January 26, 2012

Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty

From the time I could understand the concept of right and wrong, good and bad, crime and punishment I have heard the "eye for an eye" argument. It's how I was raised. That sentiment of judgement was in the fabric of me and I gave the death penalty, frankly, less consideration than choosing what restaurant to eat at. It was a matter for others to worry about. It didn't concern me. Kill a man who murders another man?  Sure, why not?  An eye for an eye.  That seems fair enough.

In the first week of May, 2008, while I was alone in my office at work I got a call about my brother's only daughter. "Tanya has been murdered. Terry stabbed her. She's dead, Wendy. Tanya is dead."  As I was hanging up, some office mates arrived and were asking me some questions about work.  I remember answering them by repeating what I had just heard on the phone, then walked to a nearby office and started shuffling through papers to find what they were looking for.

From what seemed like a mile away I heard one person say, "I think she's in shock. Look at her.  She's shaking." And that's when my consciousness returned to my body and I realized I was quivering like I'd been pulled out of some distant, frozen sea.

The next months, even years were revealing. I was sad, raging, apathetic.  Exhausted, I'd forget for a moment anything was amiss, then would suddenly remember with a cold wave of shock and start the cycle over again. The burr under my saddle was that I wanted to settle in my mind on what I thought a fair punishment would be for him. An eye for an eye.  That must be the right thing.  He killed, he should die.

The angry person in me thought that was not nearly fair enough. He should suffer.  A lot.  He should stay in prison for his whole life.  And not just any prison -- the kind of prison you see in the movies where rampaging gangs of men beat and abuse and kill each other and there is peril at every turn.  Would that be fair, that he suffer for a lifetime?

I went through every scenario imaginable -- from the true-life realistic alternatives, to the outlandish never-gonna-happen fantasy. Nothing satisfied me.  I was a boiling stew of unresolve.  I despaired that there was no kind of justice for me.


These days I think our culture defines justice as "a fitting punishment for the crime."  That isn't what justice is, though. The icon for Justice is the lady with the scales who blindly balances truth and fairness.

Justice, in my mind, is the determination of what a person must pay back to the world to offset the damage he or she has done to it.

Killing the man who murdered my niece is not going to bring her back. It's not going to make me feel better because, frankly, I've run through every permutation of his suffering than I can possibly imagine and none of them feel like enough punishment. They seem brutal and pointless. There is nothing to be gained from any of it.

The only possible solution is that he has to balance out the bad he has done with an equivalent amount of good.  If he can be redeemed, he must be.  And then his life should be forfeit to the service of others until he has paid back the amount of joy and usefulness that left the world when my niece was stabbed 27 times in her bedroom by her own husband.

And in the event that he cannot be redeemed, he must toil in some fashion for the good of others. He must knit sweaters for homeless children until his fingers bleed or he goes blind.  Or he must build homes for the homeless or he must grow gardens to feed the hungry. He must sell things he's made with his hands to put a poor kid through college.

Justice is not killing him, it's making him replace what he stole from me and from you.  Yes, you.

Because it's not about my niece. It's about violating all of us as humans.  Criminals hate and disrespect and so we lock them up like bad children because what else can we do with them?

What we can do with them is turn the system upside down and stop throwing up our hands in despair like confused and frustrated parents.  We can admit that our system is broken.  We can insist that balance be restored, that justice become about fairness, not about punishment.

I don't want Terrence Hill to die.  I want Terrence Hill to make the world a better place.  That's what would satisfy me.  That's what might give me a sliver of a chance to feel at peace and to find forgiveness within me.


  1. My dear Wendy-- you are experiencing the healing process of forgiveness. The road will last your lifetime, but you are on THE road. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. I love you!

  2. Wow, I admire you for what you've been through and where you are now.

  3. Thought-provoking post. Two years ago, my cousin was also murdered by her husband, who then killed himself. We weren't especially close, and it's still very difficult for me to deal with. Irrationally, his death has never seemed like justice, it seemed irrationally like he got off lightly... his death on his terms, without having to experience or face up to the terror and heartache he caused. I don't know. I've had this comment window up for half hour trying to decide what I think. Logically, I think you're on to something. Emotionally, the only thing that could be just would be her return. This kind of thing happens too frequently, and it's not pleasant to think about. I'm glad you shared your family's story, but I'm very sorry you've all had to go through it. Biggest sympathy and condolences.

  4. First of all, I am so sorry for your loss and your family's loss, Wendy. I can't imagine.

    This is the writing of a smart, reasonable, thoughtful person. I think that so much of our politics (and this issue is one that gets warped by politics) is informed by zealots and whack jobs. It keeps us from having the kind of society you imagine.

    I go back and forth on this issue. I can be a raving lunatic when someone I love is hurt. I like to think that a better part of me would win out. But honestly? I can't be sure.


  5. Sorry for your loss.

    You're right though, executing a murderer is the easy way out for everyone. He should pay back society for his crime.

    The base of the problem, for most criminals, starts by solving the moral delimma of society. As soon as we can "fix" society and change the minds of the people - the less we will have to answer questions like - "what do we do with murderers..."

  6. I am so very sorry for your loss. Losing a loved one due to senseless violence has to be the most difficult and painful of experiences.
    I agree with you, that justice should be about fairness and not about punishment, very well put.
    Thank-you for sharing.

  7. My main problem with not doing capital punishment is when very bad people who are incarcerated are released, and then they kill again.

  8. Thought provoking!. So much of society believes in the eye for an eye theory probably due to the fear that they could also be a victim. I do not think that is the answer and also believe that having the death penalty diminishes us as a nation. I also have not had a loved one brutally assaulted and murdered. Possibly, my thinking could change in that circumstance. You are truly a remarkable person for being able to reach out past what has been more than horrible and look for a more human alternative.

  9. Would that we could make someone do something. It is not in our power. I saw The Gates of Hell at the museum in Philadelphia, and I saw the Liberty Bell. We make our own choices and live with what is handed to us.

    Sometimes it is too much to expect for all people to take on all the burden all the time. Sometimes you get a time-out, and let others take on that burden.

  10. The reason I want the death penalty to stay on the books, even if it's seldom used, is because I want the option. Take away that option, and what you have left is life without parole, which I think is a fair compromise, but which I also think would become a target for activists in a generation or two, because THAT would seem like cruel punishment, once the death penalty is abolished.

    As for paying society back, you read the letter in which the murderer brags about living a life of leisure. If that's the alternative to the death penalty, I prefer the death penalty.

    A previous commenter thinks this issue is about forgiveness and mercy. Perhaps. But it's also about whether taxpayers should give murderers life-long vacations for their crimes.

  11. I am strongly against the death penalty - a view which I have been lucky to be able to reason out for myself in untroubled peace.

    My heart goes out to people who have suffered violence, and lost family and friends in such a senseless way - and I do understand such a person feeling that the death penalty is necessary.

    Above all I admire someone like you Wendy. You have every reason to have black and white vindictive feelings, but you have had the courage to embrace something much more complicated - forgiveness. xx

  12. Shan, you might be overly optimistic just yet, but I'm working on it. Love you, Sis.

    Eva, thanks. It's always good to see you here.

  13. Amalie, my condolences and sympathies in return. What a tough thing. I know what you mean about death feeling like it's a getting off lightly. It's hard to find compensation for what is lost. At least I still have someone who is around for me to be mad at. And I'm sure that sounds strange, but I know you will understand. Hang in there.

  14. Jaz, had you seen the process from day one, you would feel better about yourself. This is many years of trying to unravel the knot inside me and figure out a way to not let it rule me. Still working on it! My theories on a more utopian system of handling things is just a "theory" and the problem with those is they often don't work in real-world applications just for the reasons you stated (and sometimes physics). But I say keep trying.

    Atticus Finch (can't beat that fine name!), if we're going back to "foundation up" solutions to the prison/crime dilemma, then we have to take it back to a strong family core. NOT to be confused with the "family values" argument. Rather, a strong foundation of parenting in which we teach responsibility, accountability, work values, focus on education and learning how to be good neighbors.

    There will always be "bad people", people who are just wired wrong in some way. But I think our social structure CREATES a lot of "bad people" (good people who end up with a habit of doing bad things). Nothing will ever be fixed without that solid foundation.

  15. Shannon Ann, thanks for coming by to visit and adding your thoughts.

    esbboston, no, I think those guys will be on permanent "make blankets for the homeless" duty and won't be allowed to get out again. (If I were dictator of the world anyway. If that position opens, vote for me, will ya?)

    Starting Over, oh, you give me too much credit. I am going with the theory that I can live with and that won't drive me crazy. I don't think it's remarkable at all. But I do think it's filled with thought and more people should be giving studied thought to fixing a broken system.

    I have worked with children through a child advocacy program (CASA) and I see it there, too. Many, many of our systems are broken.

  16. Beautiful post Wendy.
    "...he has to balance out the bad he has done with an equivalent amount of good." That's a wonderful way to think about it. (And I'm going to think about it).

  17. fmc, we make people do stuff all the time. Prisoners pick up stuff off the side of the road because they are told do. They work the prison laundries, they make license plates, they farm, they build coffins. I don't see it as a stretch to enlist them into a batch of "chores" that is actually a greater service to others.

    My friend Steve, you have a solid point about one use for the prospect of the death penalty and I can envision a time when what you predict would come to pass. But having it on the books and using it are two different things. There has to be a better option than revenge killing.

    The crazy loon who wrote that letter you linked to is one example of someone I'm not sure is redeemable. Those kind of people don't fit well into my proposed system and would be a definite challenge to the proposed theory. Someone smarter than me would have to work that out. They certainly shouldn't be allowed to continue to victimize from their prison cells.

    As far as taxpayers paying for prisoners, there surely must be a way to develop a more sustainable system of support. We've gone to the moon and elsewhere. How hard could it be to make a plan that works better than it does now?

  18. Well... Wendy I don't know if you're religious or not, and I don't want to be a dick so I'm trying to step carefully. But, if you are religious, it is in this kind of situation that I find it really helpful to be able to tell yourself that God will bring about the justice that you, society or the government can't. Either a truly fitting punishment that cuts to the heart, or a transformation that will cause a person to voluntarily donate their life to bettering society and paying back what they have taken.

    I thought I'd put that out there.

    1. Kilala, I know many people find comfort in an eventual God-induced justice. I like my gratification slightly more immediate. But I'll take what I can get, too, when I can't get the ideal.

      In this case, I'm particularly interested in fixing something that is broken. Even if it's impossible.

  19. We, the old Indians of North America liked to think, back before the european religions tore up our culture, that we were to be reborn and to keep on trying to get whatever it is that has to be gotten right so we do not have to be reborn.

    When a person dies, regardless of the agency, that person is gone and part of the job of searching is if we can see that person ever again, in a flower, in an animal, in another person. We never mention their name again. To do so might bring the spirit back since it hears its name, and that is not good for the person called or the person who says the name.

    There is imperfection in all of us. It lives and sometimes it expresses itself at the end of a knife. The person who kills another person cannot control that part that is in him. The evil is that which compels the murder and not the murderer for murderers are easy to deal with, it is such a repugnant way to be.

    There is never a good death, whether this is at the end of the bayonet of a soldier in Afghanistan or a distraction while driving. We must learn from these murderers and examine as you have examined yourself. But do not forget to examine the killer. There is much to be learned from the likes of him. In the end, we must stop supporting all forms of killing. Whether it was to clear the plains of the savages, or kill a person for a religion we do not understand or create cars and products that are statistically designed to kill within rules of probability that will or wont create a reaction, i.e., a car with a small defect might only kill one person in a million for example.

    I have lost many in very brutal ways and sometimes in wars and each way hurts. Anger is the same sensation that compelled the murderer after all.

    good luck with your reading and thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  20. Thank you. I don't believe in the death penalty, maybe because I feel that by giving them death you are letting them go free. My heart goes out to you and your family to stay strong.

  21. Hey Wendy:

    I'm late to the game, but I'm so sorry that I know this about you because I'm so sorry that it happened to you. It's the worst thing I can imagine.

    I've never supported the deat penalty, having lived in a country that abolished it just a short time after I was born. If the state cannot condone violence, it should not conduct its own violent campaigns, no matter how noble the reason.

    Ultimately, I believe in forgiveness.

    Thank you for writing.


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