Fonticulus Fides

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Question of Justice

When the topic of capital punishment comes up, I will be honest if asked, but in all truth, I would rather go hide in a hole somewhere than discuss it. Today, though, I feel like I might as well publish my thoughts here.

I am opposed to Capital punishment, but it’s hard for me to say so. I live in the bluest city in one of the reddest states in the Union, so once you take a stand on any dicey issue, people tend to jump to a whole bunch of conclusions about what you believe on other issues. For the record, I’m also opposed to abortion and euthanasia and so-called ‘selective reduction’ of multiple pregnancies. It’s actually rather rare to find a person who is pro-life in ALL areas around here – either you’re for the death penalty and against abortion or you’re against the death penalty and for abortion.

Frankly, I have a great deal of trouble fathoming how a person can be opposed to capital punishment but okay with abortion. That just doesn’t make sense to me – protect the lives of proven criminals but kill the innocent? The reverse is a little easier to understand, because they’re trying to protect the lives of the innocent while they are okay with killing off those who were proven guilty.

But me – I just can’t stomach capital punishment. I have heard all the arguments, and to be honest, I do wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t just be easier on society if proven murderers were put to death. Still, when I sit down and analyze the process of capital punishment, I simply can’t accept it as okay.

Suppose a guy named Cal named despised a guy named Bill because of information about Bill that showed he was a lousy human being. So he caught Bill and took him to the basement. He sat him down and read off a list of grievances against him. Maybe Bill pleaded his innocence. Maybe he admitted his guilt and apologized. Regardless, Cal had made up his mind that Bill deserved not life but death. So he straps Bill down and slowly, methodically kills him, recording every minute detail of the process for his records.

Ordinarily, we would look at this account and say that Cal is a heinous murderer. His actions were absolutely premeditated, cold-hearted and lacking in mercy. And this thing actually happened last night, except Cal wasn’t an individual person, but the State of California.

Was Tookie Williams guilty or innocent? God knows, but I sure don’t. Yes, the evidence was pretty clear that he was guilty, I know that. But I have also sat on the jury of a criminal trial. The jury is only presented with the facts that the lawyers want you to know. You have to make a decision based on a Swiss-cheese sample of evidence.

When it was my turn to vote at the trial I participated in, I was confident that the evidence presented determined that I should vote guilty (and indeed, the jury was unanimous). But the fact that the evidence presented showed he was guilty did not mean he was actually guilty. We didn’t have all the facts. I remember thinking it was fortunate that the man’s life wasn’t on the line, just five years of his future. If we had made a mistake – through no fault of our own, because we couldn’t control what amount of facts we were given – the fellow could still get his life on track after his jail term was served. But think if it would have been a capital offence and we had been the last possible appeal!

No, I just can’t abide capital punishment. There is always the possibility that the evidence is wrong, and I am quite certain that among the people executed by state governments in the U.S., some have been innocent of the crimes of which they were accused. How many? God knows, I don’t. I believe our modern prison system -- while woefully overcrowded and not at all ideal in many ways -- is enough to protect society from those who would kill or otherwise harm others. That's enough. We don't have to become murderers to save ourselves.



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