Anxiety shook me when my fifth-grade teacher assigned us a paragraph on what we thought about Stanley “Tookie” William’s death sentence. Williams, a former leader of the Crips charged with several accounts of first-degree murder, was put on death row in California. In prison, he began writing anti-gang and anti-violence books for children, some of which we had read in class.
Williams became an icon for many activists and leaders, with more than 2,000 attending his funeral. Before his execution, he left behind a recorded message for his mourners. “The war within me is over. I battled my demons and was triumphant,” Williams said in his recording. “Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps. Teach them to strive for higher education. Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others and I helped destroy.”
As a fledgling 10-year-old citizen, I had vague intuitions about the dilemma of justice presented before me. Part of me questioned whether it was morally just to penalize murder by executing murder under the thin veil of a bureaucratic procedure. As a young adult, I am more cognizant of the rhetorical moves supporters and opposers of this legal process use, which I explore here.
To begin with, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in California, citing that it violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Carney also contended that the system also leaves inmates with undecided fates for decades. In the past seven years, six states have abolished the death penalty, but in 2012, California voters rejected such a ban.
One argument weighing in favor of the death penalty is grounded in utility — how useful or beneficial to the majority something is. For example, murder is reasonably considered a crime against society, and it would seem to benefit society as a whole to eliminate anyone who poses a threat to the so-called greater good. But a stronger utilitarian argument exists for abolishing the death penalty. Fiscally speaking, putting a prisoner on death row is expensive and wastes taxpayer money that could go to other social service programs. California has spent $4 billion on death row inmates since 1978, which boils down to roughly $177 million per inmate a year. The money accrues from factors such as costlier lawyers, as well as incarceration expenses such as individual cells and multiple guards present for visitors. The death row population in California is currently at 748 inmates, but only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978.
In the same vein of utility, proponents also suggest the death penalty also deters murder. But other factors, such as demography, policing, culture and the job market, could also affect the murder rate. In fact, an epistemological study conducted by America’s National Research Council found in 2012 that research to date is not informative about whether or not the death penalty bears any weight on fluctuating homicide rates. Life imprisonment without parole, however, is a considerable alternative to the death penalty that can substantially yield social utility (not to say, though, that life imprisonment isn’t severe). Craig Datesman, for example, an inmate at Gratersford Prison in Pennsylvania, has coordinated a program called Lifers to help younger people who have trouble with the law go “straight.” Life imprisonment may also offer grieving families of victims financial and emotional restitution. One concept involves having lifers work in prisons for better wages in order to offer the victim’s family financial restitution, one figure set at $150,000. Additionally,Murder Victim Families For Reconciliation, for example, opposes the death penalty and emphasizes justice as a transformation from violence to healing.
In contrast, those who advocate the death penalty also appeal to the more individualistic argument of human dignity. They lever the “life for a life” argument, suggesting that the death penalty approaches the defendant with human dignity, treating him or her as a free moral agent. Institutionalizing a correction legal process like the death penalty enables the government to protect the “negative rights” (freedom from interference) of citizens, like the right not to be killed.
But what about mistakes? Legally, the death penalty may not be so clean or clear-cut after all, extinguishing the rights of those who are innocent. A study conducted by statisticians and legal experts reveals that almost 4 percent of U.S. capital punishment sentences are wrongfully convicted and that about 120 of 3,000 inmates are not guilty. Medically speaking, botched lethal injections can be easily interpreted as experimental and cruel. Clayton Lockett, for example, was given a new three-drug method that left him in pain for several minutes, dying 43 minutes after his injection. One alternative to the lethal injection death is a firing squad death, which is only legal in Utah. It can bring about heart death in about one minute. But the mental image of a firing squad is gruesome, uncovering an uncomfortable moral question about state-sanctioned death.
To this day, I don’t recall what I wrote for my assignment. But the fear and shock remain. As a child yet to be corrupted by cynicism, I wondered what redemption meant and if the most extreme measures of institutionalized retributive measures could ever make up for the loss in human life, which may or may not have been carried out heinously. I was aghast by how the line between life and death depended so much upon social mores. But I was also aghast by how it depended so much on the whims of one authoritative individual — in this case, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who denied Williams clemency. The only difference is that now, as a young adult, I bluntly oppose the death penalty as a means of administering justice.