Commentary - July, 2006

On the death penalty


Death and taxes never go away nor, it seems, does the death penalty as a perennial issue. It’s been lately again in the news as liberals opine whether the prevailing method, death by lethal injection, amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Would that it were so, as far as the loved ones of those killed by killers are concerned. Meanwhile, we can expect that the chemical mix of the lethal dosage will be adjusted so that, truly, putting a killer to death will be like putting down a beloved pet.

This is the easy way out, both for killers and for governments that are allowed to play God. Most killers value their own lives little more than they value the lives of their victims. Where is the penalty? What about compensation for victims’ families? Even though nothing can replace lives lost, partial restitution could still mean something, such as children of victims being able to afford a college education.

Before the death penalty can even be administered, at least 12 years and 100s of thousands of dollars, on average, are spent on appeals, plus $30-60,000 per year maintaining condemned prisoners in comfortable circumstances. The latter cost and circumstances also pertain to10s of thousands of killers sentenced to life in prison by states that do not have the death penalty. Again, where’s the penalty and restitution?

Have we, as adults, forgotten the lesson of a classic poem that, as kids, many of us were assigned to read in school -- Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner? Remember the Mariner’s sentence of “death-in-life”? It was levied for killing a bird!, an albatross. This suggests an analogous sentence for people-killers -- life at hard labor, hardly an “easy way out.” Convicted
prisoners’ labor could both earn their keep and garner payments that, transferred to victims‘ families, would provide partial restitution to them.

Another implication can be drawn from the poem, since the Mariner was required to confess the lessons of his crime to one and all: Killers who are not put to death live to tell their tales. Those convicted of capital crimes should be viewed as study subjects to be examined and cross-examined month after month over the rest of their lives, to derive lessons to help reduce murderous behavior by others in the future.

Thus, it’s time that laws be changed to allow judges to have a third “death-in-life” option besides the death penalty or life imprisonment, the option of sentencing someone convicted of murder to life at hard labor. This would provide true punishment to killers as well as partial compensation to victims’ families.

        PETER BEARSE, Ph.D.,, Fremont, NH: 603-895-8487 or 603-819-1408.
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