Under pain of death

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Have I ever been angry enough to wish someone were dead? Sure. Have I ever imagined myself taking a particularly violent revenge on a particular someone? You bet. Doesn’t even make me flinch to say it. I try hard to follow my religious convictions as best I can, but no matter how hard I try I still haven’t gotten to that place where I can honestly say I love my fellow man no matter what. I love some of them, maybe even a lot of them, but some of my fellow men make me sick and I think life would be considerably better — at least for me — if they were planted in a field somewhere.

But despite these kind of admittedly un-Christian feelings that I have experienced from time to time, I still don’t support the death penalty. Not one bit. I understand the urge for revenge, satisfaction, closure, or whatever you want to call it when someone feels the need to see a murderer put to death. That feeling is even more understandable when expressed by someone such as the family of slain Detroit Police Officer Matthew Bowens, who is currently circulating a petition designed to gather 317,000 signatures by July 1 to place the issue of reinstating the death penalty in Michigan on the November ballot.

Not only was Bowens a police officer, he was a very young police officer, as was his colleague, Officer Jennifer Fettig, who was also murdered. Both officers had far more life ahead of them than behind them — or at least that’s the way it should have been. During what was supposed to have been a routine late night traffic stop in February, Bowens, 21, and Fettig, 26, were both allegedly gunned down by Eric Marshall, 23, for no apparent reason.

Parents should not have to bury their children. I have no children of my own, so I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and anguish felt by anyone who has ever had a child murdered. I confess that up front. However, what I do know is that there is an increasing amount of very credible evidence that the death penalty is not only unfair, racially biased and systematically flawed; it also doesn’t do much to deter violent crime. Just about any reputable study you can name on the subject shows that the only thing the death penalty really does well is kill folks, and sometimes they’re not even the right folks. Those warped individuals who are predisposed to commit violence against others are rarely if ever intimidated by the prospect that they could wind up on death row. Keep in mind that most folks who commit crimes usually don’t plan on getting caught in the first place — or don’t care.

I’m not just guessing at this, by the way. Consider the following bit of information from Amnesty International:

“Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 2002, concluded, “… it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.”

According to a recent Amnesty International report, 84 percent of the 1,146 known executions carried out in 28 countries in 2003 were carried out in China (at least 726 executed), Iran (108 executions), the United States (65 executions), and Vietnam (64 executions). By the end of last year, 77 countries had abolished the death penalty completely, and 15 more had eliminated it for all crimes except those considered to be exceptional such as those committed in wartime. Another interesting statistic is that in Canada, our neighbor across the river, the rate of homicide has actually dropped since the time it abolished the death penalty for murder in 1976 from a rate of 3.09 per 100,000 prior to abolition down to 1.85 per 100,000 in 2002. That’s a drop of 40 percent.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 3,859 persons were executed in the United States between 1930 (the first year for which these kinds of statistics were available) and 1967. More than half (54 percent) of those executed were African-American; 45 percent were white. By the end of the 1960s, according to information provided on the Justice Center Web site, all but 10 states had laws prescribing capital punishment. Today 38 states have capital punishment, and local activist Ron Scott is just one of those working to make sure Michigan doesn’t become the 39th.

“We’re gonna create a mass movement on a statewide basis to oppose the death penalty,” said Scott, who represents the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and who helped organize a recent rally against the death penalty at Historic New Bethel Baptist Church. Local backers, some of whom were at the rally, include U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the Revs. Joe Jordan and Horace Sheffield, and the Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

With the push on to institute a death penalty in Michigan, we might well consider the experience of nearby Illinois, where former Gov. George Ryan, a longtime supporter of the death penalty, finally took a hard look at the mockery of justice being meted out. A commission he appointed declared that it was “unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.”

Ryan, a Republican, pardoned four condemned prisoners he believed had been tortured into confessing crimes they didn’t commit, and then commuted the death sentences of 167 other prisoners right before he left office in January of 2003.

In a speech given at Northwestern University, Ryan explained himself: “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having? Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.”

And that, to me, just about sums it up. To argue otherwise, as I see it, is to say that the innocent victims who will be executed by accident along with the guilty simply don’t matter. That is totally unacceptable.

I’m incredibly sorry for the loss of Officers Bowens and Fettig, but reinstating the death penalty in Michigan, a form of punishment that can both lawfully and accidentally extinguish the lives of the innocent as well as the guilty, is no way to honor the lives of those whose job it was to protect the innocent on the streets of Detroit.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]