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· Just Mercy ·
Until recently, despite uncertainties and inequalities in the criminal justice system, I’ve been in favor of the death penalty. But now, especially after reading Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), I’ve shifted from my long-held personal belief.
I’ve examined the death penalty from a secular point of view. I decided not to debate the question from a Biblical viewpoint beyond a brief thought. Some people believe that the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” means the death penalty is never appropriate; others quote the verse “an eye for any eye” as an instruction manual from God.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve believed in the death penalty for criminals who commit murder. Of course, back then I believed justice was fair and impartial. Back then a jury was always right because the evidence was always clear and eye witnesses to the crime had photographic memories.
I believed that if the murderer was convicted and killed, then the murderer would never kill again. As I got older, I reasoned, if the murderer was “only” sentenced to life in prison then there was the opportunity for the felon to kill again, maybe a prison guard or a fellow inmate. Why take the risk of a killer killing again? I asked.
I believe that all people deserve the right to be treated fairly whether they are a racial minority or a person living in poverty. You can see my dilemma in trying to support my belief for the death penalty. It’s not simple; it’s complicated.
Author Stevenson reminds his readers that “capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.” Put another way, his mission is “to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they were poor and innocent.”
Clearly, capital punishment is controversial. Since racial bias is a factor in racial minorities being found guilty in murder trials, I question my life-long stand. Since suspects who are poor often get inadequate legal representation, that’s another weakness in my opinion. Now I question myself: Am I for fairness, equality, and justice, or not?
I consider the survivors of the slain person and their rights. If a person is wrongfully convicted, then that’s not justice. It doesn’t serve the suspect, the victim, or the surviving family members of the victim in their quest for closure; nor does it serve the community.
I try to personalize the crime. If a family member or friend of mine was found guilty of a murder they did not commit and he or she was sentenced to death, then I can only imagine their pain and desperation on death row. When I think of this hell on earth, I’m more empathetic and compassionate. One wrongful verdict leads to improper sentencing which can lead to death.
If a family member or friend of mine was murdered, what would justice look like? What end result would I want? If the suspect was an adult, without mental illness, and the person was definitely guilty, then I think I’d recommend the death penalty, especially because it was personal. As for forgiveness, I might forgive the murderer after the death sentence was carried out, not before. My emotions would probably demand revenge or retribution.
Am I barbaric? Am I uncaring and cold-blooded? What would it take for me to see this differently?
If the criminal justice system was totally fair and just, then I think the death penalty would be more acceptable to me. But, of course, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Right now, with Bryan Stevenson’s horrific stories of injustice still alive in my head after reading Just Mercy, I’m questioning how I can continue my endorsement of the death penalty. There are just too many documented failures in the criminal justice system.
Here’s a collection of hard, sad facts from the Equal Justice Initiative (eji.org):
“Since 1973, 158 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.
“Wrongful convictions have been found to result from erroneous eyewitness identifications, false and coerced confessions, misconduct by police and prosecutors, inadequate legal defense, false or misleading forensic evidence, and perjury by witnesses who are promised lenient treatment or other incentives in exchange for their testimony.”
So, I’m taking a deep personal look at my belief about the death penalty. It’s shifted from a strong belief in capital punishment to a growing urgency to proclaim: too many errors cost too many innocent lives.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
I so agree, Jim, although I have never favored it. Thx for writing re this issue. I think of Floyd Bledsoe who now lives in “our town.”
Jim Potter says
Marilyn, I guess I haven’t wanted to examine the many miscarriages of justice. I preferred to believe that the justice system was just. I can’t predict how forgiving I would be if a murder was really personal. Thanks, Jim
Surprising point of view from one of the gentlest men I have ever met, who signs his missives “Peace out”, who works for justice and protests war. Numerous studies have shown that there is no “closure” after the death of a loved one. We stay, thankfully, connected in life and death. I believe there is a toxin carried by someone who seeks “an eye for an eye” that is not ever quite satisfied, even with the death of the guilty. Additionally, capital punishment does not allow for reformation of the prisoner.
Jim Potter says
Lois, thanks for your response. Yes, I’m well aware of my inconsistencies. I really don’t know how I’d react if my love was murdered. Maybe I would find forgiveness but I think I would want revenge. Yes, I agree that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”–Gandhi. Maybe I should find another way to sign off. Jim
I believe that without DNA evidence there is always a chance that someone professing their innocence may just be that, innocence. Also, for me, being in a cell for most of the day, for years on end, would be a terrible sentence to bare. I think that if someone, who has been convicted with DNA evidence for the crime of murder, would be punished with no chance of parole for the rest of their life.
Jim Potter says
Thank you for sharing your opinion on the death penalty.