The unjust logic of sparing murderers

The unjust logic of sparing murderers
Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

August 1998 – Sister Camille D’Arienzo of the Brooklyn-based Convent of Mercy estimates that more than 10,000 people have signed her "Declaration of Life." She began circulating it 4 years ago, when the New York legislature seemed ready to restore the death penalty to the state’s criminal code. Among those who have signed the document are former Governor Mario Cuomo, actor Martin Sheen, and Helen Prejean, the author of "Dead Man Walking."

"I hereby declare," D’Arienzo’s statement reads, "that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered."

New York did in fact reenact a capital punishment statute. But it has never been implemented, and the odds that it ever will be are slim. Nothing unique about New York; the odds of any state’s imposing the death penalty are minuscule. Last year, 74 murderers were executed in the United States, the equivalent of 4-10ths of 1% of the number of Americans murdered.

David Frum calculated recently in The Weekly Standard that "committing a murder in the United States today is almost 9 times safer than being drafted during the Vietnam War." If you were inducted into the military during the Johnson and Nixon years, your odds of dying in Indochina were roughly 1 in 130. Commit murder in this country, and you face less than 1 chance in 1,000 of paying the ultimate penalty. "At no point in the 20 years since the Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty," Frum notes, "has the number of murderers executed in this country exceeded the number of Americans killed by lightning."

D’Arienzo presumably knows all that. She doesn’t care.

"The first executions" under New York’s new statute "won’t start for another 10 years or so," she has said. "I will be 72 at the time. I won’t see many but I will spend every day of the rest of my life doing something about it."

She will spend every day of the rest of her life, that is, working to help murderers live to a ripe old age. Her foremost priority is not to prevent murder victims from dying. It is to rescue the killers who steal those victims’ lives.

I have said it before: I cannot understand the mentality of people like Sister D’Arienzo. Or Mario Cuomo.

No wonder the document Cuomo signed – and had notarized and attached to his will, yet! – is named "Declaration of Life." Its core message is that nothing is more precious than human life. Not even justice. Or morality. Or decency. Or the welfare of the community. Life trumps all.

But no civilized society can believe that and stay civilized. Life is not the ultimate value. Otherwise no nation would send young men to fight for honor, or against tyranny, or in defense of freedom. Life is sacred, but some things are more sacred. And if that is true of innocent life, how much more so is it true of guilty life – of those whose hands are slick with the blood of others?

"We execute murderers in order to make a communal proclamation: that murder is intolerable," writes David Gelernter – a Yale professor who was wounded when he opened a package mailed by the Unabomer – in the April issue of Commentary. "A deliberate murderer embodies evil so terrible that it defiles the community." Whether or not Mario Cuomo personally would want his killer killed is beside the point. It is for the good of society that assassins ought to die – that we may declare, to ourselves and to the world, that the crime of stealing life is worse than any other crime and deserves a penalty worse than any other penalty.

D’Arienzo’s document is only a publicity gimmick. When Cuomo put his name to it, he was doing nothing more than declaring his wish on that day, when he was very much alive and the prospect of dying by violence (God forbid) was mere speculation. What he would actually wish for at the moment the murderer’s knife was pressed to his neck, neither he nor we can know in advance. And what would his loved ones think if he were murdered? Or his friends? His neighbors? His admirers? Cuomo cannot speak for them. He cannot say that they would want his murderer kept alive "no matter how heinous their crime or how much (he had) suffered."

It is up to the law to speak for them – to speak for all grief-stricken survivors confronted with the butchery of someone near and dear. Capital punishment says to them: We, the community, take your loss with the utmost seriousness. We know that you are filled with rage and pain. We know that you may cry for vengeance, may yearn to strangle the murderer with your bare hands. You are right to feel that way. But it is not for you to wreak retribution. As a decent and just society, we will do it. Fairly. After due process. I n a court of a law.

A properly drafted death penalty statute – like those in most American states, which are replete with safeguards against error – proclaims insistently the preciousness of innocent life. Innocent life. The document circulated by D’Arienzo treats murderers and victims as interchangeable – puts the innocent and the guilty on the same moral plane. That is a piece of hellish perversity. If the Bible is adamant on anything, after all, it is that murderers should be put to death. You’d think a nun, of all people, would know that.

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