As I discovered when I started writing my novel about a death row inmate, it’s not possible to write an apolitical story that involves capital punishment. Either my character was destined to remain unsympathetic, or I was going to make my readers sympathize with a murderer. I chose the latter and in making my protagonist sympathetic, I found I’d inadvertently crafted an argument against the death penalty. Perhaps there are people who can simultaneously sympathize with a person and nod approvingly at his execution, but I’m not one of them. Yes, he’s crass and mostly without remorse and willing to kill again if it suits his purposes, but he is still human. Painfully human. Capable of being hurt. Capable of being healed. He’s not a monster, as inconvenient as that is. Many death penalty supporters would like to believe that all murderers are monsters. That would make killing them easier. It would relieve us of our ambivalence and our uncertainty.
Having written that failed-to-be-apolitical novel, I find that the topic of the death penalty catches my eye in the news in a way it never did before. The same is true for my friends and critique group members who read the early drafts. I receive all kinds of emailed links on death penalty stories.
At the Polunsky Unit in Texas, one of the most notorious death rows in America, an inmate plucked out his right eye and ate it. Under ordinary circumstances, I might cite this story as an example of the degradation of mental health that frequently occurs among segregated death row inmates. One small detail of this news item forces me to file it under another heading: the frequency with which the mentally ill are convicted of capital crimes. You see, this isn’t the first time Andre Thomas has done something like this. In 2004, shortly after he was arrested for killing his wife, his son, and his wife’s infant daughter, he pulled out his other eye, but he did not eat it. At the time, he was declared to be mentally competent to stand trial. Now that he’s blinded himself and eaten his own eye, the Texas DOC is reconsidering its stance on whether he’s sane.
While the US is only fifth in the world for number of executions, Texas leads the pack at home, with 26 in 2007. The other 49 states account for a mere 16 in the same time period. For a while, it seemed like more states were backing away from the death penalty, but in December, after nearly half a century of rational, sane judicial rulings, New Hampshire has its first death row inmate.
Similarly, in little St. Kitts, they’ve performed their first execution–a hanging–in a decade.
Jamaica, which has had a 20-year hiatus from executions, is currently trying to clear the way to begin performing them again. More importantly, they are trying to overthrow the Privy Council’s requirement that anyone convicted in a capital case be executed within five years or have their sentences commuted to life. Essentially, Jamaica would like to go to the double punishment system currently at work in the US.
It doesn’t surprise me. We are in the midst of a global recession, and for myriad reasons, as people run short of cash they also tend to run short of compassion. People in poverty can’t afford mercy and as tycoons and swindlers make off with ill-gotten gains, the little people are desperate for even an ephemeral proof of justice.