Law and Conversation

September 22, 2011

Davis executed

Last night I posted about two executions in the US yesterday, one of which, Lawrence Brewer’s, had happened at the time I posted and the other of which, Troy Davis’s, had been postponed. I now see that Davis’s execution did take place late last night after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his application for a stay. (Hat tip: Ava George Stewart.)

George Stewart also posted on Davis’s execution last night on her Chicago Criminal Law Blog. She concluded by asking “Is this the America that makes you proud?” Her question reminded me of an occasion a long time ago on which I expressed a sentiment that was petty and maybe also a bit vengeful to a good friend. To my surprise, my friend responded not with agreement, but with “Aren’t you better than that?”

As Amnesty International reports, the world is moving toward abolition. But 58 or so countries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Nigeria, and North Korea, retain the death penalty, with the US ranking toward the top of countries who actually carry out the sentences. Though that list also includes the first-world country of Japan, the general tilt of the list is backwardness and repression. To the questions posed by my other friends – does this make us proud? are we not better than that? – I add “Is this the sort of company we want to keep?”

The death penalty is a pretty uncomfortable topic, and, as I wrote a while back, I spent quite a bit of time thinking I supported it while preferring not to think about it too much. The crimes for which people are executed in the US are horrible – just read the background on the Brewer and the Davis cases – and those convicted, assuming no mistakes (and guilty verdict mistakes do happen), probably aren’t nice people. Certainly, there are lots more pleasant things to spend your time thinking about.

I finally did start taking apart the issue in my own mind after reading Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of the settlement of Australia, in which he described a public execution in 18th century England. The barbarity of crowds turning out to cheer and jeer the condemned man on his way to the gallows revolted me.

Then I started wondering whether it’s any better for a government to kill a person in private. Is it okay to do something behind closed doors, or in secret, that you think is so horrible or shameful that it can’t be done out in public, in the light of day? So if we’re going to continue to have executions, why should we not make them public, so that all can see? If you buy the argument that killing the person who killed someone else will provide comfort, or “closure” (whatever that is) to the victim’s family members – which I do not – then wouldn’t it be a good idea to let the entire world witness the execution, so as to provide that comfort to even more people, along with whatever deterrent or moral lesson we think capital punishment provides? And shouldn’t we bring the kids?

Those are all really uncomfortable questions, as was my friend’s to me so many years ago. And I’ve hardly even touched on the serious issue of mistaken guilty verdicts. But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves those questions and more, as long as we have state-sanctioned killing?

August 3, 2011

Making executions public

As I wrote earlier this week, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob had a thoughtful editorial in The New York Times this weekend advocating for televising executions.

Some years ago, my reaction to this idea would have been that televising executions, or otherwise making public spectacles of executions as was routinely done not so many years ago, would be revolting and barbaric. At that time, I was a supporter of capital punishment, reasoning that some crimes are so awful that they deserve death. But I didn’t like to think about it–the idea of killing someone, premeditated and approved by law, made me too uncomfortable.

Then I read an historian’s account of public executions in 18th century England (Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia). Hughes wrote of the crowds that turned out to see convicts taken to the gallows and the pervasive carnival-like atmosphere. His vivid description, which I have no doubt was completely accurate, disgusted me and started me thinking: if you wouldn’t want someone to see what you’re doing because it’s so awful, why would you want to do it at all? And why would you approve of your government doing something so horrible that it can’t be allowed to be shown in public–even though national security (which I agree would be a compelling reason, as in the execution of Osama bin Laden and in the photos of his body) is not an issue?

Lat and Shemtob are careful to say that they, like many citizens, are deeply conflicted over capital punishment and are not urging their point as a means of turning public opinion against it (though they recognize that others have). Their argument for bringing sunshine into the execution chamber is strong and convincingly written.

In the meantime, I’ve reconciled my own conflict on the issue, following reading Hughes, as follows: though some criminals may deserve death, it doesn’t follow that the government should mete it out. So my reaction to Lat’s and Shemtob’s argument remains that public executions would be revolting and barbaric–but I also believe that executions that are not open to the public are revolting and barbaric. So, if we’re going to impose the death penalty and kill people, let’s adopt Lat’s and Shemtob’s proposal, and let everyone see exactly what happens during an execution.

And that highlights a compelling reason for reading (and telling) stories: they can help you think about and see things differently, whether personal matters, current events, or what have you. I wouldn’t have expected a story about events in 18th century England, contained in a history of Australia, to lead me to change my mind about the death penalty in the modern USA, but it did.

Has a story ever helped you to see another matter in a different light?

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