Other View: The perverse logic of capital punishment
It is the victory of rage over reason.
Singapore’s execution last Wednesday of a mentally disabled Malaysian man for drug smuggling sparked international protests and outrage. Executing a man who no longer threatens his government or community — especially one with a child’s mental capacity — isn’t justice. It’s murder, even if sanctioned and disguised by an irrational and barbaric law. Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, 34, was found guilty of trafficking about 43 grams of heroin, an amount with a street value in much of the world of little more than $20,000.
Texas has already executed two prisoners with mental disabilities. Now it seeks to execute Melissa Lucio, a Latino mother of 14, who was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. New evidence, however, raises doubts about her guilt, suggesting police coerced a false confession from her. Last week, an appeals court stayed her execution.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf paused the state’s killing machine in 2015, imposing a moratorium on executions. But the state’s death penalty statute remains active; defendants continue to be tried under it, despite the enormous costs it exacts from taxpayers, the grave risks of executing the innocent, and the specter of numerous botched executions around the country. Roughly 100 prisoners — half of them Black — remain on Pennsylvania’s death row. With the moratorium on executions set to expire when Wolf leaves office in January 2023, legislators must abolish the state’s death penalty this year.
In April, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala made the ill-advised decision to seek the death penalty in two separate murders: one involving Karli Short; the other, Christi Spicuzza, an Uber driver. To be sure, both cases involve egregious offenses, but they don’t alter the fundamental practical and moral problems posed by a costly and ineffective death penalty statute, for which there is no evidence — none — that it deters violent crimes or serves any useful purpose.
Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 people to death — at a cost of $1 billion, former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported in 2020. That’s an average of more than $300 million per execution. Meanwhile, 10 Pennsylvania prisoners on death row have been exonerated.
The perverse logic of capital punishment represents the victory of rage over reason. Capital offenses, almost always involving murder, make any relatively normal person retch. At issue, however, is not whether certain people deserve to die — an unknowable calculation, except, perhaps, by a Higher Power. The real issue is whether the state has the right, without the pretext of self-defense, to snuff out a life. Even if it can claim such a prerogative, government must answer an equally compelling question: Is the death penalty prudent public policy?
In Singapore, Texas or Pennsylvania, the answer to both questions is a resounding no.
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