On this day in 1972, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the death penalty, as it was used at that time, was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which means they felt that the death penalty could be called “cruel and unusual punishment.” What I thought was interesting is why. In their ruling, the majority said that they felt the death penalty was unconstitutional mainly because it was used in “arbitrary and capricious ways.” The implication then was that the death penalty is imposed more often upon racial minorities than on whites. This is still true today. In 1976, the death penalty was reinstated. The majority of the public at the time — 66% — supported the death penalty.
The percentage of the public who supports the death penalty today is also right about 66%. I will be honest and say I don’t know how I feel about it. On the one hand, if someone committed a heinous crime against someone I loved, then I would probably want to kill them myself. Several years back, when a woman shot and killed the man who molested her son in court, many people said they would have done the same, and many people expressed dismay that she went to jail. Don’t know if she’s still there or not. Public opinion in support of the woman was very strong. On the other hand, it has happened, especially in this age of DNA evidence, that people sitting on death row have been found innocent of the crimes that put them there. That means that people may have died innocent of the crimes for which they were executed. I’m not convinced that it works as a deterrence. It punishes that one person for their crime, but I don’t think most people who make the decision to commit a crime think about the death penalty or even prison when they do it. If they did, they might not commit the crime. I would be willing to bet most people commit crimes either with the sincere belief that they won’t be caught or that the crime so desperately needs to committed that getting caught doesn’t matter, if they are rational at all. So if you are going to argue that it will prevent crime, I have to say I disagree. I does, however, still mete out the ultimate punishment to those who commit crime.
Then there’s the issue of which methods of execution are okay to use. Georgia had an electric chair, but now uses lethal injection. Georgia has executed 34 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas, to no one’s surprise, leads the nation with executions performed: 322 since 1976, 9 already this year, 24 last year. At this time, 458 people are on death row in Texas. It also has the highest number of juvenile offenders currently on death row at 28. The first person executed after the death penalty was reinstated was a man named Gary Gilmore, a career criminal convicted of murdering an elderly couple who would not lend him their car. He faced a firing squad in Utah with the last words, “Let’s do it.” Utah still has a firing squad. I think, though I may be mistaken, that the option of facing a firing squad or a lethal injection is available to the prisoner.
The Bible is not clear on the subject, advising to take an eye for eye in the Old Testament, while advising he who is without sin to cast the first stone in the New Testament. Are people who carry out executions guilty of murder? I honestly don’t know.
I suppose the executions of those who have been kidnapped in the Middle East is much on my mind. I asked myself, in their minds, are they exacting a death penalty on people they believe have committed a crime? Actually, I don’t think so. They have to know those people have committed no crime except being from a country they hate. They are using terrorism to excellent effect. I admit to being completely afraid of what they are capable of doing when they will film themselves cutting off a man’s head. I haven’t talked about it here. When I read the newspaper account of Nick Berg’s murder, I cried. I cried for many reasons. I have a son, and it occurred to me that Nick Berg has parents who are devastated over losing their son at all, much less in such a horrible way. I also cried out of fear. I cried out of anger.
So I don’t have any conclusions today. Mostly because I don’t know how I feel.