Wednesday was a great day for supporters of retributive justice.
At 1:52 p.m. the execution of Joseph Wood III began at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona. But it took Wood nearly one hour and forty minutes to die, more than six times the expected length of the procedure. Wood gasped for air more than 600 times, and one witness likened the murderer’s movements to that of a fish out of water. Arizona officials maintain that Wood was never in pain or distress, but his body was certainly putting up one hell of a fight.
While it is impossible to imagine any tortuous procedure that would match the pain Wood caused to the family and friends of his murder victims—his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz—one hundred minutes of utter agony seem like a good first step.
The death penalty feeds an innate human desire and it should be recognized as such.
Next, as suggested by Richard Brown, brother-in-law of Debra Dietz, we should have pulled out the Drano. And soaked the murderer’s body in kerosene. And lit his hair on fire. And, before all of that, dusted off the water-boarding supplies.
Capital punishment is wholly defensible within the theory of retributive justice, a system of moral judgment that considers proportionate punishment the best response to crime. The first legal system in the world, Hammurabi’s Code, was based on this methodology, as was the Old Testament, and even Kant’s theories of moral philosophy.
The death penalty feeds what has proven to be an innate human desire—to cause pain to those who have caused others to suffer—and it should be recognized as such.
There is simply no other logical reason to support the death penalty. Want to permanently remove the threat these criminals present? Let’s talk about life without parole. Want to discourage crime? There is little evidence that the homicide rate varies in accordance with policies governing capital punishment.
Want to save the state money? State and federal analysis consistently report cases in which capital punishment is sought cost upwards of 30 percent more than alternative trials, and the cost of the death penalty far exceeds the cost of lifetime imprisonment. In California, for example, the annual cost of the death penalty is $137 million while the cost of lifetime imprisonment is $11.5 million.
We want to condemn people to death because we want them to suffer and, thus, suffer they should.
As federal appellate Chief Judge Kozinski wrote in his dissent from Monday’s decision to deny Wood’s petition to revisit his case, “if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.” But somewhere along the way, we have tried to hide that fact.
Somehow, our inner selves still hunger for blood when we are wronged.
As Judge Kozinski points out, it was not until about three decades ago that executions began to be sanitized. Lethal drugs replaced electric chairs, gas chambers, nooses, and firing squads in the 1970s, removing from the public eye a series of instruments for which there was one purpose alone: death itself.
In our march of progress, we have reshaped death into a symbol of justice. We have differentiated between execution and murder, humane and inhumane methods of killing, all the while defending our own natural desire to see others suffer. We have nurtured liberal, moral, modern sensibilities (some of us more than others) but, somehow, our inner selves still hunger for blood when we are wronged. Our moral repugnance toward killing somehow disappears when we are doing it for the right reasons: to make perpetrators suffer.
Recognizing that retributive killing is an ancient human impulse is the first step toward initiating a real dialogue regarding the death penalty and its underlying challenges. It touches upon the cornerstone of both theoretical and practical understandings of justice, not to mention our understandings of self.
No one liked to think that Massachusetts governor and 1988 presidential hopeful Mike Dukakis would really protect the life of a criminal who raped and murdered his wife, but neither would they have been likely to support Dukakis if he had explained in gruesome detail how he would like to stretch the murderer on the rack, cut off his hands and feet, and then bury him alive.
The question becomes whether our criminal justice system should embrace what can no doubt be labeled as our worst selves, or challenge us to develop a set of priorities that, even if not wholly innate, are admirable. I would put forth that the ideal purpose of law is the latter. Legal codes can be viewed as means to inspire, rather than oppress, and vehicles to promote good citizenship, rather than simply crush crime.
In many ways, the continued practice of capital punishment epitomizes the opposing perspective—one that allows us to feed our deepest, ugliest desires when we are on the side of so-called justice. We can do better.