Printer Friendly

Not in my name.

It is 12:30 Am on Tuesday morning, January 5, 1993. Just minutes ago, in the gallows room at the Walla Walla state penitentiary, officials of Washington state placed a black hood over the head and shoulders of convicted child rapist and murderer Westley Allan Dodd. They bound his hands and feet with straps, carefully knotted a rope under his jaw, sprang the trap door on which he stood, and hanged him by his neck until he was dead. According to most witnesses (after over 100 reporters vied for the privilege, the lucky ones were chosen by lottery), the procedure was "surreal, sterile, efficient, and amazingly swift."

For many weeks, the media has been in a macabre frenzy in anticipation of the obscene and sickening spectacle: the first execution by hanging in the United States since 1965. This ritual murder was performed on behalf of Washington's citizens and in our names, using our tax monies, our employees, even our rope. In return, we were able to witness our state committing a detached, brutal, premeditated homicide.

This barbarity was cheered on by a sizable crowd outside the penitentiary. Many wore nooses around their necks, and some carried signs: "Hang Him High!" "Kill Him!" and "Let Dodd Dangle!" They wrote "HANG HIM!" in huge letters in the snow and sang, "All we are saying, is give death a chance." At 12:01 AM, the scheduled time of death, they cheered, set off fire-crackers, and opened bottles of champagne.,

This was the first execution in Washington state since 1963. Dodd was the first of 12 prisoners the state is moving to execute. Because his crimes were so heinous, and because he repeatedly said that he wanted to be hanged and rebuffed any efforts to prevent it, many feel that we who oppose the death penalty were wrong in trying to prevent the state from killing him.

Last night, numerous experts were paraded before the television cameras; all of them said that Dodd was a sadistic psychopathic pedophile incapable of empathy, that his greatest fear was being "a nobody," and that he had successfully manipulated us into making him "a somebody" via the sensational media coverage of his hanging.

Did it therefore make moral sense to do what this deranged human being wanted us to do? Should we have abbetted him in his final vile crime - that of making murderers out of us as well? Henry Schwarzchild of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty points out that execution - even when "consensual" - is not a state, assisted suicide but, rather, prisoner,assisted homicide. (If prisoners attempt to actually commit suicide, the state intervenes to prevent it.)

Abolitionists maintain that the state has no right to kill anyone; a prisoner's death wish cannot grant a right not otherwise possessed. The right to reject life imprisonment and choose death should be respected, but it changes nothing for those of us who oppose that death at the hands of the state.

Over 2,600 people are sitting on death rows in the United States-more than at any time in our history. Since 1930, when the federal government began collecting such data, over 3,900 executions have been recorded. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on execution, 170 people have been killed. Because these official killings have been perpetrated in our names, it is every American's responsibility to give careful consideration to the facts regarding this crucial issue.

The death penalty is irrational - a fact that should carry considerable weight with rationalists. And, as Albert Camus pointed out, "Capital punishment ... has always been a religious punishment and is irreconcilable with humanism." In other words, this archaic and barbarous "custom" comes to us from the cruel "eye for an eye" anti-human caves of religion - another factor that should raise immediate misgivings for freethinkers.

State killings are morally bankrupt. Why do we kill people to show other people that killing people is wrong? We become complicit with murderers when we replicate their deeds. Would we allow rape as the penalty for rape - or the burning of arsonists' homes as the penalty for arson?

The state should never have the power to murder its subjects. To give the state this power eliminates the individual's most effective shield against the tyranny of the majority and is inconsistent with democratic principles.

Families and friends of murder victims are further victimized by state killings. Quite a few leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty became involved specifically because someone they loved was murdered. One of these, Marie Deans, says:

The violence of murder is abhorrent,

but the long sequence of

trials and appeals that ultimately

lead to another killing is not a

solution but a process of carrying

on violence. While it goes on, the

family lives a day, to, day existence

focused on the death of their

loved one. Somehow we must find

a better, more humane way to

deal with murder, a way that does

not twist sorrow into vengeance

and memory into nightmare.

The families of Dodds' three victims - as well as members of his own family - repeatedly stated they wanted him to die. One of their main reasons-in addition to the desire for justice (read: vengeance) - was that they wanted it to be over; they didn't ever want to see Dodd's picture or hear or read his words in the media again. Yet, if it weren't for the sensationalism attending the death penalty itself, the media exposure (and, in most cases, the many years of appeals) would not occur in the first place.

Instead, people like Dodd would be quietly and safely put away for life with absolutely no possibility for parole (a perfectly attainable goal already being implemented in many states where the death penalty has been abolished).

The death penalty violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. The grotesque gassing of Robert Harris by the state of California on April 21, 1992, and similar reports of witnesses to hangings and lethal injections should leave no doubt that the dying process can be - and often is - grossly inhumane, regardless of the method.

The death penalty is applied arbitrarily - and often for political gain. For instance, during his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton rushed home for the Arkansas execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a mentally retarded, indigent black man. Clinton couldn't take the chance of being seen by the voters as "soft on crime." And of the approximately 20,000 people arrested for murder each year in the United States, hundreds whose crimes are just as repugnant as those on death rows are spared and receive lighter sentences.

Capital punishment discriminates against the poor. Although murderers come from all classes, those on death row are almost without exception poor and were living in poverty at the time they were arrested. The majority of death-row inmates were or are represented by court-appointed public defenders - and the state is not obligated to provide an attorney at all for appeals beyond the state level.

The application of capital punishment is racist. About 40 percent of death-row inmates are black, whereas only 8 percent of the population as a whole are black. In cases with white victims, black defendants were four to six times more likely to receive death sentences than white defendants who had similar criminal histories. Studies show that the chance for a death sentence is five to 10 times greater in cases with white victims than with black victims. In the criminal, justice system, the life of a white person is worth more than the life of a black person.

The mentally retarded are victimized by the death penalty. Since 1989, when the Supreme Court upheld state killing of the mentally retarded, at least four such executions have occurred. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, at least 10 percent of death-row inmates in the United States are mentally retarded.

Juveniles are subject to the death penalty. Since state execution of juveniles also became permissible in the decision cited above, at least five people who were juveniles when their crimes were committed have been executed.

Innocent people can be - and have been - executed. With the death penalty, errors are irreversible. According to a 1987 study, 23 people who were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted were executed between 1900 and 1985. Until human judgment be, comes infallible, this problem alone is reason enough to abolish the death penalty at the hands of a state more dedicated to vengeance than to truth and justice.

The death penalty is not an effective deterrent and, in fact, creates an atmosphere that encourages and fosters violence. Studies comparing homicide rates in death, penalty states with those in other states show that the death penalty does not lower the murder rate. And the number of police, prison guards, and inmates killed is higher in death, penalty states. We continue to have shockingly higher rates of murder than do Western European nations, none of which practice capital punishment.

The vast majority of murders are irrational, passionate acts perpetrated in uncontrolled rage and/or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The possible threat of death in the distant future has no effect on a person in this irrational state.

Executions do not save money. There are those who cry that we, the tax, payers, shouldn't have to "support" condemned people for an entire lifetime in prison-that we should simply "eliminate" them and save ourselves the time and money. The truth is that the cost of state killing is up to three times the cost of lifetime imprisonment. Judges and others are reluctant - as they should be - to shorten the execution process for fear that hasty procedures will lead to the execution of more innocent persons.

Studies show a general correlation between a nation's utilization of capital punishment and a general disregard for human rights. The United States is the only Western nation to practice capital punishment on a large scale, thus putting us in the company of Iran and South Africa, as well as placing us on Amnesty International's list of nations with governmental policies violating human rights.

We cannot rely upon the courts, stacked as they now are with death, penalty advocates. We must refuse to be made into passive co-conspirators in state homicide. It's up to each of us to tell our government in no uncertain terms: "Do not kill in my name."

Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censor, ship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:irrationality of the death penalty
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:The evolution of secular Judaism.
Next Article:In Search of a National Morality: A Manifesto for Evangelicals and Catholics.

Related Articles
The death march.
Pull the plug on the death penalty.
The Case Against the Death Penalty.
Was justice served?
Death penalty dilemmas. (News).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters