"What kind of society do we want for our children?"
That is the simple, yet profound, question asked by Connecticut State Senator Gayle Slossberg (D-Milford) during debate on the pending legislation that would abolish the death penalty in Connecticut. Her speech, in its entirety, is below the fold. The State Senate answered with their votes: by a margin of 20-16, Connecticut's Senate voted to join the ranks of every enlightened democracy on Planet Earth by abolishing the death penalty.
The bill is not perfect, and represents a painful compromise: it is only prospective, so that the 11 human beings currently on Connecticut's Death Row awaiting execution by the State will still face the barbaric, arbitrary, and irreversible "ultimate penalty." But, it is a start; and it appears to ensure that Connecticut will be the next state to join a rising tide of abolition that is spreading across our nation.
California will have an initiative on the fall ballot to repeal its death penalty. Oregon's governor last year declared a moratorium on executions there. Abolition efforts in Maryland and Montana gained steam this year. The number of defendants sentenced to death, and the number of humans executed by the state, have steadily declined nationwide in recent years. And recent nationwide polling shows a clear majority (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.
Connecticut's vote--and the swelling tide of voices nationwide calling for repeal--demonstrate that we want a humane, just, life-respecting society for our children. The momentum, already on our side, just picked up a little more steam today.
On to Sen. Slossberg's remarkable speech--worth reading in its entirety:
"A few years ago, I was waiting for the train to New York and I sat down on a bench next to an elderly man. We started to chat. Elections were coming up, so our conversation naturally turned to politics and the state of our country. We ran through the usual topics and then he turned to me and said something I have thought about over and over again ever since: He said that between the tough economy, the rise of hate crimes, the vilification of this group or that by otherwise good, moral people and the seemingly chronic need to blame someone for society’s problems, he said he was afraid – not for himself, but for our children. It is only a short step from here to there, he said – to think of some people as less than human. And once we think of people as less than human, it becomes okay to kill them and then what kind of society do we have?
For me, that is really the question of today’s debate: What kind of society do we have and what kind of society do we want for our children?
Like many of the people in this circle, I have agonized over the issue of the death penalty. I have thought about it, debated it, researched it, talked to friends, family and strangers about it. I have listened to the debate here today. I appreciate and respect all of the different points of view that have been expressed. I have spent a lot of time soul searching and lying awake at night thinking about all the facets of this issue. Like Sen. Prague, it plagues me to think we could put an innocent person to death? Does a moral society execute people? As I have confronted this issue, and advanced my understanding and thinking, I have come to the conclusion that both the realities of the death penalty as it is applied and the moral issues it raises dictate that it be abolished.
Benjamin Franklin said “… it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” The good news is that by eliminating the death penalty, we are not letting any guilty person go free, but we are making sure that we do not execute someone who is innocent. We know the criminal justice system makes mistakes. We need only look to James Tillman right here in Connecticut to remember that innocent people are wrongly convicted. We know that hundreds of people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. While we would like to believe that the criminal justice system is fair, that all the appeals will prevent an error, we know that is not the truth. In Florida, where there is a death penalty, Former Florida Chief Justice Gerald Kogan stated after 45 years of working in the system, “There is no question in my mind…that convinces me that we certainly have…executed those not guilty of the crime for which they have been executed.” Is that the society we want? Where we execute innocent people? And if our society executes an innocent person, there is no possibility of fixing that error. We can’t go back. Haven’t we then become the evil we are trying to eliminate?
The death penalty is not a deterrent. With all the studies that have been done, I am not convinced that criminals consider the death penalty when they are committing crimes. In fact, states without a death penalty statute have significantly lower murder rates than their counterparts with the death penalty. If you look at regions, the disparity becomes quite pronounced. The South implements 80% of all executions in the country and has the highest murder rate, whereas, the Northeast implements less than 1% of all the executions and has the lowest murder rate in the nation.
In order to have a just society, we must have laws that apply equally to everyone yet the death penalty is meted out arbitrarily. And if you don’t think that is the case in Connecticut, think again. Last month, a few of us from the circle visited death row and the maximum security prison that houses the criminals who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On our way there, we were handed a list of criminals and the crimes they had committed. They were heinous, horrible, unspeakable acts – and I thought surely each of them deserved to die- and then I looked at the heading on the paper—these were the criminals who had gotten life without the possibility of parole! The people on death row had also committed heinous, horrible crimes but there was virtually no way to predict who would have gotten death and who would have gotten life without the possibility of parole. It was completely arbitrary, based on the luck of the draw; race, economic status, geography, ethnicity, a good lawyer…some unknown factor that made the jury more or less sympathetic. Is that justice?
The death penalty isn’t necessary for public safety. The criminal has already been caught and tried. He is removed from society and no longer a threat to anyone’s safety. The death penalty doesn’t bring back the victims of their crimes. We certainly can punish criminals and protect the public safety without a death penalty. And please don’t get me wrong, these people have committed horrible crimes and they deserve to be punished. With the amendment offered at the beginning of this debate, we will have a harsh, severe punishment, so horrible atleast one person chose to die instead.
While these arguments alone call for repeal of the death penalty, for me, the most compelling issue is the one people don’t like to talk about – the moral question – the question the old man on the train asked – What kind of society to do we have and what kind of society do we want to be?
Last September, I watched the Republican presidential primary debates. The moderator asked Governor Rick Perry how he felt about the 234 executions that he had presided over in Texas, more executions than any other Governor in modern times and before the Governor had even had a chance to respond, the crowd cheered. The crowd cheered. What kind of society cheers death? I understand people who believe that the death penalty is justice – but to cheer? And then to add insult to injury, Governor Perry was asked — do you ever struggle to sleep at night? to which Perry responded – No struggle. I do not struggle to sleep at night because the system is fair. Again the crowd cheered. Even if the criminal justice system was without error which we know it is not, what kind of society allows the systematic execution of people without even a second thought?
I believe that the death penalty calls to our basest instincts. You only need to think about the crowd cheering at the debate about executions to know that the death penalty degrades our society. Imposing the death penalty is really not about the criminal. It is about how it makes us feel. Like Sen. Musto, I can imagine that if someone harmed my family, I would want to harm them, too, but I want my public policy to be better than that. Like the old man at the train, I fear for our society when we people can cheer at an execution or we feel nothing or we feel like it just doesn’t matter if society kills , even when that person is no longer a threat to our safety. When we go down that path, we lose something as a society.
Last month, I received an angry letter from a man suffering from a fatal disease. He wrote that he had never done anything wrong, yet because of his illness, he was sentenced to death and no one could commute his sentence. Then he wrote, it isn’t fair that he, an innocent man, should get a death sentence and the legislature would consider eliminating the death penalty for murderers. I could understand his anger and his belief that repealing the death penalty meant that we were showing compassion for murderers whereas no one could really show the same compassion for him. I thought a long time about that letter until I realized that repealing the death penalty has nothing do with compassion or the criminal. It has everything to do with what the act of killing does to US, the law abiding members of society. Killers kill and they don’t feel bad about it. What separates the good from evil is when most good, moral people do something bad, it makes them feel bad. Most people are good, moral people, trying our best to abide by the laws and rules of our society. We teach our children to be kind, to be honest, to reject violence. So when we also say it is okay for us to kill when there is no longer any threat to our safety, we erode the very morals to which we aspire. It is a small step from here to there, said the old man. It is like a smoldering ember that slowly burns a hole in all that is good in our society.
So what kind of society do we want for our children?
We know our criminal justice system is broken. We know all the arguments that logically support repeal. But for me, the most compelling reason to reject the death penalty is to set ourselves on the path to the kind of society we want for our future.
I never saw the old man from the train again, but if I did, I would like to tell him this: I want something better for our families. I want to know that in the face of terrible evil, we will hold on tighter to our humanity; that when our faith in each other is challenged, we will work harder to fulfill our obligations to one another as human beings; that we will stand for justice for all; that we will raise each other up, and not descend to the level of criminals. We cannot confront darkness with darkness and expect to have light.
I hope that one day, when my children look back on this vote, they will view it with pride and know that today we took a step towards being a more civilized and just society for all. I am proud to support the repeal of the death penalty."