A few weeks ago the Supreme Court decided that Kentucky’s method of executing prisoners on death row was not cruel and unusual punishment. The court had an opportunity to reduce the number of executions in the US, at least for a while, but declined to do so. The court unambiguously came out supporting the death penalty.
I do not believe this decision to be justified. Experience shows again and again that people, even on death row, undergo momentous changes. They literally get religion; they regret the murders or other crimes they committed. In 1998 the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer who during long years on death row, had not only become quite religious but had, by all accounts, turned her life around and become a saintly person. Nor is this an isolated case.
Here is the reason against executing criminals: human beings can change. Human beings do change. They experience remarkable transformations. In religious language they undergo conversions. Executing a person takes away their possibility of becoming a good person. No human being should cut off that possibility for another.
"But a murderer cut short a life in just that way." That is the usual argument in favor of the death penalty. And often, to be sure, the life thus cut off was a pleasing and admirable one, a life not needing a conversion to be a good human life.
Most people who approve of the death penalty draw a very sharp line between themselves who "would never do anything like that” and people who do commit violent crimes. Murderers, they think, are terribly bad people -- bad to the core -- and we are different because we are good. We may not be perfect but we are good. Our right to life is inviolable. They have lost theirs.
But experience shows, as in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, that violent criminals often are not bad to the core. People change. Karla Faye Tucker by all accounts ended up a better person than many of us. Was she not as entitled to life, albeit in prison, as any of us?
People change. But people do not only change from bad to good; they also change from good to bad. No one can be certain of their own permanent goodness. The terrible lessons of the Holocaust, of the tribal and religious violence in India during the partition, of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, of genocide in Rwanda are that most of the horrible crimes are committed by people just like you and I. In special situations, perfectly ordinary people who themselves considered themselves intrinsically good and incapable of violence, end up committing brutal crimes. A murderer hides in everyone of us.
Germans, in large numbers, or Indians, or Bosnians, or Serbs, or Rwandans are no different from Americans. The number of sociopaths in those populations is no greater than it is with us. The brutalities of various regimes were committed by people who led ordinary lives until then, and who, afterwards, returned to ordinary lives.
But, you say, this murderer lived in the same society as we do. Here, at least, we stay away from crime but the murderer does not.
Can you see into the murderer's heart? How many newspaper stories have you read about husbands who, out of the blue, murdered their wives while the neighbors all protest what a pleasant and calm neighbor he was. No one expected that, they say. Suddenly he breaks under a burden no one even suspected.
I am not persuaded of the intrinsic evil of the murderers that makes them a different kind of human being from me. I am therefore not persuaded that although my right to life is inviolable, theirs is not. To the extent that all of us carry murder in our heart and all of us may see the light and become saintly, we have the same rights to life.
It takes bold persons to say that they will never, ever commit acts of brutality, that they are fundamentally different from the murderers who therefore forfeit their right to life while ours remains intact. I lack that boldness.