To End Their Lives Or Not – Part 1

By Eric Le Roy

Content 21+ The topic of Capital Punishment (execution of a human being by legal command of the state) has occupied a classroom chair in the school of my mind for many years, probably since before my early teens. (I am now at the blackboard with a piece of chalk in my hands, about to write the number 75). This means I have had roughly 65 years to think about it.

Yet – as with most serious questions my demanding soul has driven by fire to the surfaces of my mind – I still don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s closest to the truth to say I used to be against it, and now I am for it – under certain circumstances. Why? Age, maybe. The ‘Seen it all’ syndrome. Cynicism. Or maybe it is just one last winning battle waged by my essential Inner Asshole – the one I have finally managed to defeat on most fronts.

So in response to Artem’s view that Capital Punishment is wrong ‘if looked at scientifically’ I am going to play the Devil’s Advocate and argue the other way. What I assert will represent about ¾ of what I really believe, except that, as I said, I don’t know what I actually believe. It depends on the weather.

First, a little background. The first time I became aware that there was such a thing in America as ‘the death penalty’ was when my Mom was discussing a movie she had seen called “I want to Live” which was about an American prostitute (among other things) named Barbara Graham. (“Bloody Babs’) the press dubbed her. She was sent packing in the gas chamber of the notorious San Quentin prison in California. The other villain who caught my attention back then was a robber and serial rapist named Carryl Chessman, who fought off execution in the appellate courts for 10 years before he also got the cyanide air freshener in 1960. (I will focus on the length of time – common in America – between conviction, sentencing and carrying out a sentence a little later.)

I was just a kid, but I used to watch Perry Mason (the famous TV lawyer) as he gradually picked the guilty one apart and, to use my neophyte expression, “sent another murderous old biddy off to the ‘chamber.’” You see, it often turned out to be some old woman who was really guilty and not Perry’s defendant. I thought it was funny how the homicidal hag sobbed as they led her away. Of course, it was television. But I always enjoyed seeing the guilty punished.

The other favorite and even more famous means of execution of the time was the electric chair. “Old Sparky’ was how it was affectionately known. The first time it was used was as far back as 1890 and the inmate was Francis Kemmler who had been convicted of murdering his wife. Although electrocution had previously been modeled successfully to kill a horse (Edison later did it to destroy an elephant), Kemmler’s ride on the lightning did not go smoothly. In fact – though it had been advertised as a much more humane way of dispatching the condemned than hanging – during Kemmler’s last party, smoke started coming out of his ears and he actually caught fire, sending the witness fleeing from the room. It must have been quite a show.

The most famous criminal sentenced to death in the chair was serial killer Ted Bundy. It was a very popular execution. But now, the Chair being viewed as too barbaric and horrific, the way of departure is lethal injection. Even that doesn’t always run smoothly but in concept it is. They wheel the condemned to the death chamber on a gurney, give him one injection to relax him and the second to take care of business. It is basically just euthanasia – the humane way that many beloved domestic animals meet their end. The lethal injection idea supposedly removes the ‘barbarism’ element and at the same time it carries out the assignment.

During the time period between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and now – probably as many as 1500+ people have been executed in the US – most of them men. It’s hard to imagine the deaths done by ‘vigilante justice’ in the Old West, the early military, and the Deep South during and post-slavery. The religious folk of the world, namely Christians, always used to like burning heretics at the stake. The fire, it was assumed, would sear the devil’s naughtiness out of them before they gave up the ghost.

So that’s basically the history. Now let’s go to the arguments expressed by Artem.

He makes two main points and some secondary ones, all of them good. First, he talks about how, as civilized people, we should not follow the old ‘an eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth’ formula, which – though people now don’t realize it – was Hammurabi’s way of improving the way things had been. By positing his Code of Law (this was the first legal system as such) , at least people knew what they were in for.

So two wrongs don’t make a right. Besides, as they used to say as they stood on the gallows: “Yer hangin’ an innocent man!” Sometimes it happened, and the reasons were often more onerous than human error. After a conviction in America, the District Attorney – who, after all, is a politician – doesn’t like admitting he was wrong. A conviction means Votes in the next election because the average American believes that villainy should be punished and is delighted to see it done. Even if it’s the wrong guy. So many times the DA will cover up exonerating evidence just to keep the verdict intact. It is heinous but it has happened a lot.

This has proven unfortunate for black people and even poor whites over the years. And it has worked out badly for the community in general when the serial killer supposedly behind bars turns around and strikes again. There is always a chance that an innocent man or woman will pay the worst imaginable price for something they didn’t do.

Artem also is of the mind that in a civilized world, putting someone to death is a barbaric act. We should be above that by now. Nor is it enough to rationalize that the condemned person ‘deserved it’ – as many would conclude – for his unspeakable acts. So no more drawing and quarterings, no more public hangings, and so on – which used to provide an enormous amount of public entertainment. One might even say, if we again use the US as an example, that state executions have become much more ‘sanitized’ over the years. But that, Artem attests, does not lessen the basic barbarism behind it. Rather, the idea is to take the spice out of it, the way Taco Bell does with Mexican food.

For one thing, it is now strictly an indoor sport. In the old days, the public spectacle aspect fed the considerable bloodlust of the mob, and when someone especially notorious was done away with such as Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard (who inspired The Beggar’s Opera) – it was the equivalent of a modern day Super Bowl. Ghastly disembowelment was standard procedure for traitors, and frenzied crowds gazed and gawked with the same insatiable ardor as a child watching the popcorn pop at a movie house. In fact, children often attended the executions.

Hanging was great entertainment because in the days before proper weights and measures ensured a neck cleanly and painlessly broken, the dying person would kick and swing and dangle for usually no less than 20 minutes, often longer. The crowd knew he/she was dead when they stopped moving and pissed themselves (literally). The electric chair was also dramatic, although it was only ever done indoors in front of a few witnesses. If you want to see what it was like, watch “The Green Mile’.

Now it’s the ‘needle’. It seems that the idea is simply to remove the problem once and for all. “Hey Guy, no hard feelings. We just want you out of here, OK?” So they say, “Hail Fellow, Farewell” at midnight – instead of at halftime at the Super Bowl in front of 80,000 spectators and a TV audience of billions. Is the reason for this that the ‘death squad’ is ashamed of what they are doing? Most of them would shrug and tell you that they are just doing their jobs.

Finally, again using the ‘scientific method’, Artem reveals what has been explained many times before and stands as fact: the death penalty has NEVER acted as a deterrent to dissuade people from committing murder or similar bad acts that have resulted in capital punishment. And to the list of ‘We should stop doing this’ I could also add that in America nowadays people can spend a long, long time on Death Row. The longest was a Black man named Brandon James, who was sentenced to death in 1979 and not executed until 1997. There are many other examples, though mostly without such an extended stay on The Row.

How in the name of Holy Fuck can that happen, you may well ask? The reason is actually simple. In America you have what is called the Appellate Courts, otherwise known as the Court of Appeals. Through endless legal machinations, lawyers can postpone executions for years and years. It is a big money maker for the lawyers and they love it. But it raises the question – no matter on which side of the fence you sit: if a guy is sentenced to death when he is 18 years old and not actually put to death until he is 34, are we in fact killing the same person?

Indeed, this is where Artem’s manifest of rehabilitation kicks in: let’s suppose that by 34, the older man has changed his life and way of thinking entirely, and that he is no longer the drug-crazed teenager who murdered his girlfriend or the convenience store clerk in a fit of impulsive frenzy all those years ago? Should the sentence still be carried out more than a decade later? Artem says No. The states in America where capital punishment is legal say Yes.

Who is right?

To End Their Lives Or Not – Part 2