Clarence Darrow was defending two infamous young men, Leopold and Loeb, who were guilty of a particularly heinous murder. Their fate — life versus death — rested with one judge. Even as the community angrily cried out for blood, Darrow begged for mercy. In a famous plea for life, he ended his statement with these words:
I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all.
So I be written in the Book of Love,
I do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the Book of Love.
The pages of Darrow’s Book of Love faded during the last 30 years. Capital punishment, which had all but disappeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, roared back to life following a Supreme Court decision in 1976 and marched triumphantly across the nation. At its height, 37 states authorized the use of the death penalty.
Then in 2007 something extraordinary happened: New Jersey stepped away from this vengeful norm, repealing its statute. And now New Mexico has done the same. Meanwhile, legislatures in several others states have at least seriously debated the possibility of repealing capital punishment.
So what’s behind this hopeful trickle back toward a more rational and less violent criminal justice system? Is America suddenly rediscovering its humanity? Has the nation been shocked into action by evidence that innocent people have been sent to death row? Or are we finally bowing our heads in shame over the racially biased way the ultimate penalty has been imposed?
While all of this certainly is playing some role, none of it really explains what’s happening. No, to a significant degree this is about money. In hard economic times, capital punishment is simply proving to be too expensive. I mean, if it comes down to having to reduce funding for highway repairs or raise taxes in order to pay the price of putting a couple people to death every year, suddenly retribution stops looking so good.
So, what do I, as a passionate death penalty opponent, have to say about this? I will admit that part of me, when faced with the crassness of this pecuniary motivation for reform, is drawn back, instead, to Darrow’s words in the Leopold and Loeb case: in particular, to his insistence that he spoke for the future:
I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future.
* * *
I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.
I won’t deny that I would like to believe we have drawn at least a little closer to that future — toward a day of reason and mercy: to dream that we are at last outgrowing the ancient desire for bloody revenge. But if this is not to be — if it is more the pocketbook than the heart that’s pushing us forward – I’ll still gladly take the progress.
Surely cherishing life is always a good thing, even if in the end it’s only because money is tight.