May 06, 2008

"Like a Dog!"

APPARENTLY IN CONNECTION with the impending execution of a Georgia man who murdered his girlfriend in 1987, ABC News published a story on the last words of prisoners before they are dispatched to face the ultimate Judge.

The story found the last words of the condemned varied widely in tone. Some expressed anger and hatred, others asked for forgiveness, still others expressed sentiments that can only be described as odd. Then there were those few who, according to the news agency, had the audacity to maintain they didn't actually commit the crime for which they were being executed:

Some, in their last moments, defy reason or compassion.

Granville Riddle, for example, was the 295th person put to death in Texas and until his very last breath argued his good character.

"I would like to say to the world, I have always been a nice person," said Riddle, who was 19 when he was convicted of murdering an Amarillo, Texas, resident with a tire tool during a break-in. "I have never been mean-hearted or cruel."

And a few, either from a perverse taunting of society or a plea for a posthumous exoneration, insist on their innocence.

"There have been those who have said that they're innocent, but in the last 40 (executions) or so that's generally been a small percentage," said (Virginia Dept. of Corrections spokesman Larry) Traylor. "The larger percentage say nothing or ask God for forgiveness."

Stories like this, which delve into the psyche of the most desperate and wretched, are admittedly interesting but in a rather disturbing way. After all, these are hardened criminals; people who committed crimes so horrific they were ordered to face the ultimate penalty as a result. In that regard, taking interest in what they believe seems unseemly at best and callous at worst. What, after all, of their victims, who did not have the luxury of giving a final statement or receiving a final meal?

However, if there is any benefit to this story and those like it, it is that they reaffirm the humanity of those being executed. That's something I think is incredibly important for everyone involved -- the prisoner, the family and friends of the prisoner's victim, and society as a whole.

For the prisoner, of course, it is his last chance to not only make what little amends he can, but also to save himself as he stands at the precipice between hellfire and salvation. At this last hour, when all is lost, the consequences and gravity of this final spiritual act must not be written off as a meaningless gesture. For if Christ on the Cross could grant Dismas salvation, could not He do the same for the prisoner truly seeking absolution for his sins? Along those lines, would not the guilty who react to their impending doom with unrepentant and seething hatred -- or alternatively, the preening arrogance of Capaneus -- accordingly seal their fate in the final moments of their existence?

I recognize there are those who would consider my argument poor form: why should one give a damn about the prisoners, when they have done so much wrong and caused so much pain? It is a fair point, and I do not suggest that one ought feel sorry or charitable to the men in this position. They have done what they have done, and now they must answer for it. But even as one prepares the final accounting, one must not lose sight of the prisoners' humanity, no matter how twisted and evil they may have become.

For if we lose sight of that, then we consequently diminish the wickedness of their acts. Occasionally, we read stories about animals who attack people for whatever reason -- a circus lion who attacks its handler, or a dog that mauls some innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although these incidents often result in tragedy, we do not blame the animals for what they have done. That's for good reason. Animals do not have the intellect nor the moral compass to realize the implications of their actions. They have instincts, but they do not have souls.

But men, even the most wicked and evil among us, do have souls. If their last words and last deeds provide some window into their psyches before they are extinguished, I can only think that will bring some closure to the family and friends of their victims. If a prisoner is repentant, perhaps his victim's loved ones will be able to credit that towards a final settling of the account between them and the wretch, and perhaps it will help them cope with the immense losses they have suffered. If the prisoner is not, perhaps his immediate demise will help them begin to heal.

As for the rest of us, well, perhaps we will look at these situations with the gravity they deserve -- for the prisoner and for the victim and their loved ones. They are matters I think get dealt with rather cavalierly in this day and age: the crime and punishment becomes almost ancillary to what people really want to talk about, which is moral panic. One can see this in any on-line discussion about crime and punishment, where outrage about the crime in question quickly devolves into a griping session about myriad societal problems, ranging from parental ineptitude to immigration policy and the workings of the judiciary. I do think it would behoove us to stick to the matter at hand when discussing these things, for it is unseemly for matters of grave import to devolve into debating competitions, as if one was arguing about whether to approve a municipal bond issue.

This is, as it happens, one reason why I am not particularly a fan of lethal injection as a means of execution: the manner of execution diminishes the import of the act. Readers who read Kafka in their college days may recall the outrage which Joseph K expressed as he was himself dispatched -- his fury at being put down "like a dog!" Of course, we euthanize house pets through lethal injection. To do the same thing to a human being is degrading: not only to the prisoner himself, but just as important, the acts the prisoner committed to warrant facing the ultimate penalty. It would be far better if we returned to using means of execution that not only treated prisoners like human beings, but also their victims.

There are, of course, many ways to die; some worse than others -- some much worse than others. I do not think we need return to the era of the electric chair and gas chamber. But I can't see why a firing squad or hanging is somehow cruel or unusual, for they are acts in which men face justice at the hands of other men, and with them comes a reckoning as clear as the new day's dawn.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 6, 2008 09:13 PM | TrackBack
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