Death penalty revelations must spur real debate

February 03, 2000|By Stephen Vicchio

IN ONE OF Anton Chekhov's finest stories, the Russian master has two men debate whether life imprisonment is a more severe debt to pay than execution. It is a strange tale, full of moral ambivalence and unwitting displays of basic character. It is a thoroughly Russian tale, the kind in which goodness lies hidden until flushed out of the high grass in a moment of surprise.

In this country, we don't like our moral tales to be full of ambiguity. We prefer the extremes of political correctness on the left and intolerant absolutism on the right. Perhaps this is why we have not had a real national discussion of capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1976 that is, until now.

This week, in an extraordinary move, Illinois' Republican Gov. George H. Ryan called for a suspension of all executions in the state. His order came in the wake of a realization that although 12 individuals have been executed in Illinois since 1977, another 13 people have been exonerated of their alleged capital crimes while waiting on death row.

Governor Ryan's move is at once courageous and wise.

We should honor it by launching a national debate on the death penalty -- one that ought to go beyond the usual name-calling and venting of spleen that passes for debate. It is time we tried to move the discussion of the issue forward by listening carefully to each other.

Let me begin the debate, then, by making 10 points about the death penalty -- observations to help frame a productive exchange.

First, we might learn a great deal from the past practice of capital punishment in this nation, and in the West as a whole. During the 16th-century reign of Henry VIII, 72,000 were hanged for 220 different crimes. As late as 1818, Great Britain had more than 150 crimes still punishable by death. In that year, 808 persons were hanged, 646 of them for crimes other than murder. More recently, the United Kingdom has abolished the death penalty. The British understand this move as an example of moral progress.

Disturbing figures

In this country, 4,457 people have been executed by the state since 1930, including 450 for rape. Of those 450 executions, 95 percent occurred south of the Mason-Dixon line; 85 percent of those executed were black, and more than 90 percent of their victims were white. In 1971, 651 people were on death row in the United States. In 2000, there are 3,491. Women account for about 10 percent of all violent crime in this country, yet only 32 of those executed since 1930 have been remales.

In the 1930s, we averaged 167 executions a year in America; 128 in the 1940s: 72 in the 1950s; and 9 in the 1960s (until 1964). From 1965 to 1976, no one was put to death by the state in this country. In the 1980s, we averaged 16 executions. In the 1990s, we went from a low in 1991 of 14 to a high of 98 last year. Of the 598 people executed since I976, 45 percent have been black and 45 percent white, while the victims of capital criminals have been overwhelmingly white (83 percent).

One way to interpret these figures is to say that we have gotten progressively tougher in this country about retributive justice, while being consistently ineffective in meting out comparative justice, punishing people in like ways for like crimes, regardless of race or gender.

Second, while the number of nations abolishing capital punishment increased from 62 in 1980, to 88 in 1990, to 105 in 1999, the United States moved into fourth place among those nations still practicing it (behind China, Iran, and Congo). Is this proper moral company for us to be keeping?

Strong disparities

Third, throughout the 1990s death penalty states had a significantly higher murder rate than non-death penalty states. In 1997, for example, the difference is 6.6 per 100,000 population in states with death penalty, compared with 3.5 for those without it.

Fourth, this same disparity holds for pairs of contiguous states where one practices capital punishment and the other does not (Connecticut, 3.9, and Massachusetts, 2.0; Illinois, 9,0, and Wisconsin, 4.0; and Virginia,.9,0 and West Virginia, 4,1) What are we to make of these figures, and how might we explain their effects.

A fifth point: A 1995 Hart poll of U.S. police chiefs found that 67 percent of chiefs polled did not believe that the death penalty significantly reduced the number of homicides in this country. In fact, they ranked capital punishment 10th in a list of 10 variables that might have an impact on the murder rate.

Sixth, the highest allegiance to the practice of the death penalty in the United States can be found among conservative Protestant denominations. How is the view that executions are the only way to expiate the sins of the murderer consistent with the most fundamental view of all in these traditions -- that one is saved by grace and not by works? What efficacy does Christ's death upon the cross have in these traditions if the death penalty is theologically necessary?

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