Years ago, I read a newspaper account of an Italian man who attempted suicide. He was arrested, charged, tried, convicted – and executed.
I had a good laugh over that one. The absurdity. The irony. And yet the death penalty is no laughing matter.
Recently, Pope Francis declared the death penalty unacceptable in all cases. Pundits immediately wondered how the faithful in the United States – they meant, of course, the conservative faithful – would take the news. They needn’t have wondered. They’re fine with it. Getting Americans to follow anything is like herding cats. They’re going to do what they damn well please. Case in point: Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Republican, Roman Catholic governor of Nebraska, had fought to get the death penalty reinstated there despite opposition from the state’s Catholic leadership. Nebraska is slated to execute convicted murderer Carey Dean Moore later this month in what would be the state’s first execution in 21 years.
Ricketts said in a statement: “While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska. It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.”
While American law must be independent of religion, this is a bit disingenuous, because it is infused with Judeo-Christian ethics and, again, he was the one who fought to get the death penalty reinstated. Presumably, he could still stay the execution. Gotta love conservatives like Ricketts, though, always railing about liberals and abortion. They love life while it’s in the womb and some woman’s problem (and while they can use it to control women’s bodies). Once the baby shoots out of the womb, not so much. But I believe if you are for life, you must then be for it in all its forms, including potential and criminal. In the words of the Book of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. Therefore, choose life….”
Given that view, I don’t want the state committing murder in my name. But let’s look at Ricketts’ argument. He mentions public safety and there the governor and I would agree. The point of the criminal justice system – to me, anyway – is not punishment and rehabilitation. The point is the protection of the citizenry. By that standard, there are people in prison (drug users) who shouldn’t be in jail but under medical care and people in prison (recidivists like rapists and child molesters) who should never be released.
What about murderers, a life for a life? Well, if they’re in prison, then they’re no threat to society, are they? But what about when they come up for parole? Here I’m sorry to say that there are murderers and there are murderers. Take Jean Harris, the Madeira school headmistress who was convicted in 1981 of murdering her adulterous lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower of “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet" fame. Harris always maintained that she intended to shoot herself to death, not Tarnower; she refused to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter; and the mental health professionals who examined her were not called to testify. She was given 15 years to life in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women where she devoted herself to educating fellow inmates.
Her sentence was commuted by then New York Gov. Mario Cuomo after 11 years as she was being prepped for quadruple bypass surgery. To me, justice was done. Harris was no threat to society.
Meanwhile, mass murderer Charles Manson died in prison and serial killer David Berkowitz, the so-called “Son of Sam” killer, remains in prison despite being born again. That seems about right.
So, if the purpose of the criminal justice system is the protection of society, and society is served by its prisons for violent, recidivist offenders, then what is the purpose of the death penalty?
Revenge, and you know the old saying: “When you seek revenge on another, dig a grave for two.”