Saturday, April 24, 2010

Capital Punishment's Retro Year

The gallows at Wala Wala Prison in Washington State.

2010 is shaping up to be the year of the flashback for capital punishment in the United States. Today Ronnie Lee Gardner had his request granted by a judge in Utah to be executed by firing squad on June 18th. Mr. Gardner murdered a lawyer during an escape attempt some 25 years ago.

Despite the fact that every legal jurisdiction in the United States which still has the death penalty on the books has adopted lethal injection, more than a few states permit some choice in the matter. And this year may see several blasts (no pun intended) from the past. At least four other prisoners in Utah condemned before the state legislature removed the choice, have indicated that if and when their time comes they too will request execution by firing squad.

Nor is the odd fashion statement in older forms of execution limited to Utah. On March 18th of this year Paul Warner Powel (a mean SOB if ever there was one) also disdained lethal injection and instead opted to be sent into the hereafter in Virginia's long unused electric chair (affectionately nicknamed "old sparky"). Meanwhile authorities in Washington State are reportedly bracing for the media circus in the much rumored event that at least one man under sentence of death there is going to invoke his right to be hanged. Washington State specifies lethal injection as the default method of execution but allows the condemned to opt for the older form of execution if they wish. Wala Wala Prison has the nation's only remaining permanent (and functional) gallows. The trap door is weight tested annually just to be sure it still works.

Granted it's hard to muster a lot of sympathy for some of these people. But it is all but impossible to justify capital punishment in the modern world with the availability of natural life prison sentences. The only argument (if one subscribes to it) that might hold water is retributive justice. From a Christian point of view I find that problematic. But from a utilitarian perspective it's a no brainer. The death penalty is immoral given the high risk of miscarriage of justice, which can not be remedied without rendering the sentence ineffectual. And the cost to tax payers and society of this barbaric relic cannot be justified.

It is past time to relegate the death penalty to the ash heap of history and move the electric chair into some museum dedicated to antiquated instruments of torture. Almost every country in the developed world has figured this out. How long will it take us?

Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon: He spent more than 17 years on Florida's death row before 2002 when he become the 98th condemned man in the United States to be exonerated and released from prison. The State of Florida payed him $100 in restitution for his wrongful imprisonment.


James the Thickheaded said...

You may wish to listen to Steve Robinson's podcast series on this for a different perspective. I tend towards your position, but it is of interest that there need not be only one point of view.

My utilitarian perspective is that these days, life in prison means the guy gets out in three years. I think if life in prison really meant life in prison... that'd be different matter. I'm not all that sure it's more humane, but at least it allows the possibility of correcting mistakes. The DNA exonerations argue that justice is done less often than we think.

handmaidmary-leah said...

Our adversarial trial system and the ability of the state to bring unlimited resources to bear on any case it chooses automatically make justice... well unjust. When any Grand Jury will indict on the D.A.'s sayso - well stuff needs to be fixed.
I must admit though, I was pretty happy that Westley Allan Dodd chose the noose because that is what he did to his very young victims - abuse, torture and then hang them in his closet - he requested and was granted that form of execution - the first in the US since 1965.
Our country is confused about mercy and justice - a life sentence is not mercy and the death penalty is often unjust.

David said...

I read the accounts of the crimes these animals commit everyday. I have no problem with capital punishment, my issue is that it is not used fairly. We need to be executing females and whites more often. If we are not going to use the punishment right then we shouldn't have it.