Resurrection and Revenge
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
"I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus assured Martha, adding that though her brother Lazarus was dead, “yet shall he live.”
“Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days” Martha says nervously.
To which Jesus responds, “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” So, according to
On March 18 Bill Richardson, governor of
Lest anyone be under the misapprehension that the governor was endorsing some quaint notion that all human life has value, the governor was at pains to emphasize that since the new law comes into force only on July 1, the two condemned men currently residing on Death Row in New Mexico still face execution.
With the death penalty, irreversible mistakes bring the whole justice system into well-deserved disrepute. But of course the state has a ready answer, one conveniently cued for them by the abolitionists who have set the stage for the state to offer its substitute: life without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—living death or, in Richardson’s creepy phrase, something “worse than death.”
Also recruited into the abolitionists’ arguments for efficiency have been pragmatic calculations that the death penalty is simply too expensive. It costs a ton of money, particularly in a state like California, to fight a death penalty case through the courts and the appeals process, pay for prosecutors and defenders to amass the data and the witnesses for the post-verdict penalty phases of the trial, get someone onto death row in San Quentin and then fight further endless battles over habeas corpus writs, stays of execution and so forth.
Bill Clinton did his best to speed up the conveyor belt by signing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. But it’s still a hugely expensive hassle to line things up so lethal injection can proceed. Against all this, what’s brisker than the offer of LWOP as part of a plea bargain? Sign on the dotted line. Pack the prisoner off to a concrete box and throw away the key. As the Dallas Morning News editorialized in support of LWOP for Texas, which is considering whether to abandon the costly death penalty in favor of confinement unto death: “It’s harsh. It’s just. And it’s final without being irreversible. Call it a living death.”
The pendulum is swinging against the death penalty. DNA evidence -- posthumously exonerating some, clearing others waiting to die –has been a big factor in waning enthusiasm for the ultimate sanction. The current total of defendants on state and federal death rows is 3,307. Fifteen states don’t have the death penalty,
Nothing much is going to change in
Meanwhile, the number of convicted people drawing the “living death” card will go up, as juries will likely find it easier to sentence defendants to living death—LWOP—with less worry about the irreversibility of a mistaken death sentence. There’s much less money available in states like
When I drive south to the Bay Area, I pass San Quentin, where 667 prisoners sit on Death Row. In the very unlikely event they get executed, they will have waited an average of 17.5 years from the moment they were condemned. Thirteen people have been executed in
How many prisoners nationally are under sentence of “living death”? The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization based in
The irony is that a moral debate is finally in motion over
Humane! Now there’s a novel word. Maybe the notion of prison time as a path to redemption for murderers and pickpockets will creep through a crevice in the wall of prejudice that shields the national and political posture on crime and punishment.
This posture goes back to the very origins of the Republic. It was Tocqueville who lauded American penology, in the book he wrote with Gustave de Beaumont, On The Penitentiary System and who wrote in a letter in 1836, “Isolate the detainees in prison by means of solitary cells, subject them to absolute silence… prohibit every communication between souls and minds as between their bodies; that is what I would consider the first principle of the science [of prisons]. ”As Professor Sheldon Wolin writes in his Tocqueville Between Two Worlds, this was a theory of “total control…‘pure’ power and wholly opposite to the unlimited space, frenzied time and near anarchical subjects of Democracy.” The prison that Tocqueville and Beaumont particularly admired was
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs