“It doesn’t make sense, trying to kill someone fairly.”
The timing could not be better for 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, a short, intellectually probing book by Mario Marazziti, an Italian parliamentarian and activist against capital punishment.
The federal jury that returned an execution verdict to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing did so in a state that long ago abolished the death penalty: Massachusetts had its last execution when Harry Truman was president, in 1947.
One hundred and five of the 192 countries represented at the UN have abolished the death penalty, notes Marazziti, a leader of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a progressive Catholic movement in Rome that has spread to 70 countries.
Marazziti, who wrote the book in English, was a major figure in the effort that presented 3 million signatures from people opposed to capital punishment in various countries to the UN for last year’s resolution that called for a moratorium on executions. The United States joined Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and North Korea, among others, in voting against the proposition, which passed.
One sign of American society’s ambivalence came in 1972, when the Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment, only to reinstate it four years later. Public opinion today stands at 56 percent in favor of the death penalty, according to polling by the Pew Research Center and CBS News. That majority, however, is “the lowest level ever recorded by the CBS poll.”
Our public opinion is more schizophrenic that those numbers suggest: In 2013, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill making Maryland the 18th abolitionist state. That same year, Texas executed its 500th inmate. In 2014, Tennessee passed a law mandating use of the electric chair, around the time that a federal judge ruled California’s death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution, and the same year that Pope Francis called for the universal abolition of capital punishment.
Federal law trumped state law in the Boston prosecution of the younger, surviving Tsarnaev brother responsible for the horrific massacre. The Justice Department assumed responsibility in order to make Tsarnaev eligible for execution. In the voir dire phase, U.S. attorneys were careful to select jurors willing to impose capital punishment. A long appeals process is anticipated; if the verdict is upheld, Tsarnaev will be put to death outside Massachusetts.
It is not coincidental that a movement against execution is building in an era when militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State group post macabre videos of its decapitations of innocent Muslims and Christians. The implicit message among those seeking to stop established states from executing the worst criminals is that civilization must build on a priority of forgiveness and give human life the ultimate value.
“When a society will stoop to lawlessness to, I guess, eradicate lawlessness, basically what you’re saying is you’re going to become killers to kill killers,” a since-executed Texas inmate, Dominique Green, tells Marazziti in one of the book’s most powerful cameo profiles:
“And to do that, you throw all the rules out of the window,” continues Green, like a voice from the grave. “So innocent people, retarded people, mentally impaired people—all of them gonna get caught up in that wheel because lawlessness doesn’t care. I mean, it’s about exacting revenge, and so that’s what always makes the death penalty wrong: the fact that to enforce it, there are things you have to do away with. There can be no fairness. You have to break the rules to get what you want, to murder people. That’s the thing about a killer. When somebody wants to kill someone, do you think they’re thinking about how to do it fairly? It doesn’t make sense, trying to kill someone fairly.”
Green’s cri de coeur echoes something Albert Camus wrote in his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” published in 1957 in France, and in translation three years later. With the enormity of the Holocaust and trials of Nazi collaborators heavy on the French mind, Camus made his case against capital punishment. He cast a cold eye on Christianity:
“The unbeliever cannot keep from thinking that men who have set at the center of their faith the staggering victim of a judicial error ought at least to hesitate before committing legal murder. Believers might also be reminded that the Emperor Julian, before his conversion, did not want to give official offices to Christians because they systematically refused to pronounce death sentences or to have anything to do with them. For five centuries, Christians therefore believed that the first strict moral teaching of their master forbade killing.”
“Legal murder” and “trying to kill someone fairly” are phrases that grind against the moral sensibility of prosecutors, judges, some jurors, and an American public that—by a majority still—deem life-for-life retribution a fair form of punishment. The states divide 32-18 in favor of execution. The transparent unfairness is that a person convicted of the same heinous crime in Louisiana or Texas would not be executed if found guilty of the same charges in Maryland or Massachusetts.
Marazziti marshals an array of evidence on how unfairly people have been executed in the past. Fifty-one Americans were executed for stealing horses. The youngest American executed in the last century was a 14-year-old boy named George Stinney. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute defendants who committed their crimes as juveniles.
Sodomy was a capital offense in Britain in 1533. In 1699, “Shoplifting to the value of five shillings or more is deemed a capital crime in Britain,” the author writes. In 1822, “William Reading is hanged for shoplifting; the last time that crime is so punished in Britain,” he continues. Ten years later, the government removed shoplifting, as well as theft of sheep, cattle, and horses from the list of crimes punishable by death.
Media coverage of Tsarnaev and the trial’s penalty phase in May put all the contradictions on the table. The guilty man’s impassiveness at the statements of survivors and relatives who lost loved ones cut a chilling contrast with his fleeting expression of pathos at the emotional testimony of an aunt from his atomized family. His parents and other immediate relatives were not in court.
But by June, alone in facing his formal death sentencing, Tsarnaev finally spoke, apologizing to victims and praying for God’s forgiveness. “I pray to Allah to bestow his mercy on those affected in the bombing and their families. I pray for your healing.” Who knows what he really thinks, or who he really is? The words suggest that the man who sat like a cipher had experienced a crack in his own human armor.
“We can look at the death penalty every which way,” writes Marazziti, “but it is always a travesty, even when it is not being used for reasons that are obviously unjust—to eliminate enemies, rivals, or unpopular beliefs; to dehumanize a group of people. Even when the death penalty is used for the supposedly civilized reasons of public safety and deterrence, or when its goal is simple retribution, even when its aims are modest, capital punishment fails to achieve them.”
Marazziti punctures the certitude of the “fair” execution by pointing out that since 1992, 321 prisoners have been exonerated by DNA testing in America, and of them 20 were on death row, waiting to die for crimes they did not commit. How many died before we had DNA?
With the accumulated news reports in many jurisdictions where convictions that relied on police deception, or prosecutorial withholding of evidence, led to the release of prisoners long-incarcerated, the logic of a fair standard grows weaker still. If a system is so prone to abuse that it will kill innocent people in pursuit of justice, what moral value does the death penalty have?