Charlotte Wood, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered, wrote a heartfelt Viewpoint about Proposition 34 on Sunday. She opposes the measure, which would end capital punishment in California. Her appeal was titled “Think of the Victims’ Families.” Indeed, the cry for justice for the people who are most affected by murder is the strongest argument in the death-penalty debate.
Briefly, Ms. Wood mentioned two reasons to be against capital punishment. She seems to agree with them. First, she cites the heavy financial costs of prosecuting and maintaining murderers on death row. Executions are hopelessly delayed. The capital punishment process is broken in California and our tax money is being wasted, she concedes. Second , Ms. Wood acknowledges that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Proponents are not able to show that the threat of execution prevents murders from happening, because the evil personified by murder isn’t bothered by potential consequences.
Ms. Wood does not mention a third major problem with the death penalty, which is that innocent people have been put to death in the rush to justice. The new evidence provided by DNA analysis has freed many convicts from death row and life imprisonment. Clearly, if DNA testing had been available in the past, many more innocent men and women would have been spared.
Still, her Viewpoint really isn’t interested in the legal and procedural arguments. Ms. Wood has a terrible human story to tell about her loss, a story that trumps all the pros and cons. She indicates that she is aChristian. Although she belongs to a church that officially opposes the death penalty, I doubt that her fellow parishioners have challenged her. In fact, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where I worship, we have a couple in the exact same situation as hers, their child having been murdered. The experience of the families chastens all of us.
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The fundamental reason for capital punishment’s persistence in America is that we deeply sympathize with the victims’ families. We do think of them, as her Viewpoint demands. When wounded people demand the ultimate punishment for a murder, we feel we ought not to stand to in the way.
Let our hearts go out to the victims’ families but let our arms go out to them too. Can we clutch them, hold onto them in sympathy, and yet at the same time restrain them from acting on their grief? They are crying, but to turn away and let an execution, another killing, occur is to deny our own humanity — and theirs as well.
Jeff Wheelwright is a writer and an Episcopalian who lives in Morro Bay.