Monday, December 31, 2007

Getting out of the revenge business

By Tom Blackburn

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, December 31, 2007

Finding a happy topic for the last day of 2007 was not easy. Housing is still in the doldrums and the dollar has joined it. Congressional Democrats blow money with earmarks like Republicans. The surge was proclaimed a success by those who count, even though the Iraqi government didn't notice. And when some of the "worst of the worst," as Vice President Cheney called them, are returned from Guantanamo to their own countries, their governments turn them loose after the briefest look at whatever pathetic evidence the Bush administration produced against them.

All of that has another year to run, and the lineup of wannabe change agents is not inspiring if you match the odds with the candidates.

But something good happened. Bear with me while I describe it because the good is at least as much in the how as in the what. New Jersey replaced its death penalty with mandatory life in prison.

By the numbers, that is not a huge thing. New Jersey had not executed anyone since 1963, and it had only eight people on death row. Other states, including Florida, have executions on hold while the Supreme Court prepares to once again consider death ponderously.

In January, the Supreme Court will hear an argument that lethal injection - the newest method of killing that Florida and other states managed to botch up - violates the Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." But that's the judicial branch, and capital punishment is really something that ought to be decided by the legislative branch.

The New Jersey Legislature began last January by creating a blue-ribbon commission of officials and private citizens to examine the death penalty. The panel interviewed, for just one example, a North Carolina rape victim who tried to memorize his features so she could identify her attacker but still misidentified a man who was imprisoned for 11 years until DNA tests unveiled the real rapist.

The panel issued a long report that should be a model for other states.

It came up with eight "findings." As other studies have found, the panel said it costs more to execute prisoners than hold them for life, but it added that the discrepancy cannot be measured with "any degree of precision." It also said the available data does not support a finding of "invidious race discrimination" as the penalty is carried out in New Jersey.

On a few points, then, the panel did not follow standard objections to capital punishment. But considering everything, the panel found that "there is no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent."

Backed by a report that rational people have to credit, lawmakers were able to debate and pass a law substituting life without parole for the death penalty. Gov. Jon Corzine signed it.

Emotional arguments remain. We couch them now in terms of "closure" for the families of victims, but that is just a psychobabble word for revenge. The Mosaic Law replaced "death for an eye or a tooth" with "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But that left death for a death, which leads to an endless cycle: I kill you because you killed my cousin, so then your brother has to kill me.

Capital punishment was another step forward. The state stepped in to say, We will take the life for the life, and that will stop the cycle.

Societies that still practice a death for a death, like Iraq's, will always be nearly impervious to American surges. But even in those societies some people are sophisticated. It is not impossible that even some of Mr. Cheney's "worst of the worst" are simply people handed over to the Americans for revenge by some dead man's brother pretending to be a snitch.

A step remains to be taken, and most civilized countries have taken it.

As the New Jersey commission said, "There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."

Next year would be a good time for Florida to get out of the revenge business. As Sweeney Todd says in the ads, "Never forgive. Never forget." He who believes that should attend the story of Sweeney Todd.

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