Thursday’s New York Times has an op-ed piece by Semon Frank Thompson, “What I learned from executing two men,” in which he describes how his former advocacy of capital punishment disappeared when he had to administer it. Thompson was the superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary from 1994-1998, a period when the only two executions in Oregon over the last 54 years were carried out.
Thompson had no objection to executing prisoners—until he had to do it twice, via lethal injection. The psychological toll on everyone involved was huge, and Thompson realized that it served no purpose for society, either.
There are, as I see it, four reasons people give for any kind of judicial punishment:
- Deterrence: others who see that they could be punished or executed for heinous crimes will be less likely to commit them
- Safety of society: incarcerating or killing a criminal eliminates the chance that he’ll commit further crimes
- Rehabilitation: treating the offender so that he can be returned to society rehabilitated, unlikely to transgress further
- Retribution: punishing an offender simply because he did wrong, often because (under the assumption of libertarian free will), he made the “wrong choice” and has to be punished for it.
Thompson cites a National Academies study showing, as have other studies, that capital punishment doesn’t deter others from committing capital crimes, or at least the evidence is neither consistent nor compelling. And if capital punishment is to be a deterrent, why don’t we publicly execute people? After all, deterrence is better assured if you carry out the sentence in public, so that potential offenders can see their fate. In general, the only people allowed to witness an execution are reporters and the families of the perpetrator and victim(s).
The “safety of society” claim can be overcome simply by using sentences of “life without the possibility of parole.” That guarantees that the offender never gets out. I tend to dislike these sentences, preferring the Norwegian system in which, after 21 years of pretty humane incarceration, prisoners are assessed every five years to see if they’ve been sufficiently rehabilitated to be returned to society. Some are. Yet the recidivism rate in Norway is just 20%, compared to 77% in the US (that includes all crimes, not just homicides). I don’t find it impossible to conceive of a convicted murderer being rehabilitated if given treatment.
There is, of course, no possibility of rehabilitation if you execute someone. Moreover, more executed prisoners than you think have been found to be innocent after they were killed. It’s impossible to rectify this situation, and to restore justice, if the prisoner is dead.
Further, it costs more, at least in the US, to execute someone than to lock him up for life (see the data here and here). These costs include not just the added costs of trial itself, which includes a death penalty hearing, but of allowing constant appeals (a necessity in capital cases) as well as the added cost of housing someone on Death Row versus in the general prison populace. I don’t consider “costs” to be that relevant for this argument, as we’re talking about lives here, but it’s hard to make the argument that it’s enormously cheaper to execute someone than imprison them for life. Of course, we could always go to China’s system where prisoners are simply taken out and shot, but I doubt we’d want to do that.
As for retribution, I see it as a corrosive sentiment that has no place in our judicial system, especially because, as a determinist, I believe that nobody has a “choice” whether to kill or not: the act is determined by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment, and the killer could not have done otherwise. Of course some punishment and/or rehabilitation is demanded for the other three reasons, but not to satisfy peoples’ thirst for vengeance.
Besides, this, there is the effect, emphazied by Thompson, on the well being of those who actually carry out the execution:
Planning an execution is a surreal business. During a prisoner’s final days, staff members keep the condemned person under 24-hour surveillance to, among other things, ensure that he doesn’t harm or kill himself, thus depriving the people of Oregon of the right to do the same. I can understand the administrative logic for this reality, but it doesn’t make this experience any less strange.
During the execution itself, correctional officers are responsible for everything, from strapping the prisoner’s ankles and wrists to a gurney to administering the lethal chemicals. One of the condemned men asked to have his wrist straps adjusted because they were hurting him. After the adjustment was made, he looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. Thanks, boss.”
After each execution, I had staff members who decided they did not want to be asked to serve in that capacity again. Others quietly sought employment elsewhere. A few told me they were having trouble sleeping, and I worried they would develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they had to go through it another time.
Together, we had spent many hours planning and carrying out the deaths of two people. The state-ordered killing of a person is premeditated and calculated, and inevitably some of those involved incur collateral damage. I have seen it. It’s hard to avoid giving up some of your empathy and humanity to aid in the killing of another human being. The effects can lead to all the places you’d expect: drug use, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.
Given all this, I see no justification for an enlightened society to kill prisoners. But perhaps readers feel otherwise.