The Common Good
July-August 2001

Capital Ambiguities

by Chris Byrd | July-August 2001

It's easy to defend the death penalty in the abstract, but much more difficult when you have to participate in death.

"Death could not come out of her mouth." The jury forewoman on a capital murder trial said this of a fellow juror who believed the defendant deserved to die, yet couldn't vote for death. This juror's attitude typifies the conflict, contradiction, and ambivalence that surrounds capital punishment in America, according to Who Owns Death?

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The fact that more people question the death penalty's fairness and speak out against it offers a window, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell suggest, to explore Americans' current and historic attitudes toward capital punishment. Through the experiences of people asked to kill in our name—judges, jurors, prosecutors, wardens, prison guards, and governors—the writers hope readers will confront their uneasiness and ambivalence about what Lifton and Mitchell call the "state's ownership of death."

The authors document well the shift in public attitudes over the years. Americans' frustration with crime, combined with their queasiness for the death penalty, has led, they say, to an absurd quest for a more "humane" way to kill. At various points hanging, firing squads, the gas chamber, the electric chair, and now lethal injection have been viewed as advances in killing technology. The more squeamish may want to avoid the writers' descriptions of botched executions—people catching fire, eyeballs popping out, and blood splattering. In another context, these details would seem lurid, but they are appropriate here.

Florida's experience with the electric chair "Old Sparky" best illustrates for the authors the absurd contradiction of "humane" killing. Pedro Medina was executed by the state in 1997—with one glitch: He caught fire. Florida didn't abandon the electric chair until 1999, however, after a national outcry when "Tiny" Davis bled profusely on himself during his execution.

Lethal injection is now the preferred method of execution in most states, but as Mitchell and Lifton point out, those executions have been botched as well when veins couldn't be found or they exploded.

The authors contribute significantly to our understanding of the death penalty when they turn their attention to those most intimately involved in the process—chaplains, spiritual advisors, and especially the families of murder victims. As Mitchell and Lifton note, much attention has been paid to the condemned and their lawyers, but it is important to understand the experiences of those who end lives on our behalf. Their attitudes reveal that it is easy to defend the death penalty in the abstract, but much more difficult when you have to participate in a death. Many people find it increasingly difficult to distance themselves from killing. Some—such as Donald Cabana, former warden of Parchman prison in Mississippi—speak out against capital punishment.

Mitchell and Lifton's other notable achievement in Who Owns Death? is to deflate the perception—often distorted by the media, in their view—that the public supports the death penalty. They cite several recent public opinion polls that suggest people prefer a "life without parole" alternative to death. A discussion of other alternatives, such as minimum mandatory sentences and restitution to victims' families, would help the reader better understand the public's willingness to turn away from death. This shift in public attitudes as reflected in the debate over executing the innocent, the authors believe, suggests the days of capital punishment are numbered.

The authors' prose is sometimes muddied by jargon such as "survivor mission" and "ethos of enhancing life," and some readers may find their conclusion unconvincing. In helping readers understand that people like themselves kill in their name and revealing their doubts about death's ownership, Who Owns Death? should, nonetheless, compel the ambivalent to reconsider their positions on capital punishment.

Chris Byrd is a social justice activist and free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.

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