Imagine the worst thing you've ever done. Hold onto that thought for a moment. Now ask yourself: Does that moment define you? Should that moment define you? If you're like me, you'll find that even though we all make mistakes in life, even though we all fall short of our greatest ideals and hopes, our worst decisions don't necessarily reflect our true character. How many of us did stupid things when we were younger? How many have committed acts we regret? As we age, we make mistakes. As we make mistakes, we learn and grow.
How does it make sense, then, to brand convicted felons as permanently "unworthy" of life? If we were truly rational and consistent in our moral outrage, this possibility would be wholly untenable -- for they, like us, possess the capacity to change -- yet we persist in our delusional thinking about retributive punishment, character, and ethics. We forget why we condemn murder in the first place -- its incredible and horrible finality, its absolute denial of any and all ability to learn and grow. This rebuff of human potentiality confuses justice for vengeance.
Don't get me wrong: The death penalty is about many things -- retribution, punishment, anger, a misguided desire for some illusory "cosmic balancing" of the scales of justice. Yet it is most about imagination. Because even though society takes solace in a belief that the people we legally murder deserve death because they once caused it, this rationale lies in the realm of fiction, not reality. Because people change.
The men and women who were sentenced to death decades ago are not the same men and women alive today. After languishing for perhaps fifteen years in solitary confinement, one finds a lot of time to think and to read and to reminisce and to regret and to immerse oneself in redemptive activity and thought. While of course not all death row inmates avail themselves of these opportunities, many do. Many go through a crucible of pain and suffering and emerge as better people, as people who are shed of past wrongdoings in character if not in deed, as people who are immersed in religion or philosophy or wisdom drawn from a well of mistakes made and sufferings suffered.
As a result of the mere existence of this natural process of change, we are (in a sense) executing innocent people: That is to say, we are killing men and women so far changed from who they were when they committed their horrendous crimes that to say we are doling out truly retributive justice -- much less just justice -- is nonsensical. We aren't executing the same person. We are killing, instead, a much-improved "version" of the criminal we sentenced, a person who bears little to no resemblance to the dumb, inexperienced kid who committed a heinous crime perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago.
Anecdotes are plentiful. There is William Happ, who committed a brutal murder in 1986 only to recant decades later. There is Robert Waterhouse, who may well have been innocent in the legal manner rather than the manner I use the term in this essay, and who maintained his innocence until the end. The list is tragically long. For every death row inmate who didn't change for the better after his sentencing, there is another who recanted in sincere and moving ways. What good does it do to kill these people? What good, when they have made so much moral progress?
The death penalty is dying; it's only a matter of time. How many people will it need to take with it? Society rightly condemns murder because death is the very definition of finality. It can't be undone. So of course I understand why the impulse to kill those who kill exists. Faced with the death of a loved one, I sometimes wonder whether I myself would be able to uphold my ideals and forgo the impulse for retribution. I don't have the temerity to judge anyone who supports the death penalty.
But killing people who kill is wrong for the same reasons killing others is wrong: Death's finality denies all possibility of change. By killing people who kill, we either (1) kill men and women who have changed for the better or (2) deny murderers the possibility of reforming their characters and lives. This is repugnant to all moral systems, but especially Christianity. In the immortal words of Justice William Douglas, the "principle of forgiveness and the doctrine of redemption are too deep in our philosophy to admit that there is no return for those who have once erred."
Murder is the most heinous crime there is. But it is a better society where murderers, already justly suffering through a life in prison, can at least meditate on their crimes and redeem themselves by changing -- mentally -- for the better. Killing killers denies the possibility of redemptive change while perpetuating the very crime that put these people in prison in the first place.
If we are really consistent in our condemnation of murder, if we truly acknowledge the power of change and the possibility for redemption, we should not ourselves -- through our votes and through our politics -- become collective murderers.
Stop killing people.