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Resurrecting Death

Shefali Oza

The governor of Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney, is about to send this state plummeting backwards from sound progress made over the last couple of decades. As if his recent funding cuts for essential state services weren’t bad enough, he now wants to reinstate the death penalty.

I have met many people who think of the death penalty debate in the same terms as they think of the abortion debate: passionate and heated, but, above all, endless. I would have to agree with the first two, but looking at the trends throughout the world, it appears that the debate is definitely not endless.

According to Amnesty International figures, 112 countries have abolished the death penalty. Each year more and more countries join that list. Nearly all human rights organizations and many other international groups and leaders condemn the death penalty as a major human rights violation.

In spite of this, not only does America continue executions, but the current administration encourages them. In 2001, America ranked among the top four countries to execute prisoners, according to Amnesty International. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and America accounted for 90 percent of executions in that year. In addition, only seven countries have executed child offenders in the last 13 years, and America leads the other six (Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) in numbers executed. We are condemned by most of the international community because of this record. We should be ashamed of these statistics. Instead, our governor is attempting to join the ranks of countries the United States itself condemns as major human rights violators for a broad range of issues.

I can see no use for the death penalty in this, or any other, nation. Claims that the death penalty is an effect tool for deterrence are unfounded. No evidence has been provided to support this claim. In fact, police chiefs surveyed in 1995 stated that the death penalty was an ineffective tool for law enforcement. In terms of logic, it seems much more evident that people would be deterred from committing crimes because of an immediate prison sentence rather than a more abstract death penalty, which takes several years before being used.

Others think that the death penalty is cheaper. This economic argument for using the death penalty is just not true. Life terms in prison are, in fact, much cheaper for the state. Due process is quite expensive and can cost a state millions of dollars more than if the person was kept in jail for life.

I have heard many supporters of the death penalty say that it is an effective way to remove a menace from society. I cannot see how prison is any less effective. Massachusetts, for instance, has life without parole as an option for punishment. Do we really need to kill someone to ensure that they may no longer commit harm? Not only does that seem entirely unnecessary, but it seems to follow the notions of “original sin,” as a friend of mine recently mentioned.

One of the major reasons many oppose the death penalty is because of the possibility that innocent people may be executed. This is an appalling possibility and should be enough to clear death row. Indeed, Governor Ryan of Illinois did just that earlier this year when he emptied everyone from death row in that state because of recent evidence that innocent people may be executed. And before you make the argument that a few innocent people may have to die to ensure justice for all, I would ask how you would feel if you were on death row for a crime you did not commit. Would we change our minds if we were in the shoes of the person we are willing to condemn to execution?

While many people may not agree with the moral arguments against the death penalty, I think these are the most moving and valid. We are executing someone for committing murder. Therefore, we are stating that taking away someone’s life without their permission is an awful crime. So instead, we as a society take away this criminal’s right to live also. I cannot think of a more hypocritical action by the state. Many have argued that a crime of such magnitude is enough to take away that person’s right to live. But who are we to decide that? Twelve members of a jury, a few lawyers and judges should have permission to take away another person’s life?

We explain such actions by the all-encompassing word: justice. However, what kind of justice is it when a state executes a prisoner? The victim will not come back to life. Instead, we are just adding another dead body. And for what? A sense of satisfaction that such a criminal is off the face of this earth? Is that satisfaction really worth it? It seems rather sadistic, in a way. We trump around stating that the ability to forgive is a virtue. And yet we are so quick to condemn people to death. I’m not saying forgive all criminals and let them go free. But it seems quite hypocritical, unnecessary, and, indeed, unethical to kill another person for a sense of “justice.”

Romney’s determination to reinstate the death penalty is especially important considering the history of the death penalty in Massachusetts. Although officially abolished in 1984, the last execution by the state was in 1947. Massachusetts is one of 12 states to have abolished the death penalty, although many other states do not use it in practice.

Perhaps we do not have much to fear. Four republican governors in the last twelve years have attempted to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts and have failed. However, this is not a chance I am willing to take. If Romney succeeds in his goal, Massachusetts will have taken a major step backwards in terms of human rights. We need to act quickly and let Romney know that his standards are unacceptable for a modern era.

Shefali Oza is a member of the class of 2004.