WHENEVER the death penalty is debated, you are sure to hear opponents talking about the horrible possibility of an innocent person being killed. While I'd quibble with their numbers (there have been relatively few documented instances of wrongful executions), I'd agree that there is nothing more horrific, unjust or inhuman than a guiltless individual being forced to have his life taken from him.
That reason alone should motivate each state legislature to seek a moratorium where it appears that the system doesn't afford the necessary levels of due process and equal access to competent legal representation. Arbitrary punishments are never acceptable, even though retribution is not a dirty word. After all, in a society that demands the separation of church and state, the Christian ideal of love thy murderous neighbor has no place in the civic sphere. To me, and many who work in the criminal-justice system, the death penalty is a legitimate part of the social contract.
That's why I took great pleasure in the announcement this week that prosecutors in Colorado were going to seek the death penalty for James Holmes, the man who went on a deadly rampage in an Aurora theater last summer and murdered 12 people. Of course, whenever the government tries to execute one of its citizens a serpentine process of controls and protections is triggered, so it's unlikely that Holmes will have a needle in his arm in the near future.
That, of course, presumes that he will even be convicted and, of course, we are all innocent until proven otherwise. But the mere fact that the prosecutors decided to push for death as opposed to life in prison is a reaffirmation of life itself.
Twelve lives, to be precise.
Holmes had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors saw that as a publicity ploy. Whether it was that, or some twisted attempt at absolution, we as a society should be happy that someone is keeping vigil for the victims of violent crime.
Because they, ultimately, are the ones who are forgotten when we start wrangling about the death penalty. Those who deal in the lovely esoterics of compassion and forgiveness rarely have the courage to listen to the voices of those victims or embrace the anger and sorrow of their survivors. True, some of those survivors themselves plead for mercy and are heralded by the anti-death crowd as evolved and admirable human beings. But there are many others who see retribution as a legitimate function of the civil state, and think that if we excuse evil acts in the name of God or his secular counterpart, tolerance, innocent life is devalued. Ironically, many of the loudest voices in opposition to the death penalty would never deprive a woman of her right to choose death for an unborn child.
Personally, I think there is something just as horrific as the possibility that an innocent person will be put to death: The possibility that a guilty person will be spared. Whenever a convicted criminal has been released from custody because his sentence has been commuted by an evolved and compassionate legislator, something in me rebels at the injustice. If we cannot demand an eye for an eye, at the very least we should be able to expect that the remainder of that criminal life should be made as difficult and joyless as possible.
Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. Ask Kathy Boudin.
Boudin, who I am ashamed to say graduated from my alma mater Bryn Mawr, was involved in an armored-car robbery back in 1981 that resulted in the deaths of three men: two police officers and a Brink's guard. She spent 22 years in prison before being released to resume her life, unlike her victims. Three wives were left widowed, nine children were orphaned.
Boudin was found guilty as charged, but never executed. If there had been any justice in the world, we would not be hearing about her job as an adjunct professor at Columbia University lecturing on the "politics of parole and re-entry." In a society where the pieces fit together and make some sort of sense, Boudin's body would have long become one with the earth and her soul would have settled into the nether regions described by Dante and Milton.
But this is not that type of society. Here there are those who demand justice for killers, but are willing to accept something significantly less than that for their victims. Here there are those who think it is an appropriate penance to spend two decades behind bars with all of the attendant privileges that notoriety brings, and then pay to hear that guilty exhibitionist talk about how we need to pamper the guilty. Here there are those who think that compassion is owed to criminals.
Fortunately, the prosecutors in Colorado have compassion for the rest of us.