For the past 25 years, executions have taken place somewhere in America almost every week. They happened in the dead of night. Most people didn't know about them, and most who did know were glad. It was a settled question. In America, unlucky murderers get killed. The lucky ones do time, and the extremely lucky ones go back to the golf course. Of course, in America, luck equals wealth. We decided that one a long time ago, too.
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Throughout those long killing decades of the '80s and '90s, you never heard much about the death penalty. It only came up when one politician wanted to prove he was tougher than another one. But even this became rare due to the near extinction of anti-death penalty politicians. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was one of the last and best, and he's selling potato chips now, in large part because of his anti-death penalty stand.
Dead Man Walking (the book by Sister Helen Prejean and the movie directed by Tim Robbins) made a dent in the silence for a few months in the '90s. But it seemed to have little lasting impact, perhaps because movie-going Americans were also glad to see Sean Penn executed. Maybe if they had killed Tom Hanks it would have turned things around. The Karla Fay Tucker case made a few conservative Christians stop and think. But they execute so many people in Texas that she ended up lost in the shuffle.
NOW PEOPLE ARE talking about the death penalty again, but the subject has reopened for reasons that have little to do with the morality or justice of state-sanctioned killing. On his visit to the United States last year, Pope John Paul II made a strong plea for Americans to move past this barbarity in our criminal justice system. While the pope was in St. Louis, the governor of Missouri commuted a death sentence. But he made it clear that this was a "one-time thing" out of respect for the pope, and not a shift in policy. Around the same time challenges were raised to executions in Florida's electric chair, which was routinely setting condemned criminals afire in the process of electrocuting them.
But it was DNA evidence that put the death penalty back on the talk-show circuit. DNA - the star of two O.J. Simpson trials and a presidential impeachment - has gummed up the country's execution machine. That's because DNA tests can determine actual guilt or innocence in some cases that were tried before the technology came on line. Death penalty opponents had always argued that some innocent people were being executed. Now there's proof. This all came to a head when the governor of Illinois announced a moratorium on executions in that state after 13 death row inmates were proved innocent of the charges against them. DNA evidence has prevailed where even the pope proved powerless.
The specter of executing innocents has caused some people to question whether the death penalty can ever be a fair punishment. It has created a moment in which death penalty abolitionists can, at least briefly, get their moral arguments out into the political mainstream. After all those years of crying in the wilderness, abolitionists must be relieved at any opening. But be careful what you wish for. For the next few years we'll hear about more cases of wrongful conviction. But then all the questionable old cases will have been heard, and DNA testing will become standard practice in all trials. Then, in cases where DNA evidence is available, verdicts will be clear and certain. Abolitionists won't be able to claim a glimmer of doubt about guilt. And, unless our culture has undergone a moral sea-change, the pressure to execute a DNA-convicted murderer will be irresistible.
Ultimately, the question of capital punishment comes down to a question of national identity. Do we as a people really want to exact cold-blooded, violent revenge for heinous crimes against our neighbors? American national identity is imbedded in, and created by, our popular culture. Look at our TV and movies, read our popular literature, check out the video games our children play. And the answer is a clear, "Yes. We do want revenge." The thirst for violent retribution seems encoded in our national DNA, and I don't think the genetic engineers will fix it for us. This one will require a Higher Power.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.