Putting Capital Punishment to Death

Why do we kill people who kill people to prove that killing people is wrong? --Holly Near

I know you've seen it, probably on a bumper sticker, possibly on a button, perhaps a banner, a sign, a poster. I've seen it many times, on all those things, but not until tonight did I, thanks to the magic of the internet, learn that the words I quoted came from a folk singer named Holly Near. Now you can attribute them, too.

I've seen it so many times they strike me as a cliche, but even so, every time I encounter this quote, I nod. It's so obvious, so plainly true, that I'm stunned the most democratic nation in the world hasn't figured it out. If murder is wrong, then so is killing murderers. And yet we keep doing it.

There's a strong possibility, though, that capital punishment may finally be coming to an end. Not because of the dozens of exonerated prisoners, innocent people who could have been put to death for someone else's crimes if not for the diligence of researchers. Not because those exonerated prisoners probably represent just a fraction of the number of death row inmates, whether still alive or put to death, who were innocent. Not because there is a huge numerical imbalance between persons of color and white people on death row. Not because keeping a convicted person on death row is astronomically more expensive than simply locking him or her up in prison. Not because the appeals process can take decades, and has to to minimize the possibility that an innocent will be put to death. Not because all of this puts the families of victims through vastly more hell than a life sentence would. And not because it is simply wrong for the state to be in the business of killing people, however horrible their crimes.

What's bringing capital punishment to the brink of unconstitutionality is lethal injection, the method that was supposed to address all the concerns liberals had about how inhumane it is to put a person to death by hanging, electrocution, gassing, decapitation, or shooting. It appears that this method may, in the final analysis, be the cruelest of all.

Let's start with the paralysis drug, the first part of the cocktail to be administered, the one that spares witnesses from watching a dying human's convulsions. This drug does nothing to alleviate pain. It simply makes it invisible.

Go from that drug to the other parts of the cocktail, drugs which have, in several recent cases, led to lengthy, excruciating deaths on execution tables, most recently in Arizona, where an inmate took almost two hours to die. The most effective drugs are no longer available for these purposes; the drug companies refuse to sell them to prisons, and the states have had to go elsewhere in pursuit of legally sanctioned poison. The alternatives they've come up with have resulted in the ugly revelation of just how inhumane lethal injection really is. Unable to pretend any longer that this manner of execution is peaceful, this nation may be left with no more options save one: incarceration for life.

I've written many times over the years about this issue. The first time I saw print, in fact, it was in a letter in the Oregonian about the death penalty, in which I made the same case I'm making now: forcing a murderer to live with the knowledge of what he or she has done, and live with it for decades, is a far greater punishment than execution. It also opens up the possibility that this person may discover remorse, find redemption, and leave this world with a kind of peace not afforded by being strapped to a table and filled with lethal drugs.

The standard response to the arguments I've made has been, "You'd feel differently if the victim was someone you knew." And that's where I drop the bombshell that I have, in fact, known a murder victim.

His name was Newt Aschim. I believe I've told his story before, but I'll bring it up again. He was 80 years old and a kick in the pants. I became his pastor in July, 1995, and quickly decided he was going to be my favorite parishioner at the Amity United Methodist Church. Newt was a hard worker around the church, a devoted father and grandfather, a man who was both warm and contrary. He made church meetings fun--something very few people can do. And he made me, a recently divorced single father struggling to understand what it meant to be alone, feel welcome and appreciated.

I only got to know him for three months. One night in October, a drunk wandered into the Aschims' home. Newt challenged him verbally, told him to get out--and was beaten into a coma. He lingered for two months, and died on Christmas day.

I sat with the Aschim family at the trial, and was disgusted by the defense attorney's closing argument: this man should not be held accountable for his actions because he was intoxicated, and as such, was not in control of himself. That was enough for at least one member of the jury. He was acquitted of second degree murder, and found guilty of first degree manslaughter. The judge gave him the maximum sentence, and since this was his third strike, he would be serving the entire time: nineteen years. If he's still alive, he'll be getting out sometime next year.

I remember how disappointed the Aschims were not to hear the word "murder" in the conviction. It wouldn't have been enough to bring a death penalty--it was second degree due to the intoxication, and thus lack of premeditation--but it would have confirmed for them their belief that this old man's life mattered, and that his death was significant enough to merit serious consequences for its perpetrator.

And yet, this man, who was in his 20s when he committed this violent act, forfeited his youth. When he emerges from prison, he will be middle aged. He will be beginning life in his late 40s. The world he knew when he went in is gone. That's if he survived prison.

I can't speak for the Aschim family. In fact, I haven't seen any of them since I left that church in 1999. If Newt's wife, Doris, is still alive, she'll be nearly 100, and she's really the only member of the family I got to know. I expect some of them would have been happy to see this man die--though if he'd received that penalty, he'd probably still be on death row, going through the interminable appeals process. I don't know whether they found closure in the conviction for a lesser crime, or in the strict, but not overwhelming, sentence. I expect most of them would probably rather he spent the rest of his life behind bars.

I can say for myself, though, that I'm glad he wasn't put to death by the state, that instead he has had to live for almost two decades with the proof, all around him, that he broke the social code so flagrantly that he had to be removed from society, that he has blood on his hands that can never be washed away. I'm glad that, when he gets out, he will know every day that he threw away his youth. I hope he got clean while he was in there. I hope he stays clean once he's out. And finally, I'm glad that he has the chance to make his peace with whatever higher power he believes in, and to somehow make amends once he's out.

I don't know that he has made peace. I don't know that he'll do anything to make amends. I'm just glad that he has that chance, a chance he would not have if he was strapped to that table and forced to endure a few minutes--or a couple of hours--of pain leading to oblivion.

Killing him would not bring Newt back, and it wouldn't prove to anyone that killing people is wrong. It just is, no matter who does it--a criminal, a soldier, or an executioner.

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