To Talk About an Injustice

I’m a registered Republican opposed to the death penalty, and I’m disappointed that’s a surprising statement. I’m also disappointed that California voters rejected Proposition 34 last Tuesday, which would have repealed the state’s death penalty law.

But I didn’t always feel this way.

I grew up under the guidance of conservative parents, and while they certainly influenced my early political views (as all of our parents inevitably do), I’ve always been independently attracted to the values of personal responsibility and individual liberty—values I believe the Republican Party represents. I respected, as I still do, our nation’s commitment to spreading American values of freedom and democracy all over the world. I admired, as I still do, the American allegiance to due process and justice. And I supported capital punishment, for I believed that those who take the lives of innocent victims deserve to die. By disrespecting their fellow citizens’ right to liberty in the most irresponsible, gruesome, and loathsome way, those citizens, I believed, lost the right to their own liberty—and their very lives.

Then, a dear friend encouraged me to watch a lecture entitled “We Need to Talk About an Injustice,” by Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit firm that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

Part of his death penalty discussion started the thought process that would lead me to change my mind. Stevenson said, “In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’ And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill?’”

Stevenson was telling me that it was okay to ask whether murderers deserve to die; perhaps it was even okay for me to believe that they do. But according to Mr. Stevenson, I was forgetting to ask a more important question—one that renders the other irrelevant. My belief that murderers deserve to die didn’t mean I had to support the death penalty. In fact, if I was committed to the American principles of liberty, responsibility, due process, and justice, I should vehemently oppose it.

There are a myriad of reasons to oppose capital punishment. Stevenson speaks at length about the discrimination against minorities and the poor that pervades the criminal justice system—and the alarming frequency of error in capital cases. Others cite the enormous financial burden associated with the death penalty; indeed, nearly all cost studies agree that capital punishment is far more expensive than a system with a maximum penalty of life without parole. Still others claim that the death penalty has ceased to be an effective deterrent to crime and is therefore an unnecessary evil.

But the bottom line is this: governments do not have the right to kill those whom they have imprisoned. We are not obligated to feel sympathy for those who have committed violent crimes; indeed, “an eye for an eye” often seems a deserved punishment, especially for murderers. But that’s irrelevant, because although murderers might deserve to die, we—as a society, as individuals—do not deserve to kill.

In “Take this Sabbath Day,” an episode from Season 1 of the popular television drama The West Wing, President Bartlet asks his young assistant Charlie, “The guy who shot your mother… would you want to see him executed?” Charlie responds, “I wouldn’t want to see him executed, Mr. President—I’d wanna do it myself.” I cannot imagine the magnitude of grief experienced by the family and friends of a murdered loved one. Those who have committed such crimes must be brought to justice. But man is responsible for justice, not vengeance. The two are quite different.

Society has a right to protect itself and even to punish. But it has no right to avenge and certainly no right to kill. In that same episode of The West Wing, Father Cavanaugh offers the President an even stronger reason to oppose the death penalty, in my opinion: “‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ You know what that means? God is the only one who gets to kill people.” God alone has the power to avenge—to repay. We must leave it to Him.

While it’s unfortunate that Prop 34 didn’t pass, the decline in California voters’ support of capital punishment—from over 70 percent in 1978 when the death penalty was established to only 53 percent today—is a hopeful sign that the state is moving toward abolition, and that other states will follow suit. Republicans must help in this movement. This is not a partisan issue, for the American identity itself stands in opposition to capital punishment. I seek first to convince my own party of that truth. We all need to talk about an injustice. And we all need to help correct it. It might make us “tired, tired, tired,” as Mr. Stevenson quotes at the end of his lecture, “which is why we gotta be brave, brave, brave.”

Molly A. Wehlage ’13 is a government concentrator in Dunster House.

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