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Jonathan Leigh Solomon Headshot

Getting Off the Hook on Capital Punishment

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On Thursday, John Eichinger will not be executed by the state of Pennsylvania. He will join a growing group of men and women on death row whose executions have been stayed pending the Supreme Court decision in the case of Baze v. Rees. As these lives are, at least temporarily, spared, so also Americans will once again be spared fully confronting the moral implications of capital punishment.

If the court's decision in Baze v. Rees finds that execution by means of lethal injection -- specifically the use of a three drug "cocktail" -- constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the fate of capital punishment will be thrown into even greater limbo than it is presently. Eventually, due to challenges to its various components, it may be eliminated entirely. But if capital punishment ends only because of these sorts of challenges and not because of a national reckoning with its full meaning, ironic as it may be, Baze v. Rees and cases like it will have let our nation off the hook in a way that cheapens our claim to being a judicious people.

As a result of repeated exonerations, 58 percent of Americans, according to a poll by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that provides analysis on capital punishment, agree that a moratorium on executions is necessary until the possibility of wrongful convictions is addressed. There is also wide support for limiting the scope of capital punishment as evidenced by the Supreme Court abolishing the practice for juveniles and the mentally retarded and referring to "evolving standards of decency." But for most of us, reaching the first conclusion is obvious and the choosing the second position is relatively easy.

But what if inequity or prosecutorial misconduct of any sort could be eliminated, all the accused had sufficient counsel, there was no possibility of wrongful convictions, no juveniles, or mentally retarded or disabled executed, none with extenuating circumstances? Clearly, this is not possible -- but what if it were? For or against, is it right to put a man or woman to death for their crimes? For those who consider it mandatory to have a position on the Iraq war, human rights, the guarantees of the constitution or Roe v. Wade in order to claim to be an engaged citizen, answering "yes" or "no" to his question is mandatory as well.

In fact, that question says as much or more than the other issues about who we are as a people. Particularly, those of us who live with most of our basic needs met. For us, in order to sleep easy while executing another, no matter how brutal or heinous their crime, we must have the talent to distance yourself from that person. Up close, difficult -- guards on death row, particularly those involved with the mechanics of the actual execution process, report depression, even PTSD as a result. But safe in our own homes, it is quite possible.

With that talent in hand, we can distance ourselves from others of many descriptions. Executions are not televised; the caskets of soldiers aren't on the news. Similarly, if we can allow for death by commission, we can allow for it by omission. A man dies by lethal injection at San Quentin; an elderly woman dies in an SRO for lack of medical attention. And that, in turn, entails a talent for ranking, each person becoming a point of reference for our own lives. We end up terrified of being an unfortunate and envious of the more fortunate. The driver of the Honda hands a dollar to the man at the top of the off-ramp and redoubles his efforts to own a Lexus. As much as we don't want to see the families still living in squalor in the wake of Katrina, we want to watch the Oscars. To read, even to write, that somehow executing a killer has any relation to a desire to watch a movie star walk down a red carpet can seem absurd, but our society is caught up in the artificial, and the death penalty is impossible without that.

In addition, boiling down the passion for justice that we do have to a necessity for executing one person demonstrates in a microcosm how our politics addresses symptoms rather than causes, thinks short-term rather than in the long-run and when we get rained on, look down instead of up. One of the unlimited supply of examples: California has been going back and forth on spending as much as $356 million on a new death row facility while the budget for drug rehabilitation programs under its Prop. 36 will be reduced to approximately $100 million in 2008-09.

Finally, what does it say about us when we express our passion for justice by way of retribution rather than compassion?

The question of whether to execute should be asked of our presidential candidates, it should be asked of each other. Four thousand men and women have been put to death in our name since 1930 and over one thousand since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty in 1976. No matter the brutality and heinousness of their crimes, no matter if they showed no remorse, we owe it to them to say if, standing in front of the judge of our own best nature, we owe them our own show of remorse.