November 17, 2011


I am aware there are a number of books written about the death penalty which have raised questions about whether or not justice is served when the state takes a life. One of the earliest writings to foment debate in my memory was not a book, but the letters of Barbara Graham who was executed for murder by the state of California in 1955. “I Want to Live” became the screen play that told her story and years later, another book, “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Pajean reawakened that debate as did Stephen King’s “The Green Mile.

I don’t support the death penalty. I believe a society should be greater than the sum of its parts and call us to higher values than the stumblings of individuals. I see the reasoning behind those who do support it, however. Their argument is for proportionality in justice: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Certainly it is the principle which serves and guides much of the Arab world.

The majority of citizens in the United States do support the planned and institutionalized taking of a life — a kind of ceremonial killing in the interest of justice. But for those of us who stand in the minority, there is some hope that opinion is changing. The use of DNA to determine guilt or innocence has done much to undermine our faith in the infallibility of juries. What’s more the mounting costs in death penalty cases have caused former supporters to reconsider.  Thirteen executions in the State of California since 1978 have cost the taxpayer $308 million dollars, far more than it would have taken to permanently institutionalize the offenders (“This Week” 10/28/11).

Statistics also cause us to question whether or not justice is truly blind. For example a convicted murderer “Is far more likely to be executed if he kills a white person than a black person.   

When we, as a nation, come to understand that the death penalty is imposed with uncertainty and sometimes upon the innocent, then, as I trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow citizens, the death penalty itself will die.

*John Donne