Did you know that if you kill a man in St. Louis you could be executed for the crime, but if you kill the same man across the river in East St. Louis, you will only go to prison? States with capital punishment are very pro-choice, at least when it comes to methods of execution. Among the 37 death-penalty states, there are five different ways to go: the electric chair, the rope, the needle, the gas chamber, or a firing squad.
The death penalty stirs strong emotions on both sides. Abolitionists claim that since man did not create life, it's not his to take, without exception. Advocates say that it is a deterrent to violent crime and the ultimate justice for its victims. George Carlin said that death was more than just a penalty. A penalty is something that happens in hockey. Death is a bit more permanent. I have given this issue a great deal of thought. I have looked at it from Judeo-Christian-Zen-Hindu points of view, including the consideration of both karmic laws and state laws. I have contemplated its inhumanity and whatever is the philosophical opposite when it comes to putting a person to death. I have examined the costs and the morality. I have perused the holy texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, and I have come to agree with the wisdom of my Texas cousins: "Some people just need killin'."
I know that admission may shock some of my progressive friends, but I'm conflicted here. I realize that the Christian point of view ought to be no executions — no exceptions because Jesus Himself stopped one. I guess stoning was a particularly cruel manner of capital punishment, depending on the size of the rocks, but Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Then again, the Old Testament calls for "an eye for an eye." So, many conservatives cheered for Texas governor Rick Perry's heavyweight championship of execution during the Republican debates. But it's an ongoing spiritual mystery how so many Rock of Ages absolutists can be both pro-life yet also favor the death penalty. Irrespective of the fervor of the faithful, if karma works in the same way as the laws of cause and effect, and someone has committed a crime so horrible that he will return to this life with some type of deformity, we'd be doing him a favor to give him a little nudge along the path of his spiritual journey.
Every day, I see someone walk out of prison who was on death row. Advances in forensics and other technologies have freed men held captive for decades while others have surely been wrongly put to death. In Texas, they do it for a hobby, like hot dog eaters trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. On the other hand, Charles Manson may well have reached cult-like status anyway if the death penalty were not eliminated in California in 1972, but he wouldn't have stayed alive long enough to record new CDs and become this country's convict with the most correspondence. I doubt that John Wayne Gacy's paintings would still be on the market if he hadn't had all that time in prison to paint so many of them.
The most egregious example is mass murderer Richard Speck. Speck's was the first particularly horrifying mass slaying to be made public during the media age. In 1966, Speck raped, tortured, and murdered eight student nurses in their beds at their Chicago apartment. He was quickly captured and sentenced to death, but a Supreme Court decision created a four-year moratorium on state execution, under which Speck's life was spared. He later claimed he never really had a reason to kill those girls and that it was so messy, if he could go back, it would just be a simple house burglary.
If there were ever a candidate for capital punishment, it would be Richard Speck. But the evidence was not necessarily in the trial so much as in the prison video Speck made before he died of natural causes at age 50. The footage is still so gag-inducing it makes me ill to conjure the memory, but without being expansive, Speck is featured snorting coke with his jail lover and showing off new, surgically enlarged man-breasts. He says to the "videographer," "If the public only knew how much fun we're having."
At that point, I stopped caring about deterrence or cost or philosophy or ethics — I just wished that guy was dead. But, "vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord. Fair enough. But it's also said, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Face it, there are some people who are just dying to meet their maker and doing it in so gruesome a way that we, as a society, need to accommodate them. These times in which we live are so dark that violent crimes have become increasingly brutal and depraved — and committed with such savagery — that the perpetrators have forfeited their right to live on this planet and breathe the same air as other humans. Game over.
The 1972 case that stopped all executions for a time was called Furman v. Georgia. It wasn't because of a rigged trial or planted evidence; the court merely ruled that a more uniform system about what did and did not qualify for the death penalty needed to be put in place. So, let's merely follow the court's ruling and narrow the criteria for the ultimate punishment. This would, of necessity, have to be a federal law, just to overrule the "try 'em and fry 'em" regimen of some of our more trigger-happy states. To my mother's regret, I am not an attorney, but I'll bet that some legal statutes could be written on a national level, like the voting age, that regulate the conditions necessary for and the method of execution. Leaving a matter of this magnitude to the states has created the chaos we are currently witnessing.
I once believed that the correct solution was not to kill the murderers, just lock them in a cage like mad dogs. Forget about rehabilitation or exercise, just slide their food under a crack in the door and let nature do its work. But in recent decades, a category of soulless criminal has emerged that just doesn't deserve any more food and water. For example, anyone committing a mass slaying or spree killing is good to go. Anybody who tortures and murders for kicks is hot to trot. Serial child predators, including clergy, win a free ticket to the afterlife. Now that might serve as a deterrent.
Randy Haspel writes the blog Born-Again Hippies, where a version of this column first appeared.