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May 25, 2013

I can't make up my mind on the death penalty

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — If there’s a silver lining from three of the most horrific crimes in recent memory, it’s that we have the perpetrators in custody.

Ariel Castro, the man accused of kidnapping and brutalizing a trio of young women for the past decade in Cleveland, now amuses himself pacing and sweeping the floor of his cell while awaiting trial.

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev also now lives in a prison, recovering from gunshot wounds suffered at the hands of his pursuers.

And convicted pedophile David Renz of Syracuse is locked up after allegedly slicing his monitoring bracelet to kidnap a mother and her 10-year-old daughter on their way home from gymnastics class, then fatally stab the former and rape the latter.

One of the most popular arguments I’ve heard against capital punishment comes only from laymen, and never from elected officials: that executions are too painless for creeps like Renz, who deserve instead to sit in a cell with “Bubba” for the rest of their lives.

That’s the sort of vigilante justice Renz felt in March, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, after he apparently was put in a holding center with other prisoners intentionally by prison guards. Renz showed up in for a court appearance the next day with a swollen face and broken nose.

I’ve always held conflicting opinions about the death penalty, but I’ve never believed that it’s excessively cruel. Renz’s jailhouse beating gave similar contradictory thoughts.

If anyone deserves the ultimate punishment, it’s those who commit the sort of monstrous crimes of which Castro and Renz are accused. But although I have zero sympathy for Renz, vigilante justice among inmates has no place in the United States, given our Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

That said, if Castro and Renz are convicted but somehow manage to avoid execution, it would be hard for me to come away from their cases feeling that justice was served. For their victims, sentencing the perpetrators to death isn’t an act of vengeance so much as a matter of balancing the scales of justice.

Not that there’s any shame in feeling vengeance. Some death penalty opponents cite religious concepts such as heaven and hell, arguing that God will eventually settle the score. But I’m not religious, and part of me would prefer to unleash temporal wrath on those who deserve it, just in case.

In Europe, where many countries have banned the death penalty, American attitudes toward capital punishment are sometimes considered barbaric and backward. But French philosopher Michel Foucault cautioned those who might mistakenly assume this drift away from capital punishment is from a groundswell of humanitarian concern among European nations. Rather, Foucault argued, changes in the social structure have forced those in power to rely on more subtle forms of coercion.

“Together with war, (capital punishment) was for a long time the other form of the right of the sword; it constituted the reply of the sovereign to those who attacked his will, his law, or his person,” Foucault wrote in 1978. “Those who died on the scaffold became fewer and fewer, in contrast to those who died in wars.”

I have to confess: I considered such reasons while mulling the potential execution of Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old Boston bombing suspect captured alive after his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan, the plot’s alleged mastermind, was killed by police. The younger Tsarnaev to me seems weak and malleable; perhaps the CIA can break him down, then mold him into a pro-U.S. mouthpiece while he serves a life sentence behind bars.

There are two compelling arguments against capital punishment. The first is that our justice system favors those who can afford the best lawyers, and the second is the possibility of executing an innocent person.

But both of those seem like indictments of our judicial system’s flaws, not of the concept of giving the state the power to kill. In a sense, anyone who believes police should carry sidearms is in favor of capital punishment under the right circumstances. If Dzhokar Tsarnaev were instead killed by police in an exchange of gunfire, few would complain about the state having ended a man’s life.

The question is therefore not whether the state should be able to kill, but when. One of the most controversial executions in American history was in 1946, when Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita of Japan was hanged for war crimes committed by his men during World War II.

Yamashita’s men were guilty of summarily executing prisoners — an indisputable and horrific atrocity. But Yamashita wasn’t accused of ordering such actions; rather, under the principal of “command responsibility,” he was punished for failing in his duty as commander to prevent them.

He faced death honorably, even voicing respect for his old foes, whose court-appointed attorneys unsuccessfully appealed Yamashita’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have had good treatment and kindness from your good-natured officers, who protected me all the time,” Yamashita said at the gallows. “I never forget for what they have done for me even if I have died. I don’t blame my executioner. I’ll pray the gods bless them.”

Justin Vernold is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.