Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
Thursday, March 25, 1999

The Salem Evening News

Can't trust judge, jury? Beware the executioner

By Barbara Anderson

When I'm called opinionated, I take it as a compliment. I wouldn't want to have reached middle-age without having formed strong opinions about life.

But there's one issue that I've had a hard time deciding, and that's the death penalty.

Emotionally, I know exactly where I am: I want the killer dead.

Intellectually, I want the killer dead, but I'm not so sure the government is qualified to determine who the killer is.

When death penalty opponents focus on the "possibility of a mistake" argument, as Speaker of the House Tom Finneran does, they begin winning me to their point of view. I've seen Massachusetts prosecutors persecute innocent people for crimes that didn't even happen; in the Fells Acre Day Care case, the Amiraults have yet to be cleared. I've seen prosecutors ask for a murder verdict instead of manslaughter; in the Louise Woodward case, a judge had to intervene.

I suppose that judge proves the system does work, but another judge is keeping Gerald Amirault in jail, so it doesn't work very well. I decide to be against capital punishment; but then I hear the arguments of its liberal opponents, who convince me they're wrong.

Apologists for big government arguing that it makes mistakes? When we point to any one of hundreds of costly government mistakes, liberals argue that it's worth every penny "if it saves just one life." But try arguing that the existence of a death penalty might deter just one murderer, or save just one prison guard, and watch the value of one life disappear from the discussion.

Big-spending liberals arguing that the death penalty costs the taxpayers too much money for appeals? Please.

After awhile, they revert to form, arguing for compassion, mercy, and redemption for killers.

Halfway into the movie "Dead Man Walking," I started looking forward to the lethal injection and wishing that the convicted murderer would take Susan Sarandon's caring nun with him. The man who viciously slaughtered two teenagers compared his execution to his victims' untimely deaths: "killing is wrong, no matter who does it," he said.

Cardinal Law agrees: "For a well-informed Catholic to support the death penalty would be morally wrong."

When in doubt, call your mother. Mine still lives in the Catholic town I grew up in; her family has been Catholic since St. Patrick, and like me she went to parochial school. I don't recall our nuns and priests ever mentioning capital punishment, pro or con. "How do you feel about the death penalty?" I asked her.

Mother is 83, still religious, and passionately in favor of death for killers. "Those men who dragged that man to death ... I feel so terrible for his family ... for all the families!" But the Pope and the Cardinal ... "They don't know; it would never be their children. I don't think they have the right to tell us about this."

Mother didn't sound morally wrong to me, Cardinal Law. She sounded like she was bursting with compassion.

Some people who have lost children to violence say that no one can imagine the pain. I think that any parent can imagine it very well; we just try not to. If someone killed my child, I would want the murderer dead; I'm quite sure that I could pull the switch myself. I would do it for revenge, and that would be reason enough.

Though liberals seem sure that their opposition to the death penalty makes them good people, there is no easy answer for non-liberals. In our four-person office, Chip Faulkner is in favor of capital punishment "with reservations," Loretta is reluctantly opposed after many years of indecision, Chip Ford is opposed because he doesn't trust government, and I ... I just want justice, and don't know where it is.

The death penalty isn't justice; killing a killer is not enough to balance the ledger against the death of his innocent victim. There is no balance. It can't get even.

Still, we can never know how many innocent victims survived where society has made a powerful statement about its intolerance for murder. If I knew beyond any doubt that someone was guilty, I would vote to end his life. But like Chip, I don't trust the government to tell me.

I guess that if I were a legislator who had to vote Yea or Nay on the death penalty bill, I would poll my constituents who have an opinion on this, and do whatever a majority of them wanted me to do.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. She writes regularly for the Viewpoint page. Her biweekly column also appears in other publications.

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