Sunday, April 29, 2012

We, the People

  • Death on the installment plan.
  • Slow death.
  • Death penalty light.
  • Death in prison.
That's the alternative sentence.  You know, life without the possibility of parole.  LWOP (pronounced EL-wahp).
It is, as I've said repeatedly (here and here, for instance), a horrible sentence. Not so much because it is, in fact though not name, a death sentence (the word life in the name is really something between euphemism and oxymoron).  But because it's a sentence of hopelessness, of rejection.
We don't care.
We can't be bothered.
Just rot.
And yet.
When Connecticut abolished the death penalty (see here and here, signed by the Governor Wednesday), it didn't just replace it with LWOP, it replaced it with enhanced LWOP.
  • Solitary confinement.
  • Release from cell no more than two hours a day.
  • Cell searches every two days.
  • No contact visits.
  • Movement to a new cell every 90 days.
  • Forever.
  • Until death.
They'd probably have added a requirement of eternal damnation if they could have figured out how to enforce it.
And yet.
California is on the cusp.  Abolition will be on the ballot there in November, and it just might pass.
To be replaced, of course, by LWOP.
If California dumps the death penalty this November, abolitionists will probably dance in the streets. But they shouldn’t, because the state would be abandoning one terrible idea only to replace it with another.
That's David Dow, Cullen Professor of Law at the University of Houston, author of The Autobiography of an Execution (reviewed here), writing in the Daily Beast.  He explains.
. . . Life without parole is as dehumanizing as death itself, and in some ways it is even worse.

On the plus side, LWOP saves lives, but that’s about it. In every other way it’s a nightmare: It gives up on everyone, regardless of whether they exhibit any capacity for growth and change; it robs people of hope; it exaggerates the risk to society of releasing convicted murderers; and it turns prisons into geriatric wards, with inmates rolling around in taxpayer-funded wheelchairs carrying oxygen canisters in their laps.
Forget the geriatric ward thing for the moment and concentrate on the giving up part.
There are those who should probably never get out.
From the LA Times earlier this month.
In rejecting freedom for Charles Manson, a California parole board Wednesday said they were swayed in part by comments he made to prison psychologists.
 John Peck, a member of the parole panel, quoted from the statements.
"'I'm special. I'm not like the average inmate,'" Peck said, according to the Associated Press. "'I have spent my life in prison. I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man.'"
Well, then, OK. If he's still too dangerous to put on the street, don't put him on the street. Makes perfect sense (though our competence to make those judgments is kinda iffy).
But it doesn't require LWOP.  Which isn't Manson's sentence.
And see, that's the thing.
I've said repeatedly that clemency isn't about them, it's about us.  (No links, look it up for yourself. I've linked to myself enough in this post.)  So is this. About us.
Who are we?  And who do we want to be?
If it's about vengeance, if we're about vengeance, if all we want is to inflict suffering, then sure.
Back to gnawing to death by rats in Yankee Stadium.  (OK, one more link to earlier posts - here, for instance.)
But maybe we're better than that.  Or at least, maybe we should try to be.
I mean, there's that 8th Amendment thing about cruel and unusual punishment.  And maybe that bit from Leviticus 19 about loving one's neighbor as oneself - even the neighbors you don't like all that much.
Lincoln offered this.
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Which LWOP surely denies. Denies even in possibility. Or desire.
So Dante, noting the signpost over the gate in the first book of the Commedia.
Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'intrate.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
And, of course, those who rule that place.  Which is Marlowe.
                  for where we are is hell
And where hell is, there must we ever be. 
And yet. 
I rejoice at what Connecticut did.  Not because it's perfect.  Far from it.  Very far.  But because it's something.  Because for those of us who toil (whether full-time or just occasionally) in the fields of abolition and capital defense, saving a life no small thing.
So while Dow's right, that in some ways LWOP may be worse, it's not killing.
One enormity down.  Which is a helluva step, when you think about it.
There are, as I write this, 723 men and women on death row in California. 723 lives.
More, one assumes, by election day.
So yes, I'll rejoice.
Though maybe mournfully.

1 comment:

  1. Now that I will be able to walk threw the valley, with the shadow of evil, I still will fear death ... your rod and your staff will forever beat me down and I will dwell in the house of the condemned forever.