You’ll remember Mark Fuhrman from such media frenzies as O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder. You may also recognize him more readily as the author of a series of sensationalist true-crime novels, but I recently read his book on the death penalty in Oklahoma. My interest in the book began as practical research for a novel in which the main character is an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row. It bloomed into a rather lengthy and intense look at my own attitudes toward the death penalty.
In Kansas, the death penalty gets very little play in the media for the simple reason that the state has not executed anyone since the death penalty was declared constitutional again in 1976. There are nine men on death row in the state, so there is a chance albeit slim that we’ll eventually see our first execution in more than thirty years.
This only strikes me as odd when I consider the proximity of Kansas to Oklahoma, third in executions, behind Texas and Virginia. Growing up just a few miles from the border between the two states, the difference between the two was indiscernible, and not only because the landscape is uninterrupted. Yet attitudes toward the death penalty are sharply different. Even my staunch Republican Kansas relatives are hesitant to militate for more capital convictions or more executions.
Fuhrman’s book, Death and Justice, gets at some of the elements in that difference. He’s not a lyrical writer by any stretch, but he manages to hint at the way the line between justice and revenge goes grey in Oklahoma politics and society. It helps that throughout the book he acknowledges his own biases about the death penalty. If you read much about the way the death penalty is administered in this country, perhaps it won’t surprise you that Mr. Fuhrman experiences a shift in his understanding as he tours Unit H in McAlester, Oklahoma.
Fuhrman goes into the bermed facility convinced that the death penalty can be administered justly, that it serves a valuable purpose, but he leaves shaken. After considering the conditions the inmates are kept in (Unit H has the dubious distinction of being the only underground death row in America), the judicial routes by which many of the inmates reached that point, and the prolonged waits for execution, his certainty erodes. He leaves McAlester convinced that the death penalty is a mistake. The book is a simple but eloquent statement on the dangers of our current system of incarceration and execution.
Flaws in the judicial system cast doubt on guilt and highlight discrimination, and as Fuhrman realizes, even if all the inmates on Unit H are assuredly guilty, they are being punished twice. As the faulty system struggles to validate convictions, it forces inmates to serve out a prison sentence while they wade through the appeals process. In some cases, the inmates may serve ten, fifteen, twenty years or more before they are executed.
At the root of it, as Fuhrman’s own shifting attitudes suggest, is America’s ambivalence about the death penalty. Supporters are quick to proclaim that they have faith in the system and in the rightness of the sentence, but only the most hardline supporters would agree to radically shortening the appeals process. Most Americans accept the lengthy appeals process as a hedge against something they know is suspect, both morally and judicially. We have frequently expressed anxieties about executing the innocent, but more deep-seated are our anxieties about executing the guilty.
If we truly had any faith in capital punishment, we would execute the convicted in short order, without consideration for whether the technique is humane. That we don’t do this is proof we are trying to back away from the very act itself.