Elizabeth's Reviews > Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate

Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean
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Apr 01, 11

bookshelves: social-justice, npr, memoirs
Read from March 07 to 20, 2011

As heard on NPR's This I Believe.


I already opposed the death penalty before reading this book, so it's hard for me to judge how persuasive it is.

All research shows that the death penalty is not a deterrant. Psychological research clearly shows that in order to be an effective deterrant, a negative reinforcement must swift and certain (and just, Prejean goes on to add, but I'm going to sweep that into certain: if we have 100% coverage, then it's going to be definitionally just).

The death penalty is not swift. Prisoners languish for years, even decades on death row. You may think that humans are capable of abstracting the horrors of being electrocuted, even years in advance, but the brain just doesn't work that way.

The death penalty is not certain. Only a tiny percentage of first-degree murder cases end up with the death penalty. Even if that tiny percentage were evenly distributed, it would be capricious and consequently not an effective deterrant (every criminal can and will think, well, that won't happen to me). In both cases covered by the book, the condemned men each committed his crime with another man: but in each case, only one of the two murderers was given the death penalty, more or less randomly. But it's even worse, and this is what Prejean gets into:

The death penalty is not just.

Criminals on death row overwhelmingly have two factors in common:

1. Death row inmates are poor. If a criminal has the wherewithal to hire even a decent lawyer, let alone a good one, prosecutors won't risk seeking the death penalty. (It's tremendously expensive, for one thing. You might think that executing a criminal and being done with it would be less expensive to the state than to feed and house him for the rest of his natural life, but you would be wrong, by an order of magnitude. No, I don't really understand, either, but that's a fact. (P.S.: Gov. O'Malley, if you're serious about cutting costs, abolish the death penalty.)

2. Their victims are white. The race of the criminal actually matters much less than that of the victim: if a white person is killed, then it's a heinous crime committed by an irredeemable monster; if a black person is killed, it's collateral damage. He shouldn't have been dealing drugs. She shouldn't have been dating an abusive boyfriend. Etc.

And for those of you who don't buy psychological research, we also have empirical data directly on the death penalty. If the death penalty were a deterrant, then you would predict that the crime rate in a state that abolishes the death penalty would rise immediately afterward. Contrariwise, if a state instates the death penalty, you would predict the crime rate to fall. We have data for both cases, and in both cases, the hypothesis fails the test. So no matter how intuitively appealing the idea that the death penalty is an effective deterrant, the fact is it just isn't.


So if it's not a deterrant, then what else is there?

This is where it starts to depend on your idea of what the purpose of punishment by the state (the people) is. We've already ruled out the deterrant.

Is it to prevent criminals from committing more crimes? Then one would have to show that executed criminals are less likely to get out than criminals with life imprisonment. We do have the problem where murderers are often slapped with light sentences and out on parole only a few years after their sentences began. But these criminals weren't going to get the death penalty anyway. Our efforts would be better spent making sure that more of these kinds of criminals get more serious sentences (because shooting a black teenage boy is surely just as much as a crime as shooting a white teenage girl, yet one would hardly know that from looking at our judicial system) than by diverting a few (very few) life imprisonments toward death row. (Escaping from prison is a very rare occurrence, thankfully.)

Is it to give criminals the opportunity to repent, and reform themselves? Then of course the death penalty is less conducive to that goal than to life imprisonment. Not only do they have less time to see the error of their ways, but appealing their case gives the criminals something to do, something external to focus on rather than introspection. The first death row inmate Prejean advises was remorseful to begin with, and would have been with a life sentence; the second inmate focused entirely on his impending execution rather than the wrongs he did.

Is it to punish, then? For me, that is a distant fourth, but, as I said, I was already on board before even reading this book. It's a logical inconsistency: killing people is such a bad thing to do that we will kill people who do it. But if killing people is bad, then isn't it bad whoever does it? Isn't our society stronger than caving into our basest instincts? Can't we demonstrate our strength by showing grace to those who wrong us? By demonstrating that we will not compromise our ideals?

There are those who think the death penalty is a noble way of society exacting justice. But frequently these people also think that executions should not be open to the public, and certainly not televised, because of a coarsening effect on those who watch it. But if it's coarsening, then how can it also be noble?

Another point the book raises: throughout the system, the state collectivizes responsibility for the death penalty. You can always pass the buck. The governor is just following the recommendation of the parole board. The parole board is just upholding the courts. At no point is any one person, or group of people, actually responsible for the death of the criminal. But once again, if it's so noble, then why are we so ashamed that we want to pass responsibility to someone else?

Both the prisoners in this book were electrocuted, a method that has since come to be recognized as inhumane. But the lethal injection cocktail used today is far from problem-free: it's not entirely clear whether the anesthetic is really anesthetic, or just paralytic. All the more appalling, because we have euthanasia down to an exact science when it comes to our pets. And no veterinarian would euthanize a dog with the cocktail that we use to kill humans.
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