Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Death Penalty

Last Friday I saw a performance of The Exonerated, a play telling the stories of people convicted of murders they did not commit and given the death penalty. The acting was strong throughout, especially for a local production. The direction was kind of so-so. But the point here is not to discuss that in much depth. The play itself is what it is--there are heartbreaking moments but really it's a position paper more than a piece of art.

But as a position paper, it has its strengths. All of these people had their lives completely fucked for things they didn't do. And that is just infuriating.

Why does the United States still have a death penalty? On a deeper level, what is wrong with our society? Why are we so pleased with revenge? Why do we romanticize and value violence? Why does a large percentage of our population think their lives are better if other people are suffering, whether in Iraq or Huntsville? Why do we accept and even want our prisons to be inhuman, degrading, and soul-crushing?

I think the answers to these questions go deep into American mythology about violence. While I hated reading Richard Slotkin's Regeneration through Violence trilogy in graduate school, I think he is right. Americans, all the way back to the colonial period, placed great value on violence and the importance of that violence in creating American society. Our sick fascination with violence has very long historical roots. I have no idea how to transcend this history and in fact I don't think we ever will, at least in my lifetime.

Given the sheer amount of innocent people on death row, it is simply immoral to continue allowing death as a possible punishment. But we need to go further and demand real standards of guilt in convicting people. I have no doubt that most people who are in prison committed their crimes. Punishment and rehabilitation are needed, the latter being more important than the former. But with so many innocent people in there, we have to be more stringent in giving people a chance to prove their innocent. The first step simply has to be giving the prosecution and defense an equal amount of resources. The public defender system is not good enough--how can an overworked public defender possibly muster enough energy to compete with a state determined to see the accused be punished? It is impossible. And this gets to the crux of the system--the prison system in general and especially the death penalty are a punishment to the poor. No one with real attorneys gets the death penalty. But if you're poor and especially if your skin is brown, you face shocking disadvantages.

Just to give one of innumerable examples, yesterday former major league pitcher Jeff Reardon was found not guilty by reason of insanity after robbing a jewelry store in a mall. No doubt this was the correct verdict--the guy's son had just died from an overdose and he was on some serious medication. But what if he wasn't rich and white. Anyone who thinks a poor black man who did the same thing wouldn't be facing prison time is living with their head in the sand.

How can Americans claim to have a just and moral country so long as these inequalities run unchecked?