Monday, December 12, 2005

What's the Point?

I oppose the death penalty a priori on moral grounds--something that I agree with the Pope on. It just so happens that there are obvious, pragmatic reasons to oppose the death penalty, as former Illinois Governor Ryan found when he declared his moratorium on the death penalty:
"I now favor a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row," Governor Ryan said. "And, I believe, many Illinois residents now feel that same deep reservation. I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven to be so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life. Thirteen people have been found to have been wrongfully convicted."

Governor Ryan noted that while he still believes the death penalty is a proper societal response for crimes that shock sensibility, he believes Illinois residents are troubled by the persistent problems in the administration of capital punishment in Illinois. Since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 12 Death Row inmates have been executed while 13 have been exonerated.

..."Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate," Governor Ryan said. "I am a strong proponent of tough criminal penalties, of supporting laws and programs to help police and prosecutors keep dangerous criminals off the streets. We must ensure the public safety of our citizens but, in doing so, we must ensure that the ends of justice are served."
I would say that you can be tough on crime but still oppose the death penalty. But even if you don't take the moral stand that the killing of another person for revenge--or deterrent--is fundamentally wrong, you can, as Gov. Ryan has, realize that we have serious problems with how we have implemented the death penalty.

But all that is a different matter. I was struck by an article in Sojourners about Stanley "Tookie" Wiliiams. As David Batstone points out, Williams has done a lot to help end the gang violence he helped start:
Williams has become a major figure in the gang peace movement. He has co-authored 10 books from Death Row. The message is clear: Violence is never a solution. He urges young gang kids to get out before it destroys them and the lives of their family members. That's a powerful message from one of the founders of the Crips.

Williams first made a public plea to hundreds of gang members who gathered at a Los Angeles hotel in 1993 for a summit called Hands Across Watts. He did not hide his early role in the Crips, but on a prerecorded videotape filmed for the summit told the young gang members that he lamented his history. Recounting this first public event to the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams said, "I told them I never thought I could change my life, that I thought I would be a Crip forever. But I developed common sense, wisdom and knowledge. I changed."

Williams has gone on to build on this witness. In his 1998 prison autobiography Life in Prison, he directed young people to seek an alternative life beyond violence. Prison, he stressed, was no place to spend a life. Two years later he launched the Internet Project for Street Peace. His memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, and the movie, Redemption, came out in 2004.
Has our country become such that forgiveness and redemption does not matter. I don't know that I would agree to let Williams out of prison, but he has done a lot to right some of the wrongs he has done. I remember hearing a powerful story as a child going to church about Christ coming to the rescue of woman about to be stoned to death. According to the story, he saved her from being punished to death. There is an even more striking story about redemption in the story of the crucifixion (I'll spare the nonreligious the details).

Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Vatican opposes the death penalty. After all, redemption is the very foundation of most modern Christian theology. Yet, as Batstone points out,
In the eyes of the criminal justice system, a redeemed criminal is simply another criminal. I recall my first visit to a federal prison back in seminary when starting a prison chaplain residency. The warden of the prison came to the orientation I shared with other interns. His message was clear to us: "I want you to remember that the prison system today is not about reforming criminals. We are here to punish them."

Redemption, in other words, has no place in our justice system. We do not offer a path for conversion. Once marked for condemnation, an offender's destiny is fixed.


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