The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Friday, October 12, 2007

When Your Number Comes Up

I am among the minority of Americans who are against capital punishment. Along with other opponents of the death penalty, I am convinced of the racial bias in prosecutions, concerned about judicial and police error in convictions, and unconvinced of capital punishment's efficacy as a deterrent to heinous criminality. But my deepest objection to the death penalty has to do with the what happens when our government and, by extension, we as citizens become executioners. While I understand the logic of "an eye for an eye, a life for a life" that rationalizes our impulse to exact revenge, I view government and the rule of law as a balance to our individual and collective emotionality, not as the executor of it. At the same time, because my position is a minority one, I live with an awareness that executions take place regularly in this nation, especially in the state of Texas, and I try not to lose sleep over that fact.

But this week in the New York Times, I read an article by Adam Liptak Going to Court, but Not in Time to Live that jarred me and reconfirmed my suspicion that the state as executioner actually feeds the worst impulses in our society and undermines the justice in the justice system. Liptak describes the case of Luther J. Williams who died by lethal injection after the Supreme Court had agreed to hear his case, but before they actually heard it. Apparently, it takes 4 members of the High Court to agree to review a case, but 5 members to stay an execution. Thus, the living and dying of a human being came down to what Liptak calls the "arithmetic of death." Can you stay alive long enough for your final appeal?

In truth, death penalty cases often come down to numbers. How old is the defendant? What is the defendant's IQ? What is the right proportion of chemicals and anesthetics to make an injection lethal without being cruel and unusual punishment? Not to mention the date on the calendar when the sentence of death will be carried out or the number of innocent people who have already been executed.

All of these considerations only intensify my discomfort with state-sponsored death. I don't trust the government, the police, or the courts with that kind of power. The longer I live, the more I sympathize with many victims' families who long for a closure that comes only with the perpetrator's death. At the same, I am increasingly suspicious of the numbers game that brings that finality. And I am profoundly aware that the condemned have families, too.

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