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Use of Death Penalty Solves Nothing

By Daniel C. Stevenson

In a column last week, ["Enforcement of Death Penalty Required", Oct. 22] Michael K. Chung presented a slew of callous, confusing, and above all hypocritical arguments for a strong enforcement of the barbaric practice of capital punishment. Chung's line of reasoning demonstrated an extraordinary lack of respect for human life and dignity, the very same values he was supposedly so strenuously trying to defend.

Archaic and inhumane moral codes espousing creeds such as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" were manipulated to provide justification for what is really a heinous criminal act, all the more repugnant because it is government supported. Those who argue for a strong death penalty should realize that two wrongs do not ever make a right. Killing one person as punishment for the death of another is in my mind an unconscionable abuse of the democratic process and a savage expression of vicious primal instincts. The death penalty is the most naive and contemptible manner of law enforcement ever created by a supposedly civilized nation.

Chung argued that people convicted of serious crimes take up valuable prison space, and it would be more humane and agreeable to them if they were expeditiously executed. "Is it really worth it to keep these people there [in prison]?" he asked. What kind of an elitist attitude relegates criminals, who are still human beings like the rest of us, to become "those people," not even worthy of our consideration? Committing a violent crime does not make someone any less of a human being; in fact, such violence is an unfortunate trademark of the human race.

Chung further implies that a criminal might rather choose initial execution over a long, harsh life in prison. This argument screams out with the obvious: any person in prison, no matter how poor the conditions, and no matter how hard it is to readjust after release or acquittal, is alive. It would probably be difficult to rebuild a life after a lengthy prison term, but it is impossible to rebuild a life after execution. Death is irrevocable. No capital punishment policy can be 100 percent foolproof, and each time an innocent victim is killed by the "judicial" system, the greatest crime of all is committed.

Chung and other advocates of a strong death penalty argue that the punishment must fit the crime, that criminals should be made to pay for their wrongdoing. I agree with this philosophy to the point of fines, repossession, and incarceration, but not to the malicious level of state sponsored murder. It is just as hypocritical and cruel to punish those convicted of rape and assault by raping and beating them as it is to kill murderers. Lives cannot be traded like commodities and added and subtracted like grains of sand as we do with the punishments of fines and prison terms. It is foolish and morally blasphemous to assign a discrete amount to something of immeasurable and deeply personal worth. The value we place on a human life has long been a murky issue. Our government pays people to kill our enemies everyday, with questionable motives, and then turns around and severely punishes a murderer, possibly to the point of taking his or her life. What kind of system is this, that both encourages and punishes, and then institutionalizes, murder?

In his column, Chung brought up the case of Shon McHugh as an example of why the death penalty must be more vigorously enforced. Like Chung, I too am disgusted with McHugh. I think his murder of Yngve K. Raustein '94 was one of the most awful things that anyone could ever do, and his thoughtless, arrogant attitude offends me to no end. However, I would be no better a person than McHugh if I advocated inflicting the same horrible punishment on him. In these cases, we must force ourselves to avoid the simple knee-jerk reaction and instead to take the moral high ground, to act like the civilized society that we claim to be. Just because people commit atrocious deeds does not mean we must stoop to their level in handing out retribution. By punishing McHugh and other murderers with death, we as a society would be implicitly condoning their violent way of life. If we desire, as Chung agrees, to set an example for criminals, we must demonstrate through our own actions that the taking of a life is not now, and will never be, a solution to any problem.

An inconsiderate and undemocratic attitude is shown later in the column when Chung discusses the story of Gerald McCra, who is accused of murdering his parents and sister. Although the boy has not yet been tried, Chung presumes McCra's guilt and implies that any discussion in court of mitigating medical or family circumstances would be a waste of time with the callous statement, "it seems silly to pursue such arguments." One of the basic tenets of our democracy is the concept of people being innocent until proven guilty. At the same time, we are ethically and constitutionally bound to grant an impartial and honest trial by jury to anyone charged with a crime. I find it alarming and personally offensive that advocacy of the death penalty has extended to arguments for presumption of guilt before trial and wishes for a bypass of the entire judicial system, going straight from arrest to the electric chair. In any situation, I would rather allow a guilty person to walk free than for an innocent victim to be murdered by the government.

Chung writes, "It is unfair for a person to take someone's life without just cause." I wholeheartedly agree with this policy, and believe it applies equally to murderers and those who would murder them in turn. It is important to set an example for criminals, but by enforcing the death penalty, society is being hypocritical and implicitly accepting their violent motives. Instead, we must show that human life is sacred and should not be destroyed, especially by government policy.