In my search for the perfect graduate school, I’ve come across numerous authors, researchers, and professors who have all contributed immensely to the field I hope to study within. One of these persons is Daniel LaChance, professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His book, Executing Freedom, examines our nations sometimes strange and irrational obsession with the death penalty and how some have argued either for or against it. His book utilizes pop culture in ways I had never considered before to help explain the phenomenon surrounding the death penalty. His careful construction of rehabilitation versus punishment is strong and highly relevant to much of my own research. Within this post, which will be ongoing, I hope to examine some of the most poignant quotes, ask further questions, highlight other related books, and keep track of my general thought process.
1. Thus, when the Supreme Court pushed states to develop rules that would make a death sentence more predictable, it was responding to the civil libertarian premise that a government ought to respect a person’s individual freedom by announcing the law, enforcing it consistently, and treating an offender exactly as it treats others who have committed similar crimes.
Has this premise continued since the Furman ruling? If not abiding by these principles is unconstitutional, isn’t every aspect of law enforcement and sentencing unconstitutional? Minorities are far more likely to be given harsher sentences, prison instead of probation, etc.
2. This approach [of mandatory capital punishment for certain crimes] to capital sentencing, though, was abhorrent to the Court… Practically, the Court feared that juries, knowing their verdicts would impose death sentences on defendants, would return to acquitting guilty murderers they did not see as deserving death. …It was wary of authorizing a sentencing system so fair that it would outlaw mercy…
This concern, to me, applies farther down the line to other types of sentencing, i.e solitary confinement, long prison terms, mandatory minimums, three strikes rule, etc.
3. In voting to strike down the death penalty, Justice Thurgood MArshall wrote critically of eugenics as a justification for capital punishment…
When read on conjunction with another quote, “The death penalty was the symbol of a virtuous society, Berns charged, one whose members held humanity in high regard. The execution of criminals was not a warning to would-be offenders but a declaration that the condemned were aberrant exceptions” the idea of capital punishment as a eugenic policy begins to form. Those who committed crimes deemed worthy of capital punishment were subhuman and thus needed to be eradicated from society.
4. Prosecutorial rhetoric portrayed capital defendants as unique, blameworthy citizens who deserved punishment even as sentencing statues also pushed jurors to see offenders as members of a particularly monstrous class of criminals who required permanent incapacitation.
Cognitive dissidence required to accept both. Unique until needing to be classified, sentenced under standardized guidelines. Contrast also shown “in media accounts of their executions, they appeared as living, choosing persons, even as the procedure for killing them treated them like objects being acted upon in an assembly-line fashion.”
5. Indeed, at the heart of much activism on the left was the principle that the “universal ideals” of American, embodied in Cold War America by the heteronormative, middle-class family, were not universally shared at all, but an ideology that justified the oppression of outsiders.
Struggle of what it means to be an American, who gets to decide and why. Tolerance/acceptance versus assimilation.
6. Undoubtedly, sympathy for a victim’s grieving loved ones had long motivated many death sentences and shaped the local responses to many executions.
This section describes one mother’s plea to Congress to not expand the appeals system for death row inmates because it extends the amount of time and the burden on the victim’s family. She, and others, pointed out the void that was left, the way things had changed, and the impact the loss of their loved one had. But isn’t the same also true for the family of the executed? Don’t they also have to struggle with the loss of a family member, a loved one? The circumstances are surely different as that their loved one was (presumably) a murderer, and thus casts that person in a shade of doubt. But what if the jury got it wrong and that person was innocent? Aren’t we then just continuing this cycle of grief and loss? The reasons for denying an extended appeals process and for executing the convicted are the same reasons, in some cases, for not executing him or her. By calling for the convicted execution, aren’t they demanding that an action take place that, if it was them doing it and not the state, they would also be guilty of murder? Demanding an execution take place is similar to hiring a hit man in which the state become the middleman and the action is deemed legal.
7. The show [Dexter], which quickly became the Showtime cable television network’s biggest hit, justified Dexter’s killing by articulating familiar criticisms of the state as dangerously paralyzed by bureaucracy.
Again, what’s the difference between Dexter’s killing and a death row inmate’s killing? Neither are sanctioned by the state. Further, how are both killings any different from the state’s executions? This is also interesting when comparing LaChance’s idea of family state versus government state; Dexter is killing under the protocols and rules his father laid out for him, not under the state, and thus is justified. His father says “Killing must serve a purpose. Otherwise it’s just plain murder.”
8. The show [Dexter] offered Americans a fantasy of the death penalty in which justice could be delivered with a speed, moral clarity, and zeal that legal execution lacked, all the while retaining the impartiality and orderliness that made law’s violence distinctive.
The ideal death sentence; mistrust in the state completely eliminated because the state doesn’t have a hand, but rather vigilantes like Dexter.
9. Like Rita, she ends up a victim of Dexter’s failure to kill his prey in time because of family obligations.
Showing family and murder cannot coexist, that the two are opposites and destructive of one another. Maybe emphasizing the ways in which murder tears apart families, both for the victims (as mentioned above) and for the murderers themselves. Further quote states that “Having fantasized about transferring a monopoly on violence from the bureaucratic state to the traditional father, Dexter ultimately declares that experiment a failure.”
Popular opinon of the death penalty has ebbed and flowed over the last century or so, and those on both sides of the argument often took on stances and opinions that seem contrary to one another. A distrust of the state to keep citizens safe from released offenders led more people to support the death penalty, an act of state sponsored killing which required a degree of trust in the state. When the state failed to keep dangerous people in jail who then go on to commit other crimes, the death penalty seemed like a final solution. Those on either side of the issue have debated whether or not rehabilitation is possible or practical. Should our prison system be more punishment or rehabilitation? Is committing a crime an exception to morality and humanity? Should those who commit crimes be locked away forever, even killed, or should we put in every effort to bring them around to the legal way of life? Issues with sentencing didn’t end here, as the courts began to recognize a sporadic trend of sentencing that really was no trend at all. In attempts to level the playing field, requirements and jury instructions were changed, though in doing so, took a lot of the power out of attorneys and juries hands, removing any hope of mercy. In another effort to correct this system, the courts in some states introduced an obstacle course of sorts for juries to decide if a convict was deserving of the death penalty. Attorneys needed to prove that the convict had a choice in committing the crime, but was also unable to exercise self-control enough to be allowed back into society. Attempts to shorten the appeals process in effort to reduce the stress on the victim’s family ran smack into issues of due process for the convict. The desire to humanize the victim has led to victim impact statements being permitted in court to highlight the loss that a victim’s family faces. One has to wonder if anything new or unexpected has ever been said in these statements, and if the defense has the opportunity to rebut these reports, either by questioning the validity and truthfulness of the statements, or by presenting their own statements of how the convict’s death would impact his or her family.
Over time, however, the death penalty seems to be loosing steam. Crime rates are down, fewer juries are electing to sentence convicts to death. I should admit my bias now (though it may already be apparent) that I do not support the death penalty for numerous reasons. It seems to me that to justify killing a person because they killed another person requires so much cognizant dissidence as to make the stance impractical to hold. Is there really a difference between an individual killing a person and the state killing a convict? I’d argue there is little difference, especially when we look at the number of those on death row or serving life sentences who have later been exonerated due to new forensic evidence, retraction of witness statements, or prosecutorial misconduct. The chances of killing an innocent person for a crime they didn’t commit seems to high to be playing with. Beyond the humanity aspect, we must also consider the economic impact. Those who are on death row often are there for a decade, sometimes two. They require far more money to manage than those in general population. The drugs used to kill them are expensive, the man hours and cost of the continual appeals system are expensive (though necessary, in my opinion), and the drain on society in the form of potential tax dollars, labor, economic stimulus, etc, too great to justify. Beyond that, a victim’s family advocating for the killing of their loved one’s killer (maybe) seems so punitive, so vindictive as to be immoral in and of itself.
This book does an excellent job of highlighting the underlying fears, motivations, influences, and manifestations of what we see on the surface: pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty. LaChance weaves in his in depth analysis of pop culture and politics artistically throughout the book and analyzes the ebb and flow of public opinion in ways that are unique and intriguing. At times, the book reads as more of a series of essays and less of a fluent book, but that is a minor issue in the whole scheme of things. In all, this book is a great in depth analysis of a difficult, often emotionally charged, issue.