A while back I received a message from someone who was deeply angry about my opposition to the death penalty and let me know it in no uncertain terms. He (I assume it was a he) really blasted me. He made a lot of pretty radical assertions, assumptions, and judgments about me, about why I do what I do, why I feel the way I feel, and, of course, how wrong I am about all of it.
Because I wasn’t sure if he had heard me speak somewhere, seen me interviewed on the subject or read something I had written, I responded as thoughtfully as I could, but I found the experience frustrating.
You see, I meet many people in my work for Death Penalty Focus, some of whom oppose the death penalty, some who support it, and those who aren’t sure how they feel about it. Generally, I find, capital punishment is an emotional issue for most people. So I thought I might address here some of the comments from the man I mentioned and others I’ve heard from over time because there may be many with the same or similar concerns who don’t have the opportunity, or the desire, to express them.
I have been an abolitionist my entire adult life. I believe capital punishment to be wrong on every level conceivable and have worked in opposition to it in just about every place open to hearing me. I’ve spoken before entire legislatures and to individual legislators, to councils, schools, business organizations, churches, civic organizations, in governor’s offices, to sheriffs, wardens and police chiefs, and I’ve debated proponents in person, on radio and on television. In addition, I’ve visited many prisons and death rows. And, of course, I have been personally involved in trying to stop the execution of a number of individuals of all races, sexes and creeds, whether innocent or guilty.
I think it’s quite clear that the death penalty in America is racist in application, is only used against the poor and the poorly defended, entraps and kills the innocent along with the guilty, and is hideously expensive as compared, for example, to life without parole.
I am concerned about social justice and put my energy into many issues. But I believe this one, state killing, is doing great damage to all of us, and to a country about which I care deeply. I don’t think that “these people are all innocent,” which is something I am often accused of. While some are clearly innocent, most are just as clearly not and readily admit to it. Innocent or guilty, I don’t believe it serves us to be in the business of killing them.
I believe no one is only the worst thing he or she has ever done. I believe there is always a reason for human behavior. And I believe state killing lowers the entire community to the level of its least member at his or her worst moment.
My angry friend, who it was clear to me had difficulty with people of other races, said that some of the people I’m trying to keep from being murdered at the hands of the state would “hate my guts under any normal circumstances.” I have no way of knowing that, of course, but I doubt it would be the case with all of them. Those I’ve had the chance to speak with, and those I’ve had the chance to get to know, appear to appreciate the fact that I regard them as human beings in spite of what they may have done.
He also said my work and that of thousands of others in the abolition movement is falling “on deaf ears.” Quite the contrary, the tide is shifting on the death penalty and it will be ended in this country in the foreseeable future, just as it has been in most of the rest of the world. Our work is not in vain.
I’ve been asked why I keep going when it’s likely that many, if not most, of the thousands of people on death rows today will probably be executed. Well, I deeply believe that killing is wrong and that we harm ourselves by supporting the practice or, if we don’t, by allowing it to continue without protest. I continue because I must. You see, I believe the state will stop executing its citizens one day. And when that happens, as it has in most other countries in the world, we will look back in horror at what we’ve done and ask ourselves, as many did after slavery was abolished, how we could have been so morally blind.
And I keep going because of the support of so many people who believe as passionately as I do that capital punishment is a barbaric practice that has no place in a civilized society. These people include religious and political leaders, prison officials, members of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and, perhaps most important, victims’ family members. Contrary to what many prosecutors insist, there are many victims’ family members who don’t seek revenge, or “closure,” this fictitious relief they are promised: that killing their loved one’s killer will bring them peace. These victims’ family members believe, as I do, that to perpetuate the cycle of violence brutalizes us all.