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We're Back in the Killing Business

Back in the Killing Business: July 20, 2020

Michael A. Kroll

Nearly forty years ago, I had the privilege of sitting next to a grieving mother as she gave profoundly moving testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 1981. The Senate was considering resuming capital punishment under federal law – a law, like all other capital punishment statutes in the country, which had been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. The woman’s name was Ann Ricks, and her daughter had been murdered.

At the time, I ran a national criminal justice reform organization, and I was there to bring to the attention of our national lawmakers all the rational arguments against the resumption of a federal death penalty. I cited well-known statistics showing how significantly race plays a role in who gets sentenced to death, how class divisions reserve this final solution for the poorest and least educated among us, how poorly the poor are represented in capital litigation, how ineffective capital punishment is as a deterrent to crime, how prone to human error it is and how crushingly expensive to operate.

Ann was there as one of those people whom Attorney General William Barr pretended to speak for in his recent justification for the glut of federal executions we’ve just experienced – three in as many days.

“We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes,” he said, “and to the families left behind…”

This “we’re doing it for the families” rationale has always been both demeaning and insulting to those families who, like Ann Ricks, are adamant in their opposition to a government execution carried out in their names. On this day, testifying before Senator John East of North Carolina (who, ironically perhaps, committed suicide five years later), Ms. Ricks laid out the reasons she opposed the execution of her daughter’s killer, and the resumption of a federal death penalty.

“We are told, ‘think of the victim,’ offered as the final, conclusive, unanswerable argument,” she testified. “But the victim is beyond help or harm… Could they give me back my daughter? Could they restore to her one hour of her precious life?

“It is assumed by many that the family of the victim, having suffered the ravages of the ultimate crime, must favor the ultimate retribution, as if somehow, vengeance could eradicate the death, could assuage their grief and anguish. It is true that in the first flush of horror and fury some families do feel that vengeance will be some compensation for their loss, and surely we must sympathize with this reaction. But after a period of calm, when logic and reason have returned, how will they feel? After a month, a year, if there has been an execution, will they not come to the stark, painful, bitter realization that they are carrying another corpse along with that of their loved one?

“This is not ‘a life for a life.’ It is another death, the more brutal and shocking for being officially imposed. No matter how much talk there is about justice, the infliction of death – cold-blooded, premeditated, socially sanctioned death – cannot be anything but barbarous and degrading.”

This grieving mother is not the lone voice of a victim’s family member expressing their opposition to doing to the condemned what the condemned did to their family member. There are organizations, like Murder Victim Families Against the Death Penalty, who are organized around the issue of stopping capital punishment. Even among the families of those we have so recently put to death, there was opposition to those homicides. Indeed, some family members spoke out loudly against one of the executions that took place, even going to court to stop it, an effort which failed.

But, of course, neither Senator East nor Attorney General Barr was thinking of the victims or the family of the victims, but instead of the political benefit an execution provides to its political advocates. Despite the emotional truths that Ann Ricks experienced and testified to, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to re-enact a federal death penalty, and the full Senate soon followed their recommendation. The Committee vote was 13 to 5 (with a young Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, one of the 5 voting no).

We have now put to death three individuals in less than a week’s time, one after the other, and a fourth will soon follow. Whether one supports or opposes capital punishment, we are all equally implicated in its application because every execution is done in the name of the people, and a federal execution is done in all our names.

If done for the victims, can anyone name a single one of those victims? Is anyone, except their families, thinking of them as real people and not just as political slogans? Does anyone feel safer with the elimination of these human beings from our midst, knowing that they would have died in prison in any case, even without the intervention of our machinery of death? Are we better people for having taken their lives so wantonly, as they took the lives of their victims? Have these serial killings made us a better society?

The Preamble of our Constitution begins with these words: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…” If the purpose of punishment is to establish justice, how does legalized killing contribute to that end? Ann Ricks gave this answer to that question:

“…in order to reach a (just) solution,” she told the Senate, “our first step has to be to abolish the whole idea of this barbarous response, so that we can react to the problem in such a way as to reach a humane and decent solution – a solution not out of sympathy for the accused or out of the sympathy for the victim, but out of consideration for our entire society and what it is doing to all of us.”

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