I CAN’T SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY

By Alan S. Chartock | October 17, 2020


There will always be those among us who believe in the death penalty. I do understand that, although I can’t personally support such a move. Capital punishment is used in some American jurisdictions, both federal and state, and is continually being advanced here in New York.

Let’s just stop for a minute and suppose that you had a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, who was cruelly cut down for absolutely no good reason. Once the perpetrator was caught, positively identified, tried and found guilty, would you want that person shut down forever? I know that I would. However, let’s take a step back.

The world is filled with people who murder with impunity and total disregard for life. They might as well be swatting flies. The threat of capital punishment acts as a deterrent. It sends a message to other potential killers that should they take a life, their own life will be taken in return. One of my all-time heroes, Mario Cuomo, may have lost a potential fourth term as governor because of his unconditional refusal to support the death penalty in New York. His son, Andrew, shares this sentiment.

Those like the Cuomos who are so opposed to capital punishment are willing to take the consequences for their opposition. On the one hand, they get great credit for doing something that is politically unpopular but sticking to their guns. However, they know that in some particular cases it can come back and bite you in the rear end. I recall asking Mario Cuomo, who maintained that he opposed to the death penalty with no exceptions, whether he would have made an exception in the case of the Israeli execution of the Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the “Final Solution” who was responsible for the death so many millions of Jews. It was clear that Cuomo wasn’t happy about the question because the potential political consequences were so great.

It costs many thousands of dollars to keep people convicted of murder in prison. It puts prison personnel at risk, as we have seen so many times. The cost is astronomical. So why am I opposed to the death penalty? The answer is that there have been too many instances whereby what seemed to be incontrovertible evidence leading to a guilty verdict has been proven to be wrong. Just one wrongful execution is unacceptable.

Consider the matter of social costs. We know that people of color have always been subjected to the death penalty more than whites. Also, the laws are written in such a way to protect those with the most assets. For example, Donald Trump is undoubtedly responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives because of his ill-advised political decisions regarding COVID-19. His famous quote, delivered on January 23, 2016, was, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” As Freud wrote, so-called humor is related to the unconscious.

There is a protection of sorts when the death penalty is forgotten. Recently, Donald Trump called for the prosecution of his political rivals. We have seen this type of get-even politics throughout history by despots. By outlawing the death penalty, we can ensure that no leader can invoke such a penalty on his or her political opponents.

The reason why the death penalty has weighed so heavily on us as the ultimate political sanction is that unlike almost anything else, it cannot be undone. It has become a part of the right wing rhetoric in this country, while the left seems to oppose it, with some exceptions on both sides. Some states have it and will not give it up. However, every time we find out that someone has been executed unjustly, we will revisit the wisdom of allowing it.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected]