George Orwell – he was Eric Blair then – went to Burma, today’s Myanmar, in 1922 to be an imperial policeman. After he returned, in 1927, he became a writer and in 1931 published a short sketch in The Adelphi magazine, “A Hanging.” Told from the point of view of an imperial policeman in Burma, it begins with “a sodden morning of the rains” when a “sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” A condemned prisoner is led to the gallows. Once, “in spite of the men who gripped him... he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” The policeman reflects: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
In 1944, writing for the democratic socialist magazine Tribune, Orwell, surveying literature, said, “The thing that I think very striking is that no one... ever writes of an execution with approval. The dominant note is always horror. Society, apparently, cannot get along without capital punishment ... and yet there is no one, when the pinch comes, who feels it right to kill another human being in cold blood.”
It was brave of him to say it that year, when there was a clamor to hang traitors. In 1965, Britain abolished the death penalty.
In 1996, Steve Earle wrote and recorded “Ellis Unit One.” The song is told from the point of view of a man who joins the army, comes home and, like his father, gets a job at the local prison; Ellis Unit is the Texas state prison just north of Huntsville that housed the male death row.
“My daddy used to talk about them long nights at the walls,” Earle sings:
And how they used to strap em in the chair
The kids down from the college, they’d bring their beer ’n’ all
An’ when the lights went out, a cheer rose in the air.
We might think we support capital punishment, but the partying – like the killing – is unseemly. And when death comes down, we are all implicated – the policeman, the prison guard and the kids by the wall.
Ten years ago, David Grann reported a story for The New Yorker magazine, “Trial by fire.” From the first sentence – the blaze “moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas” – we are in the tale of Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of setting the fire that killed his three young children, in 1991.
Why would anyone do such a thing? As Grann shows, we still do not know because Willingham most likely did not do it. Investigators misunderstood the arson evidence. At trial in 1992, he was offered a life sentence for a guilty plea. He said no, because he was innocent. The jury deliberated for an hour before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to death and sent to Ellis Unit.
Willingham tried repeatedly to appeal his conviction until 2004. Asked for his last words, he said, “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.” After his death, Grann writes, “his parents were allowed to touch his face for the first time in more than a decade.”
He was one of 59 people executed in the U.S. that year. Even if the other 58 were guilty, would having the death penalty be worth killing one innocent?
Rights derive from interests. The most basic and universal interest, shared by humans equally with fish, mice, turtles and elephants, is the desire to live.
Taking a life is the most basic violation of rights, of interests and finally of morality. That is the principal argument against capital punishment.
The soundest argument for capital punishment is effectiveness. Is it a deterrent? Does it make the rest of us safer?
The moral argument is for liberty. The effective argument is for prospective safety. Which should prevail?
Thirty states in the U.S. still allow for the death penalty, although three, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania, have a governor-ordered moratorium. Now, Democrats have introduced a bill in the Colorado Senate to abolish it, their sixth try. Not lost on Republicans is that Democrats have the votes to do it, on a party-line vote in both houses, and a governor who says he will sign it.
Colorado Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill, called capital punishment “costly, biased” – the three people on Colorado’s death row are black – “and an ineffective deterrent of violent crime.”
There are racial disparities in every aspect of American criminal justice. And it is bad faith to argue that capital punishment is wrong because the appeals process that opponents insist upon is too lengthy and expensive. That is ceding the high ground. If we comprehend that execution is wrong in principal, we do not need to fuss with its application.
Williams is right about the big thing. The day will never come when we say, “If only we had the death penalty, we would not have this crime” – and if we are wrong, posterity will correct us.
Opponents of Williams’ bill want it referred to the ballot instead, just as some Republicans want any workaround to the Electoral College referred to the ballot. In the latter case, we can see the wisdom. But after we elected Democratic majorities to both houses, no one can be surprised that they would abolish capital punishment.
It is just the sort of thing we would like them to do, and put a stop to this killing.