WASHINGTON — When Lady Justice takes a count of bleeding hearts outside the execution chamber, she won’t find mine among them.
I am no passionate opponent of the death penalty. I am rather a dispassionate objector to the premise that taking another’s life, no matter how undeserving he or she may be to draw another breath, brings anything resembling justice to a society too in love with revenge.
We’ve Dirty-Harry’d ourselves into believing that one bad act deserves another. Emotionally, this seems inarguable. But the rational mind should struggle with what makes no logical sense. An eye for an eye merely leaves two sockets vacant.
The recent horror show in Oklahoma where convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett’s execution went awry has revived debate about the death penalty. Apparently, one of Lockett’s veins blew and the three-drug cocktail failed to kill him quickly — and humanely. Instead, he convulsed and remained alive for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack.
Reactions have ranged from “who cares?” to renewed protests from abolitionists. The first group consists mostly of people who knew Lockett’s victim or were members of her community. The latter, often dismissed as elitist intellectuals with no direct experience, has focused primarily on whether the procedure in question was “inhumane.”
Humane death most Americans find acceptable, while death that involves suffering offends our sensibilities as well as the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Viewed from the humane perspective, the challenge is to find better ways for the state to kill in its execution of justice. Or, in its prosecution of state-sanctioned revenge, depending on how one sees things.
Either way, no one disagrees that Lockett’s crime falls into the category of heinous and no one would recommend leniency. The question is whether between death and leniency there isn’t some punishment that serves both justice and our own humanity.
With Lockett, it is a challenge to rise above revenge. On June 3, 1999, Lockett, then 23, and two others, including a 17-year-old, went to Bobby Lee Bornt’s home to rob him. After kicking down his front door, Lockett beat Bornt and tied him up. When two female friends of Bornt arrived, one was raped by two of the men.
Next, all were taken to a rural area where one of the accomplices was ordered to dig a grave. Lockett shot one of the women, Stephanie Neiman, 19, twice, but she failed to die. So Lockett buried her alive, later blithely recalling hearing her breathing and crying.
Oklahoma Republican state Rep. Mike Christian spoke for many when he said he wasn’t bothered by Lockett’s suffering. Acknowledging his own harshness, he said that as a father and former lawman, “I really don’t care if it’s by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine, or being fed to the lions.”
In other words, Christian just wanted Lockett dead. Whether he suffered is of little consequence and, besides, his suffering pales in comparison to the suffering he caused his victims. Christian’s words sound less like an argument for justice than a lust for revenge.
No one is immune to these emotions but we should recognize them as such. The emotional urge to kill as an palliative to disconsolate pain is real and not rare. Does it work? I am lucky not to know.
Rationally, there is no redeeming return on a death warrant. Instead, by condoning state executions, especially under such controlled, calculated circumstances, we are passively complicit in the taking of a defenseless life. We don’t inject the cocktail, obviously, but by our consent to murder — even if we call it justifiable — we are part of the lion’s den. This is what concerns me most.
For the more practical minded, there’s ample evidence that the death penalty doesn’t deter criminals. And though I’m amenable to the argument that the death penalty at least deters this particular killer from committing another crime, we are still trading one eye for another.
To my own vengeful eye, life in prison is far more excruciating than a 43-minute execution. Far worse is a confined life without privilege or diversion — except perhaps for books because reading keeps the mind sharp, all the better to remain alert to one’s malignant fate.
Inhumane? Who cares?
Though my intentions be cruel, I’d rather not participate in the death of another except as self-defense. The additional specter of executing someone convicted in error further resigns me to the conclusion that our challenge is not in becoming more efficient executioners — but in becoming too civilized to want to be.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.