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The Tentacle


March 8, 2007

To Execute or Not

Tony Soltero

The General Assembly has been debating the retention of the death penalty in Maryland. The debate has been emotional at times, with passionate advocates for both sides of the issue. And it looks like it's going to be a very close vote when it comes to the floor of both houses of The General Assembly.

At one level, the fact that Maryland is so close to abolishing capital punishment is a quite remarkable development, given how popular the death penalty remains among most citizens. At another level, one must continue to shake one's head at how far we are behind the curve worldwide when it comes to the practice. Just about every industrialized country has done away with capital punishment by now; Japan is the lone exception.

Retaining the death penalty has reduced us to sharing the same cultural space as nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia - the kinds of countries whose values, I would hope, we wouldn't be trying to emulate; unless, of course, we want to start branching out into public floggings and beheadings for "sowing corruption on Earth" or something.

The death penalty, besides just plain being a barbaric practice that's beneath the standards of any civilized society, has been proven to not work as a deterrent. States with capital punishment do not enjoy lower crime rates than states without it. It is applied disproportionately to defendants without means, and racial minorities bear the brunt of its application.

Most importantly, a mistake cannot be undone - a wrongfully executed person cannot be brought back to life. All this has either been confirmed by numerous studies or is obvious at its surface, to the point where state governors of both political parties around the country have declared moratoriums on the practice over the years.

There are few, if any, rational arguments for the death penalty. Capital-punishment proponents tend to throw up strawmen, making arguments that not applying the death penalty to a convict is tantamount to releasing him and handing him a lottery jackpot to spend as he pleases.

I don't think anyone who's spent even a day in prison would see a whole lot of appeal in making the penitentiary his permanent residence, and lifetime incarceration easily takes care of the single practical benefit of the death penalty - removing a menace to society from circulation.

Most of the public support for the death penalty is not rooted, then, in reason. It seems to stem more from a visceral reaction to crime and criminals - a reaction that is perfectly understandable, especially when one, or a loved one, is a crime victim himself.

But harnessing and channeling these gut reactions into an organized criminal-justice system is one of the most important, if not the most important, features of a civilized society. We've been frowning upon lynchings for a few decades now. We don't punish rapists by sending out goon squads to rape them back, after all. Such eye-for-an-eye retributive justice is - or should be - a relic of times and places where people had their hands chopped off for shoplifting. I thought we were at war with cultures with that kind of worldview.

Then there's the religious angle. The death penalty issue actually provides an excellent illustration on why we separate the church and the state. Why? Because not all faiths are in agreement about the morality of capital punishment - not even within the spectrum of Christianity.

Fundamentalists tend to favor the death penalty, while most mainstream churches strongly oppose it. We tried the state-religion thing in Massachusetts in the 17th century; we wound up with witch hunts, the suppression of Christmas, and public hangings of Quakers and others.

It is perfectly appropriate for one's personal view of the death penalty to be shaped by his or her religion, of course; but our system of government is designed to accommodate lawmaking based upon reason, simply to prevent the kinds of abuses the Puritans foisted upon the citizenry.

Capital punishment needs to be relegated into the same dustbin of history occupied by feudalism and slavery. Let's hope the Maryland legislature does the right thing and gets rid of it once and for all.



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