A few months ago, Dale Cox, the acting district attorney in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, told a reporter from the Shreveport Times the country needs to “kill more people.” The dramatic increase in capital convictions in Cox’s parish, which now accounts for almost 50 percent of those in all of Louisiana, was also the subject of a recent New York Times story.
While both Cox’s comments and his prosecutorial record are horrifying, he is right about something. As he told the Shreveport Times, the death penalty is really only about revenge.
There’s no evidence for the age-old defense, and in some ways raison d’etre, of capital punishment—that it deters crime. But even if there was, in our current system of endless appeals where an inmate waits on average almost 16 years between sentencing and execution dates, even the theoretical argument for deterrence is moot. We have, as a federal judge put it, while ruling California’s death penalty unconstitutional, a sentence of “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
Even Cox admits this reality, saying, “It's a deterrent if it goes fast, but we can't get it done fast enough.” (Of course, I would argue with his inevitable conclusion—that we need to “get it done” faster.)
The death penalty is also not about justice for victims’ families, as newly baptized GOP presidential primary bottom feeder (and Governor of Ohio) John Kasich claims. “Every time there’s an appeal, all those details are in the media again, the case is reported again, and all that pain comes back,” says Mary Sloan, the executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. For this reason, among others, groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation have organized to oppose capital punishment.
So it’s not about deterrence, and it’s not about justice. It’s about revenge—and we need to recognize that.
Last year, Alex Kozinski, then Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, got a lot of attention for suggesting, in a dissent, that we bring back the firing squad. But what much of the sensational coverage of his opinion missed was his core message: we shouldn’t be executing people in a way that makes it easier for us stomach (i.e. lethal injection). He wrote:
Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.
The same goes for why we execute people. If we’re comfortable with the death penalty, we need to be comfortable with the fact that we do it, not for deterrence or justice, but to exact government-sponsored revenge. We have to stop lying to ourselves. And if we can’t do that, we should be asking ourselves why we even have the death penalty at all.