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As Long as We Remember...

March 5, 2009

Time to Kill the Death Penalty

Tony Soltero

In our world there are civilized societies and uncivilized societies. Civilized societies tend to be free and democratic, philosophically based on reason and not superstition, and have a healthy respect for individuals' rights to follow their own consciences.


On the other hand, uncivilized societies are usually authoritarian, patriarchal, and mired in often-destructive "traditions" that don't stand up to the scrutiny of reason. They tend to enforce a numbing conformity.


For the most part, America is a civilized society. But there are several areas in which we revert (or used to revert) to the barbarism that characterizes uncivilized societies – our insistence on keeping slaves until well into the 19th century is the most salient example. And even today, there is one glaring obstacle to any claims we might have as a civilized beacon to the world.


That obstacle is the infantile obsession with the death penalty that continues to exist in some quarters of America.


The death penalty belongs in a civil society the way a porcupine belongs in a petting zoo. It does not deter crime. States and nations with capital punishment do not have lower crime rates than states and nations that don't. It is vulnerable to errors and mistakes that lead to innocent people losing their lives at the hands of the state. It is not applied with any consistency or fairness, disproportionately impacting the poor and minorities.


So that's why it's so encouraging to see Gov. Martin O'Malley push so hard for its abolition in Maryland. We are a civilized state by just about any other measure. Maryland boasts America's best public school system, highest per-capita income, and one of its highest life expectancies. Having capital punishment on the books is an ugly blot on our reputation – and one that the governor is seeking to abolish.


Capital-punishment proponents know very well that its impact on crime deterrence is negligible at best. They embrace the death penalty not because they want justice – that can be easily accomplished with a life prison term – but because they want revenge. A state killing just makes them feel better about themselves.


So, death-penalty supporters, sensing that they are in fast retreat, find themselves concocting ever more fanciful and contrived scenarios to try to justify keeping the law on the books. One making the rounds now is that we need to keep it in case a life-sentenced prisoner murders another one.


Leaving aside the far right's sudden and unprecedented concern for the well-being of prison inmates, it's pretty obvious that this isn't about a jailed murder victim. This is about keeping the law on the books so that its proponents can retain a foothold on its legitimacy. They are emotionally invested in capital punishment being legal; to have the law wiped from the books would be an enormous repudiation of their value and belief system that they'd rather not deal with.


But the rest of us want Maryland to be a fully civilized state. We reject the strawman arguments that a repeal of the death penalty is somehow indicative of a "softness" on crime. We reject the idea that America should emulate some of the world's most ruthlessly repressive governments in its attitude toward crime and punishment. And we reject the horrible injustices that have often stemmed from misapplications of the lethal injection.


It's time to fully join the ranks of the civilized world. Kudos to the governor for his valiant efforts in making Maryland better than Iran.


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