This article examines capital punishment in murder cases, one case in particular.
While many people support the death penalty and have good reasons to support such a controversial issue, I will offer deeply personal and compelling evidence to demonstrate why I do not support capital punishment – Patti McMann (Author).
Image: Death penalty in the U.S.
A Brutal Murder and the After Effects
On January 15, 1982, in his birthplace of Oklahoma City, OK, a 29-year-old man was gunned-down in the parking lot of a popular night club by his roommate, a person who he considered his close friend. The murder victim had a young son, siblings, and one surviving parent. A very talented man, he built and sold wood furniture and played the drums. He worked hard at everything he did, and he had many friends.
His murderer shot him twice, once in the chest, and once in the abdomen, but did not stop with just killing him. He drove the victim’s body 50 miles from the murder scene where he dumped it in a drainage ditch like a sack of garbage. A road crew found the body five days later. The man had been robbed and his clothing partially removed. On January 30, 1982, the Oklahoma City police department notified the victim’s family of his death.
The killer’s trial began in April 1982, and after deliberating for 22 minutes, a seven-woman, five-man jury found 27 year-old Dennis Ray Benton* guilty of first-degree manslaughter and later sentenced him to 70 years in prison.
Every three years when Benton’s parole hearing takes place, the victim’s sister petitions the Oklahoma parole board in an effort to keep him incarcerated. Although she did not want his life taken as he took her brother’s life, she feels that he should serve his total sentence. She reasons that he suffers more for his crime by living his life in prison, whereas he would suffer very briefly if executed. If Benton lives long enough to serve his sentence which got reduced to 46 years, a 73 year-old broken-down man will leave prison with no income, and a lot of worry about survival on the outside.
My older brother, Michael, should not have died in such a gruesome and tragic manner. However, while it seems logical that the state of Oklahoma should have taken Benton’s life, killing him would not have brought Michael back.
Although I still grieve heavily over my brother’s death, I do not believe that the execution of Benton would have provided my family and me with relief or closure. Yes, Benton took Michael from us, but the intentional taking of a human life by any method, including government mandate, still constitutes murder.
Since 1976, judicial death has claimed the lives of 1,184 Americans with 20 of the executions carried out in 2011.
As journalist William Bole questioned, in 1977 countries such as Western Europe and Cambodia stopped using capital punishment, so why does the United States still kill in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong? When other nations view a practice collectively, the United States takes a different position regardless of the consequences.
In America, 34 states practice the “an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth” method of retribution against people who commit savage and barbaric crimes such as murder.
Other than the satisfaction that each stakeholder in an execution feels when the killer realizes that his or her own death has arrived, how can we justify committing the same crime that the offender committed to bring justice and closure to victims’ friends and families? How can the murder of a second person correct the murder of the first person when not one, but two or more lives have been taken?
Bedau’s Fantasy Argument:
I’ll give an example of the death penalty offered by professor of philosophy, Gary Colwell, where in 2002, he presents philosopher Hugo Bedau’s fantasy-world argument to establish the morality of the death penalty. What if the execution of each murderer simultaneously restored the murder victim back to life as if no murder had ever happened?
Bedau, in his argument, stated:
“Consider… an imaginary world in which executing the murderer would invariably restore the murder victim to life, whole and intact, as though no murder had ever occurred. In such a miraculous world, it is hard to see how anyone could oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. Why shouldn’t a murderer die if that will infallibly bring that innocent victim back to life? What could possibly be morally wrong with taking the murderer’s life under such conditions?”
If the execution of my brother’s killer would bring him back to life as if nothing had ever taken place, perhaps my opposition to the death penalty would not exist because something good would come out of the sacrifice of evil. As the family member of a murder victim, the restitution that I would receive from the forfeit of the killer’s life, under Bedau’s conditions, would not seem as brutal as the “life for a life” method of justice that some parts of our nation currently use.
The flaw in Bedau’s fantasy-world argument makes it difficult to decide if taking a murderer’s life would right the wrong, because if it would, then capital punishment would represent moral justice which we all know that the act of murder by itself cannot do.
If Benton’s life ended and restoration of Michael’s life began, the expression “a life-for-a-life” would no longer be valid since Michael would no longer be a murder victim, and Benton would no longer be a murderer which would make the execution of Benton completely immoral.
Why Kill Again?
The question remains: What possible fulfillment could a person get out of killing another human being unless the killer has perverse tendencies? In order to execute a killer, another murder must occur which makes the state carrying out the execution, and supporters of the execution have the same perverse tendencies as those of the killer.
Most capital punishment supporters feel that a murderer should receive the same treatment that the victim received. When my family and I learned of Michael’s murder, we felt the same way. That thought and feeling subsided when we considered the fact that Benton must be alive to suffer for his crime, and he would not pay for what he did if he received the death penalty.
Life vs. Death:
In addition to my argument against the death penalty for the reasons I have already presented, I also examine the alternate to the death penalty, life in prison without parole, and why it provides more punishment than execution does. Some people feel that for a murderer, life in prison with no chance of ever seeing the outside world does not provide satisfactory punishment; however, I feel that a life sentence without parole, and in Benton’s case where he will serve almost a life sentence, fulfills the punitive expectation that I have for my brother’s killer.
Contrary to what many people think, prisoners who serve life sentences do not have it easy. Even though they do have many things such as television, access to a library, and educational opportunities, they actually have much more to worry about on a minute-by-minute basis than non-prisoners do, such as the loss of their lives, beatings by other inmates, and constant sexual assault.
The reality of their existence inside prison walls differs substantially from what we, as non-prisoners, visualize. True life prisoners pay a steep price for their crime, and to support my statements, I will provide examples of why “lifers” pay a hefty price for choosing murder over living as a productive member of society.
My illustration consists of seven side-by-side comparisons of their lives on the inside vs. our lives on the outside.
Image: A group of people protesting against capital punishment.
1. Living space: We can choose our living space and decorate it as we see fit. A lifer’s living space typically consists of a 6′ x 10′ cell with a toilet, sink, and a bed. Decoration must conform to prison policies.
2. Time: We can spend our time any way we choose. A lifer must spend his or her time as dictated by prison dynamics and management. Time moves slowly, and days drag by.
3. Work and education: We spend part of our time at our jobs for which we receive no less than minimum wage. If a lifer has a job, he or she earns anywhere from $1.00 a week to $20.00 per month. We can spend our money any way we choose, but a lifer has no real place to spend money, and nowhere except inside the walls to use any degree earned.
4. Family and friends: We can choose the time that we spend with our family and friends, and the activities that participate in. If we lose a friend or family member, we can attend the funeral. A lifer cannot choose time spent with family and friends, and eventually, most friends of lifers stop visiting. If a lifer loses a friend or family member, prison regulations and policies forbid the prisoner to attend the funeral.
5. Freedom: We have the freedom to come and go as we choose, freedom of speech, and control over most events in our daily lives. A lifer has very limited freedom. Prisoners who exercise freedom of speech in such a volatile atmosphere often get severely injured or lose their lives.
6. Possessions: We have our possessions that we enjoy. Lifers do not have many possessions, and what little they do have frequently gets stolen. Prisoners who fight for their possessions sometimes end up getting brutally injured or killed.
7. Conscience. We did not commit murder, so we do not have to live with the guilt. We do not have to live with the horrific fact that we took another person’s life. Some lifers do not have a conscience or a soul, but the ones who do must look at themselves in the mirror every day and live with what they did. Guilt can age a person physically and emotionally overnight, and many lifers suffer guilt related health problems and die a premature death.
Even with all that I have demonstrated so far, some people will always support the death penalty, and will still feel that the “life-for-a-life” punishment is ethical, which is their right.
In his 2005 interview with Sister Helen Prejean about how prosecutors often treat the family members of murder victims, associate editor of America magazine, George. M. Anderson presented Prejean’s story that prosecutors who have their sights set on judgeship frequently seek the death penalty to enhance their political careers.
How do we justify the sacrifice of a human life, even that of a cold-blooded murderer, as a means of professional advancement? How do we teach our children and grandchildren the importance of human life and then demonstrate the opposite by using the judicial system as a murder weapon?
When we debate between capital punishment and life in prison without parole, we have to consider the values that must be weighed when deciding the penalty for the crime. What public purpose, other than the eternal absence of the killer, does the death penalty serve? If the court pronounces the sentence of execution, after the sentence is carried out, the killer’s family endures the punishment since the killer can no longer suffer. Why should we punish innocent families?
To quote attorney Richard C. Dieter from 1994: “Assuming that the death penalty is ethically acceptable, and even constitutional in theory, are there, nevertheless, practical burdens which capital punishment places on society? Whether one supports the death penalty or not, are its negative effects outweighing the personal satisfaction which some may get from using it? “
As a society, if we do not condone the taking of a human life, why do we support court-sanctioned murder? What makes this type of murder any less immoral than the heinous crime of the person who gets executed?
Innocent People Executed:
We must also consider the fact that in spite of strong evidence that won a conviction, execution has taken the lives of innocent people. In 1999, The Christian Century Magazine exhibits a case where Anthony Porter, convicted of murder and sentenced to death, got released from prison 16 years later when a Northwestern University journalism professor and his students reexamined his case and led police to the real killer who confessed to the killings. Had Porter not had the luck of a court-ordered hearing on his mental competency, and the help of the professor and his students, he would have been executed for a crime that he did not commit. The overturn of his conviction took place just two days before he was scheduled for execution.
In 2001, The Christian Science Monitor referenced then Illinois governor George Ryan’s act of halting executions in Illinois in order to put safeguards in place to prevent the executions of innocent people. He also noted that wrongful convictions take place when police and prosecutors mishandle evidence, and when defendants have pitifully inadequate legal representation during trial.
An innocent person receiving the death penalty is as appalling as the crime of murder itself. When a person takes another person’s life, it is murder; and when a state executes an innocent person, it is still murder. How can there be any difference when both murder victims were innocent?
Lorna Siggins, Western Correspondent for the Irish Times in 2007 described innocent people who get convicted and sentenced to death for violent crimes. She stated that professor of law Bryan A. Stevenson who represents disadvantaged and death-row prisoners in the United States got 125 death penalty cases overturned because the prisoners were found innocent, some just days before execution was scheduled to take place.
The fact that this many innocent people received the death penalty is deeply disturbing. No words could ever express the sorrow felt by their families and friends if those people had died for crimes that they did not commit.
Supporters of the death penalty might think about how they would feel if one of their friends or relatives got convicted of murder and was executed, and then five years later the real killer got caught and confessed to the murder that the friend or relative did not commit but died for.
Writer Mark Dow, who has authored many death penalty articles and commentaries, made a strong case in 2005 against the death penalty when he pointed out that a court can undo a conviction but it cannot undo an execution.
I know how I would feel if my brother Michael had died for a murder that he didn’t commit instead of the way that he did die. Either way he is gone, but court-ordered murder does not convince people not to kill. My example of career enhancement by lawyers who seek the death penalty blatantly lays the groundwork for a corrupt judicial system to get rich off of the blood of others.
Additional Crimes for Death:
Writer Rod Morgan, a well-known author of many books and articles on criminal justice and penal policy, supported putting an end to capital punishment on the grounds that it violates human rights and fundamental freedoms. He pointed out something that should concern everyone: In recent years, many of the states with the death penalty have passed laws that added crimes that qualify as a capital case such as attempted assassination of the President, and major drug trafficking.
If a friend or relative committed one of those additional crimes, although a dreadful crime, should that person be put to death, or would life in prison without parole form a better solution so that he or she could actually pay a debt to society for the crime?
We must look deep inside and ask ourselves this question: If we were judges in a court of law, could we, without much regard to overall society, sentence another human being to die?
Professor of law James S. Liebman asked the same question in 2007: “Why, then, is the Court’s stance toward the death penalty one of both detachment and deployment? Why not one or the other? Why, in its dance with death, is the Court suspended between near-embrace and near-escape?”
Now I return to my brother’s killer, Dennis Ray Benton. My family and I did not ask the prosecutor to seek the death penalty because in reality, he would not have suffered for taking the life of our loved one. Killing Benton would not right the wrong that he did to our family.
The fact that Michael’s killer lives and suffers daily the consequences of his actions brings me comfort. I see his suffering, and the physical signs of his misery which does much more for me than his dead body lying in the ground could ever do.
In Michael’s case, justice really has prevailed without the use of capital punishment.
Credit: Patti McMann.