Editor’s Note: This article was submitted to several Connecticut newspapers, but no one wanted it. I think the problem with it is that it lacks focus. I suppose the wishy-washiness of my own convictions on the death penalty also make it a rather less-than-elegant piece of work. At the time it was written, a Connecticut judge had just postponed the long-overdue execution of Michael Ross, a convicted and self-confessed serial murderer and rapist.

Capital Punishment: Is It Working?

“… one day Michael Ross will in fact have
    the obscurity he so richly deserves.”
                                                              — Connecticut Attorney General
                                                           Richard Blumenthal


The crowds that gather for the lethal injections of criminals such as Connecticut serial murderer Michael Ross generally fall into two categories. There are the protesters, who become grief-stricken whenever vicious psychopaths are dispatched, and the ghoulish celebrants, who go into paroxysms of ecstasy when killers are executed.

My own feelings are more ambivalent. On one hand, I’ve always supported the death penalty. But, at the same time, I can’t stomach the idea that the state-sponsored taking of a human life should be cause for celebration.

I don’t vote for politicians based on their positions on the death penalty, because I vacillate too much on this issue. For example, hearing Helen Prejean (the eloquent nun who wrote the book “Dead Man Walking”) speak against execution always unsettles my convictions, which are wishy-washy to begin with. This is because most of the rationale for capital punishment is so shaky, particularly its reputed deterrent effect.

Forgetting the damned lies of statistics, which can be easily manipulated, the notion of deterrence doesn’t even make good common sense. Most murders are crimes of passion, so it’s doubtful most killers worry about being executed prior to killing someone. Calculating murderers, such as Mafia hit men, are unlikely to care what the penalty for murder is, because they’re businessmen who wouldn’t commit their crimes if they thought they were going to get caught. Meanwhile, driven sociopaths such as Ross won’t be deterred by the threat of any type of punishment. And too few convicted murderers (about 2%) are eligible for the death penalty for it to be a credible deterrent anyway.

Also diluting my support is the fact that, as a death-penalty country, the United States is in such depressingly bad company. I’d rather we be grouped with more-civilized nations like Holland, Britain, Switzerland and France than with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, As the world’s only developed nation that still executes criminals, it’s not surprising we’re viewed by Europeans as a bunch of bloodthirsty yahoos from Texas.

As an agnostic, I have no idea whether capital punishment is sinful, and, as is often the case, Judeo-Christian tradition is ambiguous on the issue. What can you make of the Bible, which calls for “an eye for eye,” but also recommends “turning the other cheek”? That’s why Christianity’s “big tent” can include both Quakers and Southern Baptists.

At least modern-day Catholics are consistent about the sanctity of life — opposing the death penalty, abortion and doctor-assisted suicide — and Pope John Paul II has been resolutely antiwar. They contrast favorably with the Religious Right, which values the sanctity of the unborn, but also loves the death penalty and disdains pacifism. They’re also less contradictory than many liberals, who hate war, but hold the lives of convicted psychopathic murderers more sacred those of innocent nine-month-old fetuses facing partial-birth abortions.

Like most people, my support for the death penalty largely derives from the very human motive of revenge. I confess to having little, if any, compassion for convicted murderers. The only people whose feelings matter in these cases are the victims’ loved ones, and society’s obligation toward a victims’ rights should override the rights of a killer.

The urge to kill those who have taken a life may not be one of the better angels of our nature, but, pragmatically, it’s still a sentiment that must be respected. Revenge may not be a lofty spiritual aspiration, but, perhaps, it’s the best we Americans can manage at this stage of our evolution.

But even some victims’ relatives feel ambivalent about executions. The husband of a woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing became an anti-death-penalty activist when he realized the execution of Tim McVeigh hadn’t brought him the closure he’d hoped for. Although McVeigh was gone, the pain of his loss remained. Without the bomber’s lethal injection to look forward to, he faced the empty realization that McVeigh’s demise could only make him truly happy if it were repeated every day.

This brings us back to the Ross case. Are his victims’ memories being honored by his impending execution, which has turned this vile monster into a celebrity?

Connecticut has made Ross into a low-budget Charles Manson — a celebrity that California couldn’t execute, and victims’ families are forced to see in the media year after year. Why should any of us care about people like Ross or Manson? Whether they’ve written a novel, become born-again Christians or committed to Satan isn’t going to help those they’ve harmed.

Ironically, this circus has become an advertisement against capital punishment, because, as a practical matter, the death penalty simply isn’t working here. Over the years, the lawyers, judges and the rest of our benighted legal system have postured and pontificated over Ross’ fate. How much comfort or closure can the families of Ross’ victims achieve when the ending they’ve anticipated is constantly delayed, debated and postponed? How many more mornings must they relive their memories as Ross’ soul-less face stares up at them from their newspapers?

This may be one of those rare occasions when — like a broken clock that gives the correct time twice a day — right-wing broadcaster Bill O’Reilly might have hit on the right idea. He’s suggested that, rather than trying to execute murderers, we sentence them to hard labor in Alaska, without parole, where we’d never have to hear about them again. There’d be no need for rehabilitation, bodybuilding or law degrees at taxpayer expense, because they will never be released.

Had Michael Ross been shipped off somewhere with a life sentence, his victims’ families would no longer need to confront this self-confessed monster. Instead of Ross’ story being splashed across newspapers and TV screens, he’d simply be exiled to oblivion.

Rather than enabling the lawyers to have their day in court arguing over the life of a man whose life isn’t worth discussing, maybe we should spend the millions being wasted in efforts to kill Michael Ross trying to make the lives of the victims’ families a little more whole.

I guess I’m even weaker on this whole death penalty thing than I thought.

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