One day, something more than twenty years ago, I came home from my summer job to find my Mom on the phone. She was sort of crying, but there was something else - a sort of electricity in the air - that made clear things were not normal. Indeed, thing were not remotely normal, and would not be that way again for a long, long time (if ever). For that day was the day that my sister had been murdered.
Why tell you this now when I rarely tell anyone? It has to do with the death penalty and my own little odessy on that topic. Read along in the extended copy if you care to do so.
Prior to my sister's death, I had not really thought much about the death penalty. I was young, in college, and focused on the usual collection of things such age men focus on. Besides, big sisters are untouchable. Nothing happens to them. Clearly, on that day I learned I was wrong.
Starting that day, life was a blur for several days. We did not know for more than a day that it had been a homocide, so the news really came in two waves. First, news of her death, with that followed by news that she had been murdered. There were streams of people in the house, bringing food and their love and compassion. There were people who offered their spiritual support with phrases like "God has a plan" and so forth. They did not know the nature of her death, and their words were painful in spite of their good intent. There was the service and burial, and then just silence.
The silence after a death in the family is deafening. So many people show up to support you, and then they all leave and resume their lives. Yet you sit in your home, the new empty spot screaming out. So much pain, and so much healing that needs to be done. All in that silence.
We had another silence, too. The silence of the investigation. The murder took place in a rural area. The investigation included local and federal officials. It was, in my humble view, not particularly well run (Not as if they had a lot of practice at it). In the end, in spite of a large reward, the case was never solved. Just another unsolved homicide in the USA. The difference was that it was my sister.
While the case was not solved, there was a likely suspect. We knew him. He even came to the service. Did he do it? I don't know. I really don't know.
Still, I spent the next few months in a daze. School began again. Life has to go on in some ways, but it is never the same. For my Dad, it involved sitting down every night and working through everything we knew, trying to find the thing that the investigators could not find or did not know. For me, it involved plotting. I spent time daydreaming of the perfect crime. How could I get to where the man in question lived, extract my own revenge, and get back to where I lived without being observed and while maintaining an alibi. (Good thing I am not a criminal, as I never had a plan that did not involve a substantial violation of the rules of time and space.)
More significant to the topic at hand were the many hours of conversation I had with a friend (who I have not seen in many, many years). I used to argue with him about the death penalty. He was very opposed. I was arguing for painful and slow executions. Probably fair to say that my thinking was a tad colored by anger. My friend never backed down, but he also never insulted me. He understood what I was feeling, but argued that I was just wrong on the moral aspect of it. I hate to think how many beers and how many hours were spent in those conversations.
In the end, I did change my mind. It was not so much that I thought the state should not kill (although I clearly think that now). Rather, I got to this view by envisioning having to sit on a jury in a case involving the dealth penalty. Put very simply, I could never vote to execute someone. I just can't. This is not to say I would not kill someone - I would. In the years since, I have been fortunate enough to find love, marry, and have kids. Trust me when I say I would kill for them. Perhaps other parents out there can vouch for that instinct. (Somewhere out there is a man who crashed into us on the highway when my son was very young - he can vouch for my protective instinct.) Anyway, if I can't sit on a jury and vote for death, I can't ask someone else to do it.
So, now I find myself in the very unusual place of being someone who experienced a violent crime against one of my own family members, and who moved in the direction AWAY from the death penalty in the years that followed. Passion should argue otherwise. The folks you see on the news, arguing for the execution of the person that killed their loved ones, I know them and I know their pain. I can't argue with them, and I won't try. I will disagree with the policy, but those surviving family members have earned a special merit badge. I will honor it (and you should, too), even while opposing the death penalty. It makes sense to me, and maybe it does to you.
Why exactly do I oppose the death penalty? If you read this far, you probably know that I don't really know why. I can tell you some logical reasons why I think it is bad. First, it is impossible to reverse. That alone is enough, given the stochastic nature of the justice system. Second, it does not deter crime. It is simply revenge. My own view is that the state should not be the business of carrying out revenge killings. Third, it is racially biased. The implementation of the death penalty in the US is strikingly biased against blacks. The Supreme Court agreed, but then said such bias was not a barrier to the use of the death penalty. Sorry, that is nonsense to me. Finally, from the perspective of punishment, execution is an easy out. If you want to punish someone, put them in jail forever. No hope of getting out. Not a torture kind of place, but damn hard time. You want to punish somebody, have them live a life with no hope, no joy, no promise that there will ever be a tomorrow worth a damn. Actually, when I put it that way, that seems especially cruel.
Why put this up on this site? Writing this far has been painful and my hands are shaking as I finish up. I have not written about my sister in years and years, and never to an audience of unknowns. Why start my day this way? I think the answer is because this issue tears at me in an odd way. Politically, the death penalty is very popular. Public support for it is high and rather stable. Indeed, there is a strong undercurrent of people who think we do not do enough of it. You will hear them say we should speed up executions and increase the pace by expanding the range of crimes covered by such punishments. It seems like each election year, Congress rushes to expand federal application of the dealth penalty (even though the feds rarely use it). Being strong on killing people makes for good politics. Being opposed to it gets you the vote of the granola crowd. Facts on the utility of the death penalty are lost on the passionate cry for 'justice.'
In the end, this diary will end without a punchy conclusion and without any grand recommendations for new policy or a call to action. It will end with a confused and conflicted whimper. I think the death penalty is wrong. I say that while I know I am very much in the minority. I think that the Congress and the legislatures will keep pushing it for political gain, never addressing the larger moral issue (there is no political reward for being morally good). I think that this brings shame on our entire country and shows the hollow nature of our politics. That makes me sad.
And, for the record, I have no idea how my sister would have felt about this. We never talked about it. I also have no idea how she would have felt about the general tone of DailyKos, but I do know she would have loved to talk about. I think you would have liked her, even if you were to disagree with her.