Capital punishment is vengeance masquerading as justice. No matter how heinous the crime, we lose our moral highground when we allow killing as a punishment for murder.
The United States seems increasingly obsessed with vengeance at every level of society. Unable or unwilling to try to fathom the complexities of our times, we find solace in revenge. It is our narcotic. And it dulls public thinking by excusing us from having to address the moral and political complications we choose not to deal with.
I spent much of last summer in New England, arguing over dinners with friends as to whether Steven Hayes, a habitual criminal convicted of torturing and savagely murdering a Connecticut mother and her two daughters, deserved to be executed.
A jury decided he did.
My friends, along with the jury, believed the case so heinous that the perpetrator deserved to die. But isn’t every murder heinous?
The issue, then, is not whether Mr. Hayes and his yet-to-be-tried alleged accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, merited the death penalty. Hayes clearly wants to die. He smiled when he heard the verdict. His attorney called the sentence “suicide by the state.” The issue is the death penalty itself.
The indisputable fact remains that as long as the death penalty is available to judges and juries, we will execute people to satisfy people’s lust for revenge, and often mistakenly. As a nation we have a shameful history of executing innocents, from Salem’s alleged witches, to cattle rustlers, to “uppity blacks” and alleged murderers who we later discovered had incompetent defense attorneys. The only way a civilized people can prevent execution of the innocent is to outlaw the death penalty as an option.
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