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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Milestone We Could Do Without

As I write this, our country has only recently conducted 999th execution since the death penalty was re-instated in 1977. What could be its 1,000th execution is already scheduled before the end of the week. It is a milestone that should be greeted, in my opinion, with profound sorrow and a spirit of repentance.

First, it represents the death of at least a thousand innocents even prior to the court procedures that lead to the executions. Any discussion of the topic has to start with the recognition of the horrible injustice suffered by the victims of these crimes. The fact is beyond discussion that these victims are dead and will never return. They were fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, and each of them was loved by someone. So, let us begin our discussion by agreeing that reducing the number of murders in the first place should be our primary goal. There is simply no other way to adequately address the heart-rending agony of the subject.

Second, each one of those executions represents millions of dollars wasted. This is the second tragedy of the death penalty. If we are to have such a dread law; then it is only right and fitting that we approach it with an air of caution and reluctance. We should, in every case, spare no expense to ensure that the person who is executed is, in fact, guilty of the crimes with which they are charged. If the states of Texas and Florida can be used as an example of the cost, then the average cost of execution is somewhere around two and a half million dollars per person. This means that our 1,000th execution represents $2.5 trillion - roughly the same amount of money the United States government was budgeted to spend in 2005. If you had spent a dollar per second, it would take just under 29,000 days for you to spend that much. That's seventy-nine years of a dollar per second spending. Think of what that money might have meant to an impoverished school, or to the City of New Orleans after Katrina. That's the second tragedy - what we must give up to pursue this type of justice. It is even more so a tragedy when that money is diverted to no end at all.

Third, it must be realized that the death penalty has limited or no effect beyond those intimately touched by it. There is no deterrent effect to keeping it on the books - or even in using it often. If it were, then Texas would have the lowest murder rate in the country. While it has managed to significantly reduce its murder rate in the last twenty years, it is still closer to being in the top ten than in the lowest ten. However, it is also important to understand that the murder rate in general fell during this time period. If you understand statistics and really want to educate your self on the subject, then I suggest this report - for the rest of us, here are the results:

This study found that recent evidence from the most active execution state in the nation lent no support to the deterrence hypothesis. The number
of executions did not appear to influence either the rate of murder in general or the rate of felony murder in particular. At the same time, no
support was found for the brutalization hypothesis. Executions did not reduce murder rates; they also did not have the opposite effect of increasing
murder rates.


I've written previously that I do support the existence of the death penalty. Nothing I'm writing today should be construed as a reversal of that opinion. I do believe there are some people who should be killed for their crimes. That is the hardness of my heart for which I see no cure. Jesus taught that Moses gave divorce to the People of God because of the hardness of their hearts - and that is where I stand on the death penalty. My heart hardens when I hear of someone raping and torturing a child, and I cannot find any scrap of pity for them within my soul. There are some crimes that cry out for the death of the offender. I am not God and I do not have infinite justice or infinite mercy at my disposal. If it were so, I would not need a Savior.

Yet I do have pity upon our society. If we must keep the death penalty on the books; then let us admit it is solely because of the hardness of our hearts. It is not a pretty thing, to look in the mirror and see someone who says, "Yes, it is okay to murder - sometimes." Yet that is what I am and that is what I see. If I were a coward, I could claim differently. This, however, is my position.

It is okay to murder sometimes - God forgive me. In fact, I believe it is ocassionally justified. But if it is to be so, then great care must be used so that it is used equitably - fairly. It should be beyond reproach that our guidelines are strict and do not deviate based on the status or person of either the victim or offender.

This is not what we have. To claim otherwise is to say that the 999 who have died were the guiltiest among us. They were the most heinous offenders with no chance of rehabilitation. This is, quite simply, not true.

Capricious justice is not justice by any name.

It must end. If we cannot be trusted to approach the issue fairly; then we must be responsible and remove from our reach the temptation for the capricious and arbitrary use of what is, beyond cliche, the ultimate punishment.

**Update**

Va. Governor Mark Warner has granted clemency to Robin Lovitt. That means we will cross the death penalty Rubicon slightly later this week, when two people are scheduled to be executed. We now have until Friday before we achieve this dubious goal - in North Carolina.

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