Let the Death Penalty Die

Author Thomas Cahill calls for an end to capital punishment—the subject of his powerful new book, A Saint on Death Row.

03.10.09 7:48 AM ET

“L’chaim!” goes the ancient Hebrew toast. “To life!” I’ve long considered this expression a significant improvement on the customary toasts of the Western world, which tend to confine themselves to the good health of those doing the toasting. You don’t have to be Jewish to experience the communal thrill of “L’chaim!”

But whose life are we toasting, exactly? Everyone’s?Perhaps not.

In war, for instance, we certainly mean to confine our aspirations for life to ourselves and our allies. And what shall we say of those other occasions on which society approves, not merely the taking of life in war, but the deliberate elimination of designated individuals who have been declared unfit to live? I could, I suppose, be referring to the horrifying eliminations — of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped — practiced by the Nazis, or I could have in mind far more ancient atrocities or even much more recent attempts at genocide in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, attempts still in progress in some places.

Read a review of Thomas Cahill’s A Saint on Death Row.

Rather, I would ask you to consider critically the American practice of using law to execute fellow human beings. Though as early as prehistoric times we suppressed the once-widespread practice of human sacrifice, carried out to appease the gods, and we have in more recent times proscribed public execution, once practiced as a form of deterrence, we continue to insist that we should be free to execute those we deem unfit for life because of a crime we believe they have committed, usually the crime of taking someone else’s life.

Each year, the United States carries out fewer executions, as more states put a halt to the practice or abandon it altogether. The hundreds of prisoners who are gradually being freed by the application of DNA evidence to their cases have shaken prosecutors and judges (and even governors) throughout the country. These reversals of conviction suggest that something on the order of one in eight of our convictions is the conviction of a defendant who is actually innocent.

Moreover, as more and more states experience severe financial pressures, the idea of locking up a convict for life rather than executing him grows ever more appealing, since the process of execution requires far greater expense than life imprisonment. This is because the costs of answering the prisoners’ many appeals — a process guaranteed by the Constitution — requires enormous expenditures in even the most tight-fisted states, and these legal costs far exceed the costs of incarceration for life by many millions of dollars each year. Furthermore, if some of the lifers are subsequently found innocent — which is all too likely — their eventual exoneration can be real rather than merely ironic.

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green By Thomas Cahill 160 pages. Nan A. Talese. $18.95

Nonetheless, in the Western world Americans remain the principal executioners, a stupefying phenomenon to our closest allies. In Italy, for instance, each of our executions is front-page news in every national newspaper. Many Italian readers know the names of the Americans executed and their tragic stories, while in the U.S. such stories are swept to the back of our newspapers, if they are covered at all. Even from a worldwide perspective, only China and Iran regularly execute more people than we do. Europeans have abandoned the practice altogether, and no country may join the European Union if it permits execution. Whatever terrible things the Germans, the Austrians, the Poles, the Italians, and the French may have permitted (or even championed) in the 1930s and ‘40s, today they are as one in considering execution a form of barbarism. Not only this, throughout Europe prison sentences are generally shorter and prison conditions more humane than they are among us.

One state, Texas, leads all others both in the number of its executions and in the casually outrageous injustices that occur routinely throughout its system of criminal accountability. As Rick Perry, the current governor, who already has more executions to his name than the amazing number racked up by his predecessor, George W. Bush, said in his response to the appeal of the European Union that Texas enact a moratorium on the death penalty: “Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens. While we respect our friends in Europe, welcome their investment in our state and appreciate their interest in our laws, Texans are doing just fine governing Texas.”

In Italy, American executions are front-page news in every national newspaper.  Many Italian readers know the names of the Americans executed and their tragic stories.

A little more than four years ago, Texas wrongfully executed a friend of mine, Dominique Green, a man of such evident stature and profound humanity that before his death he forgave everyone who had hurt him and asked for forgiveness from everyone he had hurt. More than this, he persuaded most of those on Death Row in the state of Texas that they should do the same. His last words — to the many friends gathered at his execution — were these: “I am not angry but I am disappointed that I was denied justice. But I am happy that I was afforded you all as family and friends. You have been there for me: it’s a miracle. I love you . . . I love you all.”

For me these words of Dominique will always bring to mind the graceful medieval hymn, “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est”: “Where there is kindness, where there is love, there is God.” In the face of an unjust execution, one would, I guess, be more likely to hear the opposite: “Where there is neither kindness nor love, there is no God.” But Dominique, already strapped to the cruciform gurney as he spoke, his outstretched arms already implanted with the intravenous tubes by which the poison would travel into him, transformed the occasion. One might even say he redeemed it.

Dominique was poor and black. Had he been wealthy or white, he would never have found himself on that gurney. Virtually all our Death Row prisoners are poor; and this is not because the poor commit more crimes than the rich — as we who are all the hapless victims of bankers, hedge fund managers, and other pornographically wealthy men must know — but because the poor cannot afford adequate legal representation. A shocking proportion of those on Death Row are members of minorities; and this is because the majority population prefers the victims of our sacrifices to be Others, human but not quite like ourselves, just as prehistoric peoples once offered to their ravening gods their war hostages, people they did not know well.

Jonathan Kozol, sounding like a Hebrew prophet or a Greek dramatist, speaks of the American death penalty as “the sin” from which “this nation” must be cleansed. That cleansing — the drama of our release from our own cruel instincts — must finally be played out in the offices of governors, the forums of state legislatures, and the halls of the Supreme Court. But it must begin in the souls of citizens.


Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History series and most recently of A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green.