A few thoughts on the death penalty

According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, California has executed 11 people since 1976, when the death penalty was legalized (again). However, three men are slated to be executed in this state by February. People scheduled for execution are held at San Quentin, which is located more or less in the heart of the Bay Area–10 minutes from San Rafael and Marin, bastions of yuppie power. A bridge away lies Richmond. As you prepare to cross the bay bridge, a glimpse of San Quentin can be had–it is surprisingly poorly labeled–the only hint that there is a prison there is the exit sign: “San Quentin–last exit before bridge.” If you weren’t aware that San Quentin was a prison, you might be forgiven for thinking another quaint Victorian town could be found there, instead of a place where men wait to die. (Women go to Chowchilla.)

I remember California’s first execution after 1976 very vividly, when Robert Alton Harris was murdered by the state on 21 April 1992. I may have been very young, but I remember the vicious debate about the execution in the newspapers, and I remember seeing pictures of the death chamber. I also remember that the execution was filmed because of concerns that death by gas was “cruel and unusual.” I also remembered asking my father why the state was allowed to kill someone and civilians weren’t.

From what I’ve read about Harris, he doesn’t seem like he was a very nice person. He had prior convictions, and the crime that landed him in the chamber was the murder of two teens, described as “brutal” even in anti-death penalty examinations of his case. At the time of his execution, all I knew about him was that he was making history for California in a particularly gruesome fashion.

I have a confession to make:

The death penalty bothers me. It bothers me that I live in a state which still practices such a barbaric, archaic, and terrible method of punishment. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia are all more progressive than California is. It is very curious to me that California is called “the left coast,” and that people think of us a bastion of liberalism and progressivism, when the state murders people, and all of us as citizens collude by not taking a stand. The death penalty is wrong. Murder is wrong, and it doesn’t matter who is practicing it.

It sickens me to read interviews with the families of crime victims who speak with ghoulish pleasure about “closure” when they mean watching another human being die. One of the most outspoken groups against the death penalty is composed of victims’ friends and families, and with good reason–they are more equipped than any of us to understand that death is not a suitable punishment for any crime. Murdering someone will not bring your loved one back–and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to think of child rapists being tortured in prison than being murdered by the state in a costly farce? Death row prisoners are fiendishly expensive to care for. But I suppose it’s better to slash education funding so that we can go on murdering people rather than considering the values of our society more carefully and perhaps rearranging our priorities.

Stanley Williams is about to become California’s 12th victim since 1976, unless the governor grants him a pardon (life without parole). He has committed terrible crimes, and he has reformed himself, but neither of these things should be considered–what you must ask yourself is this–are you prepared to be complicit in the death of another human being on December 13th? I, personally, am not, and although I am only one person, I will still write to those “in charge” and let them know that I am, as a taxpaying citizen, disgusted that my money is being used in this way. I am, as a human being, disgusted that I am forced to allow my government to kill other people. I am, as an American, shocked that this punishment is still meted out by the “leader of the free world” when most of Europe has rightly abolished the death penalty. Mexico has abolished the death penalty. Australia, Tibet, and many African nations have gotten rid of the death penalty. Why is America so far behind the times? All in all, 91 countries around the world have said that they do not find the death penalty an appropriate penal tool. Nine more use it only in extreme situations. The United States can add itself to a list which includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Botswana, Burundi, Chad, China, the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, and others. Some of these nations execute people for homosexuality. I’m not certain I want to be considered in the same legal camp as these nations, some of whom execute without a trial, or in even more barbaric ways than the gas chamber. (Nigeria, for example, recently stoned a woman to death for adultry.) The Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, remains my personal hero for refusing to execute a death warrant as long as he remains in office, an act of personal bravery and moral courage which I applaud. The United States should be setting an example for the rest of the world and abolishing the death penalty nationwide, because it is the right thing to do.

I leave you with some words from Mr. Williams, who has this to say about “witnessing”:

I don’t want anyone present for the sick and perverted spectacle. The thought of that is appalling and inhumane. It is disgusting for a human to sit and watch another human die.”

[death penalty]