Feature photo: ABA; Photo above: littledan77
“The public execution is… a hearth in which violence bursts again into flame.”- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
The words of the French philosopher Michel Foucault are charged with a passion and urgency uncharacteristic of “objective” academic texts. In his classic work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault explained that the hallmark of modern “justice” is that it is ultimately meted out far from public view.
The horrors of punishment become private, even anonymous… the person who throws the execution switch remains anonymous to everyone but himself. And, being beyond our line of sight, the person being punished is effectively silenced.
I’m not a soft-on-crime bleeding heart: I believe people who commit heinous crimes should be held accountable for their actions.
But I also believe that there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the death penalty is not an adequate form of accountability. There’s the Innocence Project’s report documenting at least 17 cases of death row sentencing of people who were wrongly convicted.
And then there was Republican Governor George Ryan’s commutation of sentences of all 167 death row inmates in Illinois in 2003. It was a decision, Ryan said, that he knew would draw serious criticism, but the possible burden of that decision was one he would bear willingly because the administration of the death penalty was simply too flawed to be morally or constitutionally legitimate.
Rarely, though, does the public hear from death row inmates themselves.
Napoleon Beazley was just 17 years old when he murdered John Luttig in 1994. On May 28, 2002, Beazley was executed by the state of Texas. In his final statement he reflected upon the death penalty as an effective form of justice:
The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless. But the person that committed that act is no longer here – I am.
I’m not going to struggle physically against any restraints. I’m not going to shout, use profanity or make idle threats. Understand though that I’m not only upset, but I’m saddened by what is happening here tonight. I’m not only saddened, but disappointed that a system that is supposed to protect and uphold what is just and right can be so much like me when I made the same shameful mistake.
If someone tried to dispose of everyone here for participating in this killing, I’d scream a resounding, “No.” I’d tell them to give them all the gift that they would not give me…and that’s to give them all a second chance.
I’m sorry that I am here. I’m sorry that you’re all here. I’m sorry that John Luttig died. And I’m sorry that it was something in me that caused all of this to happen to begin with.
Tonight we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice…Tonight, we tell our children that in some instances, in some cases, killing is right.
This conflict hurts us all, there are no SIDES. The people who support this proceeding think this is justice. The people that think that I should live think that is justice. As difficult as it may seem, this is a clash of ideals, with both parties committed to what they feel is right. But who’s wrong if in the end we’re all victims?
In my heart, I have to believe that there is a peaceful compromise to our ideals. I don’t mind if there are none for me, as long as there are for those who are yet to come. There are a lot of men like me on death row – good men – who fell to the same misguided emotions, but may not have recovered as I have.
Give those men a chance to do what’s right. Give them a chance to undo their wrongs. A lot of them want to fix the mess they started, but don’t know how.
The problem is not in that people aren’t willing to help them find out, but in the system telling them it won’t matter anyway. No one wins tonight. No one gets closure. No one walks away victorious.
To learn more about American “justice,” read How the US Prison System Has Become Big Business.
For a look at life inside a prison, check out Photo Essay: Going Inside Brazil’s Prisons.