I’m completely against the death penalty. But, faced with some of the realities of what abolishing it would entail, I was forced to do some soul-searching about how willing I’d be to do more than just argue about the principle with anyone who’ll listen.
In the course of volunteering with a charity, I was asked to look at the evidence in a death row case. Suffice to say, it was difficult reading.
Multiple murders during a break-in. Among the defendants, a white supremacist. The victims were all ethnic minorities.*
This defendant was now on death row, and here we were, trying to save his life. My mind was reeling with so many conflicting thoughts.
On the one hand – it was possible that he didn’t do it. After all, exoneration was not out of the question. So let’s assume for a moment that he is innocent. In that case, I feel like it would have been a leap for a jury to overcome the immediate prejudice against him. I mean, just based on the three sentences I’ve told you about the case, I bet you’d already formed some view about the likelihood of him being guilty. And that’s based on pretty much zero evidence about the crime itself.
If that were the case, I’d be helping an innocent man – however terrible – get out of death row. Not to say that would be easy to get on board with, but at least more manageable, I guess. After all, no one should be convicted of something they didn’t do. The white supremacy issue had to be wholly separate.
The alternative prospect was more difficult. Essentially arguing that, even if he were guilty, he didn’t deserve to die.
As much as I disagree with the death penalty, that part of the job was much harder for me to process. That maybe this guy chose, at least partly out of racist hatred, to kill these people, and I would be helping to try and save him.
My knee-jerk response was that this wasn’t really what I had in mind when I volunteered – which, to be fair, was a pretty vague notion of a noble cause, of doing what I could to help stop a barbaric practice. Plus, when I’d thought or argued about abolishing the death penalty in principle, I guess I’d only ever thought about what would happen with sentencing going forward. It’s one thing to believe that no one deserves to be sentenced to death, no matter what they’ve done. It takes something more to be willing to actively help someone – however heinous their crime – to avoid that fate.
But, who on death row – or facing death row – should I be helping instead? I wondered. A child-killer, perhaps? Someone who had committed a homophobic attack? Or maybe just your more average multiple-murderer? Are they more “worthy” of help?
After all, you don’t get on death row for a run-of-the-mill crime. There usually has to be some terrible element that “qualifies” a case for death row rather than life in prison, whether that’s some form of -phobic element, multiple or child victims, or particularly brutal murders in some other sense. So they are never going to be “nice” criminals. Apart from the innocent ones. But just objecting against the death penalty on the basis that the innocent people shouldn’t be executed barely counts as being against the fundamental principle (though, obviously, the possibility of that happening is a strong argument against having such a cruel practice). You can’t say that you are against the death penalty and just hope that every case is a wrongful conviction.
So this is where I ended up. Realising that to truly believe that the death penalty is fundamentally wrong, that nothing gives anyone – including the state – the right to take a person’s life, I also had to accept the uncomfortable reality of helping those people already facing execution, no matter how terrible their crime. As difficult as I found this case, I emerged from the experience with my own conviction stronger than ever – and grateful that I had been forced to test its limits.
*Certain details have been changed.