for me as director of the agency which would be required to carry out executions. What follows are the conclusions I have reached after much difficult and troubling reflection.
During my 27 years in corrections, I have learned more than I care to know about murder. I have reviewed the grisly details of many homicides - sometimes because I was responsible for supervising the murderer in prison, sometimes because the murder itself was committed there. I have personally known prisoners who later became victims of brutal killings. I have experienced sorrow and anger over the senseless prison slaying of a friend and loyal employee. I have come to know well many murderers who were serving out their adult lives in prisons, some as responsible, productive human beings, others as hopeless management problems.
Some of these people, in my opinion, deserved to die for their crimes, But I have come to the conclusion that we, as a civilized society, should not kill them.
We should not because the death penalty fails the two tests against which any just sanction must be measured.
* The first test is that the sanction must be in our public self-interest. In this instance that means that we protect our own lives by taking that of another. In my profession public protection is my primary responsibility. Therefore, if I had grounds for believing execution of convicted murderers saved the lives of innocent people, I would be obligated to endorse capital punishment.
But capital punishment does not protect. Few issues in criminal justice have seen as much research over the last 40 years as the deterrent impact of executions, and there is no issue I am aware of in which the balance of evidence weighs so heavily on the negative side. There is even the possibility that some murderers see execution as a martyrdom which will provide a dramatic end to a life of hatred for themselves and others; Utah's Gary Gilmore may be an example.
It is sometimes said that even though an execution may not deter others, it at least prevents the freeing of the murderer in a few years to kill again. In Michigan, which has not executed anyone in nearly a century and a half, we have no record of any person commuted from a sentence of first-degree murder who repeated that crime. First-degree murderers who do not die in prison serve an average of 25 years before release, and their record thereafter is exemplary. To argue that we need capital punishment for our own safety will not stand scrutiny; life imprisonment is as adequate for that purpose.
* The second proper test of any penalty exacted by a civilized society is that it can be applied with assurance of justice and fairness. Capital punishment clearly fails this test as well.
It fails a test of social justice in that it has been disproportionately applied to minorities. This disturbing aspect of the death penalty application remains a problem even today. A recent study in our own state shows that both the race of the offender and the victim are factors in determining whether a first-degree murderer will be charged and convicted as such, or of a lesser crime. Research in other states has consistently shown similar racial discrimination among death row prisoners.
There also is the ever-present possibility - and over time the certainty - of the ultimate injustice: the socially approved execution of a person who happens to be innocent. Despite all judicial safeguards, some persons serving prison terms for murder in the first degree have been subsequently found to have been wrongfully convicted. At that point a prison term can at least be abridged, but a life cannot be restored.
Some argue for capital punishment on the grounds that it will save money. This is unlikely, but even if true the taking of a human life should not be based on so shallow a reason.
I am convinced capital punishment fails all proper criteria of an effective and just response to homicide. But there is yet a stronger reason why we, as a civilized people, should not kill even the most heinous and undeserving of criminals. That is the brutalizing effect which the death penalty has on the public which imposes it. Deliberate, unnecessary killing cheapens the value of human life. The ultimate message we give by exacting this penalty is that it is all right to kill for convenience or for vengeance. That, as it happens, is what every unrepentant murderer I have ever known believes.
Once we recognize that the death penalty is neither a just nor effective response to murder, then only vengeance is left. Several years ago, Canada's Pierre Trudeau asked this question: ''Are we so bankrupt as a society, so lacking in respect for ourselves, so lacking in hope for human betterment, so socially bankrupt that we are ready to accept vengeance as a penal philosophy?''
I am proud that Michigan continues to answer no to that question.