Upon the birth of a new year, let’s talk about death, shall we? Or the death penalty, to be precise.
The topic loomed over a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, where the self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof undertook a fool’s errand.
After a jury quickly found him guilty of the cold-blooded murders of nine black parishioners — with whom he had just prayed — Roof declared that he would represent himself during the sentencing phase of his trial. He faces the death penalty. Judge Richard Gergel repeatedly warned the 22-year-old defendant that representing himself is “a bad decision.” Roof decided to do it anyway.
In the past, I have written in this space that I am morally opposed to capital punishment — until I’m not. My flip-flops come with cases that are so heinous that I’m forced to seriously consider whether death is the proper punishment.
It seems to be the same with Rev. Joseph Darby of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church where the Roof crimes took place. Darby has never supported the death penalty, but he now realizes that when extreme evil appears — Roof confessed to police that he wanted to start an American race war — extreme measures must be taken.
Like many of us, Darby seems conflicted. He indicates that he wants the ultimate punishment for the man who so callously murdered his church members, but he knows jurors may also waffle on the issue. What if they don’t unanimously agree on death?
“That could very well be the end of the death penalty in America,” Rev. Darby said, “because if there was ever justification for killing anybody, this is the case.”
Haven’t we heard that before — “If ever there were a case for capital punishment, it is the case of”? Fill in the blank. A crazed gunman or terrorist who massacres innocent people (think of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber), a pervert who sexually abuses and then murders a child, a mother who kills her own children so she can be with a new man — these are all cases that seem to scream out for in-kind retribution. But wait. You’re either for the death penalty or against it, right?
Seems the good reverend and I aren’t the only ones struggling with this moral dilemma. Major polling organizations report that citizen approval of the death penalty has been slowly eroding since the peak of its support in the mid-’90s.
So is the death penalty on its way out in the U.S.? Depends on which poll you read. The Gallup Organization says no. In Oct. 2015, it found that 61 percent of Americans still supported capital punishment for convicted murderers. In 2016, it reported that the number had slipped to 60 percent.
However, the Pew Research Center also conducted a poll in the fall of 2016 and found that only 49 percent of Americans favor a death sentence for convicted murderers.
Recent revelations about racial disparity in sentencing and wrongful death-row convictions may have changed some minds. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, at least 156 people have been exonerated from death row over the last four decades. What if those wrongfully convicted had been executed? It’s chilling to ponder.
All this said, executions have become rare in the U.S. The majority of states — 31 out of 50 — have either done away with the death penalty or not carried out an execution in at least 10 years. Still, 20 convicted murderers were put to death last year, in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Missouri and Florida. All were men. Most of them were white, but two were black, and two were Latino.
So where does this leave us? If the Pew poll is correct, then capital punishment is like so many other issues in America. We seem to be almost evenly split on the matter: Forty-nine percent favor it, and 42 percent don’t.
In my heart, I think there is an inherent contradiction to capital punishment. If killing is wrong, then why do states condone it via executions? Killing a killer seems hypocritical. Doing it for vengeance’s sake brings to mind the old saying “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
If society’s goal is to keep us safe from murderous criminals, locking them in prison for life achieves that. It is a much cheaper alternative than housing maximum-security death row inmates and footing the bill for their protracted appeals. A death row inmate can easily cost a state $1 million more than a convict who is sentenced to life.
And try as they might, experts have not been able to find evidence that capital punishment deters future crimes. So remind me again. Why we do it?
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]