Why I Am Against The Death Penalty

Troy Davis

Unless there is a last minute reprieve, Troy Davis will be executed today in Georgia, for a crime he probably didn’t commit.  You can read about his case by clicking here.

Although I generally fight to be optimistic about these things, I feel little optimism today, and although I have signed petitions and made phone calls and written letters, I suspect there is little left to do now except pray for all parties to be granted peace and comfort and grace.

I won’t rehash the facts of Mr. Davis’s case.  It’s all over the news and all over the internet. I do, however, want to take a moment of your time and tell you why I don’t believe in the death penalty, under any circumstances.  Here is my thinking:

  • It is unfairly applied along racial lines.  Proportionally, far more minorities are executed than whites.  Clearly, we are not objective and do not have the cultural maturity to hand down objective “justice.”
  • The wrong person has too often been executed as will happen, I believe, in the Troy Davis case.  Better five guilty men sit in jail, alive, than one innocent man be killed.
  • Most cases are decided on eye-witness testimony, which science-based research tells us is wildly inaccurate.

Those are arguments we often hear, and I agree with them.  However, for me there is more.

  • For one thing, I don’t believe it helps the survivors, with whom I grieve.  (And as a survivor of violent crime, I have some limited experience of the emotions such an event creates.) Executions focus on revenge, not on healing.  I’m no Pollyanna – should some dreadful person kill someone I love, there is no doubt I would want that person killed — drawn and quartered, lowered slowly into boiling oil and/or flayed alive — and I’d doubtless want to do the deed myself.  I would want it with every cell in my body.  BUT, that would be me at the worst moment of my life, filled with the insanity of violent grieving and loss.  Concentrating on the death of the killer keeps me locked, metaphorically speaking, in a small room with him/her, focused entirely on that person.  Focusing on another person’s death will only postpone the work of healing I must eventually do. Some say this would be solved by a quick execution, instead of the decades-long process of appeals we now face in many cases.  Nonsense — a lynching never healed anyone.

This is not to be confused with a lack of desire for justice. I believe in justice; there are consequences for our actions, and someone who commits a grievous crime should be put away for a long time so he or she doesn’t hurt anyone else.  Some people are, I’m sorry to say, beyond earthly rehabilitation, the best thing for all concerned is that they live apart from society.

  • Having said that — I simply do not believe in state-sanctioned murder.  For the state to give in to my basest instincts (my desire for revenge), and to support those instincts by killing someone, no matter how ‘evil’ that person may be, is for the state to join me in my madness.  I want my government to be better than me at my worst moment.  I want the state to be the voice of reason, wiser than me, not a pandering sycophant hoping to win my vote.

I believe that if we want to live in a non-violent society, we must behave — personally and institutionally — in a non-violent way.  If we want the people in our land to be non-violent, our government must be non-violent.  When Rick (I-chat-with-God) Perry proudly announces that as governor of Texas he executed over 200 people, and the audience to whom he is speaking cheers, I believe we should be horrified–we would be if the leader of Iran, or a tribal warlord in Somalia said the same thing.

Indeed, the death penalty is not the deterrent some suggest it is.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 88% of criminologists agree it does nothing to deter crime.  In fact, it seems murder rates are highest (6% of all deaths) in states with the death penalty, and lowest (3.8%) in the Northeast, where there is no death penalty.

We probably won’t be able to save Troy Davis.  We should be ashamed of ourselves.  If any good comes from his death, let it be this:  let it be the last.  Let us be better than our worst-moment blood-thirsty impulses.

UPDATE:  Last night Troy Davis was executed. For those of us who find this news sad beyond measure, let us not despair, but use the energy generated by this event to fight against the death penalty. Just because something is law, as someone mentioned, doesn’t make it right. There are all sorts of unjust laws in the world, and it is our obligation as citizens, if we believe a law to be unjust, to work to overturn it.

For those of you who believe in the death penalty — I shan’t argue. You are as entitled to your opinion as anyone. I will only say again: my faith, my conscience, and my heart tell me it is wrong to kill anyone. This is why I also grieve the execution yesterday of James Byrd’s murderer, Lawrence Brewer.

My prayer is that the families of all those concerned find peace and forgiveness and comfort.


  1. Linda C. Wisniewski on September 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    I find it interesting – and encouraging – that the family of James Byrd, a black man who was killed by a white supremacist in Jasper, Texas, also scheduled for execution today – has forgiven his killer. His son stated on NPR today he does not want his father’s murderer executed.
    May this debate bring us forward to a day without state-sanctioned murder in all its forms.

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 21, 2011 at 7:43 pm

      Linda — yes, I find that hopeful as well. What remarkable people. Lawrence Brewer (the man in question) was executed today, but the other two men convicted of that HORRIFIC murder, when Mr. Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck, had their death sentences commuted to live in prison. I’m sorry Brewer was executed — even though I can think of few people more eligible for the death sentence. Still, his execution lessens me as a human being, as ALL executions do. This must end if we want to be considered civilized.

  2. Lisa on September 22, 2011 at 9:29 am

    couldn’t sleep last night, probably thinking of Troy Davis’ execution. i’d often thought my opposition to capital punishment was a comfortable ‘the State should be above personal vengeance’ position, and that if someone i loved were killed, my position would change instantly. but in the past few years, i’ve discovered that my position hasn’t changed. i realize now that given the chance to kill the man or boy who set the bomb which killed a very close friend, i know i wouldn’t. perhaps that makes me a weaker friend. i hope not.

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 22, 2011 at 9:33 am

      Lisa — that doesn’t make you a weaker friend, it makes you a stronger soul, with a compassionate heart. That’s the most powerful thing there is. LOVE you.

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