Maybe it is because I am a Texan, but I have never had a problem with the death penalty. I have never shed a tear when a murderer-rapist was put to death. I have been known to stifle a cheer when I hear that someone who killed a convenience store clerk during a robbery has been shot and killed by police.The idea seems so perfect: If you take someone’s life, yours will be taken as punishment. It speaks to that basic need for justice that is hammered into the mind of all children when they are forced to give their friends equal time to play with a toy.
If you are going to exact vengeance, however, there is a proper way of doing it.
Few modern Americans would want to send in mobs of private citizens to hunt down criminals. It would not be safe for the people in the city, and we have grown beyond that – supposedly – and understand the importance of a fair trial.
This bit of common sense has caused the creation of long, expensive appellate processes before a person can be executed. We are overly cautious when it comes to fair trials and humane prisoner treatment. That is why we are concerned with the idea that a person could feel pain when they are given a lethal injection – as ridiculous as it sounds.
The contention of many who oppose lethal injection: It amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Well, our history shows taking a life is not always cruel.
Cruelty implies malice. It is hard to claim the state is showing malice if it worries about a person feeling pain mere seconds before inducing a fatal heart attack.
Lethal injection, however, is most certainly unusual. “Unusual” means that it is not common practice and, historically speaking, we would be more in line with Western tradition if we used a guillotine or burned people at the stake on the steps of the Capitol and broadcast it on national television during the Super Bowl halftime.
Public execution is far more likely to have the deterrent effect we always hear about. It is a rather vacuous claim to say that criminals are deterred from a murder when faced with the possibility of being sentenced to death and spending 20 years appealing the ruling only to be executed in a humane, painless way, where the general public cannot see what happens – most notably, away from the prying eyes of those who may actually commit a similar crime.
And as long as we are talking about similar crimes, what constitutes a death penalty-worthy offense?
In some cases, shooting a convenience store clerk after he hands over the money in the register is enough to put you under the needle. In other cases, you could feasibly hog-tie a naked woman in her own home and then kill her, but just get life in prison as long as you didn’t rape her at some point during the act.
At what point on the continuum between shooting someone for sleeping with your spouse and chopping 20 or 30 people into pieces does the death penalty become warranted?
Where is the legal consistency demanded by the concept of deciding cases based on precedent?
It is not really the place of the state to decide whether an individual lives or dies. The state kills to protect the security of its own people from an imminent threat. It is quite another thing for it to decide to kill one of its own citizens who has been contained in a cell – an imminent threat to virtually no one.
Our system is not perfect. We do not always decide cases correctly. Sometimes killers go free, and that is lamentable. Sometimes we convict the innocent who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that is horrific. There can be no justice if we kill the innocent along with the guilty, especially for the sole purpose of satisfying a primal blood lust.
With all of the inconsistency and flaws in our system of capital punishment, perhaps the only just thing to do is to use the same rationality that stops us from sending out the lynch mob and quit using the death penalty.
I know it is blasphemous to say in Texas, but maybe, at least this time, California got it right.
Managing editor Brian Chatman is a senior news-editorial journalism major from Fort Worth.