Supporters and opponents of the death penalty agree on one point: It is regrettable when innocent people end up on death row or, even worse, executed.
If through some combination of reforms — who knows what they would look like — we eliminated the risk of executing the innocent, would there be any compelling reason left to oppose capital punishment?
This question, to be sure, is purely hypothetical. The 130 death row exonerees since 1973 plainly show that the risk of executing the innocent remains a real and grave concern. The problems of biased sentencing procedures, poor representation, prosecutorial misconduct and eyewitness coercion have plagued the death penalty throughout its history up to the present day. A foolproof death penalty perhaps appears among Plato’s forms, but not in any actual society, contemporary or historical.
For argument’s sake, put aside the difficulties involved in implementing the death penalty fairly. Let’s assume that the state succeeded in crafting a foolproof system of capital punishment, where only the guilty, the worst of the worst, would be executed. If death penalty proponents had their ideal system, what would it look like? How ideal would it be?
Even in such a system, families would suffer intense and, at times, unnecessary pain. Victims’ families would have to relive the horror of their loved one’s murder every time the media brought the case up again, whether that be at trial, during appeals or at the time of the execution. The increased media attention received by death penalty cases would continue to deprive families of the privacy they often need to work out their grief.
Moreover, a foolproof system would do nothing to ease the pain experienced by families of death row inmates. Murderers and rapists still have families — families who, while condemning criminality and seeing the need for punishment, understandably hope to preserve their loved one’s life. It is heartwrenching for a family to know that they have only a specified amount of time with a son or father or brother before the state intervenes and ends his life.
No family better illustrates the pain inflicted by the death penalty than the Hills from my home state of Ohio. This family has endured a double tragedy, losing loved ones to both murder and death row.
Their nightmare began in March 1991. While struggling with his father’s recent death and high on crack cocaine, Jeffrey Hill snapped and stabbed his mother to death. Since the murder, the family has pleaded with the state not to execute Jeffrey. The state of Ohio, however, is bent on carrying out the execution March 3, regardless of how traumatic it will be for the murder victim’s family.
The trauma caused by the death penalty unfortunately does not end with the families of the victim and the perpetrator. As long as the government demands executions, it must train executioners. Death penalty advocates rarely consider its effects on those who have to subdue the condemned, render them defenseless and then shoot, hang, gas, electrocute or poison them. Not surprisingly, this macabre profession often leaves its practitioners burdened with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Take, for example, Ron McAndrew, whom I met after hearing him speak about his experience as the warden of Florida State Prison. He presided over three executions during his tenure. Each of these executions remains vivid in his mind, none more so than his final one.
On Mar. 25, 1997, McAndrew gave the order to commence the electrocution of Pedro Medina. Shortly after 2,000 volts of electricity began pulsating through Medina’s body, foot-high flames engulfed his head. In the midst of smoke and the wretched odor of burning flesh, McAndrew gave the order to continue the execution. It is a memory that haunts him to this day.
A foolproof system of capital punishment would fail to address the anguish endured by families like the Hills and officials like McAndrew. The inherent flaw of capital punishment is that it perpetuates violence and suffering, creating new victims, rather than solving these societal problems. It is impossible to isolate a criminal and direct the state’s wrath solely on him or her. An execution is always a horrific, traumatic event that sends shock waves through society, in much the same way as does murder or rape or other forms of violence.
We are well past the time for reforms. The longer we tinker with the machinery of death, the more lives — including ones beyond the confines of death row — will end up destroyed by it. In the interest of those impacted by violence, it is time to reject capital punishment in all its forms.
Ben Jones is a second-year graduate student in the Political Science Department.