The US hit a milestone this week that made me wince. For the first time in 17 years, a federal execution was carried out.
There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty: It is unequally meted out; there is racial bias; it is extremely expensive for the state; it hasn’t been shown to act as a deterrent; there have been cases of people on death row being exonerated and, tragically, wrongful executions.
There was a time when I supported the death penalty. I felt that some crimes were so heinous, some criminals so evil, that they deserved the ultimate punishment. Over the years my view has changed. I still believe that evil exists. How can it not when a person like Daniel Lewis Lee, the man who was killed Tuesday in Terre Haute, Ind., murders in cold blood a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl?
But I think humans should avoid making the final judgment. There’s no coming back from life and death decisions. If an alternative exists, such as life in prison, taking human life should be ruled out.
Some months ago I read an article from British food journalist Jay Rayner about last meals requested by inmates facing imminent execution. Rayner argued that such morbid fascination with last meals is misplaced as the requests are typically banal.
What I felt, though, when reading his article, was disgust. Rayner’s parlor game of “What would your last meal be?” could be an amusing way to pass a few minutes. But in the context of human beings who were actually executed? I felt it contributed to the fetishization of death row. The focus is all wrong. Instead of examining capital punishment, we’re discussing steak and fries.
An upshot of the Black Lives Matter movement is the thematization of our unhealthy carceral system. Death row is just one part of that. Racial bias, prison gangs, recidivism rates, length of sentences — these are all aspects that require examination and reform.
In our current climate, we may read about Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist, and feel he deserved it. But opposing the death penalty is not about the severity of the crime committed or the character of the criminal. If you’re on death row, chances are you’re not one of the good guys.
This was not a milestone I ever hoped the federal government would reach.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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