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Why The Death Penalty?

This was written as a response to a column in the San Jose Mercury News by David Sylvester in which he opposed the death-penalty. As part of his argument Mr. Sylvester cited examples of people whose death sentences had been commuted and who had then gone on to lead productive and peaceful lives — examples intended to highlight the cruelty and waste of human potential inherent in a sentence of death.

The letter was submitted to the Mercury News, and published on 5 August 1997.

4 August 1997

I oppose the death penalty for reasons having nothing to do with the morality of state-sponsored execution and everything to do with the inherent fallibility of human institutions. Nonetheless, reading in David Sylvester’s commentary (Aug 4) about the death sentences commuted by former Governor Pat Brown reminds me why the death penalty has such an appeal for so many people interested in justice.

Mr. Sylvester cites instances in which those thus spared went on to become productive members of society. He states that “many were released from prison through changes in state law or further clemency from Brown.” Why? How can this be? These are murderers who were sentenced to die. Governor Brown commuted their sentences to “life in prison”. What are they doing out of jail?

To put it plainly, murder is a crime which cannot and should not be forgiven. A murderer has taken what cannot be replaced or compensated, and no amount of penance can pay his “debt to society” — or his debt to his victim. Quite frankly, I don’t care how “productive” someone can become after they are released back into society. I don’t care how repentant they are, or how unlikely they are to kill again. All that is irrelevant. Rehabilitation and redemption is an appropriate response to other crimes, but murder is unredeemable. And while, as individuals, we may feel personal compassion for the prisoner who has lost his liberty or sorrow at the waste of human potential, as a society we have a duty to the victims who have lost their lives — and a duty to future victims — to hold such behavior to account, to say, “This is simply intolerable! We will neither forgive nor forget!

The beauty — and the horror — of the death penalty is its permanence: the executed are not eligible for parole, don’t get time off for good behavior, never again walk among us free and forgiven. I suspect that support for the death penalty would be a lot less widespread and a lot less zealous if the alternative — life in prison — could provide the same assurance.

But every story about a murderer who has been released from prison — whether or not they are productive, whether or not they have repented, whether or not they kill again — is an affront to justice and an advertisement for the death penalty.

© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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