The Death Penalty: A View of Opposition

by Doug Berry

As we approach the 21st century, it's time to rethink the growing use of the death penalty in America. The idea of using of violence to combat violence seems to possses an inherent contradiction. Is contributing to the use of violence the best way to solve violent problems, or could our efforts be put to better use finding ways to end violence of all kinds? Does this lower the level of all of us as a society to the level of the violent crminal? Are we sanctioning capital punishment out of fear?

Do friends and relatives of victims demand death for the offender? Yes, in some cases-but how do they feel about this in years to come after the passion and anger have subsided? As they gain in spiritual knowledge and development through the years, are they more at peace with a solution of violence and revenge, or one of healing with justice served in alternative, more humane ways? Speaking from personal experience, I'm not sure time completely heals all wounds but it does seem to give a measure of peace and forgiveness. In insisting on the finality of the death solution, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn forgiveness without having regret for actions already taken by us as we constitute society. It is by forgiving that we are forgiven. Forgiveness does not mean that criminals are to go without payment and responsilbility for their actions. This does not mean that we let hardened criminals back on the streets. Prudent prevention and safety alone preclude this. We have a sure right to be safe to live without fear. Nor does it require us to arrive at the hopefully optimistic belief that we can rehabilitate all perpetrators of violence.

Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a national organization, is sponsoring Journey of Hope to stir opposition to the death penalty. An excellent example of forgiveness in action. Nearly 60 percent of Virginians favor life imprisonment and restitution to the victims' families over the death penalty for convicted murders, according to figures provided by the Center for Survey Research at Virginia Tech. Yet, capital punishment persists.

Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans and author of the book "Dead Man Walking", believes the American people have been manipulated by politicians into accepting the death penalty, and most people,when given an alternative, will oppose it. She believes that politicians running for office try to win by outdoing each other on how strong they are on punishing crime. She believes they have played on our fears and convinced us that we need capital punishment in order to deter violent crimes.

From another perspective, sure the death penalty is severe punishment and seems the "just desserts" of some. The actions of a small number of people seem so vile that they shouldn't be allowed to exist on this planet. I can't argue against that feeling, but the execution is over too quick if revenge is what we want. Let them die a thousand deaths in the quiet moments of reflection that I believe everyone experiences-sooner or later. And, let them have the chance to come to a true realization of the state into which they have sunk and have the opportunity to keenly feel sincere regret. Let the strong desire for forgiveness lead them to their Creator-not because they deserve it, but because we deserve it. Thoughts are real, and if one of us in our "oneness" is changed for the better while in this world, then we are all uplifted. We have then contributed to a better world-instead of adding to its violence and degradation.

What is our justification when we honestly but unjustly convict and execute an innocent person? If this occurs in an extremely small number of cases, isn't that still enough to warrant another approach? With the number of conviction reversals caused by later DNA testing, can there any longer be serious question that this happens? There is obviously only one way to prevent this-alternatives to the death penalty. Wouldn't conscience feel better knowing that this was no longer possible?

Because of appeals and all of the expenses that go with them, it now costs more to execute a convicted murder than to inter them in prison for life. This removes any economic incentive as justification for capital punishment. This brings us to it's use as a deterrent to violent action. Does the threat of this severe punishment really cause a violent indiviual to stop and say, "Hey, I might get the death penalty if I do this"? Do statistics show any decrease in the number of violent crimes where capital punishment is reinstituted? I don't think so. The only way to deter violent action is to eliminate or reduce its cause, at least to the extent we can.

When we step on or over others as we go through life, without helping them up and onward as we go, then we have been remiss. We are our brother's keeper. We fail as a society when we fail to teach others spiritual awareness by word, thoughts, and actions. This is not religious dogma or pious prattle but living principle. This is basic spirit in action-our true nature, verifiable in each of us by self-examination.

When apathy and indifference allow us to live far beyond our subsistence needs while others, or other segments of society, are lacking in basic shelter, clothing, food and medical care, we all are lessened. When we don't teach "how-to" and don't help others to change their seemingly hopeless future into productive lives, what kind of world are we leaving for our children? When we allow environments to exist that require children and young adults to resort to violence for self-preservation, are we not at least somewhat responsible also? Violence propagates violence.

Two working parents, single parent families, poverty, feelings of hopelessness, crime, violent and drug-infested neighborhoods, gangs, and other disadvantages are all contributing factors. But does this necessarily create serial killers, rapists, mutilators, and other violent perpetrators?  No this is not an excuse, but neither is capital punishment the answer. The answer comes from within ourselves.

What is the cause of violent crime in its perpetrators? In the end, it is the lack of spiritual awareness of our purpose in life on earth. Our purpose on earth is to live up to the fullest of our talents and abilities and to use these to help others do the same. To serve others is a form of love and is to serve our Creator. In this process, we uplift all and all are uplifted. So, in serving others, we are served. This is both altruistic and self-serving: the best of all possible paradoxes. In our hearts, soul, and minds-in our "inner silence", we know this to be true. This needs to be demonstrated and practiced at the individual level, in the home, in schools, in corporations and in government, and at all levels of society as well as in our churches. This does not have to be in the form of any particular religion but as an all-encompassing spirituality. All of us and all religions can agree on basic principles of humanity toward others in one form or the other!

Please address any comments or suggestions to:

Death Penalty Issues
Truth in Justice