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Judicial execution: the way to a better world?

by Roger Pulvers

The most gruesome photograph of people that I have ever seen in a newspaper is that of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg just before their execution in the electric chair on June 19, 1953.

My father held up a copy of the now long-defunct tabloid, the Los Angeles Mirror. Virtually the entire front page was devoted to a shot of the Rosenbergs. The camera angle from below exaggerated the size of their facial features. Their heads had been shaved to facilitate the flow of electricity through their bodies. Dad shook the paper in front of my face, saying, “See what happens to people who betray their country?”

To an 8-year-old, the photo was terrifying enough. Then dad added, “And they are leaving two little boys behind.”

Those words stuck with me: “leaving behind.” It only increased the horror of the experience; and I remember thinking how cruel it was to kill the parents of two little boys, whatever their crime.

The next time I became conscious of capital punishment was in the late 1950s. A man named Carol Chessman had been sentenced to death for robbery and kidnapping in 1948. While on death row he wrote four books, one of which became a best seller, and trained himself in law. Kidnapping carried a mandatory death sentence at the time, and after a 12-year-long battle for his life, Chessman, age 38, was executed in the gas chamber in California on May 2, 1960. His sentence had been opposed by a host of distinguished people, including Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley and Pablo Casals. Chessman maintained his innocence until the very end.

Ritualized revenge

Whether the crime be treason, kidnapping, drug trafficking or murder, what justification does the state have in killing a person? Is ritualized revenge — and that is essentially what the death penalty is, whatever its proponents say — a proper motive for the dispensing of justice?

On Dec. 2, Nguyen Tuong Van, a 25-year-old Australian, was hanged in Singapore for the possession of heroin. There was an outcry over his fate in Australia, where the death penalty was abolished in 1973. Yet in Singapore, this execution created barely a ripple of dissent. Warren Fernandez, writing in The Straits Times after the event, said that critics of Singapore “would be better off directing their anger at the real villains in this saga — the drug traffickers and barons who seek profit from this heinous trade at the expense of thousands of innocent lives.”

One more case.

Stanley Tookie Williams is scheduled to be executed in California two days from now. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger alone has the power to commute this sentence. Williams, a confessed murderer, has transformed himself into an articulate advocate of nonviolence, urging young people to turn away from their gangs and abide by the law. If his life can be useful in preventing murders in the future, isn’t that better than taking it in the name of retribution? What good would his death do the world? Have the executions of the Rosenbergs or Chessman stopped people from betraying their country or kidnapping people? Do spies or kidnappers think of them today when they are planning their crimes? Will taking Nguyen’s life hinder the drug traffickers? Of course it will not. Taking away the lure of drug use will save countless more lives than shooting the messengers, who are often so desperate that they are barely rational.

The case for capital punishment as a deterrent to crime has been refuted by countless studies. If it were a genuine deterrent, crimes of extreme violence would be committed less frequently in the United States — where the 1,000th person was recently executed since the Supreme Court reconfirmed the legality of the penalty in 1976 — than, say, in the countries of the European Union, where capital punishment is illegal. In fact, the opposite is true.

Faithful Christians

The majority of Americans consider themselves faithful Christians, and many of those oppose abortion under the banner of “pro-life.” Yet those very Christians, whose faith tells them to forgive rather than seek revenge (with the current president their most powerful and ardent defender), overwhelmingly support the practice of state execution. President Bush’s home state of Texas has put more than 240 people to death in the past 30 years, three times more than the next most frequently executing state, Virginia.

Humanity’s sense of justice has progressed over the centuries. There was a time in Europe when no confession was considered valid unless the alleged criminal was tortured. The logic was that anybody would confess if they weren’t tortured, so how could you believe them? The zigzag scrawl of confessors’ signatures attests to the physical abuse that they endured in what was then the legal practice of justice.

The execution of criminals in our day is no more than an extension of that logic. I am sure that the torturing of confessors gave some upstanding practitioners in the legal profession of the time a deep sense of satisfaction that true justice was being done for all.

We who execute criminals — and bear in mind that some of those who are killed by the state are innocent — will surely be judged by people in the future as torturers every bit as revengeful and inhumane as the upright citizens who once turned the knobs and wheels on the rack and the screw.

When Ethel Rosenberg was being killed, the first jolt of electricity, lasting 57 seconds, was insufficient. Still alive and smoking all over, she was restrapped to the chair for a further two jolts.

A world without Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Carol Chessman, Nguyen Tuong Van and Stanley Tookie Williams is not a better world. We are far worse off for killing them in the name of what will someday be seen as a sophisticated version of medieval vengeance. That is the fate — of being self-righteous torturers — we are condemning ourselves to when we support the death penalty.