Two years ago Californians were engaged in a serious political battle over whether to end executions in this state. The suggested alternative was life in prison without the possibility of parole. The State’s most dangerous criminals are confined in 8 by 10 cells in the Pelican Bay facility. These SHU cells (Secure Housing Units) hold prisoners in total solitary confinement for an average of eight years. Some prisoners have been confined for over 20 years. But that is what the referendum would have mandated. Hardly a happy alternative.
And yet, the proposition lost at the ballot box 53% to 47%. In a series of conversations with those who had worked for months in an effort to get the proposition passed, I found a grim sense of defeat. But perhaps the sadness might have been a bit premature. Was the object of the effort only to change the law, or was there a larger goal: to do away with executions? If the answer is the second, the proponents of the proposition may have won a significant victory — at least for the time being. There have been no executions in California since the vote, and now there is the likelihood that neither the gas chamber nor lethal injection — the alternatives given the condemned — will be used any time in the near future. The last execution to take place in California was eight years ago, and the chances are slim that the judicial tangle blocking all future executions will be resolved for some time.
The question is not whether those on death row are really nice persons who deserve another chance at life. As of 2013, there are 741 offenders on death row including 20 women. Of those, 126 involved torture before murder, 173 killed children, and 44 murdered police officers. The issue is whether the death penalty, as practiced in California, violates the cruel and unusual punishment provision in the Constitution. As of now the 9th Circuit Court has blocked all executions until there is some resolution to California’s procedure. There seems to be an argument about the right combination of chemicals. In the meantime, moral objections to the death penalty will continue to escalate.
Almost all of us view capital punishment from a safe distance. It might be different if we were actually to see life taken by any of the prevailing methods. Victor Hugo, in Les Miserables, puts it this way. One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one’s own eyes; but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent, one is forced to decide. The guillotine does not permit you to remain neutral, and he who sees it shivers with the most mysterious of shivers. The scaffold devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood.
There are no humane forms of execution, but we still employ hanging, the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and lethal injection in the belief that these are kinder painless ways to die. Since we no longer tear people limb from limb, or burn them to death, we believe we are more compassionate than our forbears. But is our squeamishness little more than an illusion? Government- sanctioned killing is still a form of murder, and no nicer method hides the reality.
For now there is a long pause in executions, at least in this one state. While the referendum was lost, perhaps the real battle has been won — or at least there is now a truce, giving us time to reconsidered the moral impact of taking a life—any life.