Friday, September 23, 2011

The Death Penalty

I know - a nice light topic for our edification today, huh? But in the past week, it's been on my mind a bit, as in the United States, Troy Davis - convicted twenty years ago for the murder of a police officer - was put to death this week, around the same time as we in Canada (which does not have capital punishment) learned of the terminal illness of serial killer Clifford Olson.

I am not going to deal with the guilt or innocence here of either man - not in any doubt in Olson's case, and in a fair bit of doubt in Davis' - because in large part that's not my central thesis here. I mean, it is, to the extent in general that judges and jurors are humans, who therefore almost by definition can err, and the fallibility of the legal process is reason #1 I'm anti-death penalty. I have said and still say that until and unless we can create an inerrant justice system in which the rate of wrongful conviction is, without any doubt, absolute 0, death is far too absolute and final a judgement to potentially go wrong with. In saying guilt or innocence here is irrelevant, it is more in the sense that I'm not familiar enough with the details of either case to speak to the guilt or innocence of either - particularly Davis', as I do believe Olson has confessed etc. But also, because there's a more salient point I want to address here.

Throughout the last week or two, the families' of both of the above mens' purported (or actual) victims have spoken of the relief they would feel when they got the phonecall informing them of the death of the accused. And this is often the #1 case made by advocates of capital punishment - the concept of victims' rights, of closure and some sense of retribution (which is a nice way of saying vengeance - yes - that high and lofty Christian ideal) for those who lost loved ones. And I want to make perfectly clear here, that I do sympathize with victims of crime. As admittedly snearing as the above sentence might have sounded, I actually am not one who judges people for falling short of ideals - particularly in un-ideal circumstances. It is completely natural for one who lost a loved one violently at another's hands to be angry ... to hate ... to wish to erase that person's existence, and the pain it has caused, from their world. Like anyone, I have experienced times in my life where others have hurt me and/or my loved ones, in some cases very badly. They have caused anger. They have caused me, in private - and sometimes not so privately - to question my own ideals, standards, beliefs, in light of new and painful realities.

However, it is that word, that concept - reality - which can so often get lost to pain. And the reality is, I think those waiting patiently for the phonecall that is going to change their life and take away their pain after so many years, are going to be sadly surprised by the reality of it. Once that phone is put back down - your loved one will still be gone, their former space at the table will still be empty, and really, justice won't have been served; because the true injustice is the years that you were robbed of, which nothing - not even the death of the accused - is ever going to be able to fix. And that isn't even compounding the injustice by bringing up the possibility that 'we might have been wrong' - that's the reality, even if we got the right dirty perp.

I want to pause now and point out I am a great believer in justice - and this means being tough on crime where need-be. Even as a true red-blooded progressive, I find the idea that murderers pretty much automatically get out of jail after 25 years laughable. And I believe again, that victims and their families have the right, as much as possible, to get whatever closure is reasonable on their pain. But I don't see how responding to death with death creates any more closure than the knowledge the criminal who hurt me and my family is left alone behind bars with the reality of their actions for the rest of their natural lives. That IS justice, that IS a cold and hard reality. And to anyone who says it's more mercy or better treatment than they showed others ... is that what we hold ourselves to? The standard of the most deviant among us? Let us be the things these monsters aren't ... let us be firm but merciful, tough but reasonable ... that is truly the way of honouring those lost to crime and violence - to end that nightmare cycle, at the end of which really, whatever we tell ourselves ... grief remains.

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