Monday, March 5, 2012

Death Penalty, Part 2: Murder is Murder

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." - John Donne

In my last post, I wrote about last week's press conference/lobby day at the state capitol in Hartford, organized by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. I focused my remarks on those who spoke and attended, rather than on the issue of capital punishment itself; I did not want to invite invective that would detract from those involved in the event, especially the courageous people who spoke at the press conference. Having done that, I suppose it's time to bring on the haters.

I have been opposed to capital punishment for as long as I can remember, and base my sentiment on several different grounds. A primary argument in favor of capital punishment is that it serves as a deterrent. I studied the issue as a member of my high school debate team in 1976. Studies at that time debunked the notion of deterrence. Studies since have come to same conclusion (see the work of Jeffrey Fagan from Columbia, among others); a survey of leading criminologists in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology showed widespread disbelief in the deterrence argument. Here in Connecticut, homicide rates have remained virtually unchanged since the re-institution of the death penalty in 1973. In that year, there were 102 homicides in Connecticut; in 2010, there were 130, for an average of 96 per year over that time period. Where is the deterrence? Facts and figures aside, does any reasonable person think, on an anecdotal basis, that the penalty for the crime enters into the thought process of the perpetrator before or during the commission of the crime???

Since 1973, we have seen the emergence of DNA testing as a critical tool in solving crime. This technology has also been a leading tool in exonerating those who were incorrectly convicted of any crime. There have been any number of instances where inmates on death row were exonerated after the emergence of DNA testing. Should we risk executing the innocent in the name of “swift justice”? People are often convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony, known to many, particularly those in law enforcement, to be inherently unreliable. Should we risk executing the innocent in those cases?

As a simple matter of dollars and cents (NO, I'm not putting a price tag on justice), capital punishment makes for bad law. Independent studies have demonstrated that the cost of capital cases is higher than the cost of life imprisonment without parole. The old notion that execution is cheaper is factually inaccurate. In addition to the higher monetary costs, what about the emotional costs paid by the victims' families who have to re-live their horror at every step of the appeals process? The additional funds consumed in prosecuting and defending these cases might be put to better use if directed toward the families of the victims, for counseling and other vital support services.

Arguments have been made in favor of “fixing” the death penalty by speeding up the process. If we even could speed up the process, we only increase the chance for innocent people to be executed. No matter what legislation we enact to hasten the process, a great part of the process takes place in federal court, out of the control of the people of Connecticut. Proponents of “fixing” the process are merely creating a convenient smokescreen behind which they hide their lack of political courage.

Finally, as an atheist, I find capital punishment to be morally repugnant. Murder is murder. Period. I have never understood, nor received a logical explanation for, the notion that my conservative friends can be “pro-life” yet still support capital punishment. When speaking about abortion, they claim that all life is sacrosanct; do we live in a world like Orwell's Animal Farm, where some life is more sacrosanct than others? Deacon Arthur Miller of St. Mary's Church in Simsbury, himself a family member of a murder victim, said it best at last week's press conference – capital punishment is vengeance, not justice. The fact that we are still debating this issue speaks unbelievably poorly of social development at this stage of human existence. As is often the case, I turn to the words of Bob Dylan to summarize my feelings, even though these words were written to address a different injustice:

Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed,
to live in a land where justice is a game.”

Bob Dylan – Hurricane

NOTE to CT Residents: If you are opposed to capital punishment, I urge you to contact your state representatives, via phone, mail or e-mail. They don't hear from constituents very often – you'd be surprised at the impact you might make. To find your representative, you may contact CNADP at or go to – they have a neat widget on their home page that will help you find your representative.

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