Since I wrote my last piece on the death penalty, "Hey, Arizona, Next Time Try Scaphism," I've been asked why I care so much about it and why it angers me so much. I am angry because I have lived in a country that abolished it without descending into anarchy, and met Americans who transcended the violence of it even though they were the relatives of murder victims.
I first got involved while writing a script for Warner Brothers. It had been inspired by, and was intended for, Al Pacino, who wanted to do a modern version of Othello. I suggested making the antagonists lawyers on opposite sides of a death penalty trial. Jealousy would so undermine one that he'd be incapable of saving his client. I suppose the very fact that this was the story I wanted to tell (and did tell, though the film never got made) suggests I was already opposed to execution. How can flawed human beings take on the work of "God"? But despite this seeming bias, I went into the research with only a mild bias. It was not something I'd thought a lot about.
I met many people on all sides of the issue, judges, lawyers, killers, families of killers, and the families of the killed. I came out the other side 100% convinced the death penalty was not just barbaric but absolutely pointless.
Ironically, the first thing that became clear to me was that the people who suffered most as a result of it were the friends and families of murder victims.
When the State goes for life or life without parole, the case is quickly disposed of, the killer goes to prison, and the families begin trying to come to terms with the loss, the sorrow. If the State goes for the death penalty, however, its irreversibility dictates numerous appeals. (Anyone who doubts this should be so, might want to visit the Innocence Project website and check out some of the "killers" exonerated by them.)
Because of this, more time passes for the families before the legal aspects can be put behind them. Instead of grieving, they become invested in "winning", in getting the execution carried out. Consciously or not, they start thinking this will bring relief. But when the execution happens, another life ends, but nothing is won, nothing changes. The victim is brought back to life only in the sense that memories of the worst part of his or her life - the horror of its end - are dredged up again.
Years have gone by, but only now - with this nasty resolution behind them - does the grieving process finally begin.
The death penalty keeps rage alive at the expense of acceptance, peace.
Weirdly illustrative of this was a woman I met whose teenage daughter was murdered. The killer, a miserable drifter and junky, snuffed the girl out while high. He received the death penalty and the appeals process began. Some years went by and the woman was propelled onward through her life by her hatred and longing for revenge. But one day she could take it no more. She was driving and suddenly it hit her: I cannot live like this.
When she got home she wrote a short note to the killer saying, "You took away everything I loved, you ruined me, but I want you to know that I forgive you." Having sent the letter, she felt an immense relief. She had escaped a kind of domination. She began to remember her child's life as a whole, defined not just by one ghastly encounter, one horrific moment, but also by years of joy and struggle and all the other elements that add up to a whole person, an existence however abbreviated.
But it did not end here. The killer wrote back. He explained who he was and how circumstances had kicked and shoved him to the moment where he killed her child. The letter was long and lucid and, just as she had with her child, she saw she could not confine his existence, his humanity, to a single moment. There was more to him. He could not remember killing her daughter, he was too high, but he didn't doubt that he had done it and expressed deep remorse.
They continued to write to each other, and though the death of her daughter became no less sad, though she missed her no less, her death ceased to seem so existentially unjust and mysterious. It was no longer the consequence of inexplicable evil, it was part of thousands of impulses and failures that by chance had reached lethality when they arrived at her child.
The more she learned about the killer, the more she began to see him as a victim too. When she remembered her daughter, it was not just as the young woman who was killed, but also as the baby she gave birth to, the child she raised. So too with the killer. Unsurprisingly, his childhood had been horrific. If he ever stood a chance, it was a slim one. His life began in horror and now it would end in horror. She decided to try and get him off death row. When I met her she'd been trying for several years.
I know that a lot of people will ridicule her for having "fallen" for a killer's self-serving story; but no child's first ambition is to end up on death row having killed an innocent person. Clearly something went wrong between the baby's first breath and his last vicious act.
During my research, I met another woman I admired, a lawyer whose only job was to represent her state's death row inmates in their final appeals. To do this, she had to extract their life stories from them and then check the details against known facts before bringing them to the court and begging for mercy. She had done this for many men. I asked her if she'd ever met one who seemed so evil she didn't think he deserved mercy.
"No," she replied immediately, "I can't imagine if I'd had any one of their lives that I could possibly have done any better. In fact, I probably would have done a lot worse."
It is easier to dismiss someone as being "evil" than to face the tangle of social failures that we're all complicit in. It's easier to hate the adult than to ask what made a child grow up wanting oblivion and finding fulfillment in a killing. It's easier to mock and jeer and to kill than to try and understand, but it is cowardly and weak and will change nothing.