As I read about the current murder trial of Dylann Roof I have to confess to some severe conflict. In my head, I want to quietly and humbly oppose the death penalty. It seems to be unevenly applied, and the specter of telling even an unrepentant killer, “Now, on such-and-such far-future date – we will kill you” – feels like cruel and unusual punishment. This past week a lethal injection execution in Alabama went horribly awry (as they tend to do of late), and the condemned man was put to death in a less-than-professional way. But I sublimate my indignation for a cold-blooded racist crime like going into a prayer meeting, waiting half an hour, and then slaughtering nine innocent Christians . . . and well, what other punishment besides a swift death is proportional to the horror this evil punk inflicted on people he didn’t know?
So I find myself in the conundrum of going to the polls here in California and voting to abolish the death penalty. But then I watch completely fictional shows like “Law and Order” and feel hot blood flowing through my veins as I root for an execution for those convicted of committed “especially heinous crimes.” Do I listen to my head or my heart?
I found vignettes from two books to be helpful. In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean writes about the mental anguish the families of victims endure as they wait sometimes for twenty years for a sentence to be carried out. The delays and stays are pure torture for them, as the emotional bandages are repeatedly ripped away and they relive the hurt again and again. Would it possibly be better to just not have the death penalty, so that these aching souls can know with quick finality that the person who so wounded them is permanently locked away and condemned to endure a long and gray life behind bars? I’m just asking.
In his standout novel, “The Green Mile” (and one of my favorite film adaptations,) Stephen King has a poignant moment right at the end where Tom Hanks’s execution team is strapping John Coffey into the electric chair. Not only is Coffey innocent, but he is gifted by God with the ability to heal people. Nonetheless, the execution must go forward. And the Hanks character, even without addressing the issue of possible innocence, laments the fact that all seven billion of us are just trembling bits of tissue, so easily destroyed by car wrecks or wartime bullets. And even when a man goes horribly wrong, is it our proper role to step in and physically destroy a person’s life? “Old Sparky seems such a thing of perversity when I look back on those days, such a deadly bit of folly,” Paul Edgecombe reflects. “Fragile as blown glass, we are, even under the best of conditions. To kill each other with gas and electricity, and in cold blood? The folly. The horror.”