Gallup has been doing polling on the death penalty for about 70 years. This year's report was just released. One of the questions they've asked for at least the last few years is whether people think a factually innocent person has been executed. You can see how the answer comes out - 59% say that it's happened within the last five years.
It's depressing to see that the data also shows that 57% of those who think that an innocent person has been executed within the last five years also support the death penalty.
It's at least partly because of those sorts of numbers that Walter Reeves, Jr., Cameron Todd Willingham's appellate lawyer (not the sleazebag trial lawyer who turned on Willingham on Anderson Cooper, see here), just doesn't believe that the execution of his former, and likely innocent, client will make much difference. He writes in his blog that we need a sea change in public attitude. ("Sea change" isn't Reeves; it's Shakespeare, from The Tempest.)
I don't want to wade into the thicket of seamless garments and the relationship between abortion and the death penalty. I'm all for getting sidetracked, but that's not just a side path, it's a whole other highway. Still, and for the record, I'm one of those folks who supports the right to abortion absolutely and also absolutely opposes the death penalty. I see no inconsistency. But I'm far from convinced that most abolitionists share my perspective.
I think the problem is that we have lost the sense that human life is sacred. The majority of anti-death penalty supporters are just as guilty as everyone else. My sense is that most in the anti-death penalty camp don't believe human life is sacred from the moment of conception. On the other hand, the majority in the anti-abortion camp have no problem with the death penalty, and often times are its most ardent supporters.
Almost 30 years ago (1968 to be exact), Pope John Paul II authored an encyclical - In Humanae Vitae. In that document he made a number of predictions, many of which have been proven to be true. Pope John Paul II also coined the phrase "culture of death". His theory was that we live in a culture of death because we no longer value human life - which is a reflection of the divine.
I think he was right on. You don't have to be Catholic - or even religious - to recognize the problem. In my opinion, beliefs about the death penalty are not going to change until peoples beliefs about the sacredness life change. I'm not knocking the anti-death penalty crowds - I admire their passion, which is something missing from far too many people. I simply believe that is going to take more than proving an innocent person was executed to cause a change in attitudes.
What I want to say, instead, is that there's something to be said for the idea that this is a "culture of death." Except I don't think it's a change. Reeves says (channelling Pope John Paul II), that "we no longer value human life." That's either wrong on its face (of course we do) or false in its implication that we once did. (You know, back in the day when everyone was opposed to the death penalty and there were no wars - that would be in Eden.)
But it's true that we don't, as a society, take the position that no blood can ever properly be shed. Someone suggested that the first rule for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize should be that the winner should not be leading a nation in military action. That seems reasonable to me, and would require taking back a lot of those prizes. And while it's a fair guess that most pacifists are abolitionists, I'm pretty sure that most abolitionists aren't pacifists. Still, respect for human life, even pretty wretched human life, isn't a bad thing. And those who take on the mantle of peacemaker might think carefully about taking on the mantle, too, of localized killer.
But the real point here is something different, something I've spoken about before. It looks back to the Gallup data and Reeve's claim that proof of an innocent dead guy won't make much difference.
I don't know that the dead innocent guy wins the day. I don't think it does. Attitudes are more complex than that. But I think the dead innocent guy matters a lot, and in precisely the ways that dead innocent folks don't matter. Stalin understood it well.
A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.The importance of the dead innocent guy is the personalization. He gives a name, a voice, a face to the fact that the death penalty is simply murder.
Think, for a moment, about a death penalty trial. It begins with the question of whether the accused will be found guilty or not guilty. That trial proceeding is about the monstrous act. There was a killing (or more than one), and the person sitting in the chair over there did it. It was a horrible crime, and the defendant is a monster. If the defendant is found guilty of the crime, that's where the jury is. They've convicted a monster. The second part of the trial, the mitigation phase, is about making the monster human.
One of the brilliant things about the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is that the monsters, Grendel and Grendel's mother, while never less than monstrous, have discernible, understandable, motivation. Beneath the monster lurks the soul. If you miss that in the original, it's unmistakable in John Gardner's novel, Grendel.
The innocent guy, the particular innocent guy, he's the one to whom we can give a soul. He's the person they killed. Not the monster. That's someone else - or in Willingham's case, nobody at all. There is no monster. Just a horrible mistake. And that makes us the monsters.
It's a lot. Worked out right it can move us many steps forward. But it's likely not enough.
And that, as Captain Hook says in the Broadway musical of Peter Pan, is where "the canker gnaws."