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The End of Capital Punishment?

Who Owns Death? by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell.

Capital Punishment is an issue of frequent and heated debates in America - one of the last industrialized countries to retain this form of punishment. Lifton and Mitchell are not supporters of the death penalty, but in this case they offer a new and unusual look at the debate. Instead of simply presenting the usual arguments, they instead attempt to describe the deep ambiguity with which Americans in general and those involved in administering capital punishment view the matter. Along the way, the usual - and some novel - arguments are discussed.

Lifton and Mitchell offer a controversial thesis: "We believe [capital punishment] will come to an end fairly soon." How can they make that claim in light of the facts surrounding the death penalty? The execution rate is soaring, and rose nearly 800 percent in the 1990s. Politicians are unlikely to challenge it publicly, such that even liberal Democrats will often fight with each other over who is more likely to execute criminals.

The reason they are willing to make such a bold claim is because of the deep and profound ambiguity mentioned above. The facts and figures just quoted tell only part of the story, so Lifton and Mitchell attempt to tell the other part: most Americans just aren't too sure about executing criminals and are conflicted about what to do.

This conflict exists both in society and in each of us. People may like the idea of having capital punishment, but aren't too sure about actually using it: the public embraces the death penalty in theory, but in practice they look at it with an increasingly critical eye.

Even the current basis for the legality of capital punishment is itself conflicted. Nearly three decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the death penalty had been applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Justice Byron White wrote "there is no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many in which it is not."

In 1976, after the states had enacted many reforms and after public opinion had swung back in favor of the death penalty, the Supreme Court allowed executions to begin again so long as states made the procedures clear and fair. Unfortunately, the arbitrary nature of capital punishment hasn't changed at all. How can it, when the laws and rules vary not only among the 50 states, but even among the thousands of counties in those states?

Even though the rate of execution is on the rise, what most people are unaware of is how few states are responsible for this. The vast majority of executions are carried out by just four states: Texas, Virginia, Florida and Missouri. Most states rarely execute anyone, despite retaining capital punishment laws on their books.

Arbitrariness is further exemplified by the power of local prosecutors, and this is demonstrated nowhere better than with John B. Holmes, Jr., a district attorney in Harris County, Texas:

Since capital punishment was reinstituted in Texas in 1976, one county, Harris, has been responsible for one-third of the state's cases leading to executions... For nearly this entire time Holmes has served as the county prosecutor, with strong support from voters... Holmes has sent more men to their death than any other D.A. in America. A survey in 1999 found that Dallas County had thirty-seven inmates on death row, while Harris had exactly 100 more, even though its crime rate is lower.

Holmes pushes his prosecutors to aggressively seek the death penalty - so much so that even some supporters of the death penalty find his efforts to be abusive. And yet, he himself has never bothered to attend one execution.

A great deal of interesting and enlightening information is offered to demonstrate that support for the death penalty is not nearly so clear and solid as is sometimes thought. But what is particularly enlightening about the book is how Lifton and Mitchell make an effort to talk to the people who play vital roles in captial punishment, yet whose opinions are rarely sought.

Among those people brought to our attention are those who work in the prisons: guards, wardens, chaplains and doctors. Their roles are indispensible, but they, too, feel deep ambivalence about the nature of capital punishment. Even those who support it as a means of punishment are often uncomfortable about the part they have to play in it - but they say they are just doing their job. Some are even unhappy with those who don't experience the conflict:

His bitterness toward those who are too enthusiastic about participating in killing mirrors his own conflicted feelings, which spilled out in the interview in which he - rather too frankly - averred that there really was no humane way to carry out an execution.

Members of the clergy are in an especially bad position - participating in an execution raises many more moral and spiritual questions for them than it might for a warden or guard. How can they do it, and how can they explain that they are just doing a job? Many are actually opposed to the death penalty and remain within the system in an effort both to reform it and to comfort those being killed by it.

But one interesting thing brought out in the interviews is how the staff works to get the prisoner's help. It is always possible for a prisoner to refuse to cooperate and, instead, fight what is happening. Through subtle manipulation with words and incentives, the warden and other staff members can get the prisoner to make their job easier and give outsiders the appearance that executions are humane and dignified.

One of the things which Lifton and Mitchell found thorughout the system was an effort by people to pass along responsibility to others. John Holmes, discussed above, expressed this best when he said "Everyone who got death in Harris County has gotten it from a jury." In this way, he has relieved himself of any personal responsibility for his participation in the system, even though he is in many ways running the show.

This, then, is the system of capital punishment in America. People favor it in theory, but even those who participate are deeply ambivalent and make a concerted effort to evade responsibility for their roles. According to Lifton and Mitchell, this system can't stay together for very long and will eventually fall apart - probably sooner rather than later. I don't know if this conclusion is correct, but they present a lot of information not usually found in books on this topic. Thus, anyone interested in learning more about how the death penalty works in America should consider this book.

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