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Death Penalty Is a Dead End Not Only for the Condemned

There are good reasons why no other Western democracy still has it. It's not only barbaric but counterproductive.

March 09, 1997|ROBERT B. MCLAREN | Robert B. McLaren is a professor of child, adolescent and family studies at Cal State Fullerton

On Feb. 3, the American Bar Assn. urged all 38 states still invoking the death penalty to halt all executions until "a haphazard maze of unfair practices" can be remedied. This comes in the wake of numerous cases of obstruction of justice and outright lying on the part of prosecutors and police, the most recent of which put an innocent man on death row in Illinois.

Half a century ago, Yale University professor Edwin Borchard documented more than 60 cases of innocent persons being put to death. Capital punishment was for a time abolished, but was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1972. Some 350 have been executed; another 3,000 are on death row.

While 96 nations worldwide have abolished it, the United States is the only Western democracy to employ the death penalty. Those opposed insist it has nothing to do with being "soft on crime." It's at least partly a pragmatic concern. Countries which have abolished the practice actually have seen a decline in violent crime. In Austria, the police, after several killings of their comrades, claimed that the death penalty actually put the officers at risk; certain types of offenders go to extreme lengths to avoid capture. If the death penalty were eliminated, they said, they themselves would be safer. It was, and they are.

Opposition to executions is usually based on at least four concerns: It too often is applied unfairly, targeting minority and poverty cases; it has no clear deterrent effect; it sometimes kills the innocent, and in the end the practice perpetuates a culture of violence, which justifies revenge against any suspected enemy. South Africa, after being torn with violent crime for decades, with seemingly good reasons for continuing the penalty, abolished it in 1995. Bishop Desmond Tutu noted: "It's making us more civilized."

The charge of "unfair application" is bolstered by the recognition that blacks are far more likely to be executed than whites for the same crime, and men more often than women. Since 1993, only 2% of the more than 5,500 death sentences have been imposed on women.

As to the deterrent effect, Warden Lewis Lawes, formerly of Sing Sing prison, declared that of 150 men he led to the electric chair, not one could say he had given any thought to punishment if he were caught. And indeed, several studies have shown that states without the death penalty actually have lower crime rates.

The execution of innocent people is perhaps a civilized society's worst nightmare. In a recent report from England, where 16 men were found totally innocent of any crime, but had been arrested on planted evidence, one barrister was quoted: "Thank God we don't have the death penalty. We might have found out too late." Judge Jerome Frank noted, "Once a man is dead, interest in vindicating him generally evaporates."

Executions tend to bring out the worst in a society and perpetuate a culture of violence. England's history is especially illustrative. During the 38-year reign of Henry VIII, 72,000 executions were carried out, and by the beginning of the 19th century, there were 250 capital crimes, including stealing a handkerchief, damaging a fishpond and associating with gypsies. Charles Dickens was an eyewitness to a public hanging where he described the howling, applauding crowds, and began a campaign to abolish such "entertainments."

Violence begets violence. A society can be led, as was France during the 1792 "Reign of Terror," to sing songs in praise of "Madame Guillotine," and slaughter whole villages without mercy. By contrast, in colonial America the Puritans, often accused of repressive attitudes, actually succeeded in reducing the number of executions, while Benjamin Franklin started the first movement to abolish the death penalty altogether. But the history of capital punishment is one of ebbs and flows, and the current administration in Washington seems bent on increasing, rather than reducing, the practice. There are currently 464 death row inmates in California alone.

Death as entertainment is not remote from the American psyche, where my hometown was the scene of an uproarious lynching during my childhood. After two African Americans were hanged, their guilt was admitted completely bogus by their accuser. This was not in the Deep South, but Illinois, "Land of Lincoln."

Michael Endres, professor of criminal justice at Xavier University, said it well. "The issue of the death penalty is linked to the fundamental matter of the kind of society in which we wish to live. It is too easy to kill--trees for another concrete roadway; the animal for its pelt; the enemy, the fetus, the aged, the defective." Executions are truly a dead end, accomplishing nothing.

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