The Death Penalty in America

Will Sarvis
5 min readMay 16, 2022

MY TWO-CENTS’ WORTH

I was writing a short piece about the culture of the death penalty in Japan when I realized it needed this preliminary opinion piece.

In a general sense, I have never seen much “value” in the death penalty. I don’t think it has a deterrent effect on capital crimes, death row is very expensive in the United States, and capital punishment includes killing the innocent and wrongly convicted. It also seems like revenge writ large, and if you follow the moral in Aeschylus’s play Oresteia, revenge is a primitive path that spawns endless cycles of revenge. Thus, revenge killing perpetuates a problem rather than solving it. Some people seem to relish revenge, but others quickly discover its hollowness.

Some historic organized crime families could easily verify the “endless cycle” dynamic when it comes to inter-generational killings. In the 1972 film, The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) asks why there are no men in the Sicilian village where he is hiding from his enemies. One of his bodyguards responds, “They’re all dead from vendettas.” And such vendettas tend to go on and on, until family members no longer personally remember the origin of the feud.

Matthew A. Lynn’s 2007 photograph of the Tombstone (Arizona) gallows replica. Law enforcement officials once justified public executions as a deterrent, basically employing a psychology similar to that of terrorism (i.e., frightening a larger group by killing a few). The terrorism ploy was clearly evident in all the unconstitutional lynchings that took place throughout the American West and South. (Wikimedia Commons image).

In 1978, my best friend Nick was violently murdered. He left behind four children and a fifth on the way. Needless to say, this was a tremendous tragedy for a great many people. Nick’s mother died shortly thereafter, years before her time, partially (we all believed) from a broken heart. In the middle of this tragedy, some people talked (all talk) of killing the murderer. My response at the time? I said, “If it would bring Nick back, I’d go do the killing right now.” Instead, knowledge that I had lost my best friend, someone who had redirected my life in such profoundly positive ways (possibly literally saving it), was all-consuming. I was already a skinny young man, but I began losing weight.

A few decades later one of Nick’s grown sons told me that his father’s murderer had been dead for many years after having drunk himself to death before the age of fifty. I’m just going to assume that the murderer regretted the momentary rage that led to his horrible deed. Killing someone is not like “in the movies.” Most people (we hope) would find great difficulty in living with the knowledge of taking another’s life, especially if it happened in a moment of anger. Whoever penned the “Seven Deadly Sins” probably had this sort of anger in mind, not the “righteous anger” Aristotle discussed with more detail and depth. Or indeed, as Eiji Yoshikawa’s Zen monk character Takuan said, “A real man’s anger is an expression of moral indignation,” and not merely an expression of “personal malice.”

Murder motivated by personal malice is generally the sort that does not merit the death penalty, simply because the death penalty would be too good for the killer. Let the perpetrator suffer. Let him contemplate his mistake for the rest of his life. This is an extremely unoriginal idea, but it is also an implicit reason why some prisoners are put on suicide watch.

In western culture, after the demise of the medieval dungeon, the law-and-order aspects of society conceived of the “penitentiary” as a place (literally) to do penance. If you could be sure of accurately identifying an ingrained sociopath — someone with no guilt, no conscience, and no possibility of regretting his actions — then he might be a rare exceptional candidate for execution. Again, only according to my own point of view.

Take Ted Bundy or other sociopathic serial killers. Unless they were consummate actors, they seemed to have no conscience. They committed terrible, multiple murders and slept in peace. Bundy joked and smiled with the press during his final days. He did not seem capable of remorse. Personally, I see no reason to keep such people alive in a cage for the rest of their lives. There is pure or nearly-pure evil out there. The trouble is, how do we recognize it, especially in its permanent form (if there is such a form)?

Take someone like Charles Manson. He sure tried to present himself as a menacing sociopath, but I never believed the act. He was an attention-seeker of the worst sort, so sitting in a cage for the rest of his life was probably the most apt punishment. Never mind that he never seemed to learn a damn thing. Who knows; maybe that was an act as well.

Of course, determining the difference between true sociopaths and the fakers (or those with potential for future regret) would be among the most difficult things a society could do. People change with the years, and especially with the decades. Think of that scene in Shawshank Redemption, one of the most evocative passages in movie history, when the character Red, a convicted murderer (played by Morgan Freeman) tells the parole board:

There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word.

(This scene was so enrapturing the first time I saw it that I didn’t even notice that the camera was very slowly zooming in on Red the entire time. Very talented acting and film making!)

Along with the general humanitarian objections to the death penalty in the United States, there is something even more disturbing, and that is the untold thousands of innocent people (usually black men) that states have executed. Since the 1990s, the Innocence Project alone has used DNA evidence to exonerate hundreds of death row inmates. One shudders to consider all the innocent men executed before the advent of DNA evidence.

The United States is a violent nation, as one would expect from a country still reaping its “legacy of conquest.” Unless this culture makes a monumental shift, I myself do not expect to see any significant reduction in violent crime or the death penalty. On the other hand, people like Bryan Stephenson, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, David Protess (and all his journalism students) have the tools and are heroically fighting back, one innocent life at a time.

Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (NY: New Press, 2012).

Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (NY: Spiegel & Grau 2015).

The quote from Eiji Yoshikawa comes from his novel, Musashi. See Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi, Charles S. Terry, trans. (NY: Harper & Row, 1981), 80.

The “legacy of conquest” quote comes from Patricia Limerick’s book of the same title. Her book is about the history of the American West, but I’ve always thought the title could apply to the entire nation, given its colonial and conquest beginnings.

--

--

Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.