Is the death penalty an effective deterrent?
One of the unfortunate things about the death penalty is that it hasn’t been a deterrent to violent crime, but it has been a deterrent to discussions about meaningful responses to violent crime. Right now, anytime anybody talks about violent crime, elected politicians say “death penalty.”
Researchers have tried and tried to find a deterrent affect to the death penalty and they just cannot measure it. In other words, if there is a deterrent affect to the death penalty it is so small that we can’t measure it.
There’s research that’s beginning to suggest that for some people the message from the death penalty is that it’s OK to waste somebody that messes with you. For deterrents to work you have to identify with the person being punished. But for a guy on the street who’s kind of crazy to start with, he’s not going to identify with the person who’s goofy enough to get caught and punished. He’s going to identify with the person doing the punishing. So the message is it’s OK to punish somebody that’s done something to you.
What does the death penalty look like to the kid on the street?
When Alabama executed Neal Singleton, what it was saying was: He bothered us, he broke one of our laws, he did something we didn’t want him to do, so we killed him. There are kids on the street today looking at that same paper, hearing the same story, who are understanding that message and internalizing that message. And when they have problems with Johnny around the corner, when he steals their jacket, or he thinks he’s too good because he’s got on Nike Air shoes, or he’s got some attitude about whatever, they’ll think that it’s not totally illegitimate for them to resolve the problem in the same way. We’re clearly not making any progress in reducing violent crime and violent behavior by executing people.
Are we safer with the death penalty?
We’ve executed 185 people in this country now (1992), and none of us are any safer. We’ve got 2,600 people on death row in the United States today, and we could execute all of them by midnight tonight, but nobody would be any safer walking the streets of New York or Los Angeles or Miami or Montgomery or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. tomorrow. I don’t think anybody doubts that. Yet we persist as if the death penalty will make the streets safer. It just doesn’t make any sense.
SueZanne’s Story: My Father Didn’t Want the Death Penalty for his Murderer
“If anything were to happen to me one day and I would die, I would still not want that person to get the death penalty.” My father said these words to me not too long before he was killed and I was stabbed and seriously wounded.
We didn’t live in a very good area but my father loved it very much because he was there.
One day when we got home from shopping, the doorbell rang and my dad went to answer. I heard weird noises and I knew that something was wrong. I went running out and saw him in the kitchen doorway being stabbed in the chest many many times. I must have screamed because James Bernard Campbell turned around and came toward me. I turned very quickly and he stabbed me three times in the back. I went down. My father was trying to get up on his knees to help me. James Bernard turned again to him and started stabbing him in the back. My dad collapsed and I tried to get up and help him again. The intruder led me backwards into the living room and was going to stab me in the face. I turned my head and he stabbed me twice in the head. I went down. I laid there looking under the couch because I could see my dad out of the corner of my eye, crawling to the door for help.
In all my father was stabbed about 24 times. I was stabbed six times. My father died before I could get to the phone to call for help.
The knife went into my brain in two areas, the areas affecting my memory and my speech. It took me a little while to get through that period of time. During the surgeries that followed I had a lot of time to think about how and why and where I was on the subject of the death penalty. I could clearly remember my conversation with my father and realized that I am very strongly against the death penalty. The death penalty would not bring my father back. It does not make the situation better, and we have to go on. We have to do something better.
I am angry with James Bernard Campbell but I have forgiven him. Every year that goes by I can forgive him a little more. I have a Bible with his name printed on it which I want to take to him when I’m ready. I don’t know how it will make him feel, but I want a peace within myself.
Punish, yes, but why kill?
There’s no question that if you commit a violent crime, if you victimize someone in the ways that many of the people on death row have victimized folks, then you ought to be punished. There must be some firm and clear societal response. I don’t fight with people who say we’ve got to do something to deal with the fact that this person has victimized someone horribly, that he’s committed a terrible act. I agree. I think we can punish. I think we have to punish. I think we have to respond to that violence in a way that’s appropriate. The question is, do we have to kill?