The Quality of Mercy

Posted on 09. Sep, 2009 by in Uncategorized

“I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death” – Harry Blackmun

It’s a rare occurrence in politics that logic and morality align so neatly that a decision, whether progressive or conservative, is inevitable, but on the issue of the death penalty, Barack Obama has been given the opportunity to present an open-and-shut case for abolishing the practice of executing prisoners.

In 2004, the State of Texas murdered Cameron Todd Willingham. It planned the murder in advance, picking a date, time and method. Though he pleaded for mercy, the state showed none. The murder occurred in public, with plenty of witnesses on hand as Willingham protested his fate one last time and exhaled his final breath. Under Texas state law, the state of Texas should be executed.

That’s an illogical solution to the crime that occurred, and rips the mask of morality from the pro capital punishment faction to reveal the ugly face beneath – execution of prisoners is nothing more than state-sponsored lynching.

Statistics show that the death penalty does nothing whatsoever to reduce the murder rate. New Hampshire allows capital punishment and has the lowest murder rate in the nation. Louisiana also executes prisoners and has a rate thirteen times that of New Hampshire. Only two states without the ability to kill prisoners have murder rates above the median of 4.5 per 100,000 people, Alaska and Michigan.

Every other Western nation has abolished the practice of killing its people. It costs more to house a prisoner on death row than to incarcerate him (for the vast majority of those scheduled to be executed are men) for the rest of his life. A disproportionate number of those put to death are black and poor.

But these logical arguments against the death penalty always run up against the horror of the crimes committed by the condemned. Rape followed by murder. Serial killing. Murder for hire.

Adolf Eichmann was hanged under this pretense. Bought off by the Reich, this bureaucrat orchestrated the extinguishment of six million lives. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and to this day the immorality that he represented and helped to propagate is condemned. Had the life not been choked out of him, he might have lived to a ripe old age, fed meals and supplied with housing and books by those he would have gassed and cremated.

No one would argue that Eichmann deserved to live, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the Nazi obsession with documentation provided proof of exactly who knew what and when, how the orders were deliberated on and carried out. The whole crime was a matter of record.

That is almost never the case in a modern-day murder trial. The Willingham case involved a rich stew of damning testimony made from the cheapest, thinnest ingredients of evidence: the jailhouse snitch; the eyewitness who didn’t witness half the scene; the diagnosis of sociopathic behavior by a state psychiatrist who never bothered to examine the defendant; and, of course, the scientific expert who doesn’t follow the scientific method. It all seems so authoritative, unless it’s not.

In the last few years, the Supreme Court has overturned death sentences against mentally impaired people, those condemned for rape, and those who were minors when they committed their crimes. They are tinkering with the machinery of mercy.

The President’s Justice Department should immediately file friend-of-the-court briefs in all capital cases coming before the Court, supporting clemency under the Eight Amendment. There can be no punishment crueler or more unusual than the execution of an innocent man, and even if it never happens again, once is too often.

I doubt he’ll do it. The majority of states still have the death penalty, and the majority of the population supports the policy. Obama, both as candidate and as president, has shown a reluctance to take unpopular stances. But if he wanted to take a principled stand and act in a way that gives me hope rather than just force-feeding me some rhetoric, this case is the perfect opportunity for a display of backbone.

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One Response to “The Quality of Mercy”

  1. Scott Cobb

    12. Sep, 2009

    Sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.