Thoughts on the Death Penalty


Nearly 3600 human beings languish on death row all across the land of the free. Some are guilty, some innocent, some mentally disabled; but all await a grisly, taxpayer-subsidized death. Why?


The most common justification given for capital punishment is deterrence, i.e. fear of death will deter humans from taking another life.


“Deterrence?” asks Mumia Abu-Jamal, perhaps America’s best-known death row inhabitant, in his book, Live from Death Row. “The March 1988 execution of Willie Darden in Florida, exceedingly well-publicized here and abroad, should have had enormous deterrent effect, according to capital theories. But less than eleven hours after two thousand volts coursed through Darden’s manacled flesh, a Florida corrections officer, well positioned to absorb and understand the lessons of the state ritual, erupted in a jealous rage and murdered a man in the maternity wing of a hospital. Seems like a lesson well learned to me.”


And whom is this lesson geared towards? Forty-two percent of the death row population is African-American, an ethnic group that constitutes a mere 12 percent of the nation’s people as a whole. In Georgia, defendants charged with killing whites are 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence then those charged with killing blacks while in Pennsylvania, where African-Americans comprise 9 percent of population, over 60 percent of its death row residents are black. The litany goes on. As Mumia muses, “You will find a blacker world on death row than anywhere else.”


A second rationale, one that could only exist in a society indoctrinated to accept predatory capitalism as a viable option, is that of cost. In purely dispassionate financial terms, an execution is cheaper than long-term incarceration, they declare. However, State-sponsored murders are rarely swift (although Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act did eliminate some of those pesky constitutional protections and sped things up a bit). In fact, the Dallas Morning News once calculated that the average execution in Texas cost $2.3 million, compared to the cost of $750,000 to keep a human behind bars for 40 years. When you factor in new technology that may eventually make it possible to monitor prisoners in their own homes, that figure may drop even further. Hence, even if we insist on putting a price tag on life itself, it still falls short as a justification for capital punishment.


Finally, we have the retribution crowd. “An eye for an eye,” they bellow, parroting the best homicidal traditions of the Old Testament. “Let the punishment fit the crime,” is the rallying.


If this is truly our idea of justice, we are obviously living in a society that is not held to a higher standard than that of its “worst” criminals-a State that is no better or more civilized than the murderer it chooses to punish. We do not rape the rapist nor do we burn down the house of the arsonist, why then do we murder the man or woman charged with taking a life? A State that wishes its citizens to respect human life must lead by example. How can anyone expect the increasingly superfluous masses to lay down their weapons and be pacifist when our own elected (sic) leaders solve all their problems through violence and our own government is the largest arms dealer the world has ever known?

Capital punishment is not the way a humane, civilized society based on solidarity, justice, and freedom operates.

Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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