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The Truth, Mainly - 03/13/1995

Execution: Bleeding heart response

I see that a week from Wednesday, we're planning to kill Robert Williams. It gives me the fantods. You ask why? I'll tell you.

First, I'm not convinced it'll do any good. Which is to say I'm not convinced the death penalty deters anyone except the people we execute. It it did, you'd expect states that execute people to have lower murder rates than states that don't. But on average, according to FBI numbers, the opposite is true. In 1992 (the most recent numbers available), states that execute averaged 9.2 murders per 100,000 people; those that don't averaged 4.9.

Iowa, without the death penalty, had 1.6 murders per 100,000 in 1992; Nebraska, with it, had 4.2.

If I wanted to go on being logical, I'd point out other reasons for my fantods:

Racism. The killer of a white person, according to the NY Times, is about eight times as likely to be executed as the killer of a black person.

Cost. The Times says a North Carolina study two years ago showed it cost $329,000 more to put someone on death row than to give him a sentence of 20 years to life. The explanation: "Lawyers are more expensive than prison guards."

Mistakes. Amnesty International says we've executed 23 innocent people in this century. Last fall, Texas executed a man even after the prosecuting attorney said someone else had done the killing.

But logic has little to do with my fantods.

I wish I could say that I'm as compassionate as Huck Finn is when he and Jim leave two murderers in dire peril. "I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I says to myself, there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it."

But my real reason isn't compassion for murderers. My real reason is that I'm an incurably optimistic bleeding heart, and the idea of the state deliberately killing someone on my behalf makes my stomach ache.

I should also say my stomach aches when I read about someone being murdered. I imagine what goes through a victim's mind in those last moments and I get sick—and angry. Were a cop to catch the killers at the murder scene and ask if I object to his doing them in on the spot, I'd tell him to have at it.

Because I do not discount what I think is the most compelling reason behind executions: revenge. Note that I don't call it "mere revenge."

I suppose there are a few Huck-like saints among us who aren't tempted by revenge, but most of us are hot-wired for it. That's why vengeance movies are so popular. Unrestrained by due process, Clint Eastwood takes delicious revenge while the villain's gun is still smoking. It makes Clint's day and it makes ours too because the payback is just, certain, and most important, hot with immediacy.

The Truth, Mainly


But that's in the fantasy world of Hollywood. In the real world—at least in a country where you're presumed innocent until proven guilty— revenge is not always certain, sometimes not just, and almost never immediate.

That's the way it has to be. Remember those 23 innocents we've executed. We have to allow time for all the arguments, all the appeals, time that often stretches over decades.

And if you're an incurably optimistic bleeding heart, you believe that as those years pass, the murderer has the same possibilities for change— physical, mental, even moral—that the rest of us do. Compare a current photo of Robert Williams with one taken just after his arrest. Eighteen years on death row is as likely to change him as 18 years of our experience is likely to change us.

"Tough," some say, and I can understand them saying it. I can especially understand the friends and the family of murdered people saying it.

But for us incurably optimistic bleeding hearts, the Clint Eastwood factor has a short shelf life. Our heat for revenge dissipates as years pass and we see people reinventing themselves all around us. After a decade or two, we're chilled by the prospect of killing someone for something he did in what may have been another life.

The chill is intensified by the icy way we go about preparing for an execution We watch as the electric chair is tested, witnesses are called, snowfences erected to separate people with lighted candles from people with swastikas and BBQ signs.

When we make premeditation a part of the legal definition of first- degree murder, we acknowledge that planning a killing makes it more awful, more offensive to human sensibilities. Then for 18 years, we premeditate.

And cursed with our incurably optimistic bleeding hearts, some of us get stomach aches.

I don't expect any of this to change anyone's mind, but it's why I've got the fantods about what we're scheduled to do a week from Wednesday. You asked.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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