Hannah Winstanley believes it is time for a grown up debate about capital punishment
It’s a funny thing how you can go weeks, even years without thinking about a topic, even one which you feel strongly about, and then in one week it seems as though it is all you see. At the weekend I was browsing a copy of a newspaper, which had a debate piece about bringing back the death penalty. It explained that the murder rate is higher now then before, I am not sure about the veracity of this but leaving that aside it is premised on the belief that prison is so fun that citizens apparently think little of spending the rest of their days in one, having visited one, on take your daughter to work day not as part of a sordid past, I am disinclined to accept this premise. I did not dwell on this piece, but later that week I was watching the US Republican debate, from the apparently massive Ronald Reagan presidential Library. I mean I do not know about you but my local Library certainly did not have an airplane in its lobby. At the debate the biggest round of applause of the night was not for another of Michelle Buchanan’s zingers but for the number of executions which Rick Perry’s state had carried out, this disturbed me but I moved on with my day. Then today I was reading my more usual paper and I see the smiling face of the very same Mr Rick Perry, the article was discussing the case of a man who is scheduled to die in the next week. This case follows another controversial case in Perry’s state relating to a death row inmate, which came to a head last night. The case of Steven Woods was controversial as the man was sentenced for a double murder, even though an alleged accomplice later admitted pulling the trigger.
The case the article discusses is more controversial because the guilt of Mr Buck is not in doubt; he killed two people, a former girlfriend and a friend of hers. The controversy is what the jury was told in sentencing, as they were told that he was a danger because he was Black, that his race meant alternatives to the death penalty could not be considered as a psychologist told them, Black people have a higher rate of violent behaviour. This is what makes the decision more difficult for Governor Perry. It is easy, and obviously right, to stay an execution when guilt is in doubt, there is a reason other than a moral concern about the death penalty. However in this case where the man is clearly guilty of a horrible double murder, and the issue is the way in which the decision was taken by a jury it is a much harder call to make, particularly with the applause of middle class America still ringing in his ears. Equally for Mr Perry to be accused of allowing racism as the current favourite to win the Republican nomination and therefore enter into a race against the First African-American President, is not unproblematic.
Aside from the politics of the situation, the weeks saturation with capital punishment stories, is uncomfortable for me, I was raised in the certainty that the State should not indulge in the execution of any person. Not only for Moral reasons, but because I was acutely aware from a young age that as an Atheist I believe this life is it, and if the jury is wrong, and a person dies, there is nothing one can do to rectify it. Sure if a person is forced to spend years behind bars for a crime they did not commit that is atrocious. They lose a lot of their life, often their youth, watching kids grow, having the chance at a family etc, but at least they are alive, something (however small) can be done. Some might say this is a weak argument that there are few miscarriages of justice, however the cases in the nineties and early noughties of women imprisoned for killing their babies only stiffened my resolve that capital punishment is unacceptable. Infanticide is exactly the kind of crime that results in the death penalty, in particular when the process is controlled by an elected official who needs re-election, or in the case of Mr Perry is seeking promotion.
I realise I was raised in a bubble where everyone necessarily understood this, and I was shocked when I took A-Level Politics and discovered this is in fact the minority opinion in the UK. To me the logic of my opinion was so obvious. However the shock I felt was not only that others felt differently, it was that I could reach the age of 16, being politically aware and have been sheltered from this, the newspapers I read the people I spoke to all felt as I did. No attempt was made to have a grown up debate, because those who disagreed could be cast as uneducated, right wing ‘nut-jobs’, this is not an issue people feel ambivalent about, there is no group of people to modulate a grown up discussion on this issue it is visceral, you know what you feel and it is hard for an opinion to be changed, short of tragedy. But there should be a grown up debate, I say this is in the full knowledge that EU statutes forbid the return of Capital punishment so I would be on the safe side, but discussion is important, I am 24 now and in the 8 years since it dawned on me that I was not in the majority I have been seeking a cogent argument for Capital punishment, surely a lifetime spent in prison is more of a punishment. I do not see how the death penalty is a deterrent, as most murders are in the heat of the moment, and calculated murderers tend to be psychopaths and therefore will kill whatever the consequence, Jack the Ripper had he been caught would have faced the death penalty. I believe that what we lose as a society by institutionalising such a violent act is greater than what we gain, and I am sure had I had a family member violently murdered I may feel differently.
I am not asking everyone to agree I am just interested in a higher standard of debate on the issue. Don’t hate me.