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Vengeance is whose?

In the r extraordinarily powerful film "Dead Mall Walking," capital punishment is a central issue. Basically true story, it tells the journey of a man convicted of a particularly brutal murdered rape and his execution for those crimes. But "Dead Man Walking" is surprisingly evenhanded in its approach to the death penalty. True, Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life character around whom the movie centers, is briefly shown taking part in a demonstration against such penalties, but her major concern is to attempt to bring the condemned man to salvation in a life to come.

While "Dead Man Walking" makes no effort to justify lethal punishment or find it objectionable, it does depict, in exquisite detail, the particular method of execution used in Louisiana, the state in which the movie takes place. Essentially the condemned is put to death by an elaborate system of injection of lethal chemicals. A series of vials in a preprogrammed machine are shown, gradually, very gradually, snuffing out the life of the convicted man. Presumably this system is intended to kill its subject finally and unquestionably, while at the same time doing its job as painlessly, or at least as unmessily, as possible.

The long-favored method of execution, one still used in some states, the electric chair, is anything but "unmessy." In this method the stench of burning flesh horrifies all but the most hardened of bitter witnesses, and the prisoner's loss of bowel and bladder control when struck with overwhelming voltage nauseates even the executioners.

Hence, this is our quest for a more humane way to destroy the life of those condemned in our courts. But why? If our motive in executions is revenge or even instant punishment, let's let the bastards suffer as much as possible. "Let them fry," as some proponents of capital punishment say. Why bother to put them to sleep?

If our motive is to deter potential criminals in the future, aside from the fact that the evidence shows this doesn't work, only a handful of carefully picked people witness an execution. If we really believe that execution will deter future crimes, why not hang criminals on the corner of, say, downtown Chicago's State and Madison Streets during the noon hour, as a priestly proponent of capital punishment once suggested?

If our motive for capital punishment is to get the criminal off the street" so that he or she can't murder or rape again, a laudable motive certainly, we now have life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Can anyone think of a more horrible punishment than that? Some young criminals receiving that punishment today will have to spend 50 or 60 years behind bars in cells with walls too slippery to climb. No wonder they are deprived of belts and shoelaces.

So if we really are convinced that the death. penalty is the answer to our violent crime problem, why are we so genteel about it?

Killer Gary Gilmore took advantage of Utah law and chose to be executed by a firing squad. But his execution was witnessed by invitation only. Why not imitate the Saudis and lop off heads in a public place?

Or, we could allow the family and friends of the condemned man's victim to stone him to death as was done to the innocent Saint Stephan. We would, of course, have to brush aside the words of Jesus to those who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." But with today's greatly diminished sense of sin, we could probably get around that.

Finally, why not public crucifixion for convicted murderers and rapists? Granted that would make many of us very nervous, reminding us as it would of what we did to the most beloved, most innocent person who ever lived.

Current public opinion polls show that the American people favor the death penalty by substantial margins. With only a few exceptions, elected officials support capital punishment either as a matter of principle or because they fear a voter backlash if they do not. (Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo staunchly opposed the death penalty, a stand that may have contributed to his defeat in the 1994 elections.)

But how are the questions in these opinion polls asked? Do they ask, "Do you favor putting these criminals away from civilized society," or do they ask, "Do you favor torturing men to death as, in some cases, they may have tortured their victims?" If vengeance is thus our motive, haven't we appropriated to ourselves that which belongs to God? And are any of those polled asked if they believe in a consistent ethic of life, opposing abortion, euthanasia, nuclear war, and capital punishment?

In recent months, there has been a spate of prisoners awaiting execution on death row being set free because tests or new witnesses have proved others guilty of the crimes that the now free men were convicted of. In Illinois alone, four men sentenced to death for one brutal crime and three for another have been found innocent after spending as long as ten years in prison unjustly. Ironically, there is strong political effort to speed the execution of convicted criminals by cutting back their legal appeals, appeals that saved the lives of the seven men just mentioned.

Anyone for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole?
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Title Annotation:The Examined Life; capital punishment is vengeance, not justice
Author:Burns, Robert E.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Previous Article:Prayer is my business.
Next Article:Why race is still a burning issue.

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