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We Become What We Hate: Gazing into the Abyss of the Death Penalty, Part 1

We Become What We Hate: Gazing into the Abyss of the Death Penalty by Dennis Godby

It was a February morning on another beautiful rainy day in Portland, and my body and brain were in ‘runner’s high’ mode. I’d completed writing this article but still lacked a title. Suddenly, close to home, wisdom bounded off a bumper sticker and struck my eyes. Eureka! The perfect title had appeared. “You Become What You Hate,” it warned.

Another bumper sticker, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even,” tells a different story about our culture. Revenge!

People who murder, torture, rape, and maim other human beings are easy to hate. I’ve heard, from a prominent weekly columnist, that it is even “noble” to hate, and good to seek revenge against those who commit such outrageous acts.

Those who oppose the death penalty are often viewed as naíve—as people who coddle murderers, who don’t care about the suffering of the victim’s family. It is my observation that one who speaks out against the death penalty incurs the disapproval of others, roughly equivalent to a gay person ‘coming out of the closet.’ It may be subtle, it may be wrathful, but there is a definite discrimination.

Even so, I concluded several decades ago that “The death penalty is,” as yet another bumper sticker says, “dead wrong.” But it wasn’t until after I began teaching social justice and non-violence to high school students, and learned of California’s first scheduled execution in thirty years, that I focused on the death penalty as my top social justice priority.

Social activists may ask, aren’t there more worthy or important causes? What about abolishing nuclear weapons, ending child abuse, or preserving the rain forest and the last stands of old growth redwoods? How important, really, is it to save the lives of those on death row?

A Decision at a Young Age My connection to capital punishment goes all the way back to sixth grade. The year was 1968, a very painful and turbulent year in U.S. history. 1968 was the year that two of the nation’s most powerful and respected leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Robert Kennedy, were assassinated. 1968 came right in the middle of the decade-long undeclared war in Vietnam.

In 1968, at age 11, I declared myself RFK’s presidential campaign manager at my grammar school. I was elated to be involved in the RFK electoral campaign, whose eventual presidency I hoped would end the war. But in the early morning hours of June 5, the world came crashing down on me when my dad woke me up with the crushing news that my political hero had been shot. It was the most devastating experience of my youth.

I remember how I would often debate internally about the kind of justice that the assassins of RFK and MLK should receive. Should they get the death penalty, or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole? I was torn for a period of time. On one hand, it seemed that the death penalty was appropriate for the assassins. They changed the course of U.S., and possibly global, history. For the next decade-plus, I would often contemplate the ‘what-ifs.’ What if they hadn’t been assassinated? What would our country be like?

But I also attended daily Mass, and as a young Catholic, I heard the prophets and the Gospels proclaimed. I became certain about Jesus’ opposition to the violence of the death penalty. Father John McKenzie, a leading biblical scholar in the Catholic Church, said, “If we cannot know from the New Testament that Jesus absolutely rejected violence, we can know nothing of his person or message. It is the clearest of teachings.” Revenge, I reasoned, is clearly violence. Thus, at a young age, I knew that revenge and true Christianity are not compatible.

The great majority who support the death penalty, including Christians, do so to ‘get even.’ Regardless of how it is framed, in the final analysis, the death penalty boils down to being a revenge penalty. Yet, upon reflection, it is clear that revenge and hate are not noble! Just as surely as such motives destroy individuals, so do they destroy societies.

The only essay that I remember from my grammar school days was a half-page opinion paper on capital punishment, in which I strongly opposed the death penalty, even for the murderer of my hero, Bobby Kennedy. I realized that I could not be for the death penalty selectively. Morally, I had to oppose it in all cases. There could be no exceptions, regardless if the murderer killed my sister, the president, or a stranger.

Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Bobby Kennedy, says it very well in The Case Against the Death Penalty, by Hugo Bedau: “I was eight years old when my father was murdered. It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless murder. But even as a child one thing was clear to me: I didn’t want the killer, in turn, to be killed. I remember lying in bed and praying, ‘Please, God. Please don’t take his life, too.’ I saw nothing that could be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of another. And I knew, far too vividly, the anguish that would spread through another family—another set of parents, children, brothers, and sisters thrown into grief.”

The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972 (though later reinstated, state by state, after 1976). As a result, there were few executions in the ’70s, and little discussion of the issue. In 1982, as an activist for Central American issues, I began reading the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a weekly newspaper which included a running total of the number of people executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. I remember, the capital punishment column used a cross for its logo. And I remember thinking—Jesus was also a victim of the death penalty.

Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation The question about the death penalty that I was asked most often as a high school teacher was, what if it was your son or wife that was murdered? Would you still be against capital punishment?

I can answer with an emphatic yes. But, not being a family member of a murder victim, my answer is only hypothetical. Yet there are people who can give such an answer from experience. One day, two years ago, five people who had lost family members to murder shared their painful stories in my classroom. They recounted how they personally came to oppose the death penalty. It was the most remarkable and gratifying teaching day in my career. Students told me after class, and for months following, that they had never before experienced anything like it. My students were shocked and inspired by the desire of the victim’s families to move beyond feelings of revenge. Even after 11 years of religion classes, never before had spirituality been so real for them. Before them stood people who had experienced what can only be called the ultimate nightmare—yet these same people had moved out of the abyss of retaliation and were liberated from the burden of hatred.

The media often do not report the stories of family members of murder victims who oppose the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Yet some of the most passionate, outspoken abolitionists come from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR).

One of those who spoke in my classroom, Marietta Jaeger, was a founding member of MVFR. Her young daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Jaeger said, “Concerning the claim of justice for the victim’s family, I say that there is no number of retaliatory deaths that would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter’s life, nor would they restore her to my arms. To say that the death of any person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims. We cannot put a price on their lives. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood-thirsty revenge.”

MVFR believes that “Capital punishment is an expensive, ineffective and barbaric response to violent crime. It does not help families or nations to heal.”

Despite his own brother, President Kennedy, being assassinated, Robert Kennedy spoke out against counter violence: “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of law—in an attack of violence or in response to violence—the whole nation is degraded.”

Coretta Scott King, wife of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “unequivocally” opposes the death penalty: “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”

Compelling Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty On the surface, the death penalty primarily concerns people on death row, and the family members of the victims of homicide. But over the last seven years, as I have studied this issue, it has become painfully clear that it cuts across the spectrum of spiritual, moral, legal, social justice, and even economic issues. Thus, for the following reasons, I spend both my energy and my financial resources to end the death penalty.

1.Two Wrongs Don’t Equal Justice The ultimate question raised by the death penalty is: How do death penalty advocates resolve the contradiction of expressing justifiable outrage at murder, then demand that the state be involved in retaliatory murder? Can we repudiate one action with the same action?

The death penalty is violence. And as Martin Luther King warned us, “the ultimate weakness of violence is it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate can-not drive out hate; only love can do that.”

To those who defend the death penalty with the famous ‘eye for an eye’ verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus said: “You have heard how it was said, ‘You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But, I say this to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

Mohandas Gandhi, the champion of nonviolence, was succinct: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Congressional Representative Henry Gonzalez introduced a House Joint Resolution to end the death penalty in the U.S. in 1995. Following are excerpts:

"Brutal homicide excites a passion within us that demands retribution. The atrocity of the crime must not cloud our judgment and we must not let our anger undermine the wisdom of our rationality. We cannot allow ourselves to punish an irrational action with an equally irrational retaliation. Murder is wrong, whether it is committed by an individual or by the state.

Proponents argue that some crimes simply deserve death. This argument is ludicrous. If a murderer deserves death, why then do we not burn the arsonist, or rape the rapist. Our justice system does not provide for such punishments because society comprehends that it must be founded on principles different from those it condemns. How can we condemn killing and condone execution?"

2. It is Dangerous to the Human Spirit and to Society While watching a movie with my two children, which included a mob-incited lynching of a runaway slave, it dawned on me that the modern use of the death penalty symbolically continues the public lynchings from decades gone by. While the state may use more “modern” methods of execution than a rope hanging from a tree, death is death, whether by lethal injection or firing squad.

I often wonder, do we not allow the media to film executions out of respect for the person being executed, or because we are ashamed of what we do? Do we censor the filming of this procedure because the clip might appear on TV’s in Europe where the death penalty has been eliminated? Are we afraid of being called hypocrites, talking human rights out of one side of our mouth, and sanctioning state executions out of the other?

From my experience at three executions, two in Oregon, and one in California, I have observed the effect of the death penalty on our society. Ordinary citizens take on the spirit of violence displayed in lynch mobs. The days during which these executions occurred were among the most depressing of my life—not only because a person was killed in the name of justice by our government, but because of the outrageous behavior displayed by supporters of capital punishment. Clearly, when government promotes retaliatory violence, it leads some of those governed, especially the young, to view violence as a legitimate way to solve problems.

On one of those occasions, in 1991, my two-year-old son and I walked from San Francisco to San Quentin State Prison to protest California’s first execution in thirty years. As the march drew close to San Quentin, the beautiful spring day took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Death penalty supporters were driving crazily, honking their horns, drinking beer, screaming obscenities, and ‘partying’ to celebrate the impending electrocution of a ‘monster’ who had lost his humanity. Witnessing that scene, it was hard to tell who had lost their humanity more, the one about to be executed or those celebrating the event with the excitement of a Super Bowl party. This was not a celebration of earned victory or human triumph. It was a celebration of violence and death.

The death penalty is hazardous to our nation. Marietta Jaeger acknowledges that victim families have “every right to the normal, valid human response of rage. However, to legislate that same gut-level desire for revenge has the same deleterious effect on the community as it does to individuals. It degrades, dehuman-izes, and debilitates us as a society.”

3. How many innocent, executed people does it take? The death penalty is unique among all criminal punishments because, once implemented, it is impossible to reverse. If an error is made, it cannot be corrected. It follows that, since humans do not have the capacity to reverse an execution, they have no right implementing this ultimate punishment.

Everyday, innocent people are jailed. Many are later released by the judicial system. An executed person, obviously, cannot be released.

Speaking years after he had witnessed the bloodshed of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette said, “I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.”

A two-year study of capital punishment by Hugo Bedau, of Tufts University, and Michael Radelet, of the University of Florida, documents that, in this century, 417 people were wrongly convicted of capital offenses and 23 were actually executed. At least 69 people have been released from death row since 1972, the result of being wrongly convicted.

Recently (2/5/99) the AP ran this story from Chicago. “A man who spent 16 years on death row was freed today after college journalists uncovered new evidence and another confessed to the slaying. Judge Thomas Fitzgerald said, ‘news reports of significant evidentiary developments’ put into question whether Anthony Porter actually committed the crime he was convicted of.”

Following are two more stories about people sent to death row, then released:

Clarence Brandley (released 1990, Texas) In 1980, a hard-working black high school janitor, Clarence Brandley, and his white co-worker found the body of a missing teenage girl who was brutally raped and murdered in the school. Interrogated by the police, they were told, “One of you two is going to hang for this.” Looking at Brandley, an officer said, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.” Despite this threat, a lie detector test confirmed Brandley’s truthful statements. Even with the manipulation of the jury pool by the prosecutor, resulting in 12 white jurors, a hung jury resulted. Not to be denied, the prosecutor retried Brandley, again restricting all black jurors from the jury pool. This time the jury, with the judge’s approval, convicted Brandley, and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Brandley was the only suspect; other leads were ignored by the police, and the courtroom reeked of racism. In 1986, Centurion Ministries came to Brandley’s aid. Evidence had meanwhile emerged that another man had committed the murder for which Brandley was awaiting execution.

Randall Dale Adams (released in March 1989, Texas). The subject of the acclaimed documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” Adams was sent to death row in 1977 for killing a policeman. Prosecutors manufactured evidence to convict Adams and relied on the perjured testimony of the man who actually murdered the officer. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously set aside his conviction in 1989.

Although Brandley’s and Adam’s innocence were finally discovered, many others have not been so ‘fortunate.’ Because of political and judicial interests in speeding up executions, and the tightening of procedural requirements, Roger Keith Coleman, despite new evidence suggesting the possibility that he was not the murderer, was executed anyway, in May, 1992. His attorneys apparently filed his post-conviction appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court one day late—violating a procedural requirement which the state court said precluded evidentiary review of the case.

Upon examining capital cases, Bedau and Radelet found numerous instances of overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, co-defendants who testified against the other to receive a more lenient sentence for themselves, faulty police work, coerced confessions, suppressed exculpatory evidence, inept defense counsel, racial bias, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, community pressure for a conviction, and, at times, blatant politics (such as a D.A.’s decision to seek the death penalty in a particular case because he was campaigning for re-election). All of this explains why the judicial system cannot guarantee that justice will never miscarry.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “no matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.”

4. The Administration of the Death Penalty is Seriously Flawed When the Supreme Court found death penalty laws constitutionally unacceptable in Furman vs. Georgia (1972), the majority of the court concentrated its objections on the fact that death penalty laws had been applied in a “harsh, freakish, and arbitrary” manner.

Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, who helped rewrite the death penalty laws in the 1970s, said in this decade, “20 years have passed since this court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency or not at all, and despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas to meet this challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, and mistake.”

Justice Blackmun realizes that it is a “delusion” to believe that administration of the death penalty will ever be applied consistently, and fairly. “From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored to develop rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than to continue to coddle the court’s delusion that fairness has been achieved, I feel obligated simply to concede that the death penalty has failed.”

Justice Blackmun concludes, “It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations can ever save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. I am optimistic that this court eventually will conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness ‘in the infliction of (death) is so plainly doomed to failure...that the death penalty must be abandoned altogether.’ (Godfrey v. Georgia, 1980). I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that it will eventually arrive.”

5. The Death Penalty and Racism Nationwide, 82% of those put to death were convicted of murdering a white person even though people of color are the victims of more than half of all homicides.

The evidence is overwhelming that the death penalty is applied in a racially-bigoted manner. In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the Congress the results of its review of empirical studies on racism and the death penalty. The GAO concluded: “Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty . . .” and that “race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process.”

The U.S. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass the Racial Justice Act, which would allow prisoners to challenge their death sentences using standards normal in civil racial discrimination cases.

6. The Death Penalty and Poverty About 90% of people facing capital charges cannot afford their own attorney.

No state has met standards developed by the American Bar Association for appointment, performance and compensation of counsel for indigent prisoners. A defendant’s poverty, lack of firm social roots in the community, inadequate legal representation at trial or on appeal—all these have been common factors among death row populations.

7. Prisoner Appeals Have Been Curtailed Since 1991, the Supreme Court has drastically restricted the rights of death row prisoners to appeal their convictions and death sentences in federal courts, even in cases where prisoners present compelling evidence of innocence.

In 1996, new legislation drastically limited federal court review of death penalty appeals and gutted public funding of legal aid services for death row prisoners.

8. American Bar Association Calls for Moratorium on the Death Penalty The American Bar Association has concluded that administration of the death penalty is “a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency” and has called for a moratorium on executions.

Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the #1 bestseller book, Dead Man Walking, asked C. Paul Phelps, the head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, what he believes was accomplished by the execution of Pat Sonnier, a person to whom she was giving spiritual direction. Phelps said, “Zero. Absolutely nothing.” Nor does Mr. Phelps think that executions prevent crime. As he sees it, the criminal justice system produces the death penalty “when it is to the advantage of the prosecution.” He explains how D.A.s weigh a number of factors—the cost of the trial, the evidence, the expertise of the legal defense against them. Phelps continued, “. . . especially if they kill somebody important, then they push for the death penalty, but not if the person you kill is a nobody. By its nature, the criminal justice system will always be somewhat arbitrary.”

9. The Death Penalty is Expensive On average, state governments spend about $2.3 million per executed person—three times the cost of putting someone in maximum security for 40 years. Bedau summarizes the cost issue: “Capital punishment wastes resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and correctional personnel. It unduly burdens the system of criminal justice, and it is therefore counter- productive as an instrument for society’s control of violent crime. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason for the solution of difficult problems.”

10. For All Its Expense, The Death Penalty Is Not Proven to Deter Crime The vast preponderance of the evidence shows that the death penalty is no more effective than imprisonment in deterring murder and that it may even be an incitement to criminal violence in certain cases. “At the very least,” according to Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, “the burden ought to be on death penalty supporters to prove that it does, in fact, deter crimes.”

Death penalty states, as a group, do not have lower rates of criminal homicide than non-death penalty states. During the 1980’s, death penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 criminal homicides per 100,000 of population; abolition states averaged a rate of 7.4.

11. Virtually All Western Democracies Have Eliminated the Death Penalty Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called on the U.S. to end the death penalty: “The increasing use of the death penalty in the U.S. runs counter to the international community’s expressed desire for its abolition. As far back as 1971, the UN General Assembly called on states to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty with a view to its abolition. The council decided that there would be no application of the death penalty even for crimes against humanity and participation in genocide.”

Nicaragua, despite enduring one of the cruelest dictatorships in Latin American history, and losing over 50,000 lives during the revolution in 1979, ended the death penalty as a revolutionary act of forgiveness. Tomas Borge, who was mercilessly tortured in prison during the revolution, outlawed the death penalty after becoming Secretary of the Interior for the new Sandinista Government. Likewise, in South Africa, an important objective of the new post-Apartheid constitution was to end the death penalty.

If any group of people had a right to state-sanctioned executions, it was the Nicaraguans and South Africans. Yet, despite their pain, they saw their way out of the never-ending tunnel of revenge and executions. Why can’t we Americans learn from their experience?

Perry Johnson, retired director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and former president of the American Correctional Association, encourages the United States to end the death penalty. “We, as a civilized people, should not kill even the most heinous of criminals. It has a brutalizing effect on the public which imposes it. The ultimate message we give by enacting this penalty is that it is alright to kill out of anger or for vengeance. But that, as it happens, is what every unrepentant murderer I have ever known believes.”

Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong? It’s a strange question born of barbaric circumstances. When we kill, because they killed, we become what we hate—murderers. Revenge killing permanently lowers every single standard we value—as individuals, as a nation, as a culture.

Who will end the killing?

Dennis Godby is the Education Coordinator for the Oregon Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Dennis is also currently pursuing studies to become a naturopathic physician. He is a member of Saint Andrew’s Catholic community. He may be reached at (503) 774-6160 or by email.

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