Cherishing life when money’s tight
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.
March 19th, 2009 at 11:33 pm
I must admit I find no particular value in a life. It’s here, it’s gone. So it goes. I am curios as to just what “value” others perceive in a life. Particularly the lives of say Charlie Manson, Gary Ridgway Ted Bundy or Shoko Asahara.
In this over populated world people want to save the lives of (probable) killers. Incarcerate a person for x years at about 25 thousand dollars a year. To what end? Do some innocents get executed through missed justice? Yep. I would hazard a guess that it is far fewer than the number that die because of some misplaced sense of justice that releases a person that should not have been. Or from prisoner escapes.
Not all of us that believe in the death penalty see it as retribution, some simply view it as the penicillin that rids society of killer bugs.
March 20th, 2009 at 10:51 am
We all have to bear the burden of execution done in our names. That is unfair to those of us who believe that the lives of all creatures are precious and the qualities of mercy and kindness are our greatest gift.
Just maybe, if we made a habit of showing those qualities, we wouldn’t have as many cold-blooded killers among us.
I get that some are so vile and dangerous that it would be easier and safer if they were dead, but it isn’t my duty to kill nor order someone else to do the deed.
And your idea that killing an innocent and the escape or release of a violent criminal somehow come out equal just makes no sense. There is simply no way to justify the state-sponsored killing of an innocent person.
March 20th, 2009 at 2:19 pm
[...] thought of all this after I read this essay. I don’t mean to give a sermon here. I’m not even trying to change your mind. I just [...]
March 20th, 2009 at 6:01 pm
To paraphrase that first paragraph a bit.
We all have to share the guilt of the escaped prisoner that kills innocents.
Mercy and kindness? I find it difficult to believe that you feel it is more merciful for three innocents to die at the hands of an escaped prisoner than one at the hands of a state executioner.
Escaped prisoners… how about these two
–A cyclist looking forward to the birth of his second child was run down and killed by an escaped prisoner in a stolen van–
–Brian Nichols on March 11, 2005 escaped from the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta, by overpowering an officer and taking her pistol. He then murdered a judge, a court reporter, a police officer and US Customs Agent. He then held a woman named Ashley Smith hostage for a night in her own home, before he allowed her to leave to visit her daughter. Once she was released, she called the police, and he surrendered peacefully to SWAT officers who arrived on the scene.–
Or if you prefer Released prisoners
–“John Robinson first killed in 1962, when he slit the throat of a nine-year-boy who had been fishing on the River Aire near Shipley…. Yet Robinson, who was 32 at the time, was released less than 14 years later, in May, 1976. That fateful decision was to spark another tragedy just five months later in Huddersfield…. that was the last appalling scene between Robinson and Mrs Batty…Robinson had gone up to the bedroom where Mrs Batty was asleep with her son and pulled the bedclothes back….Robinson grabbed her round the throat and simply strangled her.
He took the body downstairs, but woke David, who was consoled by Robinson and went back to sleep, oblivious of his mother’s death.
Robinson later admitted that he cut parts of her body, put them in a plastic bag and dumped it under a hedge at the end of Whitacre Street.”–
–A double killer who was freed after serving 15 years of a life sentence was found guilty yesterday of murdering a teenage prostitute after his release.–
Paul Brumfitt, 44, was jailed for life at Birmingham Crown Court after being convicted of killing Marcella Ann Davis at his home in Woodsetton, near Dudley, in February last year–
Sorry about the following, sometimes I just can’t hold back my flippant streak.
“mercy and kindness are our greatest gift” I give gifts to those that are deserving of them.
March 21st, 2009 at 10:09 am
I understand where you’re coming from and the crimes you speak of are horrible examples of our screwed up prison system, but not a cry for a “kill em all and let God sort em out” reaction.
The words “state executioner” appall me, offend me and make me think of nazis and lynch mobs.
We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.
I can’t support the death penalty because one convict may escape any more than I can support torture because because there’s a tiny chance that I may learn something useful. I’m not going to give up my humanity in order to feel a very temporary, self-defeating and self-delusional security.
By the way, I like “flippant streaks”. Nothing is sacred in comedy, that’s the beauty of it.
March 21st, 2009 at 9:15 pm
Wanton acts amongst the human tribe. ‘Twas ever thus.
Not like we haven’t killed millions upon millins of innocents in wars. And continue to do so today, and will continue to do so tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.