by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
During my youth, I was opposed to capital punishment for two reasons. 1. Blacks were 13 percent of the population, but a third of all executions. 2. People who murdered Whites got the death penalty more often than people that murdered Blacks.
One day a man wanted to know my argument against capital punishment if it wasn’t discriminatory. I didn’t understand. The man rephrased and asked, would I support capital punishment if it was applied equally. I said no. Again, he asked for my argument. Basically, he wanted to know why I thought the state had no right to enforce its law and execute.
But I couldn’t advance my argument beyond systemic racism.
I discovered I was opposed to systemic racism and capital punishment was a representation of it. That allowed me to view Black death row inmates as victims of racial injustice and ignore their actual victims. I realized I prioritized social justice (ending systemic racism at all costs) over criminal justice (the punishment should be proportional to the crime).
My arguments sounded logical and moral, but they were weak and callous.
A couple months ago White supremacist John William King was executed for the murder of a Black man, James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas in 1998. (King and two White supremacists beat Byrd, chained his ankles, attached the chain to the back of their pickup truck, and dragged Byrd down the road for three miles. Byrd’s right arm and head were severed.) A Black columnist wrote an opinion piece called: James Byrd’s Killer didn’t deserve the death penalty.
So, what did the killer deserve?
The columnist wrote, “I happen to think there are worse things that can happen to you than death…Death is salvation for him. Imagine being relatively healthy with nothing to look forward to? Just sitting there, in jail, surrounded by Black people your White supremacist self purports to hate. That might be torture worse than death…I would prefer a punishment for racist murderers that is both humane and inhumane. We don’t execute them because we don’t stoop, as a society, to the level of committing a crime we abhor. We ignore them and exacerbate their misery by reminding them that they have no hope of release. The death penalty is inhumane and should be abolished.”
Once again this sounds logical and moral, but it’s not.
The columnist stated the death penalty should be abolished because it’s inhumane, but prefers a punishment for racist murderers that is both humane and inhumane. The columnist wants society to remain humane by not committing the same crime as the murderer. But the death penalty is not a crime, it’s a legal execution for an illegal killing. The columnist doesn’t make the distinction because another goal of social justice is to rehabilitate the system. The columnist also stated racist murderers deserve life in prison because it’s a “torture” beyond death. That argument actually makes life in prison inhumane and the death penalty an act of mercy.
Recently, a Newsweek headline said: Tree of Life congregations oppose death penalty for Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter. A Rabbi told the AP that the death penalty was an “outmoded kind of punishment, like slavery, it belongs to a different time and another place.” In other words, our society is too advanced for such barbarism. Then he said, “I can’t think of any worse punishment for a criminal than to spend the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison without parole.” Once again this sounds good, but it’s not a good argument. First, slavery was outmoded by machinery. Life in prison doesn’t make capital punishment outmoded. Life in prison is just an alternative. Second, the Rabbi surrenders the moral high ground by advocating for a worse punishment instead of a punishment proportional to the crime.
Now, I’m not advocating for capital punishment. I’m advocating for better arguments against it.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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